Gay bars and Clubs: A Look at Charlotte’s History

Taking a Journey Back to the Bar Scene in the Queen City

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As a young gay man in Charlotte of the 1980s, I managed to snag a fake ID that was realistic enough to convince bar owners I was five years older than I actually was. The fact that I was over six feet tall came in handy, too. There’s something about height that implies age.

Beginning at the age of 16, I was able to gain entree into a number of Charlotte’s gay bars.

My first experience came at a center city nightspot known as The Odyssey, At the time it was located at the corner of Morehead and Tryon Sts. in what had previously been a restaurant and its regional corporate headquarters.

It wasn’t all that large, really, but sizable enough to offer three separate bars and a dance floor. Downstairs was another gay bar known as the Brass Rail.

Standing outside and waiting in a line to the stairs that took you to where The Odyssey was, I heard other young gay men referring to the Brass Rail as “The Wrinkle Room,” indicating it was a place where mostly older gays congregated. Even then I thought their assessment seemed crass and flippant, but I was initially so nervous I just stood in the line quietly.

I can still recall making my way past a doorman and into the main dance and social area.

I watched as mostly young gay men and a handful of lesbian couples, mixed in with a smattering of drag queens, danced without care to a popular song by openly gay and cross-dressing disco artist Sylvester.

When we’re out there dancin’ on that floor, darlin’
And I feel like I need some more
And I feel your body close to mine
And I know, my love
It’s about that time
Make me feel, mighty real
Make me feel, mighty real
Yooooooooo make me feel, mighty real
Yooooooooo make me feel, mighty real

Lights flashed, clouds from dry ice created faux smoke that filled the room and the happiness of perceived freedom was palpable. It was a magical moment. I felt I had come home.

— David Aaron Moore

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The history of oppressed people is always fragmentary. It often goes undocumented for fear of unintentionally providing oppressors with information that could lead to unwanted trouble for those suffering under irrational scrutiny and harassment.

Such is the case for much of Charlotte’s LGBTQ history prior to the 1980s.

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Tens of thousands of gay, lesbian and transgender individuals around the country who came out at a young age in the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties have their own unique experiences — each defined by their own personal life journey, location and time period.

Here’s a look back at what qnotes was able to uncover about Charlotte’s LGBTQ bar history.

It is by no means complete, but through research and conversation, we’ve been able to reconstruct some of that past. qnotes welcomes additional information and shared stories in the comments section online.

While there was mention of a Charlotte “homosexual hotspot” found in the pages of a True Crime magazine dating back to the 1950s, very little is known about the community’s nightlife culture of that time. There has also been talk of a lesbian bar dating back to that same period, reportedly located on Wilkinson Blvd., though confirmation and details have yet to be uncovered.

The first concrete evidence of social night clubs for gays and lesbians dates back to the 1960s with the opening of Oleens and the Scorpio Lounge on South Blvd., reportedly within months of each other. Oleens was reportedly a former service station and auto repair shop.

Brafford became part-owner of the iconic Oleens in 1984 and went on to open a second Brass Rail in 1985 in West Charlotte after the original downtown bar closed.

Not one to overlook the growing gay population in the Plaza-Midwood area, he opened Central Station in 1998 after closing Oleens. Later came The Woodshed in 2001, when the city forced the bar out to redevelop the property. That allowed him to capture patronage from the city as a whole and the surrounding metro area simply by virtue of its location: less than a few hundred feet from Interstate Highway 85. It also had the distinctive history of being a former residence turned barbecue restaurant (previously owned and operated by Charlotte’s late drag legend Boom Boom Latour). The Woodshed continues to operate today,

But back to Oleens: it was a popular destination for gay men, lesbians and transgender individuals. In fact, it became one of the city’s most popular drag bars, and remained so for several years. The club closed its doors in 1997 after nearly 30 years in the business. The building still stands and is now a Dunkin’ Donuts.

