135 Pearl, Unstrung
Burlington's only gay bar was more than just a haven for queens
On Saturday, June 3, the nightclub and performance space known as 135 Pearl will close its doors for good, ending a 22-year run as Burlington's queer-friendly entertainment establishment. Owner Robert Toms, who bought the business in 1995, put the two-story downtown building on the market a year and a half ago. He'd hoped to sell it to someone who would keep the club going, but no buyers materialized. In May, the 37-year-old Toms reluctantly sold it to investors who plan to convert the first floor into a Papa John's pizzeria; the second floor will become apartments.
Toms has heard a lot of comments about the sale -- some thanking him for staying open as long as he did, some condemning him for selling out to a pizza chain. But there's a common theme: People will miss the place.
It may be hard to see the appeal of the non-descript club at the intersection of Pearl Street and Elmwood Avenue. Since its construction in 1880, Toms says, the battered gray-and-black building has been a boarding house, a seafood market and a funeral home, among other things. Sandwiched between the Masonic Temple and CCV, the place looks pretty shabby.
But appearances can be deceiving. In fact, bar patrons and local artists say 135 Pearl's departure will leave a tremendous void. Not just because it's the state's last specifically queer-friendly nightspot, hosting drag shows, theme parties and the annual post-Pride bash; but because Toms has turned it into a much-needed venue for experimental music and theater.
It's the theater crowd that open the place Saturday, May 27, around 7:45 p.m. The performance of three plays is 135 Pearl's final theater production. The 30 or so people who arrive to see it aren't your typical gay barflies. They're middle-aged, mostly -- some of them parents of actors, some of them straight couples. One guy is wearing a Dale Earnhardt cap. All of them seem at ease in the upstairs lounge, buying drinks before the show from bartender Bob Driver, a gay man wearing a white tank top and two metal-studded leather cuffs around his biceps.
The plays include two short one-acts -- Funny, about a mother and daughter driving home from a treatment center, and Welcome to the Moon, about a group of old friends from the Bronx who reunite and confess their secret desires. The third play, The Bald Soprano, is an hour-long piece by Eugene Ionesco. It culminates with four of the actors chasing each other around the stage shouting non sequiturs.
At the end, when the actors take their bows, they point to Funny director Toms, stationed at the sound booth in the corner of the room. The applause for him is poignant.
A love of theater is what prompted Toms to buy 135 Pearl in the first place. He came to Burlington shortly after graduating from the New York Institute of Technology on Long Island, hoping to open his own performance space. To supplement his income waiting tables at the Red Lobster, Toms picked up a few bartending shifts at the gay bar, then called Pearl's. He soon became its general manager.
The four owners, he says, were burned out and looking to sell. They wanted Pearl's to continue as a gay-friendly nightspot, but hadn't found a buyer. Eventually, one of the owners asked Toms if he would consider taking over. The idea appealed to him, mainly because it would give him a stage.
When Toms bought the club, he made some changes: He rechristened it 135 Pearl and crafted a new mission statement welcoming "people of every race, gender and orientation." 135 Pearl, he declared, was "free from discrimination, segregation and separatism."
Toms also launched the Shoebox Theater, which hosted a variety of shows by independent artists and local theater companies in the downstairs barroom. It was also home for a time to a poetry slam series and a folk-music night. But Shoebox was perhaps best known for showcasing offbeat plays such as Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, The Once and Future Ubu and Toms' own version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which he took a star turn as the bitter East German transsexual.
Burlington playwright Steve Goldberg, who was in the audience for Shoebox Theater's final show, says he's sorry to see 135 Pearl go. Goldberg directed a few of his plays here, including the original production of Curb Divers of Redemption. Vermont filmmaker Nora Jacobson shot a movie version of the play in the alley behind the club last summer.
"This place has been really great for the theater scene," says Goldberg. "The town really needs it. All we have are these $300-to-$400-a-night theater spaces that just aren't affordable."
Tracey Girdich, who played the mother in Funny, agrees. She can't even remember how many plays she's done here. She's acted in some, directed others -- such as this winter's Green Candle Theater production of Silent Invasion. Girdich says that Toms' willingness to charge artists a split of the proceeds at the door, rather than a flat rental fee, has bolstered the local theater scene.
"This is the only place in town that allowed people to take risks," she says of the space. "You could take a chance on doing something here and not lose your shirt."
Both Goldberg and Girdich are hopeful that another experimental space will open. Local theater, they say, is on the rise.
The club clientele of 135 Pearl is not as optimistic about finding replacement digs. On Saturday, the dancers and drinkers begin to arrive as the plays wind down. By 11 p.m. the house music on the first floor is so loud you can feel it pulsing in your chest, and the retro-pop faves on the second floor seem to be reliving the '80s.
A group of actors and their friends congregate around a table in the back room upstairs. They're bummed the club is closing. Twenty-seven-year-old Burlington resident Nathan Jarvis, who performed in the Ionesco play, says he's been a 135 Pearl's patron since he was 18.
"What I love about this place is that if I wanted to put on stiletto heels and throw a feather boa around my shoulder and come here, it was accepted," Jarvis says. "You didn't have to worry about people ridiculing you." He adds defiantly, "I will never buy pizza from here."
His friend James Nelson is similarly nostalgic. Asked for a good 135 Pearl story, the 36-year-old, who splits his time between Burlington and New York City, holds up his left hand to show the ring on his finger. "I found my partner seven years ago at this bar," he says, a wistful look in his eye.
Even so, Nelson says he's not surprised 135 Pearl is closing -- he's been expecting it for the past 10 years. Vermont used to be home to several gay bars that have come and gone, he points out. "This is sort of the last whimper of a dying spirit," Nelson says. "The culture has changed."
