Sunday, January 22, 2012

Famous little Texas gay bar closes, sparking final episode of 'As the Lake Churns'; charity shows to be missed

CEDAR CREEK LAKE, TEXAS – For 15 years Friends was the little gay bar that stood out proudly in the most unlikely of settings, but it came to a sad end just before Christmas.

Friends owner Leo Bartlett sent out a message on Facebook Dec. 20 saying he was closing the iconic gay bar, and he never unlocked the doors for business again. Situated in the middle of one of the most conservative areas of the state, the humble little private club had featured charity drag shows and raised many tens of thousands of dollars benefiting homeless animals, the elderly, the poor and HIV patients for years.

Known not only throughout Texas but literally around the world, Friends often saw visitors dropping from far away who had read or heard about the bar. Reporters for major mainstream U.S. newspapers like the Washington Post contacted the bar’s management for comments on LGBT issues. In 2007 Out Magazine named it one of the top 50 gay bars in the world, saying the atmosphere was the friendliest in the state, the fish tank was filled with well water and the drag queens’ hairdos tended to be big, much like they were.

In a clever complement to the drag shows a local theater group known as Friends Players put on variety shows that were well attended by the lake’s gay and straight community. The entire cast, including performers in full drag, traveled down the road to the American Legion Club a couple of times each year to put on performances for its members.

But now, the music, acting, dancing and laughing is just a memory for Bartlett, who opened the bar door late one afternoon this week to allow a few customers to retrieve several pieces of personal property. The walls that once were covered with pictures of bewigged drag queens wearing tiaras are now bare.

The bar’s closing and the chatter about it that followed could be viewed as the final episode of what Bartlett liked to call “As the Lake Churns” when he referred to the local LGBT community’s fondness of gossip and intrigue. The bar served as a stage not only for singing and dancing, but almost also daily emotional scenes that rivaled the most dramatic of afternoon television soap operas.

“It’s all over,” Bartlett said as he stood in the sunlight flowing through the open door into the dark bar. “I said my goodbyes on Facebook. It’s all there to read. I’ve thanked everyone. There’s really nothing else to say.”
Bartlett said sending out the Facebook message was painful for him, and he didn’t want to have one last party in the bar to mark its closing, although many former customers had hoped he would.

“It would just be a funeral for me,” said Bartlett, who noted the bar’s net revenue had been on the decline for about three years, just as it has with many other lake businesses. “I didn’t see any point in that. I’ve already said my goodbyes.”

Bartlett said economic conditions on the lake led to Friend’s closing, and he didn’t blame it on the competition from a new gay bar, Garlow’s, that opened nearby two years ago. He also disputed the popular opinion among some members of the lake’s LGBT community that there weren’t enough customers on the lake for two gay bars, and that the newer, more attractive Garlow’s had stolen his customers.

“There were enough customers,” Bartlett said. “There just wasn’t enough participation. If you talk to the owners of the straight bars, you will hear the same thing from them. Everybody is having trouble.”

The lake has a sizable full-time LGBT community made up of retirees, Dallas commuters, and natives, but many just don’t enjoy the bar scene. The gay and lesbian population increases greatly on weekends, holidays and during the summers when LGBT second-home owners are in residence, but many of them also prefer not to go out to the nightclubs.

This summer the drought that caused the lake to drop almost eight feet, leaving boat docks sitting in sand and beaches where water once stood, finished Friends off, Bartlett said. People avoided the lake, and that made all of the lake’s businesses suffer, resulting in several businesses shutting down in 2011, he said.

“It was time for me to close,” said Bartlett, who took on a featured role in the soap opera when he separated last year from his longtime life partner who had helped him run the bar. “It was 15 good years. That’s what is important.”

For many customers though, the closing has left a void, and some seem almost resentful about it. Many of Bartlett’s customers would not go to Garlow’s out of loyalty to Friends, but others who went to both bars are also disappointed. And some who didn’t go to Friends at all also expressed dismay.

Friends’ closing is a loss to the lake’s LGBT community, said Troy Luethe, who with his life partner, owns a bed and breakfast in nearby Ben Wheeler. The couple once participated in the Friends Players productions and visited it socially as well.

“I think it is sad,” Luethe said. “I never like to see a business fail, and it was part of the history of the area and held a lot of memories for me and others.”

For Jennie Morris, another former member of Friends Players, it is more personal. She also went there socially to meet with her friends.

“I feel like I lost a good friend, really, and one of my major connections to the community,” Morris said. “As a member of Friends Players it has left a pretty big hole there, too. Friends was my ‘Cheers,’ I guess,  a place where everybody knows your name. Friends was safe, comfortable, and like an old flannel shirt –just home.”

Several former customers of Friends declined to comment for the story, saying they had mixed emotions. Some people complained that Bartlett ran the bar too much like a nonprofit organization rather than a business, and blamed its closing on that.

Michael Slingerland, owner of Garlow’s said he was shocked when he first heard about Bartlett announcing the closing of Friends. Slingerland formerly worked part-time at Friends as a bartender before opening his own business, and it appears to be doing well.

“We’ve talked about it a lot here,” Slingerland said. “It’s really sad.”

Slingerland said he had always hoped for a cooperative effort between the two bars that would have helped both prosper, but that never happened.

“We could have helped each other out a lot,” said Slingerland, who had hoped for back and forth traffic between the two clubs.

Regardless of what factors led to the closing of Friends, it is now a reality that the bar is gone for good. Bartlett said that he has no plans to return to his native Arkansas, and that he is exploring options for his continued life in Texas.

“I’m thinking about a number of things,” said Bartlett, who acknowledged he had been a “hermit” since he announced the closing.

In the meantime Bartlett has listed the nightclub building for sale or lease with a gay Cedar Creek Lake real estate agent. The ad might run something like this: “Little private club with an unusually intriguing past available for new operator and members.”

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