The Scorpio Lounge, as it was known at the time, was also popular among the same crowd, though it eventually moved to Freedom Dr. for a larger space in then-brand new digs. Now known simply as Scorpio, the club continues to operate at that same location after more than 50 years in the business. While it still identifies as a gay-specific nightspot, in recent years it has become increasingly popular with an accepting straight crowd, too.

Throughout the ‘70s multiple clubs came and went, among them Nikki’s Express (previously located in a long-since demolished building that once stood at the corner of Morehead St. and Kings Dr.) and 20th Century Fox, located in Center City.

The Odyssey began its life at some point in the late 1970s at the corner of Morehead and Tryon Sts. It later moved to a location on The Plaza at Eastway Dr., where it boasted drag performances, a massive dance floor that included faux snow, rain and fog machines, as well as dancer cages. It thrived throughout the first half of the ‘80s attracting a fashionable LGBTQ crowd, curious straight visitors looking to trip the light fantastic and a bevy of media attention for performers like Cher impersonator Kelly Allman and transgender show host Johanna Reis (later Vegas showgirl Johanna Steele).

Oleens brought people in to see drag shows and enjoy the laid back atmosphere. (Photo Credit: Staff Archives)

After its closing later in the decade, another club came along to take its place: City Nights.

City Nights was as much a groundbreaker as The Odyssey had been and brought in the city’s gay club elite en masse.

It took up residence in the old Visulite Theater on Elizabeth Ave., across the street from what was then known as Presbyterian Hospital. It wowed the crowds with a sophisticated dance floor and imported guest DJs. After just a few short years, it abruptly closed, with the owners ripping out the expensive light and sound system on their way out.

The full story about its demise remains a mystery, as does the fly-by-night relocation of its owners. They were never seen or heard from again and reportedly left behind a massive debt, as well as extensive damage to the building.

In conversation, Brafford has acknowledged there was, on occasion, criminal elements involved in both the city’s gay and straight club scenes.

Among the most sensational criminal incidents in LGBTQ bar history were the Scorpio fires. The first took place during the late 1970s and closed the club for more than a year. It is thought the fire was set by criminal elements seeking protection racket money to keep the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police at bay. Scorpio was only one of several clubs burned (the others were all straight) throughout a multi-year period during the last half of the 1970s.

The second fire took place during the mid-1980s.

After the closing of The Odyssey, another new club opened at the corner of Freedom Dr. and Morehead St. called Charades.

At the time it, along with City Nights, pulled crowds away from Scorpio in droves and was a huge sensation. However, that only lasted for a brief time. Charades owners realized that Scorpio was reclaiming its clientele, so they hatched the plan to put an end to the club’s returning success.

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Set in the early morning hours of a night when the business was closed, the damage from the second fire once again resulted in the closing of the club, leaving very little in the form of a dance club for the LGBTQ community to congregate at on the westside other than Charades.

Although details on how the determination was made are unclear, two owners and one employee of Charades were arrested, charged and convicted with setting the fire. Eventually, all of them spent time in prison.

Needless to say, by decade’s end, Charades quickly faded into history and Scorpio had reopened.

As the bars battled it out in Charlotte, The Hide-A-Way in Rock Hill, S.C. was getting the late-night business. Tucked away in the woods off the beaten path The Hide-A-Way was and still is a great laid back getaway.

The 1990s ushered in a completely different era for Charlotte’s gay bars. The city saw a trend begin to develop that had already taken place in cities like Atlanta and New York: the mixed club. Pterodactyl, Mythos, Park Elevator and Tonic were among many clubs that urged a co-mingling of both gay and straight.

Often referred to as cool clubs, fashion clubs and places to see and be seen, straight and gay generally dressed in their best alterna-clothing and engaged in intellectual conversation, casual dancing, creative networking and never-ending attempts to out-fabulous each other. That’s not to say there wasn’t an atmosphere of sexuality or flirtation, it simply wasn’t as prevalent as what one might find in a standard gay club. Some of these clubs survived well into the first decade of the 2000s, though all have since closed.

