It's 10:30 on a Saturday night, and the Commercial Center parking lot is relatively quiet. Aside from a mass of vehicles parked in front of the popular pool hall Cue Club, there's not much more activity in the immediate area. Except, of course, in front of Pride Factory.
Outside, friends are gathered around tables on the patio. An employee checks IDs, making sure no one under 18 is without an adult. Inside, a melodramatic drag queen named Claudia dances while lip-syncing to Celine Dion. People are randomly planted in plush leather love seats, watching the latter-day Celine prance and twirl. Small tables near the window are occupied, and other performers—poets, singers, more drag queens—wait their turn like ballplayers in a dugout.
Despite the rack full of greeting cards bearing images of strapping men with raging hard-ons and the prominence of rainbow-colored paraphernalia, the scene at Pride Factory is not predominantly gay. Yes, some men sit with men, and women with women. But there is not the meat-market feel of many gay and lesbian hangouts. Young, funky coffee-servers, cozy living-room furniture, amateur poetry and song—it seems so familiar, so ... Maryland Parkway circa 1995. Could the resurgence of the coffeehouse scene be starting beneath the rainbow flags?
Though it is not quite the renowned spectacle that are the Los Angeles or Miami events, Las Vegas' annual Gay Pride celebration (happening this week) has come a long way from its start as a handful of events held at and around UNLV in 1983, sponsored by the Gay Academic Union, Nevadans for Human Rights, and Metropolitan Community Church. Pride's trajectory almost identically matches that of queer Vegas in general. Community interest and involvement were very low at first. Less than 200 people came to the '83 and '84 Pride awards banquets. The mid-'80s AIDS epidemic resulted in the '85 Pride events seeing lackluster attendance; less than 100 people showed for the banquet, and even fewer for the rally at Sunset Park.
"I remember my first parade in town," recalls Mark Garcia, general manager of Gipsy nightclub. "It was down by Sunset Park, there were maybe 30 people by the side of the road, and a very small number of people in the parade."
Things were so dim that '86 saw no Pride events. The Silver State Lambda Coalition stepped in to restart the annual event at various venues in '87, but it was not until '91 that the Las Vegas LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community finally got loud and proud.
When Las Vegas Bugle (the predecessor to monthly glossy magazine Q Vegas) Publisher Rob Schlegel teamed with entertainer Will Collins to produce that year's event at Sunset Park, they poured all their time and money into promoting the hell out of Pride. Their work paid off. More than 1,300 people paid the $5 admission to the event, beating the pair's expectations four times over. This set the stage for the future of Pride and of Vegas' LGBT community in general.
A couple of years later, legal triumphs began emerging: In '93, the state law that made sodomy a felony was repealed. And in '98, Nevada's first openly gay assemblyman, David Parks, introduced a bill prohibiting discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation. It was signed into law the next year.
The legal winning streak ended when Richard Ziser appeared on the radar. In 2000, Ziser's Coalition for the Protection of Marriage gathered enough petition signatures to get his proposed amendment to the Nevada state constitution—recognizing only marriages between one man and one woman—onto the next election's ballot. Though this definition already existed in Nevada law, if passed, the amendment would render gay marriages from other states illegal here, and would bar any court decisions to the contrary. Thanks to the strength of Ziser's powerful conservative allies, the ballot measure passed both in 2001 and 2003 by almost two to one, despite the oppositional efforts of organizations like Equal Rights Nevada and the Nevada Democratic Party.
By 2003, the official organization producing Pride, the Southern Nevada Association of Pride, Inc. (SNAPI), saw in excess of 6,000 people attending the annual Pride festival, and thousands more attending related parties and events. The poorly attended rally at Sunset Park was now a full-fledged parade in Downtown Las Vegas, presided over by Hizzoner himself, Mayor Oscar Goodman. Corporate sponsors and big-name entertainers lent even more validation to the growing festivities. But the bottom nearly fell out.
Alleged financial mismanagement by then-president of SNAPI, Josh Ryan (whose own business, drag club Sasha's—named for his drag queen alter-ego—itself closed), left the organization almost $50,000 in debt, and the future of Pride in the air.
"We wiped out $47,000 in debt and had $30,000 in the bank after last year's festival," reports Keith Groteluschen, secretary of SNAPI, after witnessing a wildly successful Pride '04. "Now we run this 501(c)(3) like a business and won't allow a repeat of that situation. We have checks and balances in place and they are working great."
