Gay Old Time
Laguna's once thriving subculture strives to stay relevant as times change
It was bingo night at Main Street Bar & Cabaret, Laguna Beach’s last gay club. Techno music chugged; strobe lights blinked. The game’s caller – a redhead drag queen named Endora – fussed softly over the prizes, like an ikebana master arranging her flowers. But half an hour past the scheduled start time, patrons had yet to arrive. Endora sat at the bar and ordered a cocktail.
In walked Craig Cooley, the bar manager for more than a year. “Where is everybody?” he asked, collapsing on a stool next to Endora. As usual, he seemed out of breath. Little wonder.
Gay bars around the nation have been disappearing, a trend attributed to greater social acceptance of gays, changing economic forces and evolving technology. Laguna Beach, in particular, has had many obituaries written for its once-thriving gay scene. Iconic establishments closed. Skyrocketing real estate prices have kept young gays out of the city and led a number of established gay residents to cash out and move to other cities, such as Palm Springs.
Against such odds, Cooley has made it his mission to revive this tiny dive bar off Coast Highway. He removed the privacy blinds on the windows. Pulled up the carpet coated in decades of spilled drinks. Installed a new sound system. Brought back dancing, karaoke and drag queen bingo nights.
All that hustling to breathe life into Main Street may have been the easy part. Now Cooley has to see whether these improvements will pay off – whether gays still want a place to call their own. Whether a tiny gay bar in Laguna Beach can still thrive.
The empty room on bingo night didn’t augur well. But that night, Cooley said he would be patient. “It’s early,” he said. “You never know who’s going to walk through the door.”
• • •
Laguna Beach was once spoken of in the same breath as West Hollywood, Fire Island and Provincetown, if a miniature version of those more famous gay enclaves. The West Street Beach was – and still is – renowned among gay vacationers. Within walking distance of the spot was a one-block district that boasted a handful of gay bars and restaurants – Little Shrimp (which later became Woody’s); Coast Inn, which housed the legendary Boom Boom Room; and Main Street Bar & Cabaret, which also went by Bounce.
Though small, the scene was vibrant and just as much a part of quirky, laid-back Laguna Beach as art galleries and surfing. Bob Gentry, who served on the City Council from 1982 to 1994, was one of the first openly gay mayors in the country. This was made all the more remarkable by Orange County’s place as the cradle of conservatism in Southern California, the birthplace of President Richard Nixon and home to John Wayne.
Gentry says artists, Hollywood refugees and hippies helped cultivate Laguna Beach’s reputation as a funky, socially tolerant place. “They were all important shapers of that city as open, caring and creative,” he said.
Gay clubs, in Laguna and elsewhere, were both pick-up joints and havens. “They were the first common public spaces for the gay community,” said Lucas Hilderbrand, a UCI professor of film and media studies who has written about the gay rights movement. “They were understood as social institutions, and much of the foundational gay rights activism was about claiming and defending gay bars.”
Gentry recalled holding meetings on campaigns and anti-gay initiatives in some of Laguna Beach’s bars. “They kind of became the gay campaign headquarters for our lives,” Gentry said. For a time, the bars, too, marked places of mourning during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Laguna Beach had one of the highest incidence of the disease in the nation and lost hundreds of its residents. Pearl Jemison-Smith, the nurse who started Orange County’s first AIDS Walk, recalled leaving one memorial service for another, her sunglasses fogging up as she drove. “It hit Laguna. Man, it was a nightmare,” said Jemison-Smith, who lost a son to the disease. “There’s so much pain associated with that time.”
• • •
Perhaps the heyday of Laguna Beach’s gay scene was already long gone by the time the storied Boom Boom Room closed in 2007 after a Beverly Hills billionaire bought the Coast Inn with plans – never carried out – to turn it into an upscale boutique hotel. But for many, the closure of the Boom left a wound that symbolized the difficulty in keeping an unpretentious but beloved piece of their history as the city grew more pricey.
The hallmark of Laguna’s gay scene – its compactness, its intimacy – ended up a problem. It simply didn’t have the numbers. Within a year of the Boom closing, the owner of Woody’s sold his place and moved on to run restaurants in the desert. That left only Main Street.
Of course, an additional element sealed the Boom’s fate: The owners said business was way down.
John Wallace Benecke, a Laguna Beach interior designer, said growing social acceptance had already begun making gay clubs less necessary as a refuge – a trend that’s only grown as gay marriage has been legalized. He rarely goes to gay bars these days; his social circle is made of gay and straight friends.
