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After 15 months of pandemic restrictions that have kept Los Angeles’ gay bars partly or completely closed, nightlife owners like The Abbey founder and CEO David Cooley are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. California is set to fully reopen June 15, allowing nightlife to return just in time for Pride month (though West Hollywood’s huge Pride parade is canceled for 2021, for the second year in a row).
“For this year’s Pride, there’s no parades, there’s no festivals in West Hollywood, but we will make sure The Abbey is really ready and decorated for Pride,” says Cooley, who recently oversaw the iconic bar’s 30th anniversary celebration, which included a visit from Lady Gaga. “This is going to be the roaring ’20s, people are ready to get up and dance, and it was proven when Gaga came in. I could not tell people to sit down.”
“It’s almost like burn your bra,” he adds of the lifted mask mandates on the horizon. “People want to burn their mask and hear our DJs and start dancing and looking at our go-go girls and go-go guys. They want to party.”
When patrons do return to West Hollywood this Pride month, though, it will look quite different from years past. Flaming Saddles, Gold Coast, Rage and Gym Bar were all victims of the pandemic (plus Studio City’s Oil Can Harry’s), leaving WeHo’s Santa Monica Boulevard strip without some of its signature clubs. That’s on top of the fact that L.A. has been without a lesbian bar in the entire county since Van Nuys’ Oxwood Inn closed in 2017. But, as COVID-19’s threat lessens, several of those shuttered bars have announced plans to reopen in new spaces, and where “before it used to be ‘For Lease’ sign, ‘For Lease’ sign, ‘For Lease’ sign, now you can’t find anything, they’re all taken up,” says Cooley. “There are some new exciting bars that will be opening.”
Singer-producer Lance Bass, co-owner of popular West Hollywood bar and Italian restaurant Rocco’s, is among those planning new venues, taking over the old Rage space for what is being promoted as the biggest gay nightclub in the United States.
“It was truly devastating to see what happened to WeHo during the pandemic. So many of my favorite places had to close. For their patrons these venues weren’t just bars, they were safe places for so many LGBTQ+ members. It scared me to think these venues would be replaced with mainstream places that wouldn’t cater specifically to our community,” says Bass, promising that his upcoming spot will “bring back major entertainment to West Hollywood, complete with an epic dance floor.”
Silver Lake’s Akbar is a nightlife favorite that was brought back from the edge during the pandemic, after a GoFundMe launched in December raised more than $200,000 to help it stay afloat. Since then, the bar has begun outdoor service with Akbar Al Fresco and has events set throughout June, including a Pride celebration June 13.
“One can Zoom and have a cocktail for the rest of their lives now that we all know how it works, but nothing can replace face-to-face,” says Akbar co-owner Scott Craig. “Especially when you’re in a category of citizens who are slightly marginalized and, especially in some other states, being really horribly treated.”
And while many bars have been able to reopen to some degree in recent weeks, taking over parking lots and sidewalks, downtown L.A.’s nightlife scene has struggled to pivot because of limited outdoor options. Precinct, one of the most popular DTLA clubs, will reopen for the first time since the start of the pandemic June 17, after months of surviving on community fundraisers.
“There’s been a lot of quiet down here during the shutdown,” says co-owner Brian McIntire, as general manager James Eason adds, “I look at similar people in WeHo, and they’ve been working really closely with the city, which has been great for them, but it’s been hard to watch. I just wish that we’d been seen as a valuable asset.” Eason says the bar has received little aid in clsoing off streets and sidewalks for outdoor tables, as has happened in other areas of the city. Downtown has also witnessed an explosion of underground parties, which now pose competition as bars return.
“There are a lot of us that have held on as tight as we can, and I believe we’ll all be coming back, and these places need everyone’s support,” says McIntire. “I’m hoping that the other venues that people went to before all of this aren’t forgotten, and people start returning to them as well.”
And after the traumatic events of the past year, the significance of a restriction-free Pride is not lost. Says Eason, “June’s going to be both things for so many of us. It’s like re-bonding with our gay family as well as celebrating Pride. I think it means more to everyone this year.”
This story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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