February 5, 2015 at 12:19 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
A murky future for Phase 1
Phase 1 closed, gay news, Washington Blade

The future of Phase Fest is in question now that Phase 1 is closed. (Washington Blade file photo by Nicole Reinertson)

‘Phasepocalypse Now’

 

Feb. 6

 

Scandal DC

 

With DJ LezRage and DJ Deedub

 

the D.C. Kings Brolo and D.C. Gurly Show

 

Doors 9:30 p.m., performance 10

 

The Black Cat

 

1811 14th St., N.W.

 

It’s the end of Phase 1 as we know it and nobody feels fine.

What is going on at the famed lesbian nightclub in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that closed — ostensibly temporarily — last month?

The LGBT landmark, which has long boasted of being the oldest continually operating lesbian bar in the country, was open for New Year’s Eve and a few days thereafter but abruptly on Jan. 7 announced on Facebook that it “will be closed temporarily as we make some upgrades.”

Sounds reasonable enough on the surface, but the vagueness of the announcement, the fact that no details or target reopening date were given and nothing changed on its official website (phase1dc.com hasn’t been updated for months and there’s no sign on the door of the physical location indicating it’s closed) have led to rampant speculation among fans of the bar. The clincher, however, is that the entire staff was let go as well.

But it hasn’t stopped the party as the Scandal DC team, which just started staging in December what are said to be monthly events, is holding “Phasepocalypse: Now” on Feb. 6 at the Black Cat and using the official Phase 1 Facebook page to cross-promote it.

Angela Lombardi, who worked at Phase 1 for just over a decade and managed it for nine years, is part of the Scandal team (with Katy Ray) and says the event is needed because the Phase closed abruptly.

“Basically it’s just an excuse for all of us to get together and feel we have a little bit of home even if it’s not at Phase 1,” Lombardi says. “The (D.C.) Kings, the Gurly Show, all the original staff members will be there. It’s a chance for us all to feel a little better. Not just a selfish party for all of us to wallow but because there was too much good that was happening to just let it go.”

So is the location at 525 8th St., S.E. (not to be confused with Phase 1 Dupont, a spin-off club that was open occasionally in the old Badlands/Apex space off Dupont Circle) really being renovated — the exterior shows no signs of it so far — or will longtime owner Allen Carroll close the 45-year-old bar or perhaps wipe the slate clean and start over with an entirely new staff? Now that the initial shock of the closing has subsided, the city’s lesbian community is hungry for details.

The short answer is nobody knows. Carroll is laying low — he didn’t return a half-dozen voicemail messages left at multiple locations (including Ziegfeld’s/Secrets, which he also owns) over the course of nearly a week and neither did he respond to another Blade reporter in January who tried to reach him when initially writing of the bar’s closing.

People who’ve known Carroll for years such as Rick Rindskopf, former manager of the shuttered Remington’s, aren’t surprised.

“This is normal for him, not returning calls,” says Rindskopf, who knew Carroll years ago at the old Follies movie theater and at Ziegfeld’s. “He just doesn’t do it. Allen has always been somewhat secretive about what he’s doing and what’s going on. He has expressed to me the desire to retire at some point — he’s in his 70s after all — … but nothing Allen does or doesn’t do surprises me. … He just generally doesn’t share what’s going on.”

Carroll, who’s gay, and his late partner, Chris Jansen, opened Phase 1 in 1970. Veterans of the Marines and Air Force respectively, they worked at adjacent bars on Eighth Street, S.E., Joanna’s, a lesbian bar where Carroll worked, was closing so he and Jansen sensed an opportunity. For a time, they also ran the Other Side, a large lesbian club that eventually morphed into Ziegfeld’s/Secrets.

Carroll did speak to the Blade five years ago on Phase 1’s 40th anniversary in Feb. 2010 and said the bar has always been special.

“We had hard times and good times, but it felt like home,” he said in 2010. “We always held on. They always come in and always say, ‘We know to come back here.’ It’s a good feeling.”

But this is the first time Phase 1 has been closed this long at one time. Some fear the bar may just fade into the sunset with a whimper instead of a bang. Others shrug it off as sad but merely a sign of the times and point to the closing of San Francisco’s the Lexington Club, which shuttered in October. In the last five or so years, other historic lesbian bars like Sisters in Philadelphia, T’s Bar & Restaurant in Chicago, the Palms in West Hollywood and the Egyptian Club in Portland, have also closed. Those involved cited gentrification and the accompanying skyrocketing cost of doing business as factors.