Also opened in the 1990s were The Charlotte Eagle and Illusions. The Charlotte Eagle modeled after the Atlanta Eagle and the D.C. Eagle was a leather/fetish bar complete with a leather store and barbershop. It closed around 2009 or 2010 and the location is now home to Sidelines and Bar Argon.

Illusions, located on South Blvd. not far from South End, was a drag and dance bar that was opened for several years.

There were still additions to the gay-specific club scene during that era that were tremendously successful, like Stonewall, which took over a building that was previously an Asian restaurant. Before its demolition, it was located in the lot next to the Westin Hotel in Center City Charlotte. Its unique early 1970s architecture blended with a hint of Pagoda made the two-story building the perfect downtown dance club and a go-to attraction for both straight and gay, even though the owners made it clear it was gay territory. The same goes for another gay-specific club popular during the 1990s known as Genesis. It boasted several years of a successful run, as well. Both closed down near the turn of the 21st  century.

It’s important to note that Charlotte boasted three lesbian-specific clubs during this same time. Garbo’s was opened by members of the band Doubting Thomas. Hartigan’s was an on-again, off-again straight, gay and lesbian club, but spent most of its thriving years as a popular destination in town for Charlotte’s lesbian crowd. L4 was in a small building on Central Ave. easts of the Plaza-Midwood neighborhood. Now there is Hattie’s Tap & Tavern on The Plaza.

One bar has sustained an LGBTQ customer base over decades with a few name changes. First it was a bar/restaurant named Amanda Rose, then Steven’s, Liaisons and now the popular Bar at 316. Another bar of note is Chaser’s. Opened as a male strip bar in 1991, it is still going strong. However, because of zoning laws, the strippers are a bit more tame.

While there were only a few complaints of racism at Charlotte gay bars (one at Scorpio in the early 1990s), it is clear that the city’s black gay population did not tend to frequent most of the mainstream gay bars.

“It wasn’t that I was made to feel unwelcome,” recalls Larry Sanders, an African-American gay male native to Charlotte.

“I just didn’t usually care too much for the music,” he laughs. “It was too…white.”

Sanders and many of his friends got their first taste of a gay club directed at a black clientele with Club Mixx, located at the corner of Wilkinson Blvd. and Morehead St., later moving to S. Tryon St. near Clanton Rd. While it remained active for a number of years, it soon closed, leaving a vacuum that would not be filled until the opening of The Nickel Bar in Charlotte’s West End in 2009.

With the closing of The Nickel Bar earlier this year, owner Milton Howard has since opened Jewels on Beatties Ford Rd., less than 10 minutes away from Northlake Mall. Like The Nickel Bar, he wants the environment to be inclusive of everyone who wants to come.

Although detailed history may be lacking, many club names continue to linger on the tip of gay history’s lips.

What was once known as TAGS later became Manford’s and then Masquerade before closing. Other names like Dax, Cell Block, Closet, the Crystal Room, Cathode Azure, The Golden Cock, Road House, Spike’s, Twist and Shout, Marigny and Velocity are all a part of Charlotte’s gay nightlife history, though they are no longer with us.

Currently opened now are: Bar at 316, Chaser’s, Petra’s, The Scorpio, Sidelines, The Woodshed, Hattie’s Tap & Tavern, Bar Argon and The Hide-A-Way.

While the Internet, cruising and dating apps, marriage equality and the largely positive attitude Americans now maintain toward LGBTQ citizens, it left many smaller towns and cities without a traditional LGBTQ watering hole. The bars and clubs that remain will keep doing what they always have: weathering storms and adapting to the changing face of the queer community in order to remain a place for congregation, family and solace.

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3 Replies to “Gay bars and Clubs: A Look at Charlotte’s History”

  1. Gosh I so much Miss the 80s and all the great bars great times and great friends I made wish I could find them all again

    Reply

  2. Petra’s is not a gay bar …and hasn’t been for years.

    Reply

    1. We still consider it among our family of bars. It had its roots in our community.

      Reply

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