Owner Dawn Jackson prepares to close down the country’s longest-running women-owned lesbian bar
Bars come and go, especially in times of financial crisis such as these. And usually, when a bar closes, the patrons can just go find another watering hole.
But when Buddies closes its doors for the final time on Sept. 27, for many people, it will be like losing a home.
"This is more than just a bar. It’s always been more than just a bar," said Genie "Gene the Machine" Hendrickson, a current employee who has worked at Buddies in some capacity since it first opened.
"This was a home away from home for people. It’s been an extended family. And for some people, it’s been their only family," Hendrickson said.
Owner Dawn Jackson said recently that she understands the shock and grief her customers are feeling. And while she feels much the same way, there are a number of factors that played into her decision to close Buddies after 28 years. Not the least of those factors is that her own mother, who lives in Florida, is in failing health.
"My mother is very ill, and I haven’t been able to spend much time with her in the last few years," she said.
Jackson has run the bar on her own since her partner of 20 years and Buddies founder Sandy Myers died in August 2001. The demands of business have kept her tied up here as her mother has grown sicker in Florida.
"I tell her I will be there as soon as I can, and she tells me, ‘Business first.’" Jackson said. "But I could never forgive myself if I didn’t go and spend time with her before she passes. I just hope she can hang on until I get there."
There’s another personal factor, too. Jackson has a new partner, Joy Terrell, and she will be moving to Terrell’s home in Gulfport, Miss., after she retires from the bar business.
She’s looking forward to the future. But still, Jackson said, it’s hard to leave behind the employees and customers who have been her family, too, all these years, and to close the bar that she sees as Myers’ legacy to the LGBT community.
Where it all began
Jackson and Myers first met when they both lived in Indiana. Jackson was a dancer, and Myers managed a gay bar. And one night Jackson and her girlfriend, another dancer, went to the bar where Myers worked.
Not too long after that, Jackson recalled recently, the man who owned the club where she and her girlfriend danced decided he wanted to turn the place into a gay bar. So she suggested he get Myers to manage it.
Eventually, Jackson and Myers became a couple, and after a trip to Dallas to visit friends, they decided this was where they wanted to live.
"It was the snow," Jackson said with a laugh. "We rented this apartment [in Indiana], and part of the deal was that Sandy would shovel the snow as part of the rent. And Sandy hated shoveling that snow. Then we came down here to visit, and there was no snow. She decided right then that we were moving down here."
Myers, who had also owned a bar called Bacchus in Indiana, easily found work in the gay bars in Dallas. Then in 1981, she opened Buddies.
Jackson said the first Buddies was located "right next to the original Crews Inn" in the 3200 block of Fitzhugh, in a spot now populated by a Kwik Lube franchise and a dry cleaners. After about a year, the club moved to a new location on the corner of Lemmon Avenue and Mahanna Drive, where it stayed for 12 years.
In 1994, Myers and Jackson moved shop again, to the club’s current site at 2025 Maple Ave., and the "II" was added to the name. This new location offered much more space, including the back bar that was open during the day and an extensive patio, complete with a pool and a sand volleyball court.
But each time the bar moved, it carried with it a loyal base of employees and customers, and a style that was distinctly Sandy Myers, a woman who had a heart as big as her personality.
"Sandy opened this bar. It was her deal, and she did things her way," Jackson said.
Hendrickson put it more plainly. "You can’t talk about Buddies without talking about Sandy. Sandy was Buddies," she said.
And it was Myers who created Buddies’ unique style by infusing the club with her own unique personality.
One of her first experiences with Myers, Hendrickson said, was when a group of people went out to eat.
"I hadn’t even gotten my butt in my chair when Sandy says, ‘I hate Leos.’ I was a Leo. It kind of hurt my feelings at first, but then I figured out she was just kidding around," she recalled.
The two were soon fast friends. Hendrickson recalled how on Sundays she would drive over in her Jeep and pick Myers up and the two would drive to the bar together. Often, she said, they would stop off at a garage sale or two and wander around, getting strange looks from people because they often were still wearing their pajamas and slippers.
Hendrickson also recalled how Myers would sit at the bar at the end of the night, telling stories as her employees cleaned up and restocked for the next day.