“I actually didn’t want to talk to people at first, but now I’m at my pissed stage,” Lombardi says. “Basically the way he phrased things to us was that even though some of us had been there longer than 10 years, we weren’t doing a good enough job and that he’s going to come in and close down for renovations and basically fix the busted sound system that we’d been asking to have repaired for years, paint and whatever else. … He wouldn’t come out and say it, so I said, ‘Oh, so I’m fired,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ and blah blah blah, but yeah, that’s pretty much how it went down.”

Senait, a Phase 1 institution who also worked there for 10 years, got a similar call on Jan. 4 and says it was both shocking and hurtful. Lombardi says Carroll initially suggested she inform Senait, but Lombardi insisted Carroll call her himself.

“My opinion is it could have been done in a more professional way,” Senait says. “People lose jobs all the time, but he could have called us in and said this is what is happening but he didn’t have the courtesy to do that. He just called us on the phone and said, ‘I’m letting you go.’”

Senait says she thinks the renovations are legit, though Lombardi says, “My mind would be blown if it’s anything more than a coat of paint and repairs to the sound system.” Some have questioned why the renovations couldn’t have been done on the four days per week the bar was closed.

“He said he was sort of thinking, I don’t know, two weeks or something,” Senait says. “He was not very clear about the whole thing. I think he started doing some stuff last [week]. I don’t think he’ll shut it down. I think he will reopen.”

Lombardi says tensions have been brewing for a while. She traces it back to 2012 when Carroll moved her to the then-new Dupont location, which she says she had misgivings about even at the outset, mainly because she didn’t think D.C. had enough lesbians interested in nightlife to keep both the cavernous Dupont location and the original Phase both running indefinitely, a hunch that turned out to be correct.

“I felt crippled there,” Lombardi says. “He wouldn’t let me do anything.”

About four years ago, Lombardi started spending time in Chico, Calif., helping her brother run the Maltese, a straight bar that also hosts gay events. Though she’d invested years into the Phase and even, at one point, hoped to buy it from Carroll, she says she eventually started spending more time in California. Senait would manage Phase 1 when she was gone.

“I’ve known for the last two years that things at Phase weren’t secure and it wasn’t sustainable,” Lombardi says. “It really pains me to say it because when it was good, it was so good. I kind of had a feeling I might just be left out in the cold someday and sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.”

Ken Vegas (aka Kendra Kuliga), director and founder of the D.C. Kings, says that while the timing was a shock, he’d had a sense for “several years” that things were uncertain there. The Kings, who are celebrating their 15th anniversary in March, performed 180 consecutive monthly shows at Phase 1 starting in March 2000.

“It’s kind of like holding your breath,” Vegas says. “I’m not completely surprised that it went down. It sucks. A lot of my friends are people who worked there and they’re the people who are getting the effects of this decision . … But I’m still kind of stunned. Even if it does re-open, if the people who were staffing it there are not rehired, it’s not going to be the same. It wasn’t the four walls that made it the Phase, it was the people — Angela, Jasmine, Little Fitz (Erin Fitzgerald), Senait, Ellis — those were the people who showed up even when they knew they were probably only going to make $20 if they were lucky. They kept it open and made it a safe space anytime for the community to come in, have a drink and not feel judged. … It was a safe space for the Kings and the Gurlys to come share our art and feel completely at ease.” (The Kings have continued performing monthly — after the Feb. 6 event, they’ll be at the Lodge in Boonsboro, Md., in March.)

Even with the hurt feelings, Lombardi and Senait describe Carroll as family.

“I love Allen, he’s family even through all of this,” Lombardi says. “I will never take away what he did for this community or take it for granted. He gave me a life, he helped me discover who I am. That’s priceless, so even though things are ending on a rather bitter note, I love him and I hope the Phase will go on another 40 years. I just thought I’d be a part of it.”

Senait has similar feelings.

“He’s like a second father to me,” she says. “I have nothing against him. I want him to be successful. I love that bar. It was a second home to me, where I found myself as a gay person and became comfortable.”

