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A murky future for Phase 1

Owner mum on plans to reopen; staffers say they were fired

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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)

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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role

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Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop

Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen

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Melissa Etheridge brings her ‘One Way Out Tour’ to the D.C. region next week with a show at the new Capital One Hall in Tysons. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

Melissa Etheridge
‘One Way Out Tour’
Tuesday, April 26
Capital One Hall
7750 Capital One Tower Rd.
Tysons, VA
7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55
ticketmaster.com
capitalonehall.com
melissaetheridge.com

We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26. 

It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.

Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded. 

BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?

ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”

BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.

BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.

BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?

ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.

BLADE: When did you start back on the road?

ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.

BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”

BLADE: Do you talk to her often?

ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy. 

BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun. 

BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?

ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.

BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?

ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her. 

BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys?  Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?

ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.

BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it? 

ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else. 

BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition? 

ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved. 

BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you? 

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.

Melissa Etheridge says slowing down wasn’t an option for her when the pandemic hit. She’s glad to be back on the road now, she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?  

ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way. 

BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays? 

ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best. 

BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.

BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.

BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey. 

Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)
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New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program

Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant

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‘I bring my whole self to work,’ says Eric Stewart-Woodruff. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.

Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.

Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.

“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.” 

After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.

Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.

“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”

For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.

He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.

Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.

As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.

Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.

“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.

“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.

Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.

“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”

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