Longtime Dallas bar owner Howard Okon looks back on 35-plus years in the business as he prepares to close the Brick, his final bar
Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
When the Brick/Joe’s closes its doors at the end of the night on Sunday, July 24, it will be the end of an era — last call not only for a bar that’s been around for 25 years, but also for a bar owner who has been part of Dallas’ LGBT nightlife scene for more than 35 years.
The Brick/Joe’s — which first opened on Maple Avenue 25 years ago, before moving to its current location at 2525 Wycliff Ave. — will go out with a bang, owner Howard Okon said this week. “We have something special going on every night right up through the very last day,” he said.
This Saturday, July 9, Dannee Phann Productions and Impulse Group Dallas present a special show benefitting One Orlando. The show will star Jaidynn Dior Fierce, Jiggly Caliente, Chevelle Brooks, emcee Kennedy Davenport and more. Doors open at nine and the show starts at midnight.
“The Night of Stars” on Saturday, July 16, a special show presented by the Greg Dollgener Memorial AIDS Fund and starring Raven, JujuBee, Krystal Summers, Nova Starr, Vanity Storm, Sienna Silver and more, benefits GDMAF’s Miss LifeWalk contestant, Vanity Storm. (See the Gay Agenda, pages 6 and 7 for details.)
Thursday, July 21, the Brick hosts the Mr., Ms. and Miss Rodeo Naked pageant, benefitting the Dallas and Fort Worth chapters of the Texas Gay Rodeo Association. The event starts promptly at 6:30 p.m. and includes a silent auction and Rodeo Naked merchandise sales.
The club’s final Saturday night, July 23, will be dedicated to “Red — Summer Night’s Dream,” presented by the Dallas Red Foundation and starring Drag Race star Cynthia Lee Fontaine, 2016 Miss Red Raquel Blake, Gloria Devine, Onyx Anderson, Nicole O’Hara Munro, Dallas Sheraton and G-Licious G. All proceeds benefit Legacy Counseling Center.
And on Sunday, July 24, the bar says so long with a day-long farewell party. As the website says, “Please join us all day Sunday, July 24, as we reminisce, greet old friends and have one last ‘blow-out’ party.” The bar opens at 3 p.m., and the party lasts til 2 a.m., with DJs, spotlight performers, dancers and more.
The charity events, Okon said, are one of the things he will miss most about being in the bar business.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you how much money we’ve helped raise and how much we’ve given over the years,” he said. “Anyone who needed a fundraiser, we tried to help. It was important to us, to me. It was a way for us to give back to the community that supported us all these years.”
But, Okon continued, the biggest gap the Brick’s closing will leave is as an entertainment venue for LGBT people of color.
Okon recalled a time back in the 1980s when he and fellow bar owner and friend Joe Elliott — longtime owner of Jugs and the person for whom the “Joe’s” end of the Brick is named — went to another LGBT nightclub in Dallas. As they were standing in line, he said, he noticed that African-Americans were being turned away at the door because they couldn’t provide three different forms of photo ID.
“But we — Joe and I — we weren’t asked for three different IDs. But of course, we weren’t black. Hell, I don’t think I have three different forms of ID today!” Okon said. “I remember being so mad about that, thinking how wrong that was. Being of Jewish heritage myself, I was never raised to treat people that way, and I just couldn’t understand how we as a [LGBT] community that had faced so much discrimination ourselves, could discriminate against a part of our own community.”
That’s what prompted him and Elliott to open Rapps, back in 1989. The bar — first located off Maple on the airport side of Inwood and later moved to a space in the same block where the Brick is now — catered specifically to the black LGBT and same-gender-loving community.
The Brick, since it first opened, has also welcomed people of color, Okon said, adding that his bars helped start the black Pride celebration, now known as Dallas Southern Pride. “It made me sad, all those years ago, [to see the African-American LGBT people] treated so badly. But I am very glad that we were able to give them a safe place to party, a place to be themselves, for all these years. I think that’s the biggest void we will be leaving, giving them a place to call their own.”
