Life partner Donald O’Shields (left) and Rick Wilds
Charlotte nightclub owner Rick Wilds passed away Oct. 9 after a hard-fought, nine-month battle with cancer. He was 50 years old. His life partner of 29 years, Donald O’Shields, 52, was by his side at the hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., when he died. The couple owned a vacation cottage in the Tampa Bay area and Wilds retreated there in early 2008 to undergo treatment for colon cancer.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 7, O’Shields says he went into Wilds’ bedroom at home and found him lying partially out of bed and unresponsive. Emergency services transported Wilds to the hospital, where he died without ever regaining consciousness. The official cause of death was listed as liver failure.
Wilds and O’Shields were the proprietors of Queen City nightspots Scorpio and Chasers. They purchased gay dance club Scorpio from original owners Oakie and Marion Tyson in 1989. Gay male strip bar Chasers was established in 1993. O’Shields told Q-Notes that Wilds was driven by an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit, even when the Charlotte native was still a youth.
“At 17, Rick was living in Myrtle Beach by himself, managing a Pizza Hut,” O’Shields says. “Then he opened his own restaurant there, The Barn Door Restaurant, in ’76 or ’77. He always had different businesses. He would work at the beach during the summer, then come back to Charlotte to work through the winter.”
The couple met during one of Wilds’ seasonal returns. “Dec. 31, 1979, New Year’ Eve — I was at The Odyssey and I saw him standing there,” O’Shields recalls. “He was wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and was missing a tooth (laughs). They called for the last song and I decided to go over and ask him to dance. He kinda looked at me funny and said, ‘Maybe next song.’ I said, ‘This is the last song,’ and he said, ‘Oh, okay.’”
The men went home together that night and were inseparable thereafter. Wilds, who was working at a gas station, moved into the apartment of O’Shields, who was employed with UPS. “They threw us out because they didn’t like queers,” says O’Shields. “We didn’t care; we wanted out of that apartment anyway but I had a lease.”
In the ensuing years the couple lived in Huntersville, Pineville and back again in Charlotte. They were apart for two years while O’Shields served in the U.S. Army.
Through the first half of the ’80s, Wilds worked his way from clerk to manager to owner of Joy Adult Bookstore, an adult establishment that was the precursor to today’s Independence News in Plaza-Midwood. O’Shields says the store’s original owners sold out to avoid the war on pornography sweeping across Reagan-era America. Their instincts were correct.
In March 1986, Wilds and a Joy clerk were arrested and charged with two counts of disseminating obscenity under the tough North Carolina anti-pornography law passed the previous year. The measure had already been used to prosecute workers and shutter approximately two-dozen adult businesses across the state.
The arrests at Joy were in connection with the sale of two short, sexually-explicit films, one depicting gay sex and the other a straight threesome. Wilds refused to accept a plea bargain for a suspended sentence and opted for a trial by jury. The first proceeding ended in a mistrial in November. However, at the close of the second trial in February 1987, Wilds was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison and fined $3,000.
Longtime LGBT activist Don King was a reporter at The Charlotte Observer at the time. He didn’t write about the case, but like many in the queer community, he followed it closely.
“Rick felt an unfairness and sensed it and felt that gay men were being targeted,” King says. “He stood up against that. Rather than knuckle under to the pressure, Rick simply said no and he suffered the consequences for it. He was charged, found guilty and went to jail.
“I didn’t know Rick, but if the rest of his life was based on the kind of conviction he demonstrated in this situation, he must have been a rather remarkable person. He became one of my heroes in Charlotte because he was willing to do that and take a stand on his convictions.”
Wilds’ probation terms included a prohibition against involvement with pornography so he sold Joy bookstore. Meanwhile, O’Shields’ bartending job at Scorpio, which he had held for a few years by that time, gave the couple the inside track when the Tyson’s decided to sell their legendary nightspot and slow down. In 1989, after nearly 21 years of operation, Scorpio was bought by Wilds and O’Shields.
Outside of remodeling the building, probably the most significant change Wilds made to Scorpio over the subsequent years was positioning it among the leading drag venues in the Southeast.
In the mid-’90s, Rick purchased the North Carolina franchise for the Miss Gay America contest and brought it to Charlotte from its longtime home in Durham. In 1997 and 1998, he brought the national Miss Gay America pageant to the Queen City. After a few years under another owner, the state pageant was reclaimed by Wilds earlier this year.
Q-Notes’ columnist Kevin Grooms (“Miss Della”) remembers that “Rick was always quick to tell you that he didn’t know all that much about female impersonation, but he knew what he liked. And as long as you could entertain the crowd, he would definitely have you in his club.”
Wilds’ affection for his stable of entertainers — Kerri Nichols, Tracy Morgan, Brooklyn Dior, Tiffany Storm and scores more — seemed to run counter to his gruff exterior and notorious temper. However, O’Shields says that while his former partner inarguably had a short fuse, he was basically just a no-nonsense guy with a great deal of passion.
“He didn’t take no bull from anybody, including me,” O’Shields remarks. “But he was more than fair with people.”
At the memorial service for Wilds held at Scorpio on Oct. 25, several bar employees joked about the number of times they had quit or been fired from the club. They fondly observed that somehow they always wound up working for Wilds again before long.
Greg Brafford, the former manager of Oleen’s and the owner of The Woodshed, was a longtime friend of Wilds. He told Q-Notes that there was another side to the man that many didn’t see.
“Rick had a wicked sense of humor, and I mean wicked,” Brafford shares. “He loved to play jokes on people and he could make me laugh until I cried with his stories. Some people didn’t get his sense of humor; they thought he was mean. But a lot of times he was just joking with them. I always loved to sit around and have a drink with Rick and talk. He and I never had an argument.”
Q-Notes Publisher Jim Yarbrough adds that one of Wilds’ best traits was his penchant for philanthropy, something that few recognize about him since he didn’t seek the spotlight for his charitable giving.
“There aren’t many people who realize just how much money Rick gave to the Charlotte LGBT community over the years behind the scenes,” Yarbrough reveals. “His favorite charity was by far House of Mercy. He did many fundraisers and gave thousands of dollars to help them house people with AIDS. He raised thousands of dollars for PFLAG and, in the ’80s, Queen City Quordinators, an umbrella organization that raised funds for other LGBT groups.
“Rick and Scorpio were the largest individual and club donors to Pride events in the state. In 1994, Rick gave N.C. Pride, held in Charlotte that year, $5,000. In 2006, he gave Pride Charlotte $7,500, then was the Presenting Sponsor of Pride Charlotte 2007 with $10,000. On top of that, Rick arranged for the queens, always a crowd favorite, to entertain at no cost to Pride.
“On a more personal level, Rick quietly helped New Life MCC with their legal expenses when their homophobic neighbors were trying to force them off the property they had purchased in Matthews. Rick paid for people’s funerals, put others through rehab and helped several local entrepreneurs establish their businesses.
“Rick was one of those people that you either loved or you hated,” Yarbrough concludes. “But either way, once you got to know him you couldn’t help but respect him because he loved this community so dearly.”
Asked about Wilds’ legacy, O’Shields says wistfully, “Rick always wanted Scorpio to be a place where gay people could come together and feel safe and have a good time. Somewhere where everything was modern and nice, with the latest lights and sound. That was his goal and dream. The bar will be Rick’s legacy.”
Scorpio marked its 40th anniversary two weeks after Wilds’ passing.
— Matt Comer provided research assistance for this story.
Correction: In the Nov. 15 print edition Assoc. Editor David Stout’s name was accidentally left off this story.