In the heart of the Art District in Denver, Santa Fe Drive is lined with galleries, performance spaces, and dining digs for blocks. At the entrance of it all, there is a new home for the queer community that offers diverse performances and theatrics with a bar-next-door vibe. Gladys: The Nosy Neighbor, better known as just Gladys, has revitalized a location that was once a failing bar. Gladys now promises a unique rendering of entertainment every night of the week.
The proud rainbow flag acts as a marker as it waves above the front door, the landing place and entrance into a different world. On the northeast corner of 5th Avenue and Santa Fe Drive, it could be easily missed, as it is nestled between auto part shops and busy restaurants, but once you step foot inside, Gladys is unforgettable.
“Gladys brings new life into this space,” said Vivica Galactica, the host of Gladys’ weekly underground drag battle, Weirdo. “We call it the gay Cheers: it’s a queer space with a hometown vibe.”
People come in and out, and are met with hugs and kisses. Some stay for a while to grab a drink, and some flutter away and are on to the next stop.
“It’s very open and accepting; you will be respected for who you are,” Vivica said.
That’s exactly what you get upon entering the throwback 70s lounge: a warm and welcome greeting combined with a flare and zest for life.
There is a combination of two worlds seamlessly colliding inside, a dimly lit ambiance coexisting beside bold and brightly colored neon illuminations from signs and light fixtures. Low-hanging sconces create miniature spotlights along the bar, and the full liquor selection is lit like a trophy wall. The high-top tables sprinkled throughout are perfect for close and private conversations and are in high demand for reservations on show nights.
The main room is open and allows space to easily move around as it fills up on the big event nights. Skee ball and dart boards are available for play, and the energy in the room is light and lively as laughter permeates and fills the joint.
In a second room, more tables and games line the walls, but there is one single standout that beckons. The stage, where the magic at Gladys lives.
“When we opened Gladys, we talked a lot about what it’d be,” explained Chris Newell. Owner of Gladys, as well as the leather bar Trade across the street, Newell knew that he would potentially be competing against himself. “We definitely played off the idea that it would be Trade’s neighbor.”
In trying to create something different than what his already-popular bar had to offer, there was an obvious potential and direction already installed.
“The bar had a stage already, so it lent itself to doing more shows,” he said. He explained how the space would be perfect to execute a much more traditional cabaret style of performance, and that’s exactly what he has done.
“Gladys is known for its live shows,” Galactica explained, and from a simple glance at the Facebook page, she’s not kidding. Almost every night of the week, there is an event or stage performance of some variety scheduled. This is what Gladys is doing to stand out from the other gay bars in town: nights of karaoke and showtune singalongs hosted by DJ Craig, Zipper Club’s burlesque show, Drag Queen bingo, Fauxxxy Fridays, and the weekly Weirdo.
James Sueling, podcast co-host of 80 Minutes of Gay Yelling, lives in the neighborhood and is a frequent visitor of Gladys. He agrees that it brings something special to the community that is unlike anywhere else.
“I love this bar; it’s the old-school bar our generation didn’t have and doesn’t remember,” he said.
“It’s really good people; it’s a really encouraging bar, which sounds cheesy to say,” he admitted. He comes for the artists and the performances, and stays for the friendships and conversation.
While the bar offers enough entertainment to bring in folks ready to party, both Sueling and Vivica are certain that what makes the place thrive is the leadership from above. Newell’s two spots don’t compete with one another because they provide very different things for patrons, but it’s his style of management that makes both spots successful.
“Chris is a beacon in an unexpected way,” Sueling said. “He busts his ass for our community.”
Vivica emphasized the fact that Chris is always open to trying new things; he allows the creativity of the performers to shine through their own ideas and concepts. With a “why not” attitude, he opens up the stage to performers that want to push their limits and test out a new character or theatrics in front of the packed house.
“Weirdo may be the most underground thing in the city,” Sueling said. “It’s half drag and half performance art.”
The eccentric and bizarre are welcome, and everything is up for interpretation. They allow performers as young as 18 years old on stage, and anyone who is interested in drag is welcome to try it out. But Gladys isn’t only a spot for new performers; it is also a place where well-established queens can get up and push themselves out of the box. They can test out something odd or explore a side that they may not feel empowered to on a “normal” stage.
Bringing in crowds organically from the First Friday Art Walk draw, Vivica admitted that most nights, getting out to Gladys is a commitment.
“It’s a destination bar, for sure,” she said.
However, Sueling finds that he often ends his nights there, regardless of where it starts.
“Every time we go somewhere else, by 11 p.m. we’re like, ‘Let’s go to Gladys,’” says Sueling. He thinks it’s a great idea to have the leather sister-bar Trade so close. “You don’t have to go across town to get something different if you want.”
In addition to the usual week of performances, Gladys has some special events planned for Pride this year. Vivica will be hosting her Best of the Month Weirdo competition, with the best of the best vying for the coveted winner’s prize.
Friday night is Blow Pony: a party-centered, dirty, gritty drag show with performers still to be announced. Saturday night is a special Pride edition of Fauxxxy Friday, and Sunday is going to be open for relaxation and recovery.
With everything that Gladys has to offer, it is still the friendly, neighborhood bar atmosphere that people ultimately come for. Come as you are, whatever gender, kink, or sexuality, and know that someone at Gladys will make you feel at home. Sueling lays it out in just one simple phrase: “Gladys is a reminder that we’re all a community.”
Photos By Mike Bomberger