Simultaneously, on a national scale, LGBT representation in the media was becoming more prevalent and less stereotypical. The success of television programs like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer as Folk and The L Word proved that "gay" material could appeal to a wider, "mainstream" audience. Locally, Goodman displayed strong support of local gays and lesbians when, aside from his role as Pride parade grandmaster, Hizzoner also threw his weight around to assist drag-club owner Don Troxel's plight against the owners of Neonopolis, who reneged on his lease because of alleged anti-gay bias. After suffering the loss of businesses like Commercial Center bar Cobalt and Fruit Loop drag club Tramps (formerly Sasha's) in '03, by the middle of '04 new businesses like Troxel's Celebrity Cabaret were in various stages of opening, as were Pride Factory, Rainbow Lounge, Toxic, 8-1/2 Ultra Lounge and Krave.
Pride Factory opened as scheduled last summer. Rainbow Lounge, occupying the former location of Cobalt, opened a few months later. Toxic and 8-1/2, despite advanced advertising claiming otherwise, never opened. Celebrity relocated to Third Street and Ogden, part of a new entertainment district known as "The Block." But its opening has been, even now, indefinitely delayed as well.
Krave is an anomaly. It's a nightclub on the Strip, but unattached to any hotel or casino (yes, technically it is physically lodged to the Aladdin's Desert Passage mall, but it is not associated with the resort). It's a gay nightlife destination, the only one in the resort corridor. But it's also a bachelorette party favorite, thanks to the Krave Men of Las Vegas revue. And it's home to Fashionistas, an S&M-themed dance show based on the adult film of the same name, whose creator, John Stagliano (known as "The Butt Man" in porn circles), financed part of the club's construction to prove how much he believed in his show.
Against all odds, Krave is succeeding, with the exception of its overpriced, limited-menu restaurant experiment, E.A.T. at Krave (which has since been repurposed as the Krave Kabaret). Fashionistas has received rave reviews from both mainstream and alternative press. The nightclub, thanks to the strength of gay party mastermind Jeffrey Sanker's Saturday night promotion, "Everything You Desire," has been packed every weekend. The club went from opening only on the weekend to almost every night of the week, adding new promotions, drawing bigger talent and more repeat business. Krave's management is so confident in the club's ability to draw regulars that they will soon launch the Krave lifestyle card, an affinity program designed to maximize benefits for members and heavily promote brand loyalty.
The mastermind behind Krave is Sia Amiri, the business maven responsible for hot restaurants such as Chez Moi and Wave in Los Angeles, and Crustacean here in Las Vegas. The latter found its success in the Desert Passage mall at the Aladdin, so it's not surprising that Amiri chose the former home of Blue Note Las Vegas and Ibiza USA for his latest venture. What is surprising is that Krave succeeded where those other nightspots failed.
"They were going for the general marketplace," says Bill Huggins, marketing director for Krave. "We are marketing for a niche, and we have great customer service, good talent, great lighting and an upscale atmosphere. There's nothing like this place in Las Vegas."
Krave's success seems to have made an impact on other gay nightlife venues in Las Vegas. Goodtimes —an East Tropicana gay bar with a dance floor—is marketing itself more aggressively as a hot nightclub with progressive DJs that just happens to be a gay hangout. But Gipsy—for a long time, Las Vegas' gay clubbing jewel—has perhaps been most affected by its not-too-far-away competitor on the Strip.
With all the media attention on Krave, Gipsy lost a lot of visibility in the last 12 months, and its owner's inability to deliver the goods on 8-1/2 and Toxic has not helped. Krave scored both the Las Vegas Weekly's Readers' Choice and Las Vegas Review-Journal's staff pick for top gay nightclub in the two papers' respective polls. Gipsy used to draw its largest crowd on Saturday nights, but since Sanker brought "Everything You Desire" to Krave, that Gipsy crowd has shifted to Friday nights, according to Garcia.
Indeed, the entire Fruit Loop—the gay business-dominated intersection of Paradise Road and Naples Drive—has suffered, not just because of shinier competition on and off the Strip, but also because of multiple failed attempts to restart businesses in the area, lack of parking and dangerous traffic. In a decentralized town, one thing a gay, lesbian or bisexual night crawler could count on was making the rounds on a Saturday night at the corner of Paradise and Naples, the unofficial LGBT center of Las Vegas. Since Angles and Tramps closed, options have become somewhat limited, and other spots—including the transgender-friendly Zingers and other businesses in Commercial Center—have drawn interest away from the prodigal gay stomping grounds.
