Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Faces in My Mind

First, we welcome all responses to our survey. We disagree with some..we love others, and many have confused us but we thank you for taking the time to complete the survey. Some of the comments on the survey border on personal attacks..some seem to have their own agendas..and some seem to remember some bar other then Faces.
When I first went to kindergarten, I thought my school was immense..it was so big I was afraid I would get lost..time passed and my junior high (now called middle school) was huge with moving walls and a modern look like Mexico circa 1965 (you know what I mean if you ever took Spanish and used an older text book that included pictures of Mexican buildings). When I finally reached high school, it's three stories, multiple gyms and locker rooms and it's several thousand students made my first grade school seem like a one room school house. The things I remember..my perceptions at the time, were all subjective...all the result of my own life experiences and my own "mind's eye".
The Faces that I remember, the one I used to patronize as a customer 4-5 nights a week, the one I bought 14 years ago, the one I owned and operated, does not seem to be the same Faces that some of our online survey respondents are remembering and commenting on.
I felt comfortable at the Faces that I drank at. There was no judgement about who you were, what you looked like, how old you were...everyone was welcome.
The Faces that I used to drink at was empty most of the time. My weeknights at Faces were usually spent with 5-10 of the same customers...we all knew each other...we knew the bartender (usually Rosee or Danny) and we knew the bar was on it's last legs. The cabaret had closed long ago, the main floor was only open on Saturday night and was even empty at midnight on New Year's Eve. There was a competing gay bar a block away that seemed to be on the verge of forcing Faces to close. Liquor laws had changed in St. Louis. Bars in St. Louis used to have to close by 1:30 AM on weeknights and close at midnight on Sunday (if they served food, other wise they had to close on Sunday). First, there was only one gay bar in St. Louis allowed to get a 3 AM license...a bar next to Union Stations that occupied the two stories of what is now a hotel. Before the laws changed, Faces was truly a melting pot, gays and straights together. As the St. Louis laws changed, more bars got 3 AM licenses, and Faces crowd started to thin out. At the same time, our community was decimated by the AIDS epidemic. We lost thousands of friends, family, lovers, and wonderful customers. As Faces struggled to find it's place, the original owner/creator of Faces, Jerry Edwards came back. He took the bar back from Harry and Jim, who had been running it for years and he tried to save it. He kept the doors open, installed a new AC unit for the dance floor, and sought out Petrina Marie. He asked her to come back to work at Faces. I had watched all this from a customer's point of view. I knew the end was near, I loved the bar..I guess I saw the potential of the bar, so I started talking to the owner. I told him I was interested in buying the bar. He ignored me for several months as he tried to bring back the magic. By fall of that year, he grew tired of the fight and wanted to move back to Florida. He made me an offer and I bought the bar.
The bar that I bought was on the verge of closing. To quote Jerry (the former owner) you could roll a bowling ball across the dance floor at anytime on a Saturday night and not hit a customer. I feel the need to repeat this..the Faces I bought was on the verge of closing. Had I not worked full time as a theatre manager, working 8-10 hours in a theatre then spending the night working at the bar, I would not have made it until my first NYE..it was that bad. I used my experience in marketing movies, combined with my own instincts as a customer. My goal was to keep the melting pot part of Faces..to make everyone feel welcome..and to try to make Faces like a gay amusement park with as many rides as possible. I wanted to give people a reason to come over and reasons to stay. I calculated that if a customer didn't like one of our "rides", that the would like something else. I knew that our customers were diverse..old, young..pretty, plain, rich, and poor..I knew from my own experience that some of our customers hated drag..hated the idea of men dressing up as women...but I also knew that drag queens were an integral part of our community...they raised the money for AIDS before it was "in" to do it..they were on the front lines of fight for gay rights..So, I met with Petrina and told her that I wanted the best drag show in town. I told her that I wanted all the best queens, that I wanted production numbers..that I wanted a real show. We delivered that show. I installed new AC units for the cabaret my first year because for years, the cabaret closed all summer due to broken AC.
I knew that we had to offer more then drag, so I started scanning gay magazines and newspapers for gay entertainment. I booked gay comedians (Advocate Magazine's Gay Comedy Jam), I booked porn stars, I booked male dance revues, I booked by puppeteers, I booked recording artists. We hosted show tune nights before Loading Zone or Freddie's. We hosted huge Oscar parties before anyone else did. We delivered a cutting edge gay club experience to St. Louis. i poured every dime the bar made back into the business. We struggled to compete with the gay bar around the corner. That bar went through three sets of experienced club owners but we were still able to survive.
