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Paradise lost: Remembering the popular Rehoboth men’s guest house

Beach town’s pioneering B&B welcomed gay clientele before arrival of AIDS

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The Paradise Guest House operated at 40 Maryland Ave. for eight seasons. Herbert and Mami are depicted in this painting. (Painting by Pamela Bounds)

What hath night to do with sleep?” John Milton, A Journey to Paradise

In February 1987, 30-something Bill Courville was at his Mt. Pleasant neighborhood home. He opened the new edition of the Washington Blade. As usual, he read it from beginning to end. With a Ph.D. in psychology, Bill enjoyed the classifieds. It lifted his spirits after reading obituaries of gay men and news of meager AIDS funding from the Reagan administration. Sandwiched between personals and escorts were real estate sales listings, including a one-inch ad about a B&B in downtown Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Bill thought about his youthful days living in New Orleans and working at the Maison De Ville, a small dusty red stucco painted guest house overlooking Toulouse Street. There Tennessee Williams had once lived while penning “A Street Car Named Desire”when not sipping Sazarac cocktails in the garden courtyard. 

He circled the ad and placed it on the kitchen counter for his lover, Bob, to read. The couple had met two years earlier crossing the P Street Bridge and had gradually merged their lives. After Bob looked at the ad, Bill suggested: “Let’s go look at this! We will have a business and an income — and a place to live!” Born in Minnesota, Bob Jerome, the more cautious of the pair, had grown up in California, attending college in Claremont and later working as a Senate staffer. Like Bill, he had a doctorate and traveled throughout the world before their P Street encounter. Unlike Bob, however, Bill never had been to Rehoboth. Nevertheless, Bill insisted this could be their next adventure or at least an excuse to visit the shore off-season.

“It’s a great seasonal resort,” Bob responded positively. “Everybody goes there. There’s gay life!” 

The next weekend, they crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and drove to Paradise. Rehoboth was mostly shuttered. But the Renegade bar was open at the fringe of town as was the Blue Moon along the gaying Baltimore Avenue. Driving one street over, they arrived at 40 Maryland Ave.

John, the Realtor, whose lover “Dolly” performed at the Moon, met the couple at the 19th-century house. “It was pretty awful,” remembers Bill. The fatigued Paradise Guest House sign was washed-out and the wide front porch with its handcrafted trellis lusted for paint. The pipes were drained. There was no heat or electricity. There were slivers of mirrors glued on living room walls, a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, 1930s over-stuffed maroon chairs, and yard sale grade furniture facing an old TV. The scent of stale cigarette smoke lingered in the ceilings and walls.

As they wandered through the 28 rooms — most barely wide enough for a floor mattress with a thin plastic sheet and an occasional odd-fitting dresser — they eyed stacks of men’s magazines (Honcho, Mandate, Bound & Gagged), iconic videos like “Boys in the Sand,” “Stryker Force,” and “Pacific Coast Highway,” along with chests of dildos in every imaginable size. Off the living room, a narrow passageway at a left angle to the main corridor led to the first-floor bedrooms. At the end was a trap door. They didn’t venture down. “Seasonal resorts like the Paradise were kind of like bars,” Bill explains. “They look great at night but don’t look at them during the day.” 

On their drive back, the couple chatted about the venture. “I told Bill that if we were going to invest, he needed to run it so we could learn the business.” Bob knew his income would cover their personal expenses as long as Bill was willing to do the day-to-day management.  “We were youngish. I don’t think we thought about what a massive undertaking it was…. But it seemed right.”

After purchasing the property, they along with some friends had just a few months before the 10-week season began on Memorial Day weekend. “We’d drag them down there and make them work, saying, ‘Oh, you can go to the beach.’ But, of course they never did go as it was always cold and rainy.” Bill wondered, “Does the sun ever shine here?”

Those next weeks were frantic: discarding discolored mattresses and sex toys; tearing out faux bedroom walls to restore the original 14 rooms; buying new white wicker furniture; upgrading the bathrooms, deck, and kitchen. Everything was thoroughly cleaned. Fresh white paint glistened on the walls and gray-painted floors replaced piles of tattered, sandy rugs. A local lesbian contractor built sturdy outside showers replacing a rickety wooden stall connected by a water hose and lined with reflective aluminum foil — designed more for strutting than showering.

“It was a huge undertaking,” admits Bill. “Everything we had was sunk into it. It had to be open!” He remembers one man calling a few days before asking if he could change check-in to Wednesday. “No, you can’t,” Bill said flatly. “You can come Friday at 2 o’clock, but not one minute sooner!”

