Sunday, May 7, 2017

Gay Bars That Are Gone

515 West 18 Street, former site of The Roxy

Yesterday, I went on a walking tour called Gay Bars That Are Gone, organized by Michael Ryan and Kyle Supley as part of Jane Jacobs Walks1.
We started out at The Roxy2, a huge former disco on West 18 Street. I recounted my story of how once I had gone to see Chaka Khan perform there and she invited some man up on stage to sing with her. That was brave enough of him! But this man had the audacity to criticize Ms. Khan’s singing, to which she replied, “I have perfect pitch, bitch!” (OK, she didn’t actually say “bitch.”) That was the end of him!
There were other shows I saw at Roxy, in addition to going to their regular John Blair Saturday nights, which were probably the preeminent gay dance party of the ’90s. I saw Malcolm McLaren there when the venue was booked by an English woman named Ruza Blue, who promoted hip hop nights there. I saw New Order in concert there when it was called 1018. And I was supposed to see Dee-Lite there when they were at the peak of their popularity (after “Groove Is in the Heart” was released), but they never showed up. Roxy was never really my scene, though, because it catered to what were then known as “Chelsea boys” (i.e., gay men who worked out and generally lived in Chelsea). In fact, Supley even mentioned that Blair had a rating system to determine who got in the door.
I was not surprised.
Then we moved on to The Anvil. Now that was my joint!
Although I was too young and naïve to even know what was going on in the catacomb-like backroom, I was there for New Wave nights every Tuesday (deejayed by Bill Bahlman), which featured performances by a lip-synch artist named Bernard Zette, who later appeared in the film Last Exit to Brooklyn. My former neighbor, actress/comedian/playwright Nora Burns, told about how she was prevented from getting in at a nearby disco called Alex in Wonderland by the doorman and later wound up appearing in a play with him.
On the way to our next stop, we paused around the corner from Little West 12th Street to talk about the notorious Mineshaft. This was a club that was known for its wild sexual exploits and its strict dress code, which was as follows:
Cycle leather & Western gear, levis
Jocks, action ready wear, uniforms,
T shirts, plaid shirts, just plain shirts,
Club overlays, patches, & sweat.

Apparently, such celebrities as Mick Jagger and Elton John were refused entry for not dressing the part.
I only went there once when I was very young and ran out screaming like a frightened schoolgirl (OK, I exaggerate slightly) when some gentleman tried to pick me up and, shaking his hand, I realized it was covered with the same lube that was covering his bare buttocks.
The next stop was Florent, the much-missed French bistro owned by the eccentric Florent Malloret. (There’s an excellent documentary about him called Florent: Queen of the Meat Market3). In addition to their reasonable menu, Florent was probably most famous for its Bastille Day street fair, where the owner would sometimes dress up in drag as Marie Antoinette. They were also known for being very accepting of HIV-positive people at a time when that was a very rare thing. (Florent himself was openly HIV-positive at a time when that was also very rare and would keep a running count of his T-cells on the menu.) There was also a famous nude photograph of HIV-positive people which appeared on the cover of Poz magazine, which was taken in his restaurant.4
Then we continued to Jackson Square (passing the former site of the notorious Hellfire5 and J’s Hangout6 on the way) to talk about a lesbian bar called Sea Colony7, which I’d never heard of. (Perhaps I can be forgiven for that, since they were open in the '50s and '60s and I'm not a lesbian.)
Me talking about watching the season finale of "Dynasty" (where the entire cast gets shot) at Uncle Charlie's.
On to Uncle Charlie’s8, where I talked about the night I watched the season finale of “Dynasty” (in which everyone was shot). Uncle Charlie’s was a chain of gay bars (the other branches were in Midtown, the Upper East Side and the Village). They had a reputation as a “stand and model” (or “S&M” as it was jokingly abbreviated) bar and the customers were generally young and preppy Izod-wearing All-American Boy types (as in the clothing store that used to be on Christopher Street). It was also the site of the first anti-gay terrorist attack in the United States, and the owner was allegedly involved in a murder.
After Splash opened in Chelsea in the early ’90s, all the preppies migrated to Chelsea, which marked the beginning of Chelsea’s reign as the preeminent gay neighborhood of that decade.
Next stop was The Ninth Circle. I was never a big customer there, but apparently it was a very cool place (according to Burns, it had a great jukebox). I know that it’s featured heavily in Brad Gooch’s memoir Smash Cut (it’s where he met his lover, film director Howard Brookner), and it’s where Edward Albee allegedly got the idea for the title of his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.
Further down West 10th Street was the Snake Pit. This bar was a contemporary of the original Stonewall bar, and its history was equally marked by violence. In March 1970, for example, after a police raid, a terrified young Argentine jumped out of a second-floor window and impaled himself on a 14-inch spike while attempting to escape from police custody.9
Walking down Grove Street, we passed what used to be a veritable “piano bar row” of Marie’s Crisis, the original Duplex (later Rose’s Turn) and the Five Oaks. The only one remaining is Marie’s Crisis.
Finally, we stopped in Christopher Street Park10 (now a National Historic Landmark along with the Stonewall) to talk about the Duchess, another lesbian bar which apparently had a lot of fighting outside (again, according to Burns), before adjourning to Julius (another landmark11, and New York’s oldest gay bar) for drinks and dancing.


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