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February 3, 2005 Find Print Edition : Search : Archive : Login : Register

Club dead?

There are fewer and fewer options for LGBT club goers. Can Boston's gay nightlife be revived?

The dance floor at Buzz is packed Saturday night
The dance floor at Buzz is packed Saturday night

It's 11 o'clock on a Thursday night and Club Café is packed. This might not be such a feat in the middle of July, but on Dec. 27 temperatures are well below freezing and most of the sidewalks are still piled high with leftover snowdrifts from the last blizzard. Any reasonable creature would find shelter and a warm fire, but in the heart of the South End, a couple hundred gay men have slogged through the snow to spend the night at Boston's premier Thursday night watering hole for the over-21 gay set. Their ski parkas discreetly stashed in the coatroom, the men are all primped and ready to schmooze, cruise, and booze.

Despite this display, anecdotal evidence suggests that Club Café is an anomaly; increasingly it seems that LGBT people are venturing out to the club scene in fewer numbers. Billy Masters, an L.A.-based gossip columnist and coast-to-coast scenester, places part of the blame on the 'net, which has given LGBT people more direct ways to connect with each other.

"Time was that if you wanted to meet another gay man (or if a lesbian wanted to meet another gay woman, I suppose) for friendship, sex, dating, etc., they had to go to the clubs because that was the only real venue," Masters writes in an e-mail to Bay Windows. "Now they can meet similar people online and cut out the middleman. That has hurt the gay clubs enormously."

Masters isn't the only one to finger the Internet for Boston's faltering scene. Each week Fenway Community Health sends its Virus and Infection Prevention (VIP) Crew to Boston's clubs and bars to pass out safer sex supplies. Steven Belec, who organizes the VIP Crew as Fenway's assistant manager of outreach and education programs, said that staffers have noticed smaller crowds at the clubs, and in response the VIP Crew has shifted some of its resources to Internet outreach over the past six months.

"It is true that we have noticed a trend that if people are going out to hook up, they're going online to do it," explains Belec.

Not so long ago, bar attendance was part of the coming out ritual. In the last few decades in Boston, lesbians could pick from Someplace Else, Indigo, Bobby's, the Marquis, and 1270, which was a good mix of men and women. But it's been years since Boston has been home to a lesbian bar. Meanwhile, the last new opening of a bar for men was Dedo in 2003, which replaced Luxor. And the last successful opening of a new club was probably Rise, a members-only club open past 2 a.m. that regularly attracts about 250 to 300 patrons an evening.

In the face of a shrinking clientele, Boston's clubs and promoters are working feverishly to stay fresh, but according to many patrons the scene is turning hopelessly stale.

Abercrombie crossed with Lord of the Rings

Club Café straddles the line between bar and club. There are two rooms with music and videos, a large bar/lounge area, and an attached restaurant, called 209. The music, ranging from pop tarts like Destiny's Child and J-Lo to obscure club divas known only to scenesters, is cranked way up the evening of Jan. 27, augmented by the music videos playing on screens all around the club. Yet, in a scene straight out of Footloose, no one dances. There seems to be an unspoken prohibition on dancing, although a few rebels nod their head to the beat. The crowd congregates in small cliques, chatting each other up over drinks and, in many cases, not-so-subtly scoping out the room. The crowd is mostly, although not entirely, made up of men, predominantly white, clean-cut, and in their late 20s, 30s and 40s.

Complaining about Boston's gay nightlife is a favorite pastime of many in the LGBT community, but numbers-wise there's little evidence of Boston's dwindling scene present at the 23-year-old Club Café, at least on that cold winter night. Both of the rooms are packed to the gills, 209 seems to be doing good business.

"I think the key to Club Café is that we never try to be super trendy. We try to be up to date but never super trendy," says owner Frank Ribaudo. "Someone opens up a new club and they are on fire, and then in two years another opens up and everyone forgets [the first club]." Ribaudo adds that while the crowds on Thursday nights have always been strong, in the past few years the club has gotten just as large a crowd on Saturday and a slightly smaller group on Friday.

The crowd in Club Café presents an odd paradox. From the outside they all look perfectly happy to be there, flirting and drinking. Yet ask them about the state of Boston's gay nightlife and in many cases their discontent wells to the surface. "It's just been around for too long, it's tired, it's old," remarks Glen, who's lived in Boston for 17 years and who, like many of the other club-goers interviewed by Bay Windows, declined to give his last name.

So why wouldn't Glen go elsewhere?

"There's nothing else there. By default, it's by default that we're here," Glen says.

Ribaudo argues that in many cases, it's less a matter of the clubs growing stale and more that people gradually get tired of club life. "I think what happens is that after people have done that for a couple of years they just get tired of that," says Ribaudo.

