- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

HOUMA, La. (AP) - Ten years ago, the Drama Club broke hard ground as the first gay bar to advertise publicly and display the rainbow flag in Houma. It recently closed, leaving a world much different than the one it entered in late 2003.

For the thousands who visited the bar, squeezing between its colorful walls to dance away balmy Cajun nights, the closing was a bittersweet milestone in the acceptance of gay culture into the Houma’s mainstream.

Now there is a new bar in town, on Main Street, just over a mile away from the seat of parish government.

Drama Club owner Randy Chestnut celebrated his 70th birthday on Feb. 15, the bar’s last night. He opened it on a whim after he found out the only gay bar at that time, Kicks, was planning to close.

It was the seventh bar that Chestnut owned and managed in his career, and it became his pride.



“My goal was to have a place where the gay community could enjoy themselves,” Chestnut said. “This was my favorite bar out of all the ones I have owned. It was my crown jewel and now it’s my swan song.”

Chestnut said he was overwhelmed with emotion as he prepared to move to Lafayette to be with his children.

“There are a lot of sad people tonight,” Chestnut said. “This was the first place a lot of people came out to. Drama Club loves Houma, we wish everybody the best in the world.”

The decision to close was a long time coming, Chestnut said. The club had been losing money since the BP oil spill shocked the local economy.

Chestnut said the opening of Main Street Lounge did not influence his decision to close. But many say it was Chestnut’s bar that made the newer one possible.

The night before Drama Club closed, Todd Carvell sat at a packed bar inside Main Street Lounge. “Drama Club paved the way for this club to open,” said Carvell, 37. “Ten years ago I would’ve never imagined coming to Houma and going to a gay bar on Main Street.”

BREAKING NEW GROUND

The Drama Club, with its neon sign and loudmouth message board, was a departure from the clandestine nightspots before it.

“South Louisiana has been accepting of gay bars for some time, but in the past they were always off to the side, across the railroad tracks or wherever. You had to know the address just to find the place,” Drama Club bar manager Ronnie Williams said.

The club was also the first to attract a significant number of straight customers, who would often stop by just to experience the novelty of being in a gay bar or to take in one of its drag shows. The club’s slogan invited customers to “bring yo mama and yo drama.”

Only one gay bar, Kicks, had managed to stay open longer. It was open for 11 years, starting in the early 1990s; it closed after Drama Club opened.

Keeping Drama Club open was not always easy. Shortly after it opened, a dispute between two customers led to a raid by armed Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents.

“We came very close to closing,” Chestnut said. “I heard from authorities that they intended to close the club down, because the powers at be did not want us here. I was not going to have that - we have a right to do businesses just like anyone else.”

The club eventually made a peaceful arrangement with local law enforcement. But during the raid, patrons were confronted with automatic weapons and made to stand outside the club, in full view of cars passing by on North Hollywood Road, eroding the sense of security and privacy that many customers depend on.

“After the raid, there was almost nobody in the bar,” Chestnut said. “But we persevered. Little by little people starting coming back.”

He said, “I think Drama Club did a very good job bringing Houma into the 21st century. We brought the whole community forward.”

‘A WHOLE NEW WORLD’

Gay bars were once social lifelines in small towns, but the Internet has augmented options for gay people growing up away from big cities.

“When I was growing up, you had to go out to a gay bar to meet people,” Williams said. “Now, I meet gay people everywhere I go - in line at Wal-Mart, on the street - who I have never seen in this bar before.”

Mixing of gay and straight crowds has also become more common, and new bars are competing by offering flashy lights and an increasingly upscale atmosphere.

Less than a half a mile away from the Drama Club, the Main Street Lounge has enjoyed growing crowds almost every week since it opened on Halloween night. It is financed by Ray Cheramie, who had previously owned Back Tracks, a gay-only club that closed in the mid-1990s.

The interior of the new lounge is bold and bright. Modern artwork adorns the walls, and laser lights pulsate over a small dance floor.

The Drama Club was known for welcoming straight patrons, who also make up a significant portion of the customer base at Main Street.

“On any given night, 40 or 50 percent of our customers are straight,” Cheramie said. “We are a gay bar, definitely, but we don’t want to restrict our image by labeling ourselves.”

Main Street Lounge features the drag queen parties that the Drama Club was famous for, but Cheramie also plans karaoke and pool nights and Monday Night Football specials in the fall.

The two bars had similar impulsive starts. Cheramie had been living in New Orleans when a friend suggested he open a bar in Houma. He was driving down Main Street, saw a “for sale” sign, called the number and inquired.

Less than three months later, the lounge was had speakers, lights, fresh furniture and bathrooms.

The flashy, clean-cut interior is designed to appeal to a broader crowd, Cheramie said.

Main Street Lounge is a much different place than Drama Club,” Chestnut said. “It is a much smaller lounge. Drama Club is a big, huge club. It requires a ton of overhead.”

At Drama Club, dancers and drag queens performed on a wide stage backed by velvet curtains and high-top tables, disco balls turned and the DJ stood in an enclosed booth overhead.

Main Street Lounge features leather chairs and lounge tables. The DJ is in the middle of the dance floor, and LED lights glow inside and outside.

Last week, Cheramie opened a reconstructed patio behind the bar. It faces Bayou Terrebonne, and he plans to install water fountains below.

After the drag show ended Feb. 14, straight couples, gay couples, white, black and Native American customers took to the dance floor.

DJ Clarence Denenea blasted a mix of Deep South hip hop, top 40s hits and electronic dance music.

Several black girls joined a clan of gay men in a twerk-off in one corner, gyrating to New Orleans bounce rapper DJ Jubilee. Meanwhile, a middle aged man courted a professional-looking woman wearing sequins and high heels.

“It’s always a party in here,” Carvell said. “Ray always does things to keep the place fresh. He worked in New Orleans and hired bartenders who worked on Bourbon Street. There’s always new people coming in and out. Even people from New Orleans will come down here to party in Houma.”

Cheramie joined the Valentine’s Day revelry, bouncing behind the bar while throwing rose petals onto customers like confetti.

“The Drama Club is what gay bars used to be,” Carvell said. “You come to Main Street, and it’s a whole new world.”

___

Information from: The Courier, https://www.houmatoday.com

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