A conversation with Bob Engel is a history lesson.
Engel, proprietor of BJ’s Carousel, has seen it all. Well, he’s seen it all since December 9, 1977, when he first opened his gay bar on South Broadway.
Back then, drag queens were legally required to wear male undergarments. AIDS was unheard of. And same-sex marriage was a laughable topic amongst the “gurls.”
“The community was just on the verge of coming out, finding its voice,” Engel said.
Now, drag queens are touring the nation with thousands of fans. HIV has gone from death sentence to chronic disease. And according to some, same-sex marriage will be a nationwide reality within a decade.
The voice has been found. And it is loud. But on the eve of a second revolution of gay rights, the gay bar, at 1380 S. Broadway that was there in the beginning, will close its doors July 30.
Engel, after five years of failed attempts, has finally sold his property leaving behind a legacy no other bar or bar manager can parallel.
“I hope I left the gay community in a better place then I found it,” he said.
“It wasn’t good to be gay,” Engel remembers. “It was a wide-open field for the cops to harass us. They would just load us into the paddy wagon. It was a Wild West mentality.”
And if the cops weren’t rounding up gay men for jaywalking, others were waiting to attack those going in and out of gay bars. Engel, himself, was once a victim.
Moreover, the bars were – to put it politely – dives.
“Everything else was a rat hole,” said longtime BJ’s customer Warren Philips. “There wasn’t anything like JR.’s or (the now defunct) Grand.”
Engel – along with his partner John Neugebauer (BJ stands for Bob and John, not blow job) – wanted something upscale and safe for their friends who traditionally stayed at home for cocktails.
“When we found this place, it was just the nicest lounge,” he said. “It was a place for professionals – doctors, lawyers.”
Despite naysayers predicting doom (the bar is too far south, they said), it was packed every night, Philips said. He and his friends would come down for dinner and drinks. Frannie was in the kitchen and Paul was at the Piano.
Strength in numbers, now splintered
Engel was a founder of the Tavern Guild, an organization of bar owners and managers who banned together to stop police harassment.
“If the VICE squad raided one of our bars, we’d start the phone tree to alert the other bars,” Engel said.
They also worked together to combat rampant check fraud and buy alcohol collectively to get better deals to pass the savings along to customers.
Together, the Tavern Guild believed, they were stronger. But that organization died as old bars closed and new ones sprung up.
“We tried to help each other out,” Engel said noting that sentiment has been lost amongst bar managers and the community at-large. “It’s a whole new generation. The community might know what we did, but they don’t appreciate it. They don’t care.”
“I don’t think there’s a lot of loyalty,” he said. “They’re loyal to where they can get the cheapest drink.”
Engel said he’s seen more and more competition amongst the gay bars, despite there being fewer today. He said the bars are in a game of “give away,” discounting drinks to $1 or $2. It’s a double-edged sword bar owners are playing with.
Boom, bust and funerals
Like many businesses, Engel’s mirrored the oil business in the early 1980s when Denver was the new Dallas. Thousands flocked to the new bustling oil epicenter. But as soon as the boom started, it faded away.
“The mid-80s were just awful,” Engel said. Not only were his clients losing their jobs, they were losing their lives.
AIDS had taken a hold of Denver and it was not letting go.
“There was a collective mourning,” Engel said. “There were so many funerals. At one point, I just had to stop going.”
Engel lost many loved ones, including Neugebauer, his lover and partner.
“When we broke-up, I told him to be careful.”
Engel would go on to help establish the Colorado AIDS Project. It had originally been a project of The GLBT Community Center of Colorado. But growing need proved an independent organization was needed to take on the crisis.
BJ’s would be home to multiple benefits: drag shows and beer busts.
“The leather and drag community was always raising funds,” Engel said. “They rose to the occasion.”
Even more, Engel, his friends and regulars established the Carousel Ball, an annual event to benefit CAP. The balls collectively raised $756,460 during two decades.
The last decade
The AIDS crisis did two things for the gay community, Engel said. It equally proved how vulnerable and strong we are.
“It galvanized us,” he said.
And it’s a good thing, because the late 1990s and 2000s would prove to be just as difficult for BJ’s if not more so. Newer bars began to open, and the Internet quickly evolved into a new way to meet people. Gone were the days men and women needed to find companionship at a bar.
But Engel did his best to stay relevant. He added more drag shows – sometimes four a weekend – dart tournaments.
But five years ago, it became too much. His taxes were raised and DUI laws became stricter scaring even more patrons away. Engel was battling cancer and was ready to travel with his partner Richard.
It became a perpetual guessing game of when Engel would find a buyer.
“We started losing customers,” said female illusionist Mariae Estefan.
The irony is, she said, customers have been coming back more for the vintage and “old-school” drag shows. A group of the girls will be moving up Broadway to the Atrium, she said.
“BJ’s has been good to me,” she said. “I’m going to miss the people.”
Engel feels bad about closing the space to his customers, to the queens. Some, like Philips and Estefan have been with them since the beginning.
“It feels like a wake,” Engel said.
But it’s more than that.
It is a seismic change in the history of Denver’s LGBT community – even for those who have never stepped foot inside BJ’s. The fact of the matter is, the history of gay Denver is his-story. Bob Engel and his bar have run parallel with every victory and defeat this community has endured. Until now.