Parliament House celebrates 40 years

By : Jamie Hyman and Jeremy Williams
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Orlando – Parliament House, Orlando’s iconic gay resort and nightclub, is marking four decades of gay inclusiveness, balcony debauchery and first-class entertainment.

A week of gaiety (pun intended)
There was a week-long celebration July 20-25 that kicked off with The Footlight Players Anniversary Reunion Show featuring more than thirty alumni. Midweek there was an employee turnabout benefiting Joy MCC Food Drive and then on July 24, Parliament House hosted a 40-themed nostalgia night with $40 rooms, 40 cent shots and 40 prizes for guests. No cover, but they did collect a 40 cent donation at the door benefiting Hope and Help of Central Florida, Inc.

That night, P-House also screened an LGBT History Center documentary covering Parliament House’s 40 years.

“This anniversary meant so much more to me than the celebrations we have every year,” said Drew Sizemore, Parliament House’s Public Relations Manager. “It really made me think about what came before me.  The stories that were shared were so cool to hear.  I loved hearing about The Footlight Players, Miss P, how the club used to look, and the crazy parties they used to throw.  I appreciate what we’ve become on Orange Blossom Trail and realize now that we were a safe haven for the gay community back then and it still remains true to this day.”

The anniversary celebration culminated in a Deborah Cox concert Saturday night. On Facebook, PH encouraged patrons to share their favorite Parliament House memories with a story or photo, and selected five winners to get free admission and a $40 bar tab. Visitors shared photos of themselves with various performers, snapshots from the night they met their significant others and one person shared a photo of a night when he danced so hard he tore a hole in his pants.

Check out photos from Parliament House’s 40th Anniversary Celebration

“Our 40th Anniversary week was unbelievable,” said Don Granatstein, owner of Parliament House. “If I had to use one word to describe the event, it would be ‘touching’.  I think many of the younger members of our community learned from those that have been coming to the Parliament House for decades. The sentimentality expressed by everyone was very neat to experience.”

A look back
Parliament House emerged onto – and some would say, originated – Orlando’s gay party scene when it opened its doors as Orlando’s first gay resort in 1975. Originally the Parliament House Motor Inn when it opened in 1962, it was the first of eight Parliament House hotels throughout the country. When Walt Disney opened Disney World, hotels and motels sprung up around the park and the Parliament House started to lose money. That’s when the owners sold it to Michael Hodge and Bill Miller.

“Michael [Hodge] called me and asked me if I knew anything about the Parliament House,” said Ron Studdard, an original patron of Parliament House, in the documentary. “I said in fact I do. I work down the street from it and the staff and some of my associates go there to meet the prostitutes that are there for happy hour, and Michael said ‘Bill and I are considering purchasing it and making it a gay destination’.”

Parliament House opened during a time when it was still dangerous to be out and open frequenting a gay establishment.

“You couldn’t dance touching each other,” said Vicki Bebout, an original Parliament House bartender, in the film. “That’s how disco was born because of gay people. They couldn’t touch in the bars, unlike straight bars where they played two fast songs, a slow song, two fast songs, a slow song. In gay bars it had to be fast songs all night long.”

The resort has gone through many changes since its inception as the Parliament House documentary points out.

“In the early days of the Parliament House the front entry was not closed off,” Studdard said. “You drove through, it was a one way drive,  you drove in from Orange Blossom Trail down with the pool on your right, around back and out again. In those times that was the best cruising spot in Orlando. You come in, drive through and see who’s there and decide if you were going through for a second trip.”

Throughout the rest of the 70’s and into the 80’s, the Parliament House was home to many of the employees and some of the patrons as they lived in the rooms of the resort.

“I lived in a room at the Parliament House for about six months,” said Doug Ba’aser, “There were lots of employees that lived there that literally never left the property for huge lengths of time. They would eat at the restaurant, they went to the bar and they live in their room.”

As Parliament House made its way through the 80’s, the AIDS crisis hit and Hodge and Miller started a group to get those sick and dying the help they needed.

“Back during the AIDS scare, before there was a Hope & Help there was just a group of Parliament House regulars who decided something had to be done,” said Michael Wanzie. “They started something called Aid Orlando, and they started raising money and paying people’s electric bills and paying people’s rent. They did fund raisers all the time but I know that when the money wasn’t there they dug into their own pockets to help.”

Miller passed away in 1987 and Hodge was left the sole owner of Parliament House. After he passed away in 1992 the resort was left to his family who let it fall into disrepair. There was speculation and rumors that someone might buy the resort from the Hodge family.

“When we came [to Orlando] we heard about the Parliament House,” said Granatstein. “We had no idea what it was.”

Granatstein, along with wife Susan Unger, asked around about the Parliament House and began the process of purchasing the gay resort from the Hodge family.

“The day we arrived to look at the property was the shock of our lives,” Unger said. “There was no courtyard, it was parking. There were no other cars there and this cute little boy comes running out of the Bear Den [asking], ‘Do you know where you are, do you know this is a gay place?'”

“It was an interesting first look,” Granatstein added.

Unger came up with the idea to put up the glass brick wall to make a private courtyard and began cleaning and repairing the resort. They also embraced bringing theater to Parliament House and have been responsible for the success of many shows that may not have otherwise been produced.

“That’s one thing about the Parliament House,” said Bebout. “There is something there for everyone. Parliament House is what you make it and I’ve made it my home.”

A look ahead
The Parliament House, which expanded to include the timeshare resort The Gardens, looks to expand even more in the coming years. In 2015, they began hosting weddings and have started on renovating the rooms and clubs of the resort.

“We have so many good things on the horizon for the Parliament House. As for what the future holds for us? Well, let’s just say it’s going to be just as bright as the last 40 years and more,” Granatstein said.

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