Okon also played a role in giving Dallas’ lesbians “a place to call their own,” even though many women don’t realize that. It started back in 1981, when he was moving his bar, Patrick’s, from its original location on Fitzhugh to a larger space on Oak Lawn. A woman named Sandy Myers came to him then with a proposition.
“Sandy had been my cleaning lady, and when we were getting ready to move, she came to me and said, ‘Howard, give me this place. Let me start a women’s bar here. I promise you I’ll make money and I’ll turn it into a place that’s really something.’ So I did. I financed her to get started, and she did exactly what she said she would do.”
That bar he helped Sandy Myers start was Buddies, which later moved first to Mahanna and then into a space on Maple Avenue — across the parking lot from the original Brick, in a location that had previously housed another Howard Okon bar, The Wave. When Buddies closed in 2009, it was the longest-running women-owned lesbian bar in the country.
In the 1990s, when his old friend Joe Elliott needed a place to move her bar, Jugs, Okon leased her space in the Brick’s building on Maple. Later, as Elliott’s health was fading, her long-time partner broke up with her, stealing the bar away in the process.
“She owned Jugs,” Okon said of the girlfriend. “But I was the landlord. I told her, ‘I’m gonna open a small bar in the space at the other end of the building, and I’m gonna call it Joe’s, and it will run you out of business.’ That’s exactly what happened. I gave Joe that space to open up Joe’s, and all the women were loyal to Joe, so Jugs was gone in no time.”
Even when it wasn’t doing much business, even after the Brick moved to Wycliff, Okon kept Joe’s open, tagging the name onto the small bar at the end of the new space on Wycliff, all to honor the memory of his friend, who died of cancer and heart disease on Dec. 27, 1999.
Okon’s legacy in the Dallas LGBT nightlife scene dates back to the early 1980s when he opened his first bar, Patrick’s, on Fitzhugh. In addition to Rapps, the Brick and Joe’s, he has also owned The Wave, Moby Dick’s and the Box Office. He was one of the founding members of the Dallas Tavern Guild, the association of Dallas LGBT bar owners that stages the Dallas Pride parade each September, and he has fond memories of other bar owners and employees through the years.
“I made so many friends through the years in this business,” Okon said. “Joe and Sandy of course. Gary Monier [of the Cruise Inn], Denis Weir and Frank Caven [of Caven Enterprises], Bill Hargis [of The Eighth Day and The Cove], Ray Martin [of High Country].
“We were more than just business associates back then. We were friends. We were competitors, yes. But we were friendly competitors, and we worked together for the good of the whole community when we could,” Okon said.
“We’ve been through a lot over the years, good times and bad,” he continued. “We came through the AIDS epidemic when we watched so many of our friends die. But we made it through all of it, and it’s been good overall.”
Just as he remembers fondly the other bar owners he has known, Okon said he will always remember and love the people who have worked for him, in all his bars.
“It was the people who made it special,” he said. “It’s always been the people. There are people who worked for me 30-something years ago, people who paid their way through school working as barbacks and bartenders in my bars, and now they are doctors and lawyers. I am proud of all of them. I like to think we set them a good example and helped them become who they are now.”
Okon said he and his partner — in business and in life — Greg Parrish are retiring from the bar business, at least as far as owning and operating a bar is concerned. But, he said, he would be willing to help out if some of his employees decide to open their own place.
“Our employees have always been so good, so loyal. If they right location came around, and one of them wanted to open their own bar, I’d back them,” he said.
But for now, Okon said, he and Parrish want to take some time to relax, and to spend more time enjoying their home in Hawaii. But they aren’t leaving Dallas for good.
“It’s good to go out on top,” he said. “But just because we are retiring, that doesn’t mean we’re pulling up roots and leaving Dallas. We’ll be around. We’re closing this one book, yes, but just so we can open a new one.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2016.