Big Joey – Another Look

Author: Gwen Tonack

Big Joey – Another Look
A story shared by Gwen Tonack

Janet “Big Joey” Wilkeson

In the mid-seventies, Big Joey – who was born Janet Wilkeson – was a character slightly larger than life. Though she was a founding member of Club 70 as well as a huge supporter of Flashback, she is primarily remembered for her no-nonsense behaviour and the power of her physical presence. It may surprise you to know she was also a dog loving softie.

For some reason Joey and I were ‘roommates’ for a short time sharing a house with John Reid – a founding partner of Flashback. I think it was his house, located in a totally cute, blue-collar working-class neighbourhood in Edmonton.

Club 70 Incorporation Document
Courtesy Edmonton Queer History Project

John had a Yorkshire Terrier, Rugus and an Afghan Hound, Jessica, and at some point we jointly acquired Shamba, also a Yorkie but very high strung and nothing like Rugus, if I recall correctly. We walked, groomed and fed the dogs as needed but Joey was always the primary snuggler.

During the day, I went to university, John taught school and Joey was an apprentice bricklayer and believed to be the first female bricklayer in Edmonton1. We hung out most evenings and on the weekends we partied pretty heavily at Flashback, Club 70 or anywhere else that was fun.

Paul Chisholm (Millie) lived with Bob Pellerin at the time in a rental house at the bottom of Bellamy Hill, (fondly referred to as The Hill) and hosted parties regularly that Joey and I attended.

Maybe I should mention that only in a city like Edmonton, where everything if sorta of flat, could a landmark be called the Hill.

To learn more about this period of time and location read:

Bob Pellerin, Gwen Tonack, Janet “Big Joey” Wilkeson at John Reid’s Home

I was not judged poorly but perhaps should have been for this next little escapade…I found a turtle climbing up the Hill one morning and decided he needed saving, so I brought him to John’s house. I am pretty sure Joey helped me acquire a kiddie pool for the unfinished basement, put them in the pool and then I went off to do whatever. Of course, being an intelligent creature, the turtle spent their time trying to leave the kiddie pool and somehow climb the stairs in John’s house in order to get home, which I now suspect was the North Saskatchewan River just down from where I rescued them.

After a few days of putting them back in the pool, I ended up donating Toby, the river turtle to the Storyland Valley Zoo and I hope they are still living happily there. Joey accepted this harebrained adventure for what it was, a misguided attempt at connecting with nature. Joey was not the type of person who was terribly bossy and I benefited from this attitude greatly.

Flashback was the hub for many important community building projects. Creating themed drag shows was the one that I was so happy to be part of. I am pretty sure my acceptance as one of the ‘queens’ was unusual. I was the only one with real honest to goodness tits, although they were hardly anything to brag about, modestly proportioned as they were but goodness how they were celebrated, poked and prodded.

Gwen pictured second from the right with cast of Flashback’s Chorus Line

I gained some much-needed confidence as a woman during the rehearsals for A Chorus Line, I think it was the first themed show produced at Flashback and it was outrageously fun and a marvel. We benefited from working with John Kerr, who was a fan of Joey. Actually all the cast were pals with her and she loved to hang out and be amused by our antics. We took the show to the Vancouver Dogwood Society’s Coronation Ball as a featured performance (The Dogwood Monarchist Society was established in 1972 as a registered non-profit society to run the Imperial Court of Vancouver in support the LGBTQIA+ community.)

To read about the development of the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose:

John M. Kerr
Donated by Gwen Tonack
Unknown man next to Janet “Big Joey” Wilkeson and Mother Jean Lawson behind her.

Joey and I moved into the Belair Apartments near Westmount and tried to create a life together. Joey was well into the bricklayer routine of long days and hard work, and I was extremely young, selfish, sexually inexperienced and deeply troubled by my early home life. I would never have admitted this back then and was working hard on the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ personal development plan.

One of my fondest memories is recalling Joey and I making the bed together, and the process was led by Joey – who directed how to pull the sheet tight, make hospital corners – thank goodness I did already have a full grasp of that technique.

Then came the top sheet and a revelation! According to Joey, you place the top sheet face down so that the pretty side was down. This was news to me and I asked ‘why?’. Joey said wait and then she showed me once the quilt was on, lifting back the covers opened the bed into a lovely presentation.

Shocking! I know that Joey taught me how to make a bed from start to finish in the most efficient manner and with the best-looking result. This is not how she presented to the world, as someone who knew how to make a bed expertly.

I honestly don’t recall how we met, I am pretty sure it was at Club 70 and it was likely at a table where many powerful looking women gathered – not exactly hip looking but cool all the same.

Joey was always the most inviting, polite and gracious, that is if you were a woman. She was always ready to be congenial to men – as long as they were respectful.

Others have mentioned how tough she could be when threatened – and there are a few stories told of how she used her tough looks to settle fights at Club 70 in the early years – but my memory of Big Joey was a little bit different.

Funding for this story made possible by the Edmonton Heritage Council and the City of Edmonton

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