We Need to Talk About Cooper Do-Nuts

This being Pride Month, there has been an uptick in journalistic chatter about the Cooper Do-Nut Riot (e.g., here/here/here).

The story, in a nutshell: Cooper’s was a little doughnut spot nestled between two venerable gay bars, the Waldorf and Harold’s Café (at 527 and 555 South Main, respectively). Cooper’s was LGBTQ+ friendly, populated by queens and hustlers and trans POC, which made it a frequent target of LAPD harassment. Aspiring writer John Rechy was hanging out one night in the spring of 1959 when LAPD officers arrived (they were known for checking IDs to make sure gender presentation and legal gender matched) and without reason hauled Rechy and two other patrons out toward the squad car. But the collected queens had had enough! They began pelting law enforcement with coffee and donuts and the officers ran scared. Patrons began yelling and singing and rocking police cars, allowing Rechy and his compatriots to escape; police backup was called, there quickly arrived multiple police vehicles with lights ablaze and sirens blaring, and rioters were arrested and jailed. Main Street was cordoned off and remained closed till the next day. This event was famously recounted in Rechy’s 1963 debut novel City of Night.

It’s a good story, but trouble is, as history, it has…issues. These are issues I cannot let go by unremarked upon because, after all, I detailed them in last year’s Bunker Noir!, which no journalist deigned to read, apparently. So, briefly:

a) no, the story does not appear in Rechy’s City of Night. (There are a couple passing references to a “Hooper’s” but nothing remotely riotous there occurs.) In fact, the Cooper’s story did not exist in any form until 2005, when Rechy told it to Stuart Timmons, for inclusion in Gay LA; the story was birthed as the 45-year-old memory of a 75-year-old man. Moreover, the couple times Rechy has repeated the Cooper tale since, major points—its date, and fundamental details—have changed significantly.

b) there was no Cooper Do-Nuts on the 500 block of Main Street. (Yes, their wholesale arm was up at 215 South Main, but that was in a larger building demolished in early 1958, and not rebuilt as a standalone Cooper’s [still extant] until the autumn of 1959; moreover, though only three blocks away, being across from St. Vibiana’s and the Union Rescue Mission made it a very different social landscape than the 500 block.) Though Rechy has never provided an address, some authoritative sources (e.g., QueerMaps, the One Archives) have chosen 547 South Main as its definitive location—a logical assumption, as it’s the only typically “little Cooper Do-Nut-type building” on the block. However, while the small standalone structure at 547 had been a restaurant, one of Peter DiNova’s Pete’s Burger Basket locations, by 1959 the structure had become a tailor shop. To give you an understanding of what that famed stretch “between Harold’s and The Waldorf” looked like, including the supposed Cooper-in-question, here are a couple shots from 1974—

c) Rechy’s first-hand account details rioters shaking police vehicles, riot police with sirens ablaze, multiple arrests, police cordons, the street shut down into the next day, etc. As someone who studies what Los Angeles newspapers reported on in the 1950s, I can say with some assurance that that would have made the papers. It is Mr. Rechy’s assertion that the reason it did not make the papers, is because the rioters were gay; that the papers kept homosexuals “invisible.” However—conversely—papers in the late ’50s/early ’60s delighted in discussing “the homosexual problem” with its “perverts” and “sex deviates” and other lurid language of the day (and, rather than consign them to invisibility, would in fact print their letters to the editor).

Not to say something didn’t happen, somewhere. It’s an intriguing story and would be an important part of our collective memory. But as history this story has too many holes to be repeated as fact; of course that it has been enshrined in journalistic and academic canon without even the most basic fact-checking is, unfortunately, routine. I’m not saying Mr. Rechy made it up, necessarily, but consider the source: the first time Rechy tells the story, in his 2005 interview with Stuart Timmons, it was soon after he shrugged off his guilt for making up fake book reviews praising his own work.

At this point you’re thinking, that’s all very interesting, but this being a Bunker Hill blog, what’s it got to do with Bunker Hill? Excellent question, answer being, because among the some half-dozen Cooper locations around downtown, two were on Bunker Hill!

One location was at 807 West Third Street, in the stretch west of the Hope Street tunnel entrance (I detail some of the frightful happenings there in the Bunker Noir! section “Third Street—Haven of the Thirsty Reprobate”), and in the entry about the doughnut riot you may view the only known image of said Cooper’s on West Third.

Another was at 441 South Hill Street. This one, you actually know very well. That’s because it’s the most-seen of all the Cooper locations, although no-one has ever seen fit to mention its address. It’s the image used on the Wikipedia page; it’s the image used by Los Angeles Magazine (in describing “downtown’s Cooper Do-nuts,” seemingly content to allow you to think you’re looking at the famed, fabled Main Street location); it’s just absolutely everywhere, e.g. here and here and here and here.

Few mention it is an image plucked from Kent Mackenzie’s docudrama The Exiles, when Yvonne goes on her desultory walk about downtown:

Which is a Cooper’s location on Hill Street just north of Fifth, on the southeast corner of Bunker Hill:

Looking south on Hill across Fifth into the sunlit, cruisey banana palms of Pershing Square, October 1957
Built by the Meal-O-Mat Corp in 1952; it is demolished in May 1977

Particularly interesting about this location is that unlike all the other Cooper locations, this one was actually adjacent Pershing Square, AKA central hub of The Run, the circuit of gay-friendly bars and cruising destinations. (However, at that time Fifth and Hill was one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles, and a major civil disturbance there would unarguably have left a footprint.)

So, that’s my take on the thing, which is why I wrote about it in Bunker Noir!

—therefore, might I suggest, if you are intrigued by tales of Old LA’s marginalized people (but, you know, backed by actual historic research) and other such Bunker debunking, you might want to pick up a copy; it is available here.

Postscript: unlike most historians, I love to be proven wrong! You might be the one who has photographic evidence of Rechy’s Main Street Cooper’s — so do not hesitate to drop me a line at oldbunkerhill@gmail.com as we continue our quest for historical truth!

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