"She always told us so many stories, and one day, Reba and I decided she was like the father, telling stories to the kids. So we were the ones that actually gave her that nickname, and everyone started calling her ‘Daddy.’ We even got her a jacket made with ‘Daddy’ on the front of it," Hendrickson said.
Reesa Dillard, whose mother Rita Dillard was the Buddies show director for many years, said that for all her generosity and humor, Myers could get angry sometimes, too.
"I always say I was fired twice from Buddies, and I quit once," Dillard said with a grin, admitting that punctuality was not one of her strong points. "They used to take bets on when I’d actually show up to work each day. And Sandy would get so mad. I remember twice she got so mad at me she just took her arm and knocked everything off the bar. But then, she’d turn around and be the most wonderful, most charming person you ever met."
Myers had a strong sense of what was fun, and it wasn’t usually what was trendy.
She used to have "Sunday Fun Day" each weekend, where customers could compete in bubble-gum bubble-blowing contests, and hula-hoop contests, and other old-fashioned kinds of contests.
"I guess we kind of lived in the past in some ways, but people always had a good time," Hendrickson said, recalling how, when those new-fangled cassette players first came out, Myers resisted buying one for at least a year, until every drag queen who came to perform in a show had their music on cassette instead of a vinyl album.
Myers’ strong personality and personal tastes also controlled the kind of music that was played at Buddies, especially when Myers herself was in the DJ booth. She played what she liked, and she let people know that.
"Sandy just played whatever music she wanted to play. She’d play the bunny hop or whatever she wanted," Hendrickson said. "People would come up and ask her to play something they wanted to hear, and she’d play whatever she wanted. And if you complained, she’d get on the microphone and say, ‘If you don’t like it, buy your own damn bar!’"
But above all, it was Myers’ generous spirit her friends remember now — and that made her bar their home away from home.
"She loved animals. She and Dawn would see a stray dog in the street, and they’d stop and pick it up and then drive all over the neighborhood with it until they found out where it belonged. We [the bar] still give money to the SPCA in her name," Hendrickson said. "Sandy and Dawn would take clothes and food to the homeless people, and not just to the gay people, but to anybody who needed it. Sandy would get a bunch of guys with AIDS and load them all up in her old orange van and take them to the movies, just spend the day with them.
"That was Sandy. That is Buddies. Sandy was and is Buddies."
"This is a place that’s always been kind to people," Jackson said. "If somebody needed something, then we tried to help. We had a Thanksgiving dinner here every year, and every year after the meal, we’d take the extras out and give to homeless people, people living in boxes under a bridge.
"And every year, we’d adopt a family at Christmas through the Dallas Police Department’s program," Jackson continued. "We set priorities, and the first one was making sure the family had food. Then, we made sure they had money to pay the bills. Then we bought presents for the kids, and with what was left, we bought gifts for the parents."
The club’s main way of raising money to adopt the families at Christmas was to stage shows. Regular performers, employees and customers volunteered their time and talents, and the money went to the adopted family.
"We raised a lot of money with those shows, and we took care of a lot of families," Jackson said as she looked through photos from Christmases past. "We would go and deliver the food and the gifts, and you know what, I’ve been in places where all they had was a mattress on the floor and a lightbulb in the socket. They wouldn’t have had anything to eat or any gifts at Christmas without Buddies."
And it wasn’t just needy families at Christmas who benefited from the generosity of Buddies owners, staff and customers.
If someone lost their home to a fire, the Buddies crew helped collect donated items for them and staged a show to raise money to help them get back on track. If someone got sick or was injured in an accident, Buddies raised money to help them pay their bills.
Sharon Buford, who said she has been a Buddies customer since the beginning, has her own personal story of Buddies generosity.
"My sister had leukemia, and Dawn had a benefit here at the bar for my family," Buford said. "She really stepped up to the plate for me and my family. I come from the straightest family you can imagine, but every one of my brothers and sisters was here that day. And every one of them was made to feel welcome."
People held weddings and birthday parties and funerals there.
"People raised their kids here," Jackson said.
