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Wednesday, June 9,2010

Getting Out

From discos and dive bars to The Sir Club and strippers, Lansing has a long history of nightlife, LGBT-style

by Mary C. Cusack

It started out, as many things do, with strippers.


The news hit the street that Club Xcel in Lansing would be ending its long-running Male Review nights, which begged the question: Is this loss a signifier of some sobering trend affecting gay bars in Lansing?


The answer is yes. The caveat is that it’s not a negative trend. In fact, the rather unscientific and mostly anecdotal research done by one totally square breeder/drag hag reveals that the gay bar scene in Lansing has never been stronger.


I began my research at Club Xcel. The Male Review tradition began 17 years ago when Xcel was a gay bar called Paradise, and it continued under the current ownership of Tom Donell even as the club became a mixed-crowd bar. Now simple economics are driving the decision to drop the event. Attendance has declined in the past few years, forcing Donell and manager Chris Steele to consider more viable ways in which to attract the Tuesday night crowd.


The good news is that Spiral Dance Bar in Old Town, a gay bar that’s also owned by Donell, has picked up where Xcel left off, and hosts its own Male Review night on Thursdays.


According to Steele, this is a move that will actually serve the gay audience better. “It will do better over there, “ he said, “because it’s later in the week, (and) it is a gay bar, so the clientele will (enjoy) it better.” The new show may even include female strippers to accommodate the lesbian audience as well.


To be sure that Steele’s rationale wasn’t simply spin put on the change to make it more palatable, I observed one of the last Tuesday night reviews at Xcel. As I watched the men strip down to their banana hammocks, I reminded myself, “It’s just research. It’s just research. It’s just … oooooh, my."


Looking at the crowd instead of the stage, I found that Steele was on the money. At least 60 percent of the crowd — which was a nice size for a Tuesday, but not enough to warrant the cost of the performers — was made up of (presumably) straight women. The strippers made the bulk of their tips from the women. It may as well have been a strip show at a straight bar.


What does this mean in terms of gay bar culture in Lansing, then? Are gays losing ground in terms of social space, or is that even the right question to ask?


Being a people-person, I eschewed hard historical data and decided to gather some oral histories. Go ahead, snicker away, and get it out of your system. Done? Let’s move on.


The point is that the history of gay bars in Lansing is about the personal experience of the individuals who tripped those lights fantastic. People like Bill Beachler, longtime Lansing resident and the historian for the Lansing Association for Human Rights, a LGBT advocacy group celebrating its 41st year, focus on the feelings rather than the facts.


Beachler rattled off the list of Lansing gay bars, and remembered the historical flow of traffic fairly accurately. A few surprises popped up as I listened, the biggest one being that neighborhood bar Stober’s had its turn as the gay hot spot. This revelation illustrated one of the two motivations I discovered behind gay bar proprietorship: the economic one. The other motivation — and the two aren’t always mutually exclusive — is to provide a safe place for gays to socialize.


Beachler’s recollections began with the Sir Club in the early 1970s. The Sir Club expanded to a larger location on Michigan Avenue, which created a distinction between the “old Sir Club” and the “new Sir Club.”


Owned by “a straight person who was more interested in the economy of it rather than the substance,” the new Sir Club was transformed into a topless bar aimed at straight men with no notice of the gay community. Turned away on that first straight night, the gay crowd headed to the next place that they knew was welcoming and safe: Stober’s, also on Michigan Avenue.


Owner Rudy Stober was straight, a “nice man” who saw a niche that needed to be filled and did so, to the mutual benefit of patrons and owner alike. Stober’s did what it could to cater to the disco club crowd, bringing in Flint gay club owner Bill Kane to update the floor plan and d'cor to include a dance floor and DJ booth.


Eventually, safety became an issue, because the gay crowd made exemplary victims for muggings. As Beachler explains, they had more money than the people who lived in the area, and were less likely to report the crime because at the time “there was no love lost between the Lansing Police Department and the gay community. I had a switchblade pulled on my neck once, getting out of my car there,” he said, nonchalantly.


Local bar owner Joe Covello, whose bar was located on Michigan Avenue where Cooley Law School Stadium now sits, put out feelers in the gay community to find out if catering to the gay crowd would be worth his while. Covello’s served that niche, and served it well, until the city bought the block to create the stadium. While Covello’s was popular and comfortable, it lacked that certain jene sais quoi.


“Covello’s was a hole!” said gay activist Tari Muniz, laughing with affection. “It was dark and dingy, it didn’t have doors on the bathroom stalls. But once you were inside the bar, it did feel safe. It was a place to frolic and be drunk and hang out. It brought a lot of the sectors of the women’s community together.”


The true big-city club experience came in the form of Trammpps, which opened in the location of the new Sir Club, next door to Covello’s.


Trammpps was a flashy, trendy place, something like the Studio 54 of Lansing.


“It always had to have a new look. One was that that when you came in, it was like a jail cell, and you’d pay your money and they would open up the jail cell and you’d go in,” Beachler remembered, with a laugh.


For a time Trammpps and Covello’s were in direct competition, to the extent that Trammpps “stole” one of Covello’s popular bartenders. In time, the crowds sorted themselves out and tended to stick to the bar that best suited their socio-economic status.


