When Lavender Underground event producer Kirk Calvo told me he had managed to lure back DJ Mr. Smith for a return visit to his old stomping grounds at The Seattle Eagle (314 East Pike Street) for Pride Sunday, I was overjoyed. So are many Eagle “Old Timers”. Mr. Smith’s 14 year reign as a beloved DJ ended in 2007 and he definitely is a reminder of the glory days of The Eagle, when it was strictly a down and dirty gay men’s bar that hosted leather events on a weekly basis and featured both a leather swing and a bootblack chair, neither of which were used for Christian pursuits. “Lance’s House” is the Eagle’s finale for Seattle Pride 2014 and fans of the club are encouraged to stop by after 8 pm to enjoy DJ Mr. Smith’s return to the table spinning the best rock music of all time. (Don’t hold your breath expecting to hear anything too modern or pop-y, kids….)
Since Kirk wanted the Sunday night bash to be a fun tribute to those Dirty Days and the co-founder of The Eagle, Lance Hughes, we decided we wanted someone from those early days to write about it. Because I’ve only been here since 2000 and Kirk is like 12, we sought out a wise old hand and found…Randy Henson, the beloved activist and community leader who’s basically the village griot when it comes to the Eagle. (Note: When I NERVOUSLY ventured into The Eagle for my first few times in 2001/2002, as a nervous midwesterner intrigued by the notorious goings on at The Eagle, Randy was one of my friendly Tour Guides (no….not THAT kind of tour guide) and I fondly remember a couple games of pool as he eased me into Seattle’s HomoSpecial Society. I think Mr. Henson played that role for many of us. He’s one of our Seattle Treasures and “The Bucket”, Randy’s husband, is a very lucky man.)
Without further digression…
DARE TO BE DIFFERENT
“A Dirty Bird in the Hand”
by Randy Henson
This year, the Seattle Eagle celebrates its 35th year of existence, making it the longest-surviving gay bar in Seattle. (Not counting the Double Header in Pioneers Square, which is only nominally a gay bar during happy hour and before Seahawks’ games.) My friend Kirk Calvo has asked me to share a few anecdotal recollections of the Eagle in its early years, so I’ll oblige with a few memories and observations that still pop out of the recesses of the gray matter…
When Jim and Lance, the original owners, took over the business in 1980, it was a mid-century “lounge” called Le Chateau. The focal point of the bar, in the back near the restrooms, was a circular, gas fire-pit with oversized bean bag pillows surrounding it. It was a favorite hang-out for some of the “ladies” of Pike Street. Within a year or two, John and Lance undertook a remodel, eliminating the fire pit and expanding the service bar into an island running the length of the space and creating an upper-level catwalk along the west wall. With the changed format, they also re-named the place, posting a large sign on the front of the building bearing the new name—J&L Saloon—across a stylized eagle. The most prominent aspect of the sign was the bar’s motto: DARE TO BE DIFFERENT. Words that still apply.
It was similar to the existing layout, except for a narrow passageway behind the bar and under the catwalk, which came to be known as “the gauntlet”, lined by half-naked men in leather and Levis testing the daring and guile of any young man who took that route from one end to the other. Since it was intended as the service way for the staff, the young bar backs often bore the brunt of attention. Arms laden with cases of beer from the cooler or tubs full of empty bottles, they had to develop some special talents and charm to get the job done.
I wasn’t a “regular” at the J & L in the early days, but beginning around 1983 and after another popular Leather/Levi bar became a dance club (now Re-bar), a lot of us migrated to the J&L because it was an easier place to meet men and a venue that attracted the macho men of the era—guys on bikes, truckers, pool players, bi-curious businessmen staying downtown and looking to experiment. I could go on about how easy it was to pick up guys back then, but that would be a bit self-absorbed. Leave it to say that I honed my skills in this bar, discovering the best places to “pose”, to engage in conversation or where to go for some more frisky action.
By the mid-80’s the J & L was packing them in on Friday and Saturday nights and even for the Sunday afternoon beer bust that happened during the summer. It was a place of escape for those of us who were dealing with the stresses and losses brought with the AIDS epidemic. We went there for the camaraderie of men and for the music—sounds you couldn’t experience in any other gay bar—hard rock from the 70s and 80s, soul anthems, R&B and occasionally some shit-kickin’ Country. It was about this time the J & L transitioned to become the Seattle Eagle. Contemporarily, a “balcony” was added out back over the restroom shed with a very steep, non-code compliant, staircase leading down to the outdoor “gravel pit” behind the bar. If you didn’t hold on to the railing as you descended this stair/ladder, you’d likely slide down on your ass or fly face-first into the back wall or into anyone standing at the base. I learned the hard way not to stand there, after getting pinned against the back wall by a falling drag queen who caught a heel on one of the stair treads.
Over the years, as other “newer” LGBT bars opened up on Capitol Hill and as my contemporaries settled down with partners or moved away, the crowds at the Eagle would wane and then return. The biggest threat to the bar’s existence was back around 1991 or ’92. Imagine the shock of walking up to the front door on a Friday night to be greeted by a sign that said “CLOSED Due to Fire”. Though I never got the official word, I seem to recall that it started with an overheating motor in a ventilation fan. However, I do remember that it took nearly a year for a complete interior rebuild to meet the city’s more stringent codes. When the place finally re-opened, we regulars returned to a much improved space that is much like what exists now.
The Eagle of today is not a place suited for “everybody”, as evidenced by the snide and catty comments you can find on Yelp and other online review sites. Let the judgmental, pampered boys and girls hang out in the sterile, pretentious hipster places that seem to be on every block of The Hill. But they should also know the Eagle has survived the better part of five complete Presidencies, several economic bust cycles, and changing cultural tastes of younger generations. I’m participating in what I call The Fourth Generation of this hole-in-the-wall dive…a gay bar that will separate the men from the boys.
What keeps this place going?
For starters, it’s in a great location right at “the kink” of Pike Street—the closest LGBT bar to the hotel district and smack between the only two gay sex clubs in town. It’s intimate enough that you only need the presence of a few people to feel comfortable. Yet it’s often a hang-out for all kinds of intelligent, civil and creative people—a place for the Different, the eccentric and the adventurous. The building’s got great bones: A wood-framed structure encasing a shoebox-shaped space, making for an awesome acoustical experience. And lastly—as it has been since the 80s—IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC!–the unpredictable and glorious creativity of the DJs that spin the tunes night after night.
Long live The Dirty Bird.
Randy Henson is a semi-retired activist and community organizer. He’s best known for his work on the Seattle Initiative 13 campaign in 1978 and for producing large LGBT fund-raising events like Things That Go Bump In the Night (aka The Bump), THE PROM…You Never Went To! and The Queen City Cruise—parties that attracted as many as 2000 people—between 1981 and 2008. You can find him sharing stories about the way things used to be and how they’re getting better, most weekends, out back at the Seattle Eagle.