William ‘B.J.’ Johnson, 73, a businessman who operated adult entertainment clubs in D.C. and Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Lone Star gay bar, died Jan. 5 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., of complications from bladder cancer and heart disease.
Johnson, who was gay, was known in the gay community as the owner of the Lone Star, a club at 9th and E Streets, N.W. that featured nude female dancers to a largely straight clientele during the day. Johnson operated the club as a gay bar at night that featured nude male dancers.
Shirley Dearolph, a friend who worked as a bartender at the Lone Star and other clubs owned by Johnson, said he bought the Lone Star from the U.S. government in 1978 in an auction after the IRS seized the club from its previous owner. According to news reports, the previous owner, a federal employee, had been convicted of embezzling money from the government for the purpose of buying the club.
“At the time he bought it there were just the go-go girls in the day,” Dearolph said. “It closed at 8 o’clock because most of the customers worked for the government and nobody stayed out late.”
According to Dearolph, within a few weeks of taking control of the Lone Star, Johnson opened it at night and hired male strippers, becoming the city’s second club to offer nude male dancers to a gay clientele.
The Chesapeake House, a gay bar located three blocks north at 9th and H Streets, N.W., began featuring male strippers a year or two earlier, Dearolph said.
Before buying the Lone Star, Johnson established a name for himself in 1976 as the first person in the nation’s capital to offer totally nude female strippers at a nightclub he bought in the city’s then red light district on 14th Street, N.W., called Benny’s Rebel Room.
Dearolph said that during that same period in the 1970s Johnson bought This Is It, another female burlesque nightclub in the infamous 14th Street strip between H and K streets, N.W. Around that same time Johnson bought Ziggie’s, a burlesque club in Arlington, Va., which also featured female strippers.
In the late 1970s, two gay bathhouses and a gay adult bookstore opened on the 14th Street strip near Johnson’s nightclubs. Possibly anticipating what was to come in the mid-1980s, Johnson sold Benny’s and This is It in 1978 at the peak of their popularity but at a time when civic activists began to complain about the adult businesses.
Noting they were located in the heart of downtown Washington and less than three blocks from the White House, real estate developers and some D.C. government officials joined forces to “clean up” the area. By 1986, most of the 14th Street adult clubs had closed, with some having their licenses revoked for alleged liquor law violations.
“He was a good businessman,” Dearolph said. “He sold This Is It and Benny’s around 1978 and bought the Lone Star. He kept the Lone Star until we had to close it in 1986 when they were doing the development down there.”
Similar to the 14th Street strip, the Lone Star and other bars and clubs along 9th St., N.W., including the Chesapeake House and the gay bar Louie’s, were displace by upscale high-rise office buildings.
Johnson was born in Laurel, Md., and spent much of his early years on his parents’ farm in nearby Spencerville. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, and began his career as a teacher. He later spent “many years as a successful businessman, owning a number of successful businesses, including several bar establishments,” according to a statement released by family members at the time of his death.
At a Jan. 10 memorial service, friends said Johnson lived for many years in a townhouse he owned in D.C. on Capitol Hill while spending time at the farm and farmhouse in Spencerville he later inherited from his parents.
“It was his pride and joy,” said Dearolph. “He didn’t grow crops and raise animals. He kept it manicured and beautiful. It was his showcase.”
In addition to Dearolph, one of Johnson’s closest friends and associates, Johnson is survived by his nieces, Deborah Clark and Donna Dunn; his great-nephew, Glenn Edens, Jr; great-nieces Lisa Edens and Ashley Crisp; and one great-great nephew, William Chase Rezmer.
At the time of his funeral, family members requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the William ‘BJ’ Johnson Memorial fund at the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.