What started out as a hobby for Bartlett, Foster has turned into a community center, fundraising hub for lake’