To move forward, Don Cook looks back

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Don Cook
Don Cook is a living link to a unique range of local LGBTQ history

Out Profile

Though he protests the compliment, Don Cook is a living link to a unique range of local LGBTQ history, with new chapters still being written. For all he has learned and continues to discover, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Don Cook selfie
Don Cook selfie

Cook was co-owner of the famous gay bar Equus in Philadelphia with his then-partner Alan Kachin, quietly cranking the levers in the background to keep things running smoothly. More than simply a queer space for drinks and assorted liaisons, Equus was a full-fledged disco and cabaret venue that is reverently recalled by those who remember the Gayborhood of yore.

He also owned Studio Associates, an art gallery on 17th Street in Philadelphia which specialized in contemporary masters from a wide range of artists for several years. Cook maintains a hearty enthusiasm for art to this day, with a keen eye for spotting budding original talent.

In Southen New Jersey he continues to spearhead a unique program at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill called Aging with Pride which allows older LGBTQ adults to connect with one another to discuss issues like social isolation and discrimination, with a focus on building strength in numbers and channeling the wisdom they have acquired. He has also worked on behalf of The Rainbow Table, an intergenerational program with the aim of bringing together LGBTQ people of different generations to forge new ties, share stories, and bolster one another.

Cook has survived a lot, including the AIDS epidemic, and has dealt acutely with painful loss and adjustment to changing times and tides. Today he finds himself firmly between the optimism necessary to press onward as well as candid honesty about what he sees as a slipping of standards and the potential for dark days ahead if our community fails to absorb the lessons of our history.

He has a great deal of fond memories from his heady days at Equus, even though he worked at a brisk pace behind the scenes to keep the operation in full swing. Without consciously seeking it out, he became an integral part of the local LGBTQ community at a very young age.

“Alan had started some of the ball rolling with the bar in Philadelphia, and the next thing I [knew] that’s where I was,” he said. “That thrust [me] into being in an active role in the community, and the fact that we did work politically [and] worked with the local residents, for example, to make sure that the club was appreciated, cared about, etc., and spent a lot of energy doing that…I think that at that time that was a big step forward in comparison to most clubs. A lot of [the local scene] was not as upfront as we were—we were on Philadelphia’s Today TV show, and we were reviewed in the Philadelphia Enquirer, too.”

The cabaret space in the venue quickly became a hotspot, and Cook helped to book serious talent to entertain delighted audiences who flocked to the shows.

“Julie Wilson—she was part of the Rat Pack—is a fond, fond memory,” he said. “She opened and closed us every season— we maintained a season much like a New York theater season. She was an old cabaret singer who’d been around forever, and she’d stay with us whenever she was in town. I loved her to death—she was the sweetest, nicest woman, and her dresses with those sequins must have weighed 500 pounds! We would get wonderful reviews [when she performed] and it was kind of special.”

Cook also had a chance encounter with New York-based cabaret star Betty Rhodes while both were vacationing in Key West, and he persuaded her to commit to Philadelphia performances at Equus right on the spot, leading to further Equus success. He even hired pop belter Karen Young to perform for the happy hour in the downstairs section of the venue before she suddenly had the number-one disco hit “Hot Shot,” which promptly crossed over to the pop charts: “We packed the place!”

“…Today it’s all about the money and getting the business. We were about business, but we also felt we had a responsibility [to the community]…”

While Cook is quick to point out that being a visible presence in the LGBTQ community was part and parcel of their goal—“that was never, ever in dispute”—everyone was welcomed, with straight people coming as well, even occasionally with their children. The effort was made to have a family-friendly atmosphere that was still decidedly a queer space. It was very important to Cook, Kachin, and company that Equus have a carved-out identity, something Cook feels is often lost in gay bars—and queer spaces in general—today.

“We were really, I think, a forerunner of being a part of society, but we never lost our identity,” he said. “I’m afraid sometimes some of these clubs [today] lose their identity and try to be too mainstream. In the process, I think [that’s why] we are where we are now—there are not many places for [LGBTQ] people to go. It’s not as easy a situation as it used to be. Today, they want to get the business—it’s all about the money and getting the business. We were about business, but we also felt we had a responsibility [to the community]”

they worked hard to keep Equus a hotspot for many years

While Cook is glad to see that there is an increase in LGBTQ acceptance in the mainstream, he also laments some of the loss of identity that has come from not just the dwindling amount of queer meeting spaces, but the sense of character that has been lost through those changes.

Ultimately, he and Kashin learned that the gay audience bores easily, so they worked hard to keep Equus a hotspot for many years with that in mind.

“The gay community can be fickle—they need to be entertained,” he said. “Every year we used to redo the bar and have a grand opening. We would literally change the décor of the main part of the bar and the dining room every year—that was just to keep their interest!”

Although Cook and Kashin dissolved their partnership—both professionally and romantically—with some acrimony, they reunited as friends and maintain a close connection to this day. In fact, of the three loves of Cook’s life, Kashin is the only one still with us.