Dissatisfaction is a major theme among many of the Boston area's club-goers, and there's a sense that Boston is missing the excitement found in other cities. Across the river at ManRay's weekly Campus event, a 19-plus gay night marketed to Boston's college crowd, two recent transplants who moved to Cambridge for law school complain about the area's anemic gay scene.

"I'm from New York originally, and I would have to say [Boston's gay nightlife] must be in its demise because this is pretty poor," says Mark. He notes that beyond Campus there are only a few other worthwhile clubs on the scene.

"Well, Avalon [on] Sunday night and Buzz [on] Saturday night, but I mean that's it, though. I'm used to New York, where every night there's something big going on in multiple places. But you know, I'm sure there are enough gay people in Boston to make it happen like that," Mark says.

His friend David, a law student hailing from San Francisco, agrees. "We've been out to Club Café, the usual spots, but it doesn't have the same energy as San Francisco. But I haven't been here during the summer, so I don't know," says David.

Masters sees ManRay as an example of a club adapting to its shifting clientele and staying fresh. Besides Campus, ManRay hosts nights appealing to the goth/fetish crowd on Wednesdays and Fridays, and Transmission on Saturday nights attracts a mixed crowd of gay and straight dancers grooving to new wave and electroclash.

"The club I came out at was Campus/ManRay, and God love [owner] Don Holland - he's kept the club as current and vital as it ever was. This place changes with the times and seems to always give people what they want," says Masters.

On Jan. 27 both of ManRay's dancefloors are packed, although the pool room is eerily empty. In the front room a group of college boys, many of whom managed to lose their shirts on the way to the dancefloor, are grinding to the sounds of Cher and other dance divas. In the back room a more diverse crop of college kids, from preppies to punks to goths, are gyrating to an eclectic mix of chestnuts by Depeche Mode and the Divinyls and modern hip-hop like Missy Elliott and Snoop Dog. Boys outnumber girls, but there are more women than at Club Café and more people of color.

Campus is ManRay's gay night, but the décor seems more suited to the fetish crowd. In the back room, with its fake medieval torches and cages for dancing, the gay boys look like they're filming an Abercrombie ad on the set of Lord of the Rings. Television monitors around the club play porn videos, but no one seems to be watching. The go-go dancers in the back room, many of whom are wearing nothing more than white briefs, are attracting more attention.

Greg, an Emerson student living in Boston, gives high marks to ManRay and says the rumors of Boston's demise as a gay hot spot are greatly exaggerated.

"I don't feel like it's dying. I enjoy it. I like ManRay. I actually like Saturday nights a lot, I think it's a good mix on those nights. This night's pretty good, too," says Greg. "The people just seem interesting and it's usually fairly friendly. There's always going to be the cliquey ones, but in general I feel like you can talk to people when you come up and have a good time."

Back in Boston on Saturday night another hot spot in Boston's gay male scene is Buzz, nestled in the theater district. Like ManRay, Buzz features two dance floors, but the 21-plus crowd draws a slightly older clientele. The dancefloor on the first level of the club is packed the evening of Jan. 29, and at least half of the dancers are shirtless, showing off their gym-toned muscles. The club's second floor has minimal lighting, and the crowd on the dance floor is much smaller. The dancers on the second floor have amassed a crowd of admirers who gawk at their sweaty, half-dressed bodies from the sidelines.

On the first floor, in a "chill room" between the dance floor and the bar, a group of club-goers offered their take on why Boston's scene seems to be slowing down.

"It's winter time, the bars are going to be slow, so once the summer comes it'll pick back up. Fags don't like the cold," theorizes Rick, who lives outside of Boston.

"The same clubs have been here forever... It gets stale after a while, it's like all the clubs are the same. It's like, what do you do on a Saturday night? You go out to fucking Buzz," says Chris, also from outside of Boston. "In New York City there's new clubs opening all the time. They might be the same clubs but they're reinventing themselves."

Asked how the scene has changed over the years, Rick and Chris say the most noticeable difference is the rise in drug use.

"I think that more fags do drugs now than they ever did," says Chris.

"Yeah, more fags do drugs nowadays than anything," Rich says.

"That's why the clubs don't get busy until midnight, 'cause they all have to do their drugs," Chris explains.

'The girls' nightlife needs to improve a lot'

If dissatisfaction is high among gay men, it is doubly high among the lesbian community. There is no fulltime lesbian space akin to Club Café, and lesbian-themed nights are few and far between. Until recently Somerville's Toast on Thursday nights and Chinatown's Club Hollywood on Saturday nights dominated the scene, but both recently came to an end. A Feb. 2 posting on the Toast Web site abruptly announced that Thursday's ladies night was canceled without explanation. Club Hollywood has been sold to a restaurant, and manager/promoter Beth McGurr says she will soon announce the location of her next venture, a women's night called Liquid.

