1:45 a.m. • Saturday, Oct. 19
It’s a familiar scene: as barbacks flip on the lights, Donna Summer’s classic “Last Dance” belts from the speakers throughout the Country Western bar at 900 E. Colfax. Security ushers patrons on the patio inside as they take the last puffs of their Pall Mall’s and guzzle the last of their 32 ounce pitchers of Bud Light. Those hoping to get in one more spin on the dance floor, like one woman from Montana, are reluctant the night has come to an end and they parade around the hardwood as if it was just the beginning of the evening.
Those hoping to get lucky take one more stop on the sidewalk outside. Bands of friends make plans for breakfast. “Pete’s?” “The Denver Dinner?” They jump in their cars or cabs, others walk. Inside, Drew Gardiner, Adam Poppens and more than a dozen other employees are cleaning up the remnants of Friday night. They wash glasses, pick up bottles. Another crew will sweep, mop, disinfect as the sun rises.
The next afternoon I find Charlie’s General Manager John Nelms on the patio. It’s a warm October afternoon, the bar is offering a $5 beer bust. The crowd is a mix of off duty employees, regulars, a few pockets of friends. One appears to be celebrating a birthday. Others, just day-drinking in Denver.
Nelms and I find a spot inside away from the Saturday congregation. Business is good, he tells me. It’s an observation repeated from a half-dozen gay bar managers and owners, but one I hadn’t been expecting given the rapid cultural changes in the LGBT community, especially for a skeptic like me.
Within the last five years Denver’s gay and lesbian culture hasn’t seen this much cultural upheaval since the AIDS epidemic when a generation of leaders and community members died. The city has rapidly become more accessible and inclusive, and now the most unabashed same-sex couples can hold hands walking through Larimer Square and have dinner in Wash Park as they can in the traditional safe haven of Capitol Hill. New mobile apps with geolocation services allow gay men the ability to find one another for dates and relationships without ever leaving the couch. And as our community and political fight matures — from gay liberation in the 1970s to full marriage equality in the 2010s — more gay men and lesbians are finding themselves farther away from the gayborhood and in suburbs raising families.
The most basic role of a gay bar has always been its ability to foster a safe place for the LGBT community. In the days before civil unions and Grindr it was the only place men and women of the community could gather and know there was safety in numbers — and if they found someone to share an evening with or just make a new friend, all the better.
As the world outside the dimly lit gay bars of the Mile High City evolves, the question bears asking: what are bar owners and managers doing inside to keep the kegs flowing as usual?
“Our community has fought hard for equality and that has changed the way gay bars do business,” Nelms said. “It’s good socially, but challenging for business. We have to stay on our toes and keep thinking outside the box.”
As evidence, Nelms rattles off a series of steps Charlie’s has taken including summer pool parties, new staff and a new monthly Sunday night party, Flesh, a male review show in vein of the movie Magic Mike.
There was time when all you had to do to make money as a gay bar was open your door, Nelms said. But these days “you have to work harder.”
Throughout our conversation Nelms seems as much in transition as his business model. He goes back and forth between discussing all the good the community has done for itself and the City of Denver to get to this point — some of those changes were even born out of Charlie’s, including the election of Denver Mayor Federico Pena, the lobbying for a police precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and having a seat at the table of a number of civic associations like Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods — and wrestling with how he’ll continue to employee his staff of 24.
“It will be the survival of the fit-
test and smartest,” he says. But if the community — and by extension Charlie’s — can survive the AIDS epidemic — the time period his business saw the biggest drop in business, he says — Charlie’s can survive anything. “I’ve seen more
death in my life than some people who go to war.”
As Nelms puts it: “No matter how gay it gets in the straight world, we still need an outlet. When (my customers) walk through the doors they know it’s safe here. It’s natural.”
Since Charlie’s opened in 1981 in its original location on far East Colfax, its owners and managers have played a part in opening two other bars — Miss C’s, which has since closed, and the R&R, which is still open. The establishment has born the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association and, in part, the International Gay Rodeo Association. Hundreds of thousands of gay men and women have line danced and two-stepped across the only dance floor in a nearly 1,000-mile radius that was built just for them. The legacies and memories are too many to count.
I ask Nelms, who himself has seen three or four generations of customers, if there will always be a need for gay bars.
“I hope so.”
4:45 p.m. • Saturday, Oct. 19
After my conversation with John Nelms, I visit with The Wrangler’s General Manager Phil Newland. He started at The Wrangler in 2005 as a bartender. At the time, it was his second job. He was a teacher Monday through Friday. But in December of last year he left the classroom for the adult playground that is the bar at 17th Avenue and Logan.