With little time to advertise in this pre-Internet era, they did their best to explain the changes to former guests, beginning with its new name: The Rehoboth Guest House. More importantly, it now was open to lesbians as well as straights and there was no smoking. “We had a mix of friends,” says Bill. “So it would be gay-owned and operated but pretty much open to whoever wanted to come…. We had been discriminated against for most of our lives. If you don’t want to come you don’t have to.”

The Rehoboth Guest House today.

Remembering Paradise

Reactions from Paradise veterans varied when Bill and Bob discarded the blue, white, and yellow “Paradise Guest House” sign and, more importantly, its ethos of male eros. One of the new owners’ early supporters was Charlie Allen, who worked in the Baltimore schools but summered in Rehoboth. “He was writing a book,” Bill reveals, “called ‘Summer Sisters’… they were sisters for the summer.” Bob interjects, “The other part of the title was ‘Some Are Not.’ So, it was ‘Summer Sisters [pronounced Some Are Sisters]: Some Are Not.’Charlie died before publishing his book—which has never been found.

Unlike Charlie, “some hardcore folks were upset,” Bob recalls. “This used to be a gay male oasis” where men could “be themselves: wearing dresses; walking around naked; having piercings everywhere. They could get out of their suits and live the lives they wanted with people like them.” In an understanding tone, Bob adds: “That’s hard to take away.” The Paradise was a safe spot not only for Philadelphia accountants, D.C. staffers, and Baltimore teachers, but college kids enjoying summer break, career embarking twinks, and closeted locals seeking safe harbor.

Charlie was best friends with the German-accented Paradise owner Herbert Koerber and his boyfriend, Alvarado Ortiz-Benavides, whom everyone called “Mami”— colloquial Spanish for sweetheart. A gregarious man with fading hair and a reddish beard, Charlie often helped Mami with housekeeping and other chores. Mostly, though, he just enjoyed the sexual freedom of Paradise and the camaraderie among male guests. Some returned each year for a week, others visited more frequently for long weekends, and a few stayed the entire summer. Most guests were younger than Charlie’s 40 odd years, but everyone seemed to get along.

Most of Koerber’s clientele came from word-of-mouth advertising, although there was a classified ad in summer issues of the Washington Blade: “friendly guesthouse, close to beaches and bars.” One of the very first media stories about gay Rehoboth appeared in the May 1980 issue of this iconic paper. It described Paradise as “utterly comfortable” and quoted 38-year-old Herbert: “Tell people I can put them up — maybe even give them a discount during the week — but on weekends, after the bars close, my lobby will be packed.”

Before Herbert opened Paradise, in 1979, there were no openly gay-owned or gay-friendly advertised guest houses in Rehoboth. The Sandcastle, a decrepit speakeasy-like rooming house owned briefly by several gay men, had burnt to the ground four years earlier. The grand Pleasant Inn Lodge, hosted by the reclusive, debonair bachelor Peck Pleasanton and his octogenarian mother, Bessie, welcomed an occasional well-behaved “single” gentleman.

During eight seasons, Paradise evolved as did Herbert and Mami. The two were an odd pair. Herbert, a “fussy queen” who swore like a sailor, was tall and thin with longish hair and a handlebar mustache. He was always tanned even though his forehead would get beet red given his German complexion. The much shorter Mami, whose family was from South America, was soft-spoken and very sweet. Compared to the larger-than-life Herbert, he was less memorable to guests. Bob describes Herbert as “the German businessman. Mami was the onetime boy-toy.” They wintered in Key West, operating a gift shop and hawking kitsch souvenirs like black velvet paintings and seashell coasters.

Herbert monetized every aspect of Paradise, creating a sexual Disneyland. With 28 “teensy rooms the size of bathhouse cubicles,” there could be upwards of 50 men checked-in along with their friends and friends of their friends, wandering in during the night. However, the number of bathrooms — two full baths and two halves — did not expand. “It was shabby and crowded, but we were young and didn’t care,” one Paradise regular muses. “It had a reputation. It was our party house.”

The second floor became clothing optional with men often walking around with towels during midnight hours. Plywood partitions were set between rooms with guests on one side having a window and the other windowless. Herbert’s “summer curtains” served instead of doors, which allowed air (and guests) to circulate. Those with bedroom windows overlooking the sundeck could easily extend an invitation to a coconut-lotioned twink or a weightlifting hunk. “Everything went on at the deck and in the windows and rooms behind it,” recalls a frequent guest. There were late Saturday afternoon happy hours and skit contests. Staging was festive, if not overly decorative, with a jerry-rigged backstage area for costume changing. A raucous backyard crowd cheered contestants.

