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Baltimore’s Grand Central celebrates 25 years

Jazz, leather, karaoke, drag and more find home at legendary Charm City club

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Grand Central, gay news, Washington Blade

A Grand Central party in 2014. The club has been a central hub of Baltimore gay life since 1991. (Photo by Bob Ford)

RJ Ladd recalls the summer of 2001 at Central Station, the former name of Grand Central. It was during “Tia-Oke” when drag performer, “Tia (Chambers), drunk, hosted karaoke, attempted to walk down the steps and fell flat on her face. We helped her up, not a hair out of place, and she didn’t miss a beat. She kept going as if it didn’t happen.”

That amusing anecdote could serve obliquely as a metaphor for Grand Central Nightclub’s 25-year history. Though the club never stumbled, it has had to overcome a number of challenges —competition, property damage, declining interest in gay bars — to remain a vital part of Baltimore’s LGBT culture and social life.

To mark 25 years in the community, Grand Central, situated at the intersection of Charles and Eager streets in the Mount Vernon gayborhood, will host a special event on Saturday, March 25. There will be free cover all night and giveaways every hour as well as other surprises.

Owner Don Davis, a well-known and outspoken figure in Baltimore’s LGBT community, waxes nostalgic about the era when gay bars were at their zenith. Prior to owning Grand Central, he and partner Rick Morgenthaler had opened the Allegro, also in Mount Vernon, in November 1986. After a slow start, they modified the piano bar format by instituting country and western parties, men’s nights and ladies’ nights.

Grand Central owner Don Davis says he’s overcome many hurdles to keep the business running since it opened 25 years ago. (Photo courtesy Davis)

Those changes paid off. “The place was hopping and became the place to be,” Davis says. “There were a lot of fun memories back then.”

At the time, Davis used to drive down Eager Street en route to his home in the Canton neighborhood. He noticed that a historic row house at 1001 N. Charles Street was for sale.

“I always liked the building and the location and decided to look at it throughout,” Davis says. “I contacted two of my friends and asked if they would be interested in being an investor with no say in the business. They both agreed.”

The property was purchased in July 1991. After renovations, the doors opened on Sept. 12, 1991.

On Feb. 5, 2003, Davis purchased the adjacent north building at 1003 North Charles St. where the former Stagecoach bar existed, and reconstruction was undertaken, adding a double bar disco with state-of-the-art dance floor, sound and lighting systems, and an additional upstairs lounge and restaurant.

In keeping with the major improvements and new facilities, the club was renamed Grand Central and the expanded complex opened May 29, 2003.

Diagonally across the corner was the iconic Club Hippo, for years the largest dance bar in the state. Within a couple of blocks were other well-established bars, the Drinkery and Leon’s. Grand Central was the new kid on the block.

To effectively compete, Davis had to broaden the market and create special events. Billing Grand Central as an “alternative nightclub,” Davis encouraged straight people to patronize the bar.

“I was always grateful for everyone’s business, whether you were straight or gay,” Davis says. “As long as everyone could accept the gay culture, they were welcomed.”

Grand Central had been beset by a couple of odd events. In June 2008, just a week after workers had repaired a storm-damaged roof on the north building, a fire broke out causing damage to the upper floor.

Five years later, a car, which was being pursued by transit police, crashed into a pick-up truck in front of the bar spilling its cargo of white paint all over the exterior and leaving a mess inside the pub. The effects of that incident led to additional renovations.

Each time Grand Central bounced back.

Through the years, Grand Central hosted numerous themed events including red, black and white parties, all well attended. Karaoke nights have been a popular feature as well as jazz, fashion shows and REHAB Saturdays.

Wendy Fox, co-owner of S.H.E. Productions, which has put on events like REHAB at Grand Central for eight years, says, “We are happy to be inclusive of everyone, and the club has always been gracious and open to our ideas, themes and fundraisers.”

An employee for nearly five years, Nicole West says, “Don Davis has always been encouraging and appreciative, the customers always kind and the other staff is like family.”

The upstairs loft has been used for a variety of purposes including receptions, a lesbian-oriented space called Sappho’s for a short time, and it had also been a venue for leather-related events after the Baltimore Eagle (now re-opened) had closed in 2012. The restaurant no longer exists.

The dance club with its two bars is a popular attraction. The Hippo’s closing in 2015 left Grand Central as the leading dance venue in Mount Vernon.

Says DJ Kuhmeleon who used to work at Grand Central, “Being so far away from the crowd in that DJ-in-the-sky, I love hearing the crowd singing every song so loud that it actually rises above the music itself and I can hear them perfectly.”

However, increasing acceptance of LGBT people that allows for comfortably patronizing straight establishments as well as the onset of dating apps have contributed to a decline in gay bars. This concerns Davis.

“Over the past 30 years, I have seen about 29 gay bars and clubs close,” says Davis, 66, who now resides most of the year in Florida.

Notwithstanding that trend, community members see the value of Grand Central.

“I remember 15 years ago, I had the courage to step into a gay bar for the first time and Grand Central welcomed me with open arms,” says photographer Robert Mercer, Jr. “It was like home and the community embraced me without judgment.”

Adds Brian Dolbow, an advocate for the homeless, “Grand Central was the first bar I visited when I moved to Baltimore in 2003. I immediately loved the welcoming atmosphere. In addition, Grand Central has always been supportive of my charity work.”

“Historically, Grand Central has been a welcome place for patrons of all gender, identity and sexual orientations with a variety of offerings including dance, jazz, karaoke, leather and a vibrant bar scene,” says Bob Glock, general manager of the nearby Hotel Brexton. “It has been a major draw to not only the Mount Vernon community, but to Baltimore generally for those outside of the city looking for a safe and sophisticated alternative bar scene.”

Brian Gaither, co-founder of Pride Foundation of Maryland, acknowledges that Grand Central is a landmark institution.

“Over the years it’s provided a safe space for our community and has been a major supporter of LGBT events and organizations,” Gaither says. “We are grateful for all they have done.”

As for himself, Davis is appreciative of the support Baltimore has given to Grand Central.

“Without good staff and the support over the 25 years it would have not been possible,” he says. “Thank you, Baltimore.”

Revelers at an Electric Youth party at Grand Central in 2013. (Photo courtesy Grand Central)

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Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

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As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

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As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
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Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

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‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

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