Examples of real speakeasies with rotating rooms?
August 14, 2022 6:43 AM   Subscribe

A common theme in film and television are speakeasies that turn into a reputable establishment with a flip of a switch. Is this a reference to a specific movie or were there actual speakeasies that had some sort of mechanical means of changing their appearance? I'm not talking about speakeasies that require a code to get in, but physically turning into something they're not.

I don't know how better to describe it. I see it in cartoons a lot, probably because it would be hard to create a physical set that does it, so I assume there's maybe a famous Looney Tunes that this draws from but I can't find any references. Even the usually thorough Simpsons wikis and sites do not document where the idea of Moe's Pet Shop turning into a speakeasy came from. I guess my question is twofold:

1. Did any real life speakeasies do this, albeit I'm sure to a less fanciful degree?
2. Where did all these references originate?
posted by geoff. to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In my youth, I used to frequent a boozecan that had the actual bar in a freight elevator. If the police came, they could move it to a different floor, and then it's just a party, no alcohol sold here, officer.
posted by rodlymight at 8:11 AM on August 14, 2022 [27 favorites]

Best answer: Rotating stages have been around since the turn of the last century, so definitely possible.

There's a scene in Robin and the Seven Hoods that does this: speakeasy turns into a temperance meeting! That's from the 60s.
posted by basalganglia at 8:36 AM on August 14, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know of any real life speakeasies that did this but the reference probably comes from revolving stages which were actually invented a very long time ago (1750s in Japan, then imported to Europe in 1896). Challenging to build for sure but theatre was a huge business back then (no movies!) and the advanced stagecraft in higher end theatres was a big draw for crowds. Early cartoons and movies used lots of visual language from theatre because the audience was familiar with it and they hadn't really invented new visual language specific to the new mediums. Cartoons would be the only place you could revolve a stage vertically though, obviously (ie invert gravity, rotating around a horizontal axis) which was part of the gag for the audience I'm sure. Some of these things, like the pop-up speakeasy, then became visual cliches specific to cartoons, while the original revolving stage that it references kinda fell into obscurity in the public mind as theatre became less popular and more niche.
posted by 100kb at 8:39 AM on August 14, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The 21 Club had several mechanical systems intended to defeat a Prohibition-era raid, including shelves that automatically dumped liquor bottles, camouflaged doors, and "revolving bars" that I can't find a decent picture of.

Given the age of the place, it may have been the genesis for the meme?
posted by aramaic at 9:17 AM on August 14, 2022 [9 favorites]

This is far more than a code to get in and far less than a whole room that changes appearance, but the Chicago Magic Lounge appears to be a laundromat until you activate a secret door in what looks like operating washing machines.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:28 AM on August 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

Though it doesn't rotate, the hidden entrance to Wunderbar in San Mateo is indeed a bookshelf door. Extra fun: you wave hello to a glowing white rabbit lamp to gain entry (they can see you through a two-way mirror).
posted by rjacobs at 9:37 AM on August 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

Ha! Rodlymight, I was also going to mention the freight elevator boozecan, but you beat me to it. Good ol' freakshow... good times.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:33 PM on August 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm guessing that it probably comes from theater gags and the movie Robin Hood and the Seven Thieves. I don't know how much of the 21 Club is mythology or actually happened anymore.

I've been to real speakeasies and they were more akin to the freight elevator beer service though not so obvious. That may work in Canada but if you're in a warehouse drinking without a permit and didn't own the warehouse there's already a lot of liquor and trespassing laws broken. In my experience it usually is a cooler of beer and maybe some simple mixed drinks.

Similarly I've seen real 1920s speakeasies, or what is left of them, and usually it was an unceremonious hidden hole under floorboards where liquor was kept. It seemed everything was done hastily and with the idea that a raid meant having to move locations anyway, which is why I found such complex operations kind of fanciful.
posted by geoff. at 11:41 PM on August 15, 2022

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