That's true of both queer culture and of American society in general. For example, threatening or openly hostile behavior directed at queer people is far less acceptable today than it was just a decade ago. Now, a same-sex couple going out for a drink might prefer Red Square 135 Pearl.
Perhaps more importantly, 135 Pearl isn't the "meat market" it once was. Anyone looking to hook up can meet potential partners in online chatrooms to arrange an encounter. For a growing number of queer singles, cruising at the bar is no longer necessary.
Toms admits this cultural shift has affected his business. "It's not the community center anymore," he says. "That's down the street," he adds, looking out the second-floor window down Elmwood Ave. The R.U.1.2? Queer Community Center opened there, half a block away, in 2003.
The smoking ban didn't help, either. But Toms says the bar always been a marginal endeavor, because of the challenge of operating a queer-friendly venue in a small town in a small state. Pearl's was "barely breathing" when he bought it, he recalls, and the business has always been a struggle. Toms says his boyfriend of nine years helped him keep the business alive by refinancing their house.
"My credit is shit," Toms says frankly. "I have robbed Peter to pay Paul and Mary."
He points out that he's not losing money on the sale, but he's not making a profit, either. The city of Burlington assessed the property at just over $500,000; he's selling for $375,000.
But Toms says it's not just the money that's driving him out -- the North Hero resident wants to spend more time on his art. And, he points out, he never wanted to own a bar in the first place. He stayed in as long as he did, Toms says, out of a sense of obligation to the community.
When Papa John's approached him, Toms remembers thinking, "I'll be dead before I see it become a pizza place." But after months of waiting, and lots of advice from accountants and businesspeople, he decided to make peace with the sale. Now, Toms is trying to find new homes for some of the club's more successful regular events, such as karaoke, Womyn's Night and the monthly drag show "Poof!" -- this last one, it appears, will be relocating to Club Metronome.
Owner Damon Brink says his club will welcome the 135 Pearl crowd. "We're open to it 100 percent," he says. "Nectar's and Metronome are safe places for people. Hopefully when people come here, they feel comfortable."
Toms is hopeful, too, that this transition will be an opportunity to "give the other businesses a chance to embrace us."
But that's an argument many 135 Pearl patrons still reject. James Nelson says that people in his generation, especially those who are not "out" to the wider community, still are uneasy in "straight" bars. "This is the only place they feel comfortable coming out," he says. "That will not happen at Red Square, at Metronome, at Nectar's or at The Other Place, no matter how accepting they are. There are those for whom having a safe space that is dedicated to them is crucial."
Nelson's partner Jerry Perry, 35, elaborates. "You still run the chance of running across that one person who's a redneck, who still wants to cause trouble," he explains.
Toms is not unsympathetic to their frustration. "It's like losing your house, being kicked out of the nest," he says of the closing. But he's convinced it's the right thing for him to do. "It's letting go," he says. "Letting go is hard for us. But once you do, things open up."
Toms suggests that the end of 135 Pearl is a "reality check" for queer folks and artists alike. "Maybe," he says, "it'll be a catalyst for them to say, 'It's my turn.'"
Shawn Lipenski, 31, Burlington
Lipenski, who directed and appeared in Welcome to the Moon, will miss the regulars. "There's a guy, we don't know his name," he says. "We just started calling him Hummingbird, because when he dances, his ass shakes so fast. He doesn't come out often, but when he does, it's a sight to be seen."
Bob Driver, 47, Burlington
A bartender at 135 Pearl who performs in drag as Naomi G., Driver says the club has played a pivotal role in his life over the past two decades. "This was the place that I met my husband," he says. "It's the place I met my best friend. It's also the place that I met myself. Finally walking through these doors helped me realize who I was."
Chelsea, 21, Burlington
"The first time I ever came to Pearl's," she says, "I took my shirt off on stage at a burlesque show. I'm sad it's closing. I don't want to think about it."
Nathan Jarvis, 27, Burlington
"Two of my boyfriends broke up with me here."
Hannah Hauser, 25, Burlington
Hauser met her girlfriend there in September 2004. "Which is sort of ironic," she says, "since neither of us drink." She'll miss the community aspect of the place. "You just know you're going to see someone you know, if not everyone you know," she says. "It was just really chill."
Bob, 35, Colchester
"I come here every week," he says. "I can tell you about all the great guys who never call."
Mark, 23, St. Albans
Mark says one of his low points at Pearl's occurred at last year's Halloween Party. "I was dressed as a fairy," he recalls. "I had made these giant red wings, but they were too big for the club. I kept hitting everyone. One of the bartenders asked me to coat-check my wings. How embarrassing is that?"
Michael, 29, Burlington
"I've had some pretty traumatic moments here," he says. "To me, this place is pretty dark. Always has been. Can't you feel it? I think it's good for a new beginning. I think what we need is a new dance club. There's no need to segregate ourselves. That's what happens in an open society."
Jason Durocher, aka DJ Precious, 24, Essex Junction.
"Poof!" organizer Durocher claims drag can be dangerous. "We had a drag queen take a tumble down the whole set of stairs once," he says. "She hit the bottom, and her fake jelly breast flew out, hit the wall, and landed with a plop on the ground. She got up, fixed her hair, and picked up her boob. She put it in her purse and left."
Tim, 36, Colchester
Tim enjoyed the 2005-06 New Year's Eve bash. "I got loaded," he says. "We all had our little midnight kiss. Everyone was getting along so well. It was awesome. It was like a big family. And I hooked up."