“Over time it evolved where it was a different-type crowd — a younger, disco-type crowd at Trammpps and an older, blue-collar crowd at Covello’s,” explained Beachler.


Trammpps wasn’t quite as popular with the lesbian audience. (“It was just really, really dicky!” declared Muniz.) They preferred their regular Thursday nights at Covello’s, although before she came out, Muniz found Trammpps to be a safe place to dance with girl friends.


In the end, Covello’s won the hearts of its patrons, as evidenced by the outpouring of sadness and nostalgia at the recent passing of owner Joe Covello.


One comment on the online guestbook for the funeral home that conducted Covello’s services sums up the community’s feelings: “Joe Covello was an extraordinary man. He was a loving family man and devout Catholic. Yet he created a gathering space in Lansing that was the first safe public place for LGBT folks to come and be themselves. … I really admired him for that.”


Trammpps soon had flashier competition when Bonnie & Clyde’s opened to the west on Michigan Avenue, in the space that now houses Omar’s. The club took business away from Trammpps, and even Covello’s for a time.


“We had our own little New York City or San Francisco right here in Lansing!” exclaimed Beachler. “It didn’t last too long, but while it was there, it was fun.”


When Bonnie & Clyde’s closed, the crowds went back to Trammpps and Covello’s until the city bought the properties to build Oldsmobile Park (now Cooley Law School Stadium).


After Trammpps and Covello’s closed, new venues took their places, continuing to fulfill the tastes of those distinct audiences. JB’s on Saginaw filled the blue-collar niche for a time, until 2000, when the Old Town neighborhood Esquire Bar was purchased and marketed as a gay bar by Ken Schultz. Trammpps owner Victor Cohen opened Paradise on Washington Avenue. (Another club, Miller's, operated down the street in the mid-1990s.)


In the late 1990s, artist Tom Donell opened Spiral Dance Club in Old Town, going head-to-head with Paradise.


“Once Spiral opened, it significantly hurt Paradise,” Beachler said. :So, in order to make it economically feasible, (Paradise) started to have a straight night. Then two straight nights. Then three straight nights, up until what we have today, with six straight nights and one gay night.”


In 2002 Donell bought Paradise and re-opened it as Club Xcel as a mixed-crowd bar, but with a heavier emphasis on the straight crowd. Which brings us full circle to contemporary times, with the exception of the herstory of Lansing gay bars.


The clubbing behavior of lesbians is much less flamboyant than that of their gay brothers. Still, they have a presence. Club 505, a lesbian-owned bar on Cedar St., held firm from 2000 to 2008. The void was filled soon after when the lesbian-owned Chrome Cat opened in Old Town in January 2009. Not coincidentally, the Chrome Cat is located in the former Old Town art studio of Donell, which means that two of three gay bars in Lansing feature d'cor in Donell’s unique style.


Chrome Cat co-owner Michelle Taylor has characterized the bar as not just a lesbian bar, but a place where everyone is safe and welcome. This sentiment is echoed by Joel Lehtonen, bartender at the Esquire Bar.
“We think of it more as a neighborhood bar,” Lehtonen said. “Everyone’s welcome. We get a lot of the people from the neighborhood, gay and straight. ”


While the vibe definitely skews gay, the place looks and feels like an old-school everyman bar, featuring Keno, bar nuts (peanuts and cashews), big-screen TVs, and pool tables.


“If that pool table could talk!” said one waiter, laughing and nudging Lehtonen. The revelation is skeezy, yes, but realistically no different than you’d find in a straight bar.


Having logged many hours dancing at Spiral, hanging out at Chrome Cat, and finally making that Saturday night foray into the unmarked Esquire Bar, I feel confident in formulating some theories about the changing face of the gay bar scene in Lansing.


The first is that the gay bar scene in Lansing is probably more stable than at any other time in its history. The fact that Spiral, the Esquire Bar and the Chrome Cat can all survive at the same time is a positive sign. All three not only tolerate, but openly welcome mixed crowds. While it’s true that a hetero couple walking into the Esquire might get a few cursory glances, that’s the extent of the hazing in the gay bar community.


The biggest eye-opener is how the purpose of gay bars has changed over time, in response to the growing acceptance of gays being out in the general populace. When gay clubs were the only safe havens where gays could express themselves fully, there was a lot of desperate living to be crammed into bar hours. That is, closeted gays had to suppress their “real” selves by day, which meant that the time spent in the club was an explosion of pent-up frustration, often expressed through substance abuse and risky sexual behaviors. A good Catholic girl can certainly relate.


In these days of growing tolerance, young gays can still dance balls-to-the-wall at Spiral, and still engage in risky behaviors of their choosing. The impetus to do so, though, is driven by the individual more than by social pressures to keep such behaviors behind closed doors and the need to act out in those few safe havens.
The more mature members of the community are content to simply hang out in welcoming environments. These days, venues such as the Esquire Bar and Chrome Cat serve that purpose, inviting a mixed crowd where — nodding to Depeche Mode — people are people.


And an insider tip for the straight crowd: They typically pour a more generous drink than the chain or sports bars. More bang for your buck, so to speak. Go ahead, snicker away, but do go.



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