In the years before John Reid launched his career as owner of Flashback, Edmonton’s first gay disco, he worked cleaning up after the animals at Storyland Valley Zoo. This is where he first met John Kerr, who operated the calliope (a large whistle organ) for passers-by until leaving that job and floating for a while, unsure of what an aging song-and-dance man could do. Rumours were that he did chorus work and performed on stage at the Jubilee Auditorium, but he definitely made his living — such as it was — cobbling together freelance gigs, performing, and choreographing.
Ron Byers remembers when John Kerr first arrived at Flashback (in its original basement location on Jasper Avenue) around 1975. John’s apartment was very close by and — probably because he knew owner John Reid from years earlier — one day he finally descended the long set of stairs. Ron was working the front door and recalls that John Kerr was “giggly” at the prospect of entering Edmonton’s newest gay bar, maintaining that he was not gay but quickly fitting in with the folks who populated the place.
John was fun to be around and had a very bubbly personality but was always closed-lipped about his life away from the gay scene. He spoke of a girlfriend who attended events with him (whom no one ever met), but he rarely mentioned anything about his past or his personal affairs to his new Flashback friends.
At some point, John began working with the local drag queens, lending his expert choreographic eye to some of the most ambitious drag production shows that the city had seen, even appearing on the Flashback stage himself at times.
For such a gentle and cheerful man, John was a very strict taskmaster as a choreographer and assertive in his vision of the show. “John really knew how to whip everyone into shape,” Ron recalls. He watched rehearsals for A Chorus Line at Flashback — the very first show that John choreographed for the drag queens known as the Flashback Follies. The bar had been raised; the face of drag performance in Edmonton was changing.
Hello Dolly, another large drag production, was created for the step-down ceremony of Empress II Chatty Cathy Jackson. Chatty played the Streisand role, and John played Cornelius. The Drag Court Coronation Ball circuit had never seen giant production shows like this before, and the Edmonton drag community quickly developed a reputation for excellence.
When John was working those drag queens into some semblance of order, he would snap his directions, and their response was always “Dance for Gramma!” That’s how John Kerr affectionately became known as Gramma Kerr.
Perhaps because of his epilepsy, John was a patient of Dr. Henri Toupin. Perhaps the two men struck up a friendship. In any case, when Toupin’s partner Eric Stein talked the doctor into financing the establishment of Edmonton’s newest bathhouse, John was enlisted as manager on February 14, 1979, a few months after it opened. Ostensibly John would work his way towards a full partnership in the business, which would have finally allowed him to begin planning his golden years. At this time, he was 45 years old.
Toupin’s secretary for many years, Cynthia Krys, remembers John as “a charming man and very helpful — if I ever needed a light bulb changed in the office, I would call John at the spa, and he would head over immediately with a ladder and do it for me.”
Former customers recall that he kept the bathhouse spotless and kept the employees working diligently. He would also do generous things like lend a free room at the bathhouse to a friend rather than have them drive back to the country after a long night of partying in the bars.
During the raid at the Pisces Health Spa at 1:30 a.m. on May 30, 1981, John was not working — like Toupin and Stein, he was at home when the police knocked on his door. They arrested him and charged him with being the “keeper of a common bawdy house.” He was taken to the bathhouse to be interviewed about what went on there. The raid was still underway when he was escorted into Pisces by police, and he surely must have recognized friends of his as they were processed and led into the police vans waiting in the alley.
Former employees who were not working the night of the raid — and who feared being charged along with other staff members that had been charged — reveal that somehow John managed to remove their paperwork from the spa, thus removing any trace of them working there.
Along with Toupin and Stein, John was charged with being one of the “keepers of a common bawdy house,” even though technically he was just an employee at that point and not yet a partner. Toupin and Stein received advice to plead guilty from Robbie Davidson, the lawyer for all three. John took the same advice.
If the three men thought the guilty plea would make it all go away, they were wrong. They were handed the largest fines ever assigned to that charge. Even after an appeal, when the fine was reduced from $10,000, John was facing a $4,000 fine, the same as Dr. Toupin; co-owner Stein’s fine after appeal was $1,500. The spa was also fined $6,000 after appeal.