And Hendrickson agreed: "The other day, a young girl, probably 21 or 22, walked up and said, ‘Hey Gene.’ I was feeling all studly and said, ‘Hey baby.’ And she says, ‘My mom and my grandmother said to tell you hello.’"
It may have deflated her stud ego a bit, but Hendrickson added with a laugh, "That’s what I mean by this being a family. I really did know her mother and her grandmother! A lot of the kids who come here now, they really did grow up here."
Hendrickson also has the personal tales to back up the legends of Myers’ generosity. She remembers one Thanksgiving when she and her then-girlfriend, another longtime Buddies bartender named Reba, went with Myers to deliver food.
"We found this one man, literally living in a box under a bridge, and Sandy asked him if he wanted some food. He said no, he wasn’t hungry, but what he really needed was some gloves," Hendrickson said. "Reba had a brand new pair of gloves that she was so proud of. Sandy turned around to her and said, ‘Give him the gloves.’ Reba said no way, these were her brand new gloves. But Sandy said, ‘I’ll buy you some new ones. Give him the damn gloves!’"
Drag shows, live singers and female dancers have been a part of Buddies since the beginning. Hendrickson, now well known for emceeing the shows there as well as performing in them, said she did her very first show at the Boot Camp when Myers was manager.
"I begged her to let me be in the show, and she said yes. So on show night, I showed up dragging this wooden coffin I had built myself, and I did ‘Monster Mash,’" Hendrickson recalled.
"Sandy came from a long history of drag-queening. There have always been shows at Buddies. I remember the very first one, in that tiny little place over on Fitzhugh, with that tiny little stage, about the size of a table top. Sandy and Dawn were in the show, and I was the emcee. We sure thought we were hot!"
Then Buddies moved to a bigger space with a dance floor that doubled as a stage. And Rita Dillard came on board as show director.
Some clubs specialized in drag queens, some had drag kings, some specialized in dancing girls, and some specialized in live singers. Buddies had them all.
"It was like a big, giant ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’" Hendrickson said. "Sandy just allowed everyone to express themselves, however they wanted to do that, whether it was drag or singing or whatever. I remember over on Mahanna, there was the mariachi band that would come in on Friday nights on their way to play somewhere. Sandy’d buy them a beer and let them play before they went on to wherever they were going."
Where Myers was willing to open up the stage to anybody, Rita Dillard was there to make sure that everything went right.
"Sandy called Mom ‘Cecile B. DeMille,’" daughter Reesa Dillard said. "Mom took her show directing very, very seriously.
"She was so involved with everything at the bar and in the community," Reesa Dillard continued. "She loved everybody, and everybody loved her. All those young ones were always chasing her around!"
Dillard died of cancer on Sunday, Sept. 27, 1998 — the same day as that year’s Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade. The shows continued, of course, with different show directors taking the reins. But for most of the Buddies regulars, Rita Dillard to this day remains the best.
Myers died in August 2001, just after she and Jackson celebrated their 20th anniversary together. Her death left Jackson holding the reins at Buddies. She quickly found out that dealing with her spouse’s death and running the bar at the same time was no easy job.
"The bar was Sandy’s deal, and when she passed away, I was in shock for five years. I didn’t even probate the will for five years," Jackson said.
Most people, Hendrickson and Reesa Dillard said, don’t really understand how difficult it has been for Jackson.
"Dawn had always been the one in the background. Sandy ran the business, and Dawn was there to support her and do what Sandy needed her to do," Reesa Dillard said. "Then when Sandy passed away, Dawn had to learn an impossible job, and she had to learn it fast."
Hendrickson added, "Most people in her position would have sold the bar, but she held on — and not because of money. She wanted to keep it going for all of us. Most people don’t know all the stuff she has to deal with.
"Dawn has a bar personality, where she is the mama, the boss. But she has a home personality, too. And a lot of people don’t know that side of her; they don’t know how special she is. She stayed in the shadows for years and years, and I have always felt she hasn’t been recognized in this community the way she should have been. She and Sandy, and now Dawn by herself, they were the only women in this community that owned a bar all by themselves, with no men as [business partners]," Hendrickson said.
Late last year, Jackson reconnected with Terrell, an old friend who had moved away from Dallas to her hometown of Gulfport, Miss. Terrell explained that she had recently lost her mother, and had come back to Dallas for a short visit on her way to visit a cousin in New Mexico.
