April 25, 2013 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Glory days
Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

Tracks (Washington Blade file photo)

The planning and organizing has taken on all the earnestness and care of a high school or college reunion.

But in a series of events scheduled for this weekend at three D.C. clubs, patrons and employees of a gay nightclub called Tracks — which entertained and some say mesmerized thousands during its run from 1984 to 1999 — will come together for a reunion that may have a far greater meaning for them than a school reunion, according to organizers.

“Tracks nightclub is widely revered as the legendary nightclub of Washington, D.C.,” says a statement on the event’s website, TracksDC.com.

“And although there have been many other nightclubs, parties, events and gathering places that may hold fond memories for many from Washington, Maryland, Virginia and the surrounding region, there is no denying that Tracks meant considerably more to considerably more people for considerably more years than any other nightclub in D.C. history,” the statement says.

Patrick Little, a Tracks bartender and manager and one of the lead organizers of the reunion, said 100 percent of the proceeds for the reunion will go to seven non-profit charitable groups, including Whitman-Walker Health, the House of Ruth shelter for homeless women, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) and the Mautner Project for lesbians with cancer and other serious illnesses.

Other recipients of the proceeds include the AIDS service group Us Helping Us, the D.C. Center and the Metropolis Fund, which raises money to support local and national AIDS causes.

Denver-based businessman Marty Chernoff, founder and owner of Tracks, has been credited with bringing to D.C. a gay nightclub that offered features that no other nightclub offered in the area, gay or straight, from the time it opened in 1984 through at least a decade or longer, Little and others working on the reunion say.

Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo)

Little and Ed Bailey, who worked as a Tracks DJ and later as its director of promotions, pointed to some of the features of Tracks that set it apart from other clubs. Located in a sprawling warehouse building at 1111 First St., S.E., the club’s main room or hall included the region’s largest dance floor at the time.

Chernoff, who had been operating a Tracks nightclub in Denver, installed in the D.C. club the same state-of-the-art theatrical lighting and sound system he had been using in the Denver club. Chernoff also built in the D.C. club a separate video room with its own dance floor and sound system.

According to Bailey, the video screens were among the largest of any of the existing clubs in the area at a time when video screens were just starting to be installed in clubs in big cities like New York and Los Angeles.

And unlike most other clubs at the time, Chernoff had a large outdoor space as part of the Tracks property in which he installed a volleyball court with beach sand. He also built an 18-inch-deep pool surrounded by a large deck with chairs and an outdoor bar and grill, where hot dogs and hamburgers, among other food items, were served.

The outdoor space also featured yet another dance floor and sound system that became popular in the warm months.

“I built what I thought would work well, including some things where people said, ‘Are you crazy? Who ever heard of a volleyball court in a nightclub?’” Chernoff says. “And I said, ‘Well I tried it in Denver and it worked pretty well. Let’s give it a try here.’”

Bailey and others familiar with Tracks say the volleyball court along with the numerous other amenities at the club worked well, as capacity crowds came to the club on most weekends.

“The video, sound system and lighting were way ahead of their time,” Bailey says. “The music was always cutting edge. And it was far more laid back than other nightclubs.”

Tracks featured nationally known live performers almost once a month for several years. Among them were Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Crystal Waters, The Village People, Robin Ess, Martha Washington and CeCe Peniston.

Unlike many other gay clubs at the time, Tracks attracted a diverse cross section of the LGBT community, including whites, blacks, men and women, Latinos and Asians, Bailey and Little say. As word got out about Tracks’ grand scale, straights began to come to the club at various times.

Before long, Little says, Friday nights became known as “straight night,” even though gays continued to come to the club on that night.

“It was the biggest, coolest club in the city so other people started going,” Bailey says. “The straight crowd knew it was a gay club but they couldn’t find anything like it anywhere else.”

Chernoff says he and his staff welcomed the diversity of the crowds that packed the club, which sometimes exceeded its occupancy limit of 1,300 people.