They also agree that business was likely a strong factor in the decision. Senait says in recent years it, “hasn’t been that great, to be honest.” Many have written about how lesbian nightlife trends tend to differ from those of gay men and also how the evolutions of society, from meeting people online to broader acceptance at traditionally straight venues, have changed things.

“Things overall just aren’t as segregated as they once were,” Vegas says. “Back in the day, I really didn’t feel safe outside of a queer bar but now there’s less of a need because there’s less of a focus on that. It’s just one of the symptoms when you get equalized and get more acceptance, there becomes less of a need for a designated space for us to be gay. We can be gay anywhere we want. I can go out with my short hair and my outfit and my wife and we just act like our own little selves. We don’t get side eyes or feel insecure. We can be open in the grocery store, the coffee shop, wherever. With marriage legalized here now, there’s just much more acceptance to be openly queer.”

Though Lombardi was long celebrated for her vision and seemingly endless stream of parties and theme nights to get women in the doors, she says Phase finances had become harder in the last few years. Though monthly parties like BARE by LURe and the now-defunct She Rex always siphoned off patrons, the beauty of Phase 1, she says, was that there was always a lesbian-specific option even if there wasn’t a party happening any given night.

Phase 1 closes

Angela Lombardi (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“We often got hit by whatever the new party was at the time so we had ups and downs but we made it through all the parties over the years,” she says. The fate of her brainchild, the nationally prominent, eight-year-old Phase Fest indie queer music festival, always held in September, is up in the air.

Her vision, had she had the opportunity, would have been to have a straight bar upstairs to essentially help bankroll Phase 1.

The changing neighborhood, too, was a factor. Though not gentrifying at the rapid pace of, say, Logan Circle/14th Street, N.W., property values there have steadily increased. Though Carroll owns the building (he does not own the Ziegfeld’s/Secrets location), property taxes for 2014 according to District records, were a whopping $31,836. Carroll paid penalties last year for late payments. Taxes for the property jumped significantly in recent years going from about $4,800 in 2006 to nearly $9,700 in 2007 and from nearly $9,600 in 2010 to more than doubling to nearly $23,000 in 2011, according to public D.C. tax records.

“I ran the Phase forever, I know it can’t afford to be on that block anymore, of course not,” Lombardi says.

She also says if Carroll hopes to make the bar successful with a new staff and minimal refurbishing, he’s in for a rude awakening.

“I’m sure he’ll reopen, have some kind of a 45th anniversary event,” she says. “He told me that’s what he’s going to do but if he thinks he’s going to just reopen, he’ll see pretty fast just what it takes to keep it going. It’s going to be pretty rough.”

If it does close, Rindskopf says people need a chance to say goodbye.

“People who’ve supported a bar for years deserve a little consideration,” he says. “I thought [the closing of] Remington’s was handled about as well as it could have been. It doesn’t sound like they’re getting that in this situation. … I believe in being fair to the customers, let alone the employees.”

Senait says even in the last few weeks, things have improved a bit and she and Carroll have spoken.

“My feelings were hurt, but I got over it,” she says. “He calls me now and then. We talked last Monday. This does seem out of character for him so I don’t know what’s going through his head. I don’t even know what kind of changes he’s looking for. He made it sound like he was looking for something different and that’s his choice, it’s his bar. I fully support him and want him to be successful, but I don’t ever want it to be shut down, period. Whether I’m working there or not, it’s there for every queer, lesbian, transgender person to feel safe in those walls. I don’t want that opportunity to go away for anyone. It was never just a bar — it was a community.”

Lombardi, as one might imagine, has mixed feelings.

“There are some of us — and this is how delusional we are — who even though we know there’s like a 95 percent chance it’s over for us, do I hang onto that five percent possibility that he’ll realize the mistake and say, ‘Come back.’ Yeah, I’m hanging onto that five percent.”

She also says even if it ends this way, Carroll still deserves tremendous thanks from the community, many of whom took the bar for granted in Lombardi’s opinion.

“I still have to give him incredible props,” she says. “He’s done more than fucking anyone else, more than any lady, more than anyone for our community and for that he deserves serious accolades. He kept it open through thick and thin. That’s his baby. That’s the bar that started it all for him and Chris. Allen has really fought for 45 years to keep those doors open.”

Phase 1 closed, gay news, Washington Blade

Allen Carroll (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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