One afternoon, Terrell stopped in at Buddies to have a drink, play a few video games and offer her condolences to Jackson on Myers’ death. The two women sat and talked for hours, Terrell said, catching up and getting to know each other again.
Terrell went on to her cousin’s house for the holiday, and Jackson called her to wish her a happy Thanksgiving. A few weeks later, Jackson went to Gulfport for a visit.
"It was perfectly innocent. We were just friends catching up and spending time together," Terrell said of that visit. "But it just sort of took off from there."
Although seeing Buddies close is heartbreaking for them, Hendrickson and Reesa Dillard both said it is even more painful for Jackson. Still, they said, they are happy for their friend.
"I think it’s wonderful that she’s met someone that makes her happy, and Joy is a great person," Reesa Dillard said. "It’s time for Dawn to take care of herself and be happy again."
Looking back on Buddies’ 28-year history has brought back a lot of good memories for the club’s many loyal employees and customers. But it also makes it that much harder for them to say goodbye.
"I think what I will miss the most is the camaraderie of the people here," said Buford. "I have never met more nice people anywhere than I have met here at Buddies. You didn’t have to like everybody who came here, but you always knew that you could walk through that door and you’d find somebody who loved you and who you loved.
"Everybody has a sad heart right now. It’s just a lost feeling," she added. "I’m not saying we won’t get together somewhere else and have a good time when Buddies is gone. But there’ll never be another place like this."
"I think of my mother doing the shows here, and I think about all the support my family got when she was sick and when she passed away," Reesa Dillard said. "I think about all the friends I’ve made here. I have met so many people here that I love so dearly. It’s hard to think there won’t be a Buddies any more."
And for Hendrickson, who can go on for hours reminiscing about the club’s past, the prospect of a future without it renders her nearly speechless. "I feel like I am losing a family. I don’t think there will ever be another place like this, and it’s breaking my heart."
For Jackson, just like for her customers and employees, the closing of Buddies marks the end of an era. It closes one long chapter in her life, and opens the next.
"It would be nice if somebody would buy this place and open up another bar for the community, something like this for the community," Jackson said. "But when the doors close on Sept. 27, Buddies, the name, will be retired. This was Sandy’s legacy to the community, and I don’t think people will ever forget her, and I don’t think they’ll forget this bar."
What the customers have to say about Buddies II
Messages from customers upon hearing about the impending closure of Buddies II after 28 years in business:
• "When I first began to transition, I’d only go to lesbian bars, especially Buddies because I was always welcomed and felt at home. Since I don’t drink, they always gave me diet soda for free. That was so special. I am sorry to see Buddies II close."
• "The lives of thousands of men and women have been touched by the space that was Buddies and Buddies II. The owners, Sandy and Dawn, had hearts bigger than the buildings that contained their businesses. Although this is a significant loss to the community, it will fill an even greater space in the long and colorful story that is Dallas’ LGBT community. We welcome it as it takes its rightful place in our history."
• "I know I’m one of the ones that ‘grew up’ at Buddies. It’s been too long since we’ve been there, but my memories will remain. Good luck on your next adventures."
• "I started going to Buddies II when I was 21. I’m 31 today, and this is truly sad news."
• "I feel like I’m losing my best friend, my home, my comfort, my security. I always knew Buddies would always be there, never thinking the time would come to say goodbye. Nineteen years ago, I walked into Buddies and became a family member right from the start. That’s just the way it was. I still cannot wrap myself around the fact that you are leaving. It was hard enough on all of us (especially you, Dawn) after Sandy’s passing. But now you are going and that is so final, the end of a longstanding legacy in our community."
• "I am extremely fortunate to know and call Sandy Myers and Dawn Jackson my friends. Sandy always made me feel like I was the most important customer to walk in her bar. Little did I know she did that with everyone! … Dawn has carried on Sandy’s commitment to our community, both to its organizations and to the scores of people who come to her for help. … Buddies has always been a place that you always felt welcome, safe and cared for, along with the tons of fun you were guaranteed to have there. Oh, I’m so glad those walls can’t talk!"