Originally, there was a huge gabled attic bedroom that required ascending a steep stairway. Herbert slashed it into a tiny single air-conditioned room with the remaining space transformed into an after dark playground full of mattresses with an aroma of poppers and pot. “Herbert turned every square inch of that attic into a bed sleeping sex area. It was masterful,” Bob says in a praiseworthy tone. “Every inch was geared toward pleasure” And, as he and Bill later discovered, There was a leather sling in the “dungeon,” a 10 x 12 cinder block walled room accessed only from the first floor trap door.

Room rates were low and backyard camping was just $5 for those bringing tents. Campers, though, had to be late night partiers. Before dawn, visitors often entered from the alley along a little path leading to the unlocked side gate. Nocturnal grunts, gasps, and groans harmonized to sounds of crashing waves. Back then, as one Paradise regular stresses, “Sex wasn’t a taboo thing. It was like going to lunch! It was as common as going for a cocktail.”

During the day, Herbert was often found in his flip-flops, T-shirt, and khaki shorts, puttering in the garden or tending to his beloved lacecap hydrangeas gracing the front yard. Herbert was estranged from his German-speaking family so Paradise regulars became his family. Friendly, he knew everyone by their first name but don’t ask to reserve a specific room. One returning guest remembers phoning Herbert for a reservation and requesting a first-floor room with a door: “Oh, honey!” Herbert laughed. “It’s just first come, first served.”

Herbert did repairs only when absolutely necessary. But he’d always be painting, using just one color: white. The exception was the wrap-around front porch, lined with rocking chairs, which had a gray floor and ceiling along with knob and tube wiring. Throughout the house, guests used it to hang clothes since there were no closets. 

In the early to mid 1980s, Paradise thrived as a money making machine — a bathhouse on the beach. As the number of gay-owned restaurants and bars multiplied along with accompanying media attention, more gay men vacationed at Rehoboth and visited Paradise. “There was a routine,” one recounts. “You’d get up late. Get yourself down to the gay beach. Do a day at the ocean, getting too much sun. Then there was happy hour at the Moon. You had to be there and have a nice look. Then you’d go back, take a nap, and then go to dinner. Then, onto the Renegade!”

Herbert provided a weekend shuttle to the Renegade. About 10 o’clock, he’d drive up in his light colored blue and white ’60s VW van, hop out and, as a regular recollects, “Scream down the hallways: ’Get your asses down here!’” He shuttled guests back-and-forth, with the last pick-up at 1. ”I remember Herbert telling people in his heavy accent, ‘If you miss the last bus, you have to walk the fuck home!” But his gruffness masked protectiveness. ”He’d warn them he was going and he would even count!” Another frequent visitor remembers Herbert “as the kind of guy you’d call at 3 o’clock in the morning to say, ‘I’m in jail.’ And he’d be there.”

Paradise Lost

In 1980, reports surfaced about clusters of young gay men contacting Pneumocystis pneumonia. Granted the majority of infections and deaths from this “gay cancer” were in New York City and San Francisco, but the Washington Blade published a landmark front-page story, “Rare, Fatal Pneumonia Hits Gay Men,” inJuly 1981.

Herbert began to worry. One guest, living in New York City and volunteering as an AIDS buddy, remembers porch conversations with Herbert. ”He was talking about buying a second one. Then he said, ’I’m concerned since so many people are getting AIDS, I’m not sure whether or not I’ll have a clientele.’” 

For many gays, Paradise was a rare time to be themselves and to enjoy the camaraderie and support from other men at a beach resort. Sadly, for some, it was also a death sentence. Sexual desire and psychological denial coupled with governmental inaction and public apathy fueled the AIDS pandemic.

After the 1986 summer season, Herbert and Mami sojourned, as usual, to Key West; Herbert never returned. ”I can remember being surprised to hear that he was ill,” laments a longtime patron. ”He went quickly; we had no indications he was ill.” 

Herbert died a week before Bill and Bob opened on Memorial Day weekend. Mami was with him until the end. Like Paradise, he disappeared into history and, along with Herbert and many of his guests, would be remembered by few.

James Sears’ latest book, “Behind the Boardwalk: Queering the History of Rehoboth Beach” will be published next year. Tom Kelch, manger of the Rehoboth Beach Guest House, contributed research to this article.

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Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’

Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following

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Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya Clark. (Photo courtesy Sony/Columbia)

Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan. 

With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.

BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.

BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?

EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.

BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?

EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.

BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.

EDGAR-JONES: [Laughs]

BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?

EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.

BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?

EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.

BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.

BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?

EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.

BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?

EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.

BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?

EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.

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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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