On Jan. 29 at the last night of Club Hollywood the club's two floors are wall-to-wall women, along with smatterings of men and trans folks. Hip-hop and R&B is blasting out of speakers on both floors at eardrum-shattering volume, but that doesn't seem to stop the chatting and scoping. McGurr said Hollywood's been going strong for three years, in part due to aggressive promotion and in part because it's the only Saturday night club catering to lesbians. She says she has no solid answers but a few theories as to why Boston's lesbian scene is so small.

"I guess it's hard to get the girls to come out everyday," says McGurr. "The stereotype is that they come out, they meet somebody, they get married and you don't see them until they break up, and then you see them again. So whether that's true, I don't know, but we've been very busy since we've opened, continuously, every Saturday we're packed."

Nicole, a patron from Worcester sipping a drink at the bar, says she's more likely to go to gay male clubs than the few lesbian events.

"The girls' nightlife needs to improve a lot," says Nicole. "There's just not a lot of girls. The only reason there's a lot of girls here tonight is because it's the final night... A lot of the girls go to a lot of the gay guy clubs because the gay guy clubs are always packed. The girls' nightlife is always struggling in every city, even New York City. I was there last weekend."

Kristen Porter, a promoter who ended her long-running Dyke Night Thursday event at Jamaica Plain's Midway last year, agrees with McGurr that the lesbian nesting phenomenon keeps the scene small, but she also blamed lack of ownership.

"One big difference is that unlike many gay male establishments, the lesbian bars are not owned by lesbians, simply produced or promoted by the lesbians," Porter writes in an e-mail. "This makes all lesbian nights therefore more vulnerable to change."

Porter continues to produce occasional Dyke Night events, but she has praise for a few of the other promoters working in the city. In addition to McGurr, she likes DJ Susan Esthera's new gay hip-hop night at Club Embassy on Landsdowne Street, Gunner Scott's Butch Dyke Boy Productions, which organizes gender-queer events, and the Midway, which has attempted to fill Dyke Night's shoes with a Thursday karaoke night.

For those seeking something outside the traditional gay and lesbian scenes, there are few options. Aliza Shapiro's Truth Serum Productions, currently holding court at Jacques Cabaret, puts on a regular series of events that aim to appeal to both the LGBT and straight crowds looking for something a little more underground and a little less cookie-cutter. Until last October, Shapiro organized GlitterSwitch Drag King Karaoke, a monthly night at Club Hollywood that featured a mix of professional drag king shows and eager karaoke enthusiasts putting on a show so joyfully chaotic and subversive it would make John Waters proud.

Currently Shapiro is putting on TraniWreck, a monthly variety show featuring a trans boy poet, a baton twirler, and Shapiro herself in her drag alter ego, Heywood Wakefield, among a cast of queer and straight folk of all stripes. On Feb. 21 Shapiro and the TraniWreck cast will launch their second monthly show, Wreckage, which is basically TraniWreck meets American Idol with contestants drawn from the audience.

Shapiro says she's been depressed in the past that folks in the community who complain about the stale night life haven't sought out more adventurous fare like Truth Serum's shows. She also says she wishes more venues would draw a mixed crowd of all genders, and so far TraniWreck is doing just that.

"I'm really happy to be at Jacques because I'm seeing a better mix there than I have in other places of late," said Shapiro.

Necessity is the mother of reinvention

As far as a prescription for Boston's ailing nightlife, Masters points to the success of Ramrod/Machine, a Fenway club that has changed over the years to keep people pouring in. Upstairs Ramrod plays host to Boston's gay leather scene, while downstairs Machine is a dance club that hosts Latin nights, drag shows, karaoke competitions, and the occasional Ryan Landry theatrical production.

Masters said back in the '80s and '90s Ramrod/Machine drew mostly an older crowd, with the younger set stopping in only to play pool. By changing and broadening their programming, he said they've managed to attract a larger, more diverse clientele.

"I can't stress the importance of change - the club crowd has a short attention span, so it's imperative to mix it up as often as possible," writes Masters. "Now [Ramrod/Machine] gets as diverse a crowd as anyone - because they reinvented themselves," said Masters.

Ethan Jacobs is a staff writer at Bay Windows. His e-mail address is ejacobs@baywindows.com.

Comments, criticism or praise regarding this article or writer -- or just about any other subject of interest to the lesbian and gay community -- are always welcome.

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Will the recent spate of court decisions ruling against gay marriage elsewhere in the country have any impact on Massachusetts?
Not sure.

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