12 September 2014

In Praise of Boots & Saddle

“Welcome home,” Victoria Chase said to Kevin Daly one night when he walked into Boots and Saddle. Kevin had been going through a rough spell. He’d visited the bar only a few times, and that was months ago. Victoria was onstage, in the middle of her act, and Kevin was just some kid by the door. But she recognized him, sensed that he was looking for shelter from the storm, and she spoke up: “Welcome home.”

There’s been a lot of confusion about Boots and Saddle, a 40-year-old Greenwich Village gay bar now seeking a new location. Much of that confusion, it must be said, has been sown purposefully, maliciously and mendaciously, and it’s complicated the efforts to move the bar. So this seems a good time to tell you precisely — and honestly — what kind of place the bar is. Boots is a business, certainly, but it’s much more than that. It is a community, stronger and more diverse than any other I’ve found. When Victoria tells you you’ve come home, she means it, and she’s right.

Victoria Chase: One of the most remarkable people I have ever known, a gifted entertainer with a noble, caring heart.

Just look around the room. We don’t look like the crowd in any other bar, and we don’t look like each other. We are every age, every ethnicity, every class, and every sexuality. Yet there we are, together. So long as we play by the rules, we’re welcome, and the first rule is that we recognize and respect the worth of others. That’s why you don’t see a lot of attitude and posing. You see people talking to each other, even before Victoria takes the microphone and instructs us to turn to the person on the right and introduce ourselves — something she often does.

Boots got its start as a cowboy bar, but in recent years it’s evolved into a showcase for drag performers like Victoria, who in addition to her own shows books the other acts for the bar, a consistently surprising lineup of singers, dancers, and comics. Historically, Greenwich Village has welcomed boundary-breaking entertainment by young artists: Eugene O’Neill, Comden and Green, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand, Charles Ludlam. And just by painting up, the Boots artists align themselves firmly in the Greenwich Village tradition that launched the gay rights movement 45 years ago, when the drag queens fought back and set off the Stonewall riots.

So if you block a drag act, then you are the one who’s upsetting the status quo, “ruining the neighborhood,” and devaluing the reputation that brings visitors from all over the world. The first time I came to Greenwich Village, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place: it doesn’t look all that different from any other part of town. What defines the neighborhood is the people — and historically those people have been communists and socialists, artists and free thinkers, homosexuals and bohemians. In the post-Giuliani, post-Bloomberg era, I’m not sure what will define Greenwich Village now. Property values, maybe.

When did Helen Lovejoy move to Manhattan?

A side note here, to the Helen Lovejoys in the neighborhood so deeply, deeply concerned about the children: it’s possible that, in Springfield, no drag queen will rise up before an impressionable kid. But in New York, we’ve got posters for RuPaul on city buses. Here, drag is a fact of life, and the kids aren’t scarred, they’re better adjusted than you are. Consider the example of the little girl who came running up to Misty Meaner outside the bar and asked, “Are you a princess?” The acts can get a little raunchy, but most of the shows go on long after the library has closed and the kids have gone to bed. As another of the performers, Frostie Flakes, said the other day, “Drag queens are full of light, love, and color.” Heaven forbid we should expose our children to any of that.

As a person who lives directly upstairs from not one but three bars, I sympathize with the concerns of Boots’ neighbors. Bars can be loud, any establishment that serves liquor to crowds can get rowdy, and sometimes unpleasant behavior spills out onto the sidewalk. But Boots’ owners, Ron Silver and Robert Ziegler, take responsible steps, including a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and brawling, professional security guards, and a proactive approach to keeping not just their own doorway, but all of Christopher Street safe. I wish the bars in my neighborhood did the same. No, it’s not perfect, but nothing is (even in Greenwich Village). And the benefits Boots offers do a great deal to outweigh potential nuisances.

Above all, Robert has spent years fostering the community represented by the bar’s customers, staff, and artists. He’s done this not least by hiring Victoria and endorsing her vision of what Boots can and should be. He’s also committed the bar to important causes, taking an active role in the community at large, in a way that few other gay bars in New York do. Boots has raised money for political candidates, and organized the customers and staff to march against violence. Boots has sponsored events for homeless LGBT youth, for AIDS research and care, and for individual members of our “family” who were in need.

Kevin sings karaoke at Boots.

Moving to a new location means getting approval for a liquor license from the community board, which hears arguments on both sides before deciding. The customers, staff, and artists didn’t have to attend the first community board meeting, and yet we did, about fifty of us, in such a number that our opponents packed the next meeting. At that first meeting, I tried to explain that we were ourselves a community board, brought together in all our diversity because Boots and Saddle represents something that we can’t find anywhere else. We came to be heard, because we come to Boots.

When we are lonely, or bored, or in love, we come to Boots. When members of our community are in need — when our brothers and sisters are beaten and killed in the streets, and we are ready to march together — we come to Boots. When we are grieving or when we are celebrating a birthday or an engagement or a wedding — we come to Boots. When young artists reveal talents they could share nowhere else — we come to Boots.

Greenwich Village is synonymous around the world with the freedom to discover and to be our true selves. When we are ready to do the same — we come to Boots.

I’ve been to bars in four continents, and this bar is like no other place on earth. If some neighbors have their way, and Boots and Saddle moves to some other part of town, then Greenwich Village will be poorer for the loss.

My karaoke debut, imitating Dietrich
while singing “Falling in Love Again.”
(In German, mostly.)


Anne said...

Terrific post, thank you...like they give a damn about the kids. If they don't want the kids to see a drag show, don't take them to one.

It's amazing but the diversity, what makes New York, New York , that's what they want to rub away.

One has to love drag queens imo because their need to be who they are for all to see is so inspiriting to us all!!

If one has a problem with a drag queen, they have a problem about who they are imo

Janice H said...

Um..really? In New York City? We've really hit a new low when people are worried about having a gay bar in the neighborhood. To paraphrase the post above: If they don't want the kids to see a drag show, DON'T LIVE IN NEW YORK!

And, wait a minute--you did a Dietrich song?