When he lost his longtime partner Tommy to AIDS some years after Equus closed, Cook was comforted by his parents, whom he speaks of with great joy and affection. He knows how unique it was to have sophisticated parents who were completely accepting of his being gay and considered it a non-issue. He keeps this in mind when interacting with young people who are just coming out today, such as those he has met through Rainbow Table. Even in a more enlightened era, many are not fortunate to have the same level of family support he enjoyed. In fact, Cook’s parents considered Tommy another son.

“[Tommy] was ten years younger than I was, and he would sometimes aggravate my father, and my mother would look at him and say, ‘He’s your child, not mine!’ he recalls with a laugh.

he considers his own artistic output an avocation, his passion for it burns hot

Although the timing turned out to be less than ideal when he launched Studio Associates, culminating in its relatively short duration, Cook helped expose and nurture several artists and forged meaningful relationships as a result, some of which continue to this day. Though he considers his own artistic output an avocation, his passion for it burns hot, and he remains fascinated by and supportive of artists with original voices.

“I had always been involved with art galleries from the time I was in college [and onward], and I was an art major,” he said. “A lot of the people who have influenced me are artists who have been involved in the art business, and they’re influences to me today, too. I firmly believe that you should really know a wide section of people— you get a broad education and many, many different factors, and you never know what’s going to come back to you and when you’re going to use it.”

Cook stressed that making an effort to forge unique connections when young can pay off over the course of a lifetime, whatever one’s passions may be:

“I had one professor, Tom Walker, who was a major innovative landscape artist at the time as well as an old school oil painter, and he had a one-man show at the Gilman Gallery in Chicago, which was an extremely prestigious gallery at the time. He asked me to help him set it up and I did, and on the way back in the car we drove through the Indiana landscape. He said ‘Look out the window. What do you see?’ I said, ‘I see a couple cows and a couple trees—it’s really not that interesting, just a flat landscape.’ He said, ‘No you don’t. You see a composition. You put it together in your mind. You see that composition and that’s what you reference. When you look at Macy’s windows, you don’t just look at the windows— you see how you change the windows and how that becomes a complete composition.’ That has stayed with me all these years. I wake up every morning thinking about it.”

Cook also laments the watering down of art—or what is said to be art—in contemporary life, with laymen exerting influence over the conversation.

“We say things about things we don’t understand,” he said. “The average person does not understand art. When people say ‘I know what I like when I see it,’ that’s a bunch of crap—that means you have no idea what you’re talking about. Like theater, art needs people to evaluate it, judge it, edit it, look at it in terms of [whether it’s good or bad] and make that call. I mean, today, everything’s art. But what you often see is Pottery Barn art. It’s crap. It’s commonplace, and it’s about money, just like what we see on Broadway with this rehash or that. There’s money involved, and in this country, that’s where we are now, and that is not conducive to being creative. If something makes you stop and think and question, it’s not a pretty painting you hang over the sofa.”

As he observes the younger generations of LGBTQ people who enjoy greater privileges than he once did, Cook cautions them to stay vigilant and not take them for granted.

“I work in a Jewish community center. I’m gay. I’m old!” he says with a laugh

“Today, with this pandemic, they’re giving a shot,” he said. “How wonderful it would have been 30 or 40 years ago to have something like that, but it was the queer epidemic, the queers who were dying, and who gave a shit about the queers? People were isolated, dying by themselves. [Dr. Anthony] Fauci was one of the few who would talk about what was happening back then… I think of this and I’m afraid for young people today [because I know] how easy it is for things to turn around. If Trump had become President again, trust me, things would have turned around [for LGBT rights] dramatically.”

As he observes the tumult surrounding us all, Cook finds his place in it with a healthy mix of humor, world-weariness, and self-insight.

“I sort of walk this fine line of being a part of minority groups,” he said. “I work in a Jewish community center. I’m gay. I’m old!” he says with a laugh. “These are all groups subject to many issues! I’m quite aware now [that I’m in the minority] whereas I wasn’t when I was younger. It’s important, though, to be aware—to know what’s at stake.”

Although he turned to the Katz Jewish Community Center in need of healing, having lost his parents and partner in a short span of time, Cook soon found himself in the position of offering hope to others. He now sees the building as a symbol of renewal and solace after so much darkness that preceded it. He became instrumental in growing their Aging With Pride group from under ten members to 60, began work with seniors that included an art program, and is now working in a guest services capacity. Being part of their Rainbow Table program, where he and his contemporaries have offered support to young people—whether they be gay, trans, questioning their identity, or somewhere else on their path—is something he has found immensely rewarding. He finds joy and purpose in knowing that there is always more to learn.

“Bad things sometimes initiate good things,” he says. “People of conscience try to gravitate toward people who have the same. We need each other. And there’s one thing [we should remember]—we [LGBTQ people] are somewhat of a force at this point!”