MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Gay-popular entertainment districts are almost always found in major metropolitan areas, but there’s a smattering of clubs and restaurants in the close-by regions of Maryland’s Cumberland Valley and West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle that are drawing decent-sized crowds despite being more than an hour from either Washington or Baltimore.
For decades, The Lodge in Boonsboro, Md., has been pretty much the only gay nightclub in the region. Formerly known as Deer Park Lodge and at times closed altogether, it’s been thriving again under new management since 2011 when partners Ryan Dryden and Joe Velazquez moved from Washington to reopen and run it.
Since January, it’s faced some competition as The Club (theclubwv.com), a new gay bar/club in Martinsburg, W.Va.’s Spring Mills area (about 21 miles from The Lodge), took over a large spot formerly known as straight bars Ambitions and before that, Gatsby’s. Owner Coby Myers, a gay sheriff in West Virginia, has his gay friends Jarvis Jerry Brooks and Dale Gish running the operation. They say, so far, business has been good and that they’re carving out a niche for themselves in the region by offering strong customer service, a “family”-type atmosphere and a clean and newly remodeled space. It’s about 80 miles from Dupont Circle.
“A lot of people feel it’s just easier to get instant gratification now on the Internet,” says Brooks, who DJs at The Club in addition to booking talent and planning events. “I think my thing is just that a lot of clubs have forgotten the whole aspect of a family feel, where everybody knows your name and there’s a home bar feel to it. You’re not just a number, you’re not just a door cover, there’s more to it than that.”
But can it last? Are there enough LGBT residents in these parts of Maryland and West Virginia to support two small-town gay clubs? A few others have come and gone in recent years. The Mariner Club, locals say, had a decent run for a few years on Martinsburg’s Winchester Ave. It was across the street from Sugar Daddy’s, a male strip club that, although not technically gay, had gay strippers and more gay male patrons than straight women. But both are now closed.
And more recently Spin/Club Underground, which was in downtown Hagerstown just a few doors down from the historic Maryland Theatre, died a relatively quick death after being open less than a year. Brooks, who DJed at the gay club (his DJ name is Jerrbear), says business was “hit and miss.”
Those involved say they see a brighter future for The Club.
“For one thing, it’s not mismanaged,” says Ray Stagner, a drag queen who performs as Cheyenne and who debuted at The Club last Saturday night.
Wearing full drag makeup but dressed in a ball cap, jeans and guy’s T-shirt while puffing on a cigarette in The Club’s downstairs smoking-allowed pool room, Stagner, a Hagerstown resident, says gays and drag performers in the region will support both The Club and The Lodge. Because of liquor laws, The Club can stay open an hour later (until 3 a.m.) on Saturday nights whereas the Lodge closes at 2.
“I think it’s great,” Stagner says. “If people want to go here one night they can, or they may do like we used to do in the old days. As soon as they called last call at Deer Park, we used to bail from Hagerstown and come down here to Gatsby’s once they closed the bars in Hagerstown.”
Last Saturday night at about 10 p.m., The Club had a healthy crowd though it wasn’t packed. The space is mammoth — there’s a large dance area, stage, bar, tables, seating area, downstairs pool room, kitchen and a huge outdoor patio and bar Brooks says they “can’t wait” to use once the weather gets warmer.
“It reminds me of the old Tracks in D.C.,” he says. “There’s so much potential for this space.”
All the interiors have been redecorated since it was Ambitions. The hardwood dance floor, Brooks says, is the one original component — it dates to the 1950s.
A diverse crowd mills about including 20- and 30-ish gay guys, a few older gay men, a few lesbians and a drag queen or two. A few dance, but not many. It’s still early. Several make trips up and down the half-flight of stairs to take smoke breaks. The pool room is less opulent, but the smokers don’t seem to mind. Large industrial smoke eaters keep the room clean and from upstairs it’s impossible to tell there’s smoke in the building.
Gish says the region is large enough that gays are coming from Winchester, Va.; Cumberland, Md.; even Greencastle and Chambersburg, Pa., and that The Club will thrive. Gays from Baltimore or D.C. who want a change of scenery even visit on occasion, he says.
“We’re seeing our weekend door counts increase every weekend,” Gish says. “I think it will only improve as the weather warms.”
There are about 12 on staff but DJs and drag performers are independent contractors. Brooks says they’re seeing about 200 come through the doors on an average Saturday night. A few times it’s gotten close to 300. It’s open Wednesday through Saturday and on weekends there’s a $5 cover. Eighteen-to-20-year-olds can get in anytime but have to pass Breathalyzer tests when they come and go. Gish guesses about 20 percent of the clientele might be “some variation of straight” and says the crowd, because of the smaller overall numbers, is more integrated than in city bars. He says straights, lesbians, bears and twinks all party together here.
Despite rumors of bad blood between The Club and The Lodge, the owners of the latter say they bear no ill will.
“It’s really not a question of competition, it doesn’t matter how many there are in the area, there are more than enough [LGBT people] to go around,” Velazquez says. “So far business has stayed good for us and been pretty good for them. Whether it stays that way, time will tell.”
He says there are even some unexpected benefits at times.
Of The Lodge’s drag cast, Velazquez says he encourages them to perform at other bars.
“They get fans who will then follow them from show to show and we have some people who only show up for the drag shows, so it’s good for them to be out at different bars in the area,” he says. “I have no problem with it. It’s a free world. If I wanted to have them sign an exclusivity contract, I would, but we don’t.”
There are also a few gay-owned restaurants in the region — the Gourmet Goat and Georgia Boys Café in Hagerstown, and Café Izmir in nearby Funkstown, Md.
The Goat, (41 North Potomac Street), has been in its present location for seven years and is known for its vast array of martinis. Owners Steve Cook and Paul Deputy live on site and run it “very much hands on,” Deputy says.
Café Izmir is owned by Nihal Mizah, who’s straight. The cafe became an LGBT destination of sorts during the time The Lodge was closed. Lesbian Karla Auch helps her manage it.
Gish says he thinks it’s more than a coincidence. Although these areas, he says, will never have the large gay communities Baltimore and Washington have, there are LGBT people here and he says they’re more comfortable being out and open than they were even a decade ago.
“I think there’s a social change happening,” he says. “And not just in the media, but in families too and the culture in general. It’s becoming more accepted to be gay and be open about it, or lesbian, or bi or trans or whatever you are. Society is becoming more accepting and these business owners want to pursue their dreams without feeling that they’re going to be persecuted. I know all these business owners and I support them all and wish them the best.”