Gipsy's owners plan to change that.
Garcia's vision for the future of the gay and lesbian community in Las Vegas looks a lot like its past: Bringing business back to the Fruit Loop.
"Before, there was plenty to go around here," Garcia says. "Just having a choice of places to go was great. I think we're really looking to bring that clientele back into the area."
8-1/2 Ultra Lounge and Toxic are still on track to open, according to Garcia. Delays in building permits pushed back the construction schedules on the two establishments because of time and redrawn plans. Eventually, Gipsy management decided to take on a new direction: Instead of trying to modify their plans to rush the building permits, they would go back to their original designs and wait patiently for everything to clear.
The results should represent another stage in the growth of the local LGBT community. First to open—by next month—will be Suede Restaurant and Bar, the new name for the project formerly known as Toxic. It will occupy the old location of drag club Tramps, and Garcia says Suede will be targeting the pre- and post-party crowd, offering a lounge-like atmosphere and a full menu.
Opening toward the end of this summer—in theory—will be the long-anticipated 8-1/2 Ultra Lounge and Piranha nightclub. This two-story venue—occupying the shell left behind by the closing of Icon (formerly Angles/Lace)—looks to be Gipsy's response to the popularity of swanky on-Strip clubs, both gay and straight. The front part of the club will be 8-1/2, a Fruit Loop answer to ultra lounges like Tabú and Teatro that will be a place to have an after-work cocktail. Garcia says the music will gradually change from chilled-out to faster-paced dance music as the evening grows. A second-floor balcony will wrap around the dance floor, featuring VIP rooms and its own bar. Within 8-1/2 will be the entrance to Piranha, a more clubby section filling the space that used to be Lace.
One must wonder if Gipsy monopolizing three corners of the Loop might create the problem of the businesses eating away at themselves. Popular restaurant and nightclub FreeZone and long-established bar Buffalo already exist at the intersection along with Gipsy, with Hamburger Mary's another block away.
"We feel there's plenty to go around," says Garcia. "You could spend a whole evening down in the Loop without driving anywhere else. We're trying to create something for everybody—song, dance, show."
The formula could work. It has in the past, and it definitely has in other cities, where busy Downtown areas offer rows of bars, clubs, cafes and shops in dense areas, creating a diversity of options. The problem is, not only do the Fruit Loop business have to compete with themselves, they have to compete with Commercial Center businesses and now other options, Downtown or on the Strip. Garcia doesn't think that's a real issue.
"Each bar in town has its own clientele that patronizes that particular bar," Garcia says. "It's important for bars to work together. I honestly think what allows our community to be cohesive is that cooperation between the different businesses."
Gipsy has led the way with offering Hamburger Mary's dinner patrons discounted admission to the nightclub. However, that seems to be a natural relationship, since Gipsy does not offer food and Mary's does not offer a clubbing experience. You will not likely see such cooperation between Gipsy and the likes of Krave in the near future.
This year's Pride—the theme of which is "Centennial Celebration"—is already shaping up to be more successful than any other year in Las Vegas Pride's 22-year history. Parties and events span more than a week—they started with the arts show and Pride Royalty Pageant on May 20, and will end with the Last Chance party at Krave on May 29. Of course, Saturday's festival at the Las Vegas Sports Center is the climax of the celebrations, and Groteluschen predicts about 8,000 attendees for this year's event. The evening before, Fourth Street Downtown will be shut down from Coolidge to Ogden avenues for the Krave-sponsored Pride parade, once again presided over by grandmaster Goodman.
A first for this year's celebration was a nondenominational church service on May 21, hosted by Christ Episcopal Church on Maryland Parkway. As well, SNAPI continues to be a potent fund-raiser for charities and nonprofit organizations both for the LGBT community and for greater Las Vegas in general. All throughout the year, fund-raising events are held not only to support Pride itself, but also for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, the Metropolitan Community Church, and the Caring is Sharing toy and food drive for local women's and children's charities.
Of course, the focal point of Pride is its "can we top last year?" annual festival, and this year, all the stops are being pulled out. With corporate sponsorship from the likes of MGM/Mirage, Red Bull and Budweiser, Saturday's offerings will include over 110 vendors, a dance pavilion with music and lights by Studio 54, sand volleyball courts, indoor and outdoor booths, and live entertainment from Jody Watley and Jose Esteban Estrada.