The Faces of my mind was hard to turn around but we did it. We went from handfuls of customers on Saturday night to 600-700 on an average Saturday..I need to stress this again..we went from near zero to 600-700 on a Saturday under my ownership..under my management. We managed this despite having a competing gay bar a block away. We did it despite being in East St. Louis.
Even as we achieved great success on Saturday, we still struggled with an empty bar on weeknights. We tried drag shows with older queens (the late Tracy hosted Tuesday and Thursday nights), we tried country line dancing lessons on Wednesdays, we tried show tunes on Mondays, we tried NTN on line trivia games, we tried Direct TV sports, we tired older DJs in the basement, we tried a piano bar in the basement, we tried karaoke on Sundays, we opened one of St. Louis' first martini bars with lounge/martini music, we tried strippers on weeknights, we tried 25 cent rail drinks, yet we could not attract a weeknight crowd. Petrina used to host Sunday drag shows in the cabaret and would perform for a handful of people every week. Our success on Saturdays basically paid for the losses on the rest of the week. Finally, we tried making Sundays 18+..We were the first gay bar to welcome 18+ customers and it was an immediate success. We went from 25-50 people on a Sunday to several hundred but we also experienced backlash and complaints from our over 30 year old customers. It seemed odd to me..I was there nearly every night...I never saw these adult customers on Sunday before we were 18+ but they still complained about it and claimed that it was why they didn't come on Sunday...it might be part of growing older..some don't like being around younger people because it makes then feel old..but honestly, the same kind of complaints come from the 18 year olds who don't like to be around older people..it always seemed sort of silly to me..the minors paid a higher cover, helping to pay for the entertainment, and they brought a level of energy to bar that we only saw on a packed Saturday...they seemed to enjoy the shows more then our older customers, they came early and left before 3 AM so most of our adult customers barely saw the minors..there were very few problems with our minor customers other then the complaints about them being there. I remodeled the basement several times because the rings (sales) were never as high as the rest of the building..in one of it's incarnations, I tried to use 1960 pop culture and comic books as inspiration...painting the walls, floors, and ceiling in "SuperMan" colors, we covered the walls with posters, art, and autogrpahs from superheroes of the 60s...trying to convey the fun and homoeroticism of superherores. The resaction was a immediate..our older customers, who had in fact grown up on these comic book icons, were certain that I was caterng to the "twinks"..that I was ruinning the bar with decor aimed at our18 year old customers...usually when I explained it, many of them "got it"..that the art work was aimed at them and thier childhoods, not our 18 year olds (since they weren't allowed down there in the first place). Every change we made was because the basement was usually the least profitable part of the building but changes were percieved as some sort of desecration of a shrine.
More baffling to me has been the response from older customers to women. When I bought the bar, there was a urinal in the middle of the basement. The urinal was there so that women could be denied access to the basement. It seemed like one of the Faces traditions that was funnier then it was serious but it always created problems. Male customers would leave female friends alone upstairs while they went to the basement. It was rude and something between them, but it always ended in a drama of the girls trying to find their friends or trying to sneak in the basement, or crying upstairs because they were left alone. I built a new "in between" bar in the basement..the martini bar with food, and some seating so girls could stay and wait for their friends. It was successful but it still seemed out of touch with today's world. I felt that gay bars should not discriminate against our own and finally tore the wall down that separated the bars in the basement. There were complaints but the sales for both bars increased after we tore the wall down. There were probably never more then 5 females who wanted to go in the basement and they drank, spent money, played pool, and didn't cause any problems. I find it sad that there are still people who can't get past that..who really seem to hate women or maybe feel embarrassed by their own sexuality who think a gay business should cater to their prejudices. Where do we draw the line..when does the Faces that I love, the Faces that welcomes everyone start to discriminate...
So, the Faces in my mind is not the same Faces that some of our customers remember. They remember a bar that was packed every night before I bought it..they remember lower covers and drink prices and more fun before I bought the bar..they remember better music and no women before I bought the bar..they remember better drag shows before I bought the bar...and they remember Faces being less sleazy and sexual before I bought the bar...In my mind, I was there..I paid the bills, I placed the ads, I booked the entertainment, and I created the concept...I made the decisions that kept the bar open and turned it around. I would love to own the bar that these people remember. It sounds like it was a lot of fun. I am willing to take the blame for every decision I made in the last 14 years old as long as we can agree that some of those decisions are responsible for keeping Faces open, turning it around, and delivering more then any other gay bar in St. Louis has to our community.