Unlike the wealthy Dr. Toupin, John had no savings and little money to deal with his fine. Toupin and Stein at no time offered him any financial assistance to help pay it. In addition, because he had been charged as a “keeper,” and because of his knowledge of the day-to-day workings of the spa, he testified on the stand and his name was published in the media over and over.
For the aging John, the ordeal of the trial and the public humiliation was debilitating. John Reid, in an attempt to keep his old friend employed, brought him back to Flashback in October 1983 to direct and choreograph two eager and ambitious drag queens named Lulu and Gloria when they had their first chance to take over the Flashback stage. That Halloween show was 42nd Street, and the sight of half a dozen young queens tap dancing in a line, all decked out in Klondike dresses rented from Shirley Potter’s costumes, was a sight to behold.
Two more shows directed by John (Kerr) followed in the grand Broadway tradition, but there was never enough of this work to keep him solvent, and the bathhouse raid had shattered his confidence. He was struggling to find employment because his name and reputation had been dragged through the media, and the gay community was not necessarily a welcoming place anymore. Many viewed the guilty plea by him and the Pisces owners as a betrayal of the community.
When John could no longer afford to pay the rent on his apartment, a lifeline arrived in the form of Brent Earl, one of the early partners of the 104th street Flashback. Brent lived in Tofield, and when he learned of John’s struggles, he offered his friend a place to live in the country.
So Gramma Kerr left his Oliver apartment and moved out to Tofield, living the rest of his years visiting with friends, playing cards, and enjoying the social circle that revolved around Brent’s country home. This was a place where he was truly happy — away from the memories of Pisces — and where Brent treated him with much kindness. It was during this time of his life when John finally said the words “I’m gay” out loud, but he never spoke about the Pisces raid.
Every year on the Victoria Day long weekend, there was a drag pageant at Flashback, and the new Mz. Flashback would be crowned. After the crowning, a convoy of vehicles would head out to Tofield to celebrate with abandon in a rural setting, and the party would make its way across the gravel road to Brent’s home, where Grandma Kerr could reconnect with his drag queen pals.
In 1984, when I became Mz. Flashback, and we headed out to Tofield to celebrate, I passed out at some point; it was Gramma Kerr who woke me up in the morning and told me that the other queens had kidnapped my new crown the second I passed out. He suggested I check the tall pole that rose over the chicken coop, where the crown glinted and sparkled in the morning sun, waiting for me to climb up and rescue it.
A year later, in May 1985, I was loading the beer order into the giant cooler at Flashback just days before the annual Mr. & Mz. Flashback competition — my final week as Mz. Flashback — when owner John Reid came out of his office and looked at me sadly. “I just got off the phone with Brent Earl. Gramma Kerr passed away last night.” He had had a fatal epileptic seizure.
Gramma Kerr would have hosted us that night at Brent’s rural house in Tofield; he would have sat me down at the piano and made me play all night, as was his way. To realize that he would no longer be part of the celebration was devastating. The Mz. Flashback competition went ahead as planned, but the next few days were tinged with sadness. As we made our way out to Tofield for the post-crowning celebration, we knew that we would be mourning a true loss.
Outside Brent’s home, we lit a large bonfire and gathered around it. Brent spoke to us all about John. Emotions have erased most of what he said that night. After the eulogy, Brent opened a bag and pulled out a wig, a dress, and a purse. It was not uncommon for friends in that circle, even if they weren’t a drag queen, to have a drag name and maybe even one outfit. Gramma Kerr was no exception. His one drag outfit was added to the inferno. As it was engulfed by the flames, we all drank a toast to John, tearfully raising our glasses and saying “Dance for Gramma.”
A year later, Empress VIII Mary Mess was inspired to commemorate John’s gifts to the Edmonton gay community, so Mary established the John M. Kerr Memorial Scholarship, which raised funds to create an annual scholarship to assist an LGBTQ2S+ individual to further their education. Since its inception over 30 years ago, many LGBTQ2S+ people have attended college or university thanks to this fund. The legacy of John Kerr’s influence on Edmonton’s story is rich and can be witnessed in the many people whose lives he touched.
Darrin Hagen © 2021