He made it clear in no uncertain terms on a sign posted at the entrance that while everyone was welcome, Tracks was a gay club “and if that is a problem for you then you shouldn’t come in.”

“The one absolute we had is we were not going to discriminate,” Chernoff says.

Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo)

Little says the three nights of the reunion set for this weekend — Friday through Sunday — were put together to reflect the different types of music and crowds that came to Tracks on different nights.

Chernoff says he was especially proud of the lighting system and other features in the Tracks main hall. The enormous dance floor was surrounded by an elevated standing area where people could watch the action on the floor. He arranged for a small platform to be placed high above the main hall dance floor from which a giant mosaic mirrored disco ball was suspended that could be lowered and raised.

A heavy-duty cable was sometimes used to lower performers from the platform above the dance floor. During one of the club’s New Year’s Eve parties, a “heavy-set drag queen dressed only in a diaper” was lowered from the perch above the dance floor “to the hoots and hollers of the crowd below, which was taken by complete surprise.”

Celebrity encounters

Chernoff says one of the “horror stories” he recalls during the years he operated Tracks was when singer Grace Jones, who was booked for a live performance, refused to go on stage when the time for her act was scheduled to begin.

“She was just impossible to work with,” Chernoff says. “She said, ‘I’ll decide if I go on or not go on. I’ll see how I feel about it.’ I said, ‘You owe it your fans out there. Please go on stage.’ She said, ‘I’ll decide if I want to go on or not. Maybe I don’t feel like going on.’ So finally I said, ‘Enough is enough. Just get the hell out of my building. I don’t need to put up with this crap.’”

He says Tracks refunded the money for everyone who paid for admission to see Jones perform, writing off the episode as “one of our biggest disasters.”

Among the most pleasant encounters with a performer or group booked at Tracks was the appearance of the Village People, one of the most popular disco-era acts, especially for gay audiences, Chernoff says.

“It was such a great experience and such a great vibe,” he says. “So after they put the show on they didn’t leave. They stayed and partied with everybody until 5 or 6 in the morning. They said, ‘We don’t want to go home. We’re party people and this is the best party in town.’”

Changing times

Tracks, nightlife, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo)

“It became a home for a lot of people,” says Reg Tyson, who was part of a group that partnered with D.C. businessman Paul Yates, who bought Tracks from Chernoff around 1990.

“I think it was the right place at the right time,” Tyson says. “It was a new place that allowed people to be free to be themselves, to express themselves.”

The club flourished under Yates’ ownership as Bailey, who had been working as a DJ, was moved by Yates to the post of director of promotions.

Chernoff says around 1996 Yates decided to withdraw from the business, and Chernoff resumed his position as Tracks owner until the time the club closed its doors in 1999. By that time Bailey had left Tracks to become involved with a new and even bigger nightclub located one block away called Nation, which started a Saturday night gay dance party called Velvet Nation.

“Like everything else, Tracks’ time had come,” Chernoff says. “You can’t hang on to the previous concept and expect it to move into the next decades and next generations. What made Tracks unique and phenomenal — it had run its course.”

Ongoing negotiations with a developer that had expressed interest in buying the Tracks property to build a new office building reached the stage where a deal was finalized, Chernoff says.

Bailey says he was honored to have worked for Chernoff and credits him with teaching him the ins and outs of operating a nightclub, skills that Bailey says helped him in his work at Nation.

“Tracks innovated the nightclub scene in a way that Nation benefited,” Bailey says.

Bailey says he was also honored that Chernoff and the Tracks staff invited him to work as DJ at Tracks during its closing night party in November 1999.

Kevin Brennan, a Tracks customer who was later hired as a lighting technician at the club, says he and his partner of 18 years, Don Oberholzer, have especially fond memories of Tracks.

“That’s where we met,” Brennan says. “I think he was dancing on one of the dance boxes in the big room and we just started talking.” They had their first date about a week later and have been a couple ever since. The two were married in D.C. last year.

“It made an impression on me in the sense that nothing else has ever compared,” Brennan says of the club. “I never felt like there was another club that had everything that Tracks had.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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