In 1979-80, Atlantic City was booming. Gambling had been approved a few years earlier and the city was reinventing itself, big time. The grand old hotels from the 1920s were being renovated or torn down to build brand new gaudy casinos. Not exactly like those in neon-clad Las Vegas, but much more flashy compared to the art deco hotels from the Boardwalk Empire era. Neighborhoods were gentrifying, whole blocks were razed, little motels were now condos, and it was non-stop action everywhere you looked. I felt an immediate and deep connection with Atlantic City; we were both searching for, and building, a new identity for the world.
My father worked in construction. He remodeled and updated the former summer homes and apartment buildings into year-round residences. I enrolled in Atlantic City High School and began learning my new life in this small but burgeoning seaside city.
One of the English teachers ran an “experimental” class. You had to apply to attend, and I was lucky enough to get in. It wasn’t your traditional high school class; it focused on creativity and discussion, and we explored themes and ideas. It was engaging and fun and one of the few classes I enjoyed. Mostly because, by now, everyone had pretty much figured out I was gay and I was getting bullied nearly every day at school.
I dreaded walking the halls between classes. It was a gauntlet of teasing and intimidation. But this class was special and I enjoyed losing myself in the discussions and forgetting for a short time what was waiting for me outside the classroom door. One day, during our round table conversation, the subject of homosexuality came up and I remember very clearly putting my guard up. I knew this was one subject that could make my life a lot more miserable at school than it already was. Being young straight teenagers, my classmates didn’t have anything of substance to say on the subject, and neither did I for that matter. I was the only person that I knew that was actually gay so I didn’t have a clue about what “we” do or who “we” are. But in all the usual negative remarks, the sophomoric jokes, and the outright disdain for “them,“ one of the kids said an innocuous offhand remark that changed my entire life in Atlantic City in a split second.
“Don’t go to New York Avenue, that’s where all those gays hang out.”
As everyone else was giggling and agreeing, I felt a wave of emotions rush over me. I wanted to pepper him with questions: What do you mean? There are gay people right here in the city? Is that where they live? How do you know? What do they do on New York Avenue?
I was consumed with curiosity, my entire focus was now on the end of the school day and getting on that jitney bus. New York Avenue was only six blocks from where I lived. How did I not know? I lived so close all this time. Today was the day I was going to meet my people!
My sense of wonderment began almost immediately. Even before I walked a few yards down the street, I could see that the people here were not the same as the rest of the city. There was a certain flamboyance, everyone was ultra-trendy, and there were drag queens!
Across the street was Lyle’s, a great little breakfast place that had an almost exclusively gay clientele. I watched people walking out of the building that lived in the apartments above and knew they were all gay by the way they were dressed. I was amazed at how at ease they were. They weren’t hiding it and I was, frankly, a little confused. Seeing people so comfortable in who they were was not something I was used to, especially during those years. As I continued walking, I passed the venerable Rendezvous Lounge; its unlit neon sign overhead was still bright and inviting. A group walked out with drinks and made their way down the avenue towards the Boardwalk, linking arms and holding hands. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Directly across the street from the ‘Vous was the Chester Inn, a hotel/rooming house that also catered predominantly to the LGBTQ community. In the front was the Front Porch, a restaurant with big glass windows, you could see mostly male couples seated together eating and drinking. There was a little outdoor bar to the right of the Chester called the Puka Lani, it was tropical-themed and had a little pool where guys were swimming and drinking. Under the Chester Inn was the Chester Lounge; although I could only see the sign for it, it looked mysterious and I was curious to know what was down there. Not too many years later, I did get in (underage, of course) and found out it was a dance club that touted it had a “video bar,” a new trend in clubs. They showed music videos and concerts while you danced. It sounds so trite now but it was cutting edge in the early 1980s.
I continued to walk, past the ‘Vous going by Mama Motts, another restaurant that had almost exclusively gay clientele (it was where I went on my first official “gay date”), and wandered down past the rooming houses and apartments that lined the avenue. People were hanging out on their porches, everyone calling out to each other and down to the streets, saying hello to their friends as they passed by. Then, toward the end of the street, a small bar sat back from the curb. It was the original Saratoga and an imposing man sat out front on a folding chair. He was the doorman who, over the next year, was the only doorman that wouldn’t let me in. It wasn’t until later when they remodeled and expanded the building, did I finally get in. It ended up being the first gay bar I ever performed in, ironically.
Up the ramp to the Boardwalk was the entrance to the Chez Paree. I had already heard about this club, it was one of the biggest clubs around, and everyone went there, including my father. Although it was a straight club, it was one of the first examples of how integrated Atlantic City was back then, and is now. Gay and straight people went there, danced together and had fun. My father would tell me stories about guys trying to pick him up, laughing about it. As I stood on the ramp, guys were passing by me, scantily dressed in thongs and headbands, frayed t-shirts with fringe, and cut-off shorts. They all made their way right toward Illinois Avenue beach in front of the Claridge Hotel. It was traditionally the gay beach, and back then, it was all gay!
That summer, I got my first job on the Boardwalk right at Illinois Avenue (now MLK Avenue) and I watched everyone parade back and forth all season long. And parade they did, it was liberating to see our community so out, loud, and proud and in large numbers. Back down the street, I turned to Westminster Alley, better known as Snake Alley (because of the way it twists and turns). This street was home to what was then the oldest gay bar on the East Coast, Louise Mack’s Entertainers’ Club. It had been a private “gentleman’s club” since its inception, turning into a speakeasy during Prohibition and hosting drag shows and other entertainments. It was a small dive bar by the time I moved to Atlantic City, but, as I found out soon enough, it had the best jukebox I had ever seen. Every song you could think of was on there.
A little farther up and across the street was the Grand Central Resort, a complex of bars, with a rooming house and hotel attached. Above was the After Dark piano lounge and underneath was Studio 5, one of the biggest gay men’s bars around. I still have my Grand Central wooden token from my only time going there (it had burned down the weekend after my first and only visit).
Snake Alley was lined with rooming houses, just like New York Avenue, again full with mostly gay residents. Back up to Pacific Avenue, I found that the apartment blocks along there were also pretty much gay. The Coffee Mill, another breakfast nook on the corner of Kentucky Avenue, was another gay hangout, and up around the corner on Mt. Vernon Avenue, we had the Brass Rail and the Studio Six was upstairs. Back then, the Six catered more to the lesbian community and was only expanded and changed after Studio 5 burned down.
Being here during the last years of the heyday of Atlantic City’s entrenched gay community was a blessing, albeit a bittersweet one. Walking around the area now, I only see ghosts of those people and buildings and clubs that used to be there. But, as the Chez Paree showed us over 40 years ago, Atlantic City welcomes everyone, gay or straight. Now, where once we only felt comfortable within a few blocks in the middle of the city, I see LGBTQ people holding hands all over the world-famous Atlantic City Boardwalk, dancing together in all the clubs, and sharing my town together.