• "Please know that there are many whose lives were touched, changed, re-arranged and greatly enhanced by the fact that there was such a wonderful place where we could be ourselves and love ourselves and dance the night away with our sisters around us; a place where we were safe to feel and laugh to our hearts’ content, knowing we were accepted just the way we are."
• "It saddens me to see this chapter of my life come to a close. But the memories that Sandy and Dawn made possible will remain in my heart forever! Thank you for opening your home to a lot of us when we needed a place to go."
• "I am sad. It was the first bar Jazzi took me to. I am crying my eyes out. I am in California, but I will miss all my friends and Mama Dawn. I love you."
• "Even though I haven’t been there in awhile, it saddens me that another era has come to an end. So many wonderful memories will forever be in my mind."
• "I spent half my life in that bar, made most of my friends there, met my wife there and have so many fond memories."
• "I also spent half my life there. It is one of the most constant things I have ever had. I have met all my friends there, it seems like."
• "Dawn, I have known you for over 20 years and am truly sad that you are closing. … You always opened your door to me. I will never forget working for you off and on through the years."
• "Dawn, I share a bittersweet sentiment with you as you close the doors to a great legacy in our community. I know that Sandy would want you at some point to take time just for you, and deservingly so. With that said, you will be dearly missed. I wish you many new joys, uncharted adventures, lessened sorrows and personal bounty in the next chapter, my friend. My heartfelt thanks go to you and Sandy for your sweet embrace and steadfast dedication over the years."
A message from Betty Moore
After 28 years in business under basically the same ownership, Buddies II is apparently the oldest continuously operating lesbian bar in the country.
And Betty Moore, who will celebrate her 80th birthday with a party at the bar this weekend, probably holds the record for the bartender who has worked the longest at the same lesbian bar.
(Moore noted that her birthday isn’t actually until mid-October, but the staff and customers insisted on celebrating at the bar before it closes its doors at the end of the month.)
Moore said she has worked for Buddies for about 27 and a half years, almost as long as the bar has been open. Why stay so long?
"Well, I loved [owners] Dawn [Jackson] and Sandy [Myers], and I just didn’t want to do anything else or go anywhere else," Moore said recently with her usual reserve.
"Sandy Myers was the best friend I ever had, and I didn’t even know it until she passed away," Moore added. "And Dawn has always been wonderful to me. Always."
When asked what made Buddies so special, Moore didn’t hesitate to answer. "It’s the courtesy people have, the friendliness. They treat everyone the same here. I have the nicest day crowd any bartender could ask for — the nicest, and the most faithful."
Moore said those friendly and faithful customers helped her create a special fall tradition, one that she will remember forever.
"It’s Texas-OU Day here in the back bar," she said. "I started that, oh, 20-something years ago and it’s a big party every year. We always just have the best time."
As the bar prepares to close its doors for the final time, Moore said recently she has one last message for all those faithful customers who helped her keep the Buddies back bar hopping each afternoon.
"I just want them all to know how much I appreciate them," she said. "I appreciate their business, and I appreciate their kindness, and I appreciate their courtesy through all those years."
— Tammye Nash
Genie Hendrickson has been involved with Buddies in one way or another since the bar first opened in 1981. She was also there the first time the bar had a float in Dallas’ gay Pride parade, the annual event now known as the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade.
This year, as the Buddies staff and patrons get ready to ride the parade route one last time, Hendrickson took a minute to remember that first float all those years ago.
"You know how the parade organizers always have a theme for the parade? It’s always something about being out and being proud and getting our rights. Well, that first year, we didn’t care about that. We didn’t even know there was a theme, much less what it was," she said with a laugh.
"Don’t get me wrong. We were proud — proud to be gay, proud to be out and just proud all around just to be there," she continued. "But we didn’t know anything about the theme."
Instead, Hendrickson said, the Buddies float that year featured owners Sandy Myers and Dawn Jackson, Hendrickson, "a bunch of drag queens and a few girls."
"We were all up on that float, just thrilled to be there and having the best time. And all along the parade route, we acted out the play ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’" Hendrickson said. "That was our theme, and we had a good time doing it!"
— Tammye Nash
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 18, 2009.