Still, it’s hard not to feel wistful for the tightness of the community that once was. Laguna’s Little Shrimp was the first gay bar a college-age Benecke ever walked into.
“We’ve gotten what we wanted,” Benecke said. “It’s a blessing and a curse.”
• • •
Main Street has been a bar since the 1950s. Two women ran it in the early days when it was called Fleur de Lis. “I don’t know when it became gay,” Cooley said one afternoon before the bar opened. “Who’s to judge?”
Cooley, a 64-year-old Northern California native who now lives in San Juan Capistrano, moved to Orange County in 1998. He has held marketing jobs in the hotel industry and helped run a furniture showroom. More recently he did freelance marketing work.
Cooley has the laid-back vibe of a beachtown barkeep – untucked shirt, an unforced chattiness, an infectious sonic boom of a laugh. But his own life as a gay man hasn’t been easy – he believes he lost at least one job because of his sexuality – and he often found a sense of belonging in the gay clubs he frequented. So keeping Main Street alive became personal.
“I was determined this one little bar wasn’t going to go away,” he said. “So I offered to do a website for free.”
Wendy Nelson, whose ailing brother owns the bar, accepted Cooley’s offer – and asked if he’d manage the place too.
“We said, ‘OK, what are we going to be?” Cooley said. “And what we hit on was we need a variety of entertainment for a wide demographic.”
In other words, gay bars need some straight crowds to make it. Over the past year, he said, about one-third of Main Street’s crowds each night consist of straight couples or groups of female friends who want to dance.
“We’re never in the traditional sense a ‘gay bar’ anymore,” he said. “In the old days, you could just be a gay bar and you’d have a crowd. Now you have to have some value with it.”
• • •
A funny thing about those good old days of the gay bars: Many of them came and went. “Part of what’s changed is that so many bars have actually now lasted multiple decades,” Hilderbrand said. “I think we tend to think of businesses that close as failures, but oftentimes these were places that defined a generation or a period for their patrons.”
In a sense, Cooley wants Main Street to reflect the new period in gay history. He’s pinned its long-term success on the notion that gays no longer need to stand apart from their neighbors – and neither do gay establishments. Cooley spent much of his adulthood sneaking into the alley entrances of darkened clubs. Things are different now.
“We want to be part of the fabric of the bigger community of Laguna Beach. We want to add something that is fun, nostalgic, a bit crazy, kind of let your hair down,” he said. “While we’ve been accepted into the larger community. I feel it’s important for us to be as accepting of everyone else. And for a while it wasn’t that way.”
Still, how do you solve a problem – or a blessing – like technology? Social media apps allows people to meet online rather than having to go to a bar or public place. Many an elegy has been written about what this new reality has done to all communities: that we can make contact, but we no longer connect.
One recent night at Main Street, a patron held up his smartphone when asked about the state of gay bars. “This is what’s killing them,” he said, holding up a social media site that gay people use to get in touch with one another.
Hilderbrand, the UCI professor, isn’t quite so fatalistic. “Although younger people may feel more integrated into mainstream culture, my students still feel a sense of discovery in going to gay clubs that cannot be replicated in other ways,” he said. “There may be more ways to meet people, but apps and the Internet cannot replace dancing in a crowd.”
For some, this is precisely why gay bars – or really any of what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg called “third places,” those informal gathering spots outside of work and home – must endure.
Michael Liska said he sought out Main Street a few years ago when he moved to Orange County. Not because he was looking for love – he’s already in a relationship – but because he was looking to be among people who understand him. “Everyone here has a similar story,” he said.
• • •
Back to bingo night. Cooley had been meeting with a beer distributor all afternoon. He missed lunch, hadn’t eaten dinner and had walked into an empty bar. But he was game to discuss other ideas for the place. Main Street would hire good-looking “beer boys” for summer events. It would also build a float for the Long Beach gay pride parade, though that required first holding a fundraiser – maybe a parking lot yard sale?
“You’ve got a box of clothes to donate, don’t you?” he asked Endora.
“Oh, yes, and they’re good,” she said. “Stuff I haven’t shrunk into yet.”
A few customers had started to trickle in. After about an hour, an exhausted Cooley left for home. At 11 p.m., he used his smartphone to check the night’s receipts. He expected the worst. But the numbers looked unusually high for a Wednesday.
Worrying there was something wrong with the system, he logged into Main Street’s live video feed and saw his bartender, hustling to keep up with orders in a packed room. Cooley later learned a van from one of the hotels had dropped off dozens of guests looking to party.