When I first met Newland earlier this year he said his mission was to “take back the night.” And the fruit of his labor is panning out, he says, but not without the challenge of Scruff and Growlr, mobile apps that connect his customer base when they’re not at the Uptown establishment.
“The business has changed, that just being open isn’t good enough.” Events, not drink specials, are driving the business, Newland said. “We have to give our customers a reason to get off the couch.”
So, there’s poker on Mondays, free pool on Tuesdays and trivia on Wednesdays. The weekends feature different themes and dance parties.
Newland and I are sitting in the back bar, which is traditionally closed during the day. It’s undergoing a remodel. Newland said part of his formula is to put more money back into the business and keep true to his brand while expanding his base — a thin line to walk.
“I want a classy place. Muscular, classy. Industrial, but not cold,” he said, describing his bar’s brand.
The Wrangler’s business has been a bit of a rollercoaster, but nevertheless trending up. Coupled with smart budget decisions, profit remains good. The Wrangler has been able to keep prices flat — the last major price increase was three years ago — and continues to employee 43 people. Fifteen are full time.
And while Newland is shouldering the financial well being of his company, including how to continue to provide health insurance for his employees, he also sees the question of the future of gay bars at much higher level.
“If the community wants to stay funded, they’ll have to continue to support gay bars,” he said.
Newland speaks frankly: his establishment has donated considerable capital to nonprofits like the Denver Gay and Lesbian Flag Football League, the Rush Rugby team and various LGBT softball leagues and most recently sponsored a lesbian couple to participate at the International Gay Rodeo in Dallas. And that’s just the head off the beer. Each Sunday The Wrangler donates a significant portion of its beer bust to nonprofits like the Alexander Foundation, the Rocky Mountain Rainbeaus and Mile High Freedom Band.
Fostering community is just one of the reasons Newland has taken a leadership role in the recently re-formed Colorado GLBT Tavern Association, formerly known as the Tavern Guild.
The Association, made of more than a dozen of Denver’s LGBT bars including X Bar, Broadway’s and Hamburger Mary’s, is planning citywide events and at least one fundraiser for the recent victim of a hate crime, Jared Olson.
“We, as a bar community, are smart,” he said. “But keeping a bar open is so much more than just slinging a good drink. Denver is growing and changing faster than the city can handle.”
And the association is hoping to stay ahead of the pace.
“The gay bars aren’t going to go away, but our role is going to shift,” Newland said.
To what exactly? Newland isn’t sure. But he’s committed to the cause.
“There’s nothing like walking into a bar and knowing 99 percent of the men there are gay. This is where your family comes.”
12:35 a.m. • Saturday, Oct. 19
Just as Sophie Harlow is getting a birthday lap dance from one of the hunky dancers, Nic Redavid, a friend from Fort Collins, walks through the front door at Boyztown.
He, his fiancée and friends were supposed to see Pink in concert. The pop singer might have canceled on Denver, but Redavid and Co. didn’t.
“The atmosphere in Denver is more of a production,” Redavid said, comparing the metropolitan scene to that of his rural college town. “I feel more judged in Denver.” Not that it ever stopped him from tearing up either town in his early 20s. (He’s on a first name basis with the bartender at Boyztown.)
I first met Redavid when we were both 21. We shared the same social circle along the Front Range. Now approaching 30, Redavid is spending more time in Fort Collins.
“Fort Collins is becoming more accepting,” he said. “Society is changing. We don’t need to segregate ourselves anymore. They’re getting used to seeing me and Adam together.”
“I see it,” he said, discussing the sea change in attitudes toward the LGBT community and the potential impact on his business and that of his colleagues. But the tide hasn’t come in all the way. “We can pass all the laws we want, but we can’t pass laws to change people’s minds.”
He cites an article he found online about major brands that have donated to anti-LGBT causes and are far from inclusive in their own corporate policies. He, too, references the recent Denver man who was a victim of a hate crime during the Labor Day Weekend. “He was leaving a straight establishment,” Long emphasizes.
Of all the managers and owners I interviewed, Long is the most steadfast and sure of his business. While he concedes a little ground, he believes most of the gay bars which have closed in the past decade have either been due to poor management or due to the natural order of business.
“Sometimes we try to make our business model more complicated,” Long said. His recipe is the same today as it was when he opened in 2005: a safe, welcoming and respectful place for all walks of life.
“Gay bars will always be around,” he said. “We might have the freedom to go where we want, but not the freedom to act gay.”
Inside I meet a tourist from Austin, Texas. He won’t share his real name because he’s in the “public eye.” But it’s his eyes that won’t stop looking at the man ripping his clothes off on stage.
“When you do this, here (at a gay bar), it’s for real. Online is bullshit.”
10:45 p.m. • Friday, Oct. 18
Tony Fleith, owner and manager of Li’l Devils, is behind the bar fixing cocktails when I arrive. One of Denver’s newest gay bars, it opened in the South Broadway space vacated by The Barker Lounge, another gay bar that relocated to Santa Fe Drive, Dec. 28, 2012.
Fleith is no stranger to the bar business — gay or straight. He has a following 20 years in making. He’s tended bar at some of the aforementioned establishments, in LoDo and at hotels across the city.
“I don’t know if there is enough of the right type of gay bar,” Fleith said. Like many of the other managers I spoke with, Fleith is trying to figure out the right formula. But for now, he’s seeing success in what he calls an upscale neighborhood bar.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” he said.
Knowledgeable bartenders, a friendly staff and an open atmosphere is part of Fleith’s business. And while Fleith hopes to capitalize on his location — south of Downtown and north of Interstate 25 — he’s also open to considering his bar, and other gay bars, as destinations rather than regular haunts.
“The gay bars (of the past) ran their course. Those bars did not provide what the gay community wants. We have to give the gay person a reason to come back.”
Li’l Devils served both functions this evening — convenience and destination — for Ben Slingsby, who lives near the Tech Center. He and a friend stopped in for a drink after a visit to a haunted house.
10:05 p.m. • Friday, Oct. 18
Less than 24 hours earlier, Black Crown patrons Drew Conerly and Yulio Rodriguez had been surrounded by men in revealing jock straps and the most fashionable underwear of the day at The Eagle for underwear night. Tonight they’re surrounded by an equally striking — yet startlingly different — ambiance. Owned and operated by Mark Cameron, a fixture in gay Denver’s social scene for decades, Black Crown is not your grandfather’s piano bar. Right at home among shops in the South Broadway District, Black Crown serves a clientele equal parts gay, straight and antique collector.
Conerly and Rodriguez are there for a friend’s going away party. In another room is a jazz band. Sitting next to the ensemble is a pair of transgender women. Upstairs a party of eight — we assume heterosexual — is celebrating a gothic birthday fit for a zombie.
He’s talking about gays and straights co-mingling, as much as he is talking about sub-identities of the expansive LGBT community inhabiting the same space. There are fewer niche gay bars then before, he said.
Only a decade ago the city’s social scene was divided among bars for particular types of men and women based on aesthetic and personal tastes. Jr.’s was for the professionals. The leather crowd cruised at The Triangle. Drag queens dominated the stage at BJ’s. But all three are gone now, closed upon managements’ request.
As for Rodriguez, who has spent more time traveling the world than he has in Denver, there aren’t enough options to exercise his social skills. He believes as Denver continues to grow — its becoming one of the most popular cities among millennials — there will be a greater demand for trendy gay bars.
“I’d like to see another bar similar to X Bar,” he said in his part-Cuban, part-British accent.
Blush & Blu
9:33 p.m. • Friday, Oct. 18
As far as location goes, there was only one option for Miriam Hegler’s to celebrate her birthday: the bar at Colfax Avenue and Franklin. Blush & Blu was the only option, not because there is no other bar that specializes in accommodating lesbians in Denver, but because for Hegler and her partner Adriana Feil, Blush is their “Cheers.”
While most weekdays Hegler and Feil can be found closer to their home at a Denver University neighborhood bar for happy hour, for special events they want to celebrate with family on what they’d consider friendlier territory.
“We feel fine at The (Wash Park) Tavern, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt out of place, but…” Hegler said, there’s still another level of ease at an LGBT establishment.
There certainly isn’t a shortage of comfort Friday night at Blush. Every seat at the bar is taken, in a second room, where karaoke is about to start, a group of women shoot pool.
But the scene is a far cry from the days of The Wave, a now-closed bar once owned Jody Bouffard, the entrepreneur behind Blush. The Wave owned Wednesdays. The dance club featured a $3 cover with $1 wells all night.
Tonight, Bouffard slips out from behind the bar, darts outside to mingle with some customers smoking outside, then back inside to pick up glasses and greet customers. For Bouffard, this has been business as usual for her entire adult life. She first started as a barback at the Elle when she 19. Since 1996 she has either worked at or owned bars for the LGBT community.
She’s seen them come and she’s seen them go — including her own. (Bouffard said she and her partner at the time closed The Wave for personal reasons.) And in almost every instance an LGBT bar has closed, it’s been replaced by straight establishments.
While there is no denying Bouffard’s business prowess, her recent strategy is to allow the community of women who support her business to build their space. All of her regular offerings, including yoga, karaoke, an open mic night and an improvisation comedy show, came from recommendations from her customers.
“Things have changed since I’ve been here,” she said. But one thing hasn’t: “If the community doesn’t support LGBT bars, they will shut down and the space will be sold to a straight person and it will be a straight place.”
Bouffard is certain her future is as bright as the lit candles on Hegler’s birthday cake.
“I plan on having this bar for the next 10 to 15 years,” she said.
8:38 p.m. • Thursday, Oct. 24
As routine as last call at Charlie’s, you can set your clock to 8:45 p.m., Thursday, when teenagers begin to line up in front of Tracks for what us older folks call “milk and cookie night.” (The official name of the event is “Superstar.”)
Until recently, Tracks was the only LGBT bar in Denver that hosted an all-ages night. Two years ago, the Sunday Climax Party at Vinyl opened its doors to those between the ages of 18 and 20, and this past summer X Bar followed suit. While the kids may encroach the adult table Sundays at the latter, they run the show Thursday nights at the prior.
The first in line this particular Thursday are Chelsey Stack and Danielle Blaskovics, both 20, and the freshly minted 21-year-old Erin Weigang. As if they needed a reason to go out, Stack just ended a three-year relationship.
“It’s nice to come here and just be accepted,” Blaskovics, who is bisexual, said. “To be honest, I had never seen a transsexual before I came here. There is much variety. I could never see this much variety on Facebook.”
Or at The Church, another Denver nightclub that hosts an all ages party, Blaskovics said.
“I brag about this place,” Blaskovics jumps up and down as security guards behind her make the final preparations for the evening.
Erik Arredondo, the general manager of Tracks and the Exdo Event Center, has plenty to brag about himself. Over the last year, Tracks has seen a steady increase in business.
But the uptick isn’t necessarily attributed to just the LGBT community.
“Gay bars aren’t as gay anymore,” Arredondo said. Since about 2008, Tracks has gone from being open just two nights a week to hosting various events all weekend, and in some instances, weeknights, which attract all walks of life.
“We’re trying to be more interactive,” Arrendondo said.
That includes everything from viewing parties of RuPaul’s Drag Race with a companion drag competition to leveraging the very technology (social media) that is a drain on the hospitality business. In the last three years alone Tracks has independently launched or partnered with promoters to host parties from First Fridays, the largest monthly lesbian party in the nation; Bearracuda, an evening for the bear and otter community and their admirers; and Roll, in which the Exdo Event Center is transformed into a giant disco roller rink.
“Tracks is no longer just an establishment, but a personality,” he said. “We have to take the creative component to a whole new level. Competition is everywhere. It’s the couch, it’s the restaurant down the street. We have to be much bigger. We have to turn this place into Disneyland every night.”
Also in line for the ride this Thursday night are Luke Oellermann, 20, Mike Dienhart, 19, and Austin Brown, 18. Oellermann is bisexual, Bienhart and Brown are straight. All three are from transplants from Billings, Mont.
As I speak with them, a security employee walks by to check their IDs and marks the tops of their hands with gigantic Xs to denote their underage status.
It’s 20-nothing guys like Oellermann that had me worried most about the future of gay bars. The post-millennial generation, those born after 2000, has grown up never not knowing the Internet, mobile phones and have come of age twice, first as closeted teenagers and then as out men and women, in an era of social media and mobile apps like Grindr, Jacked and Hornet — apps Oellermann confesses to using while at Tracks.
Just as I was about to lose all faith in the societal structure gay bars have created and sustained for more than four decades, I realize what Ollermann is telling me is that the adult playground has provided him something neither an app nor a straight bar will ever be able to provide him or any other LGBT person: a chance to discover himself.
“In Billings, I was very protective of what others knew about me,” Ollermann said. “The people who need to know (about my sexuality) know. And none of them are in Billings. Tracks gave me a fresh start. Coming here made me more accepting of myself. The friends I’ve met here have made it a lot better experience it.”
And while it’s disheartening to know teens like Ollermann are yet to be able to discover their identity anywhere and nowhere like Billings, Mont. — I’ll drink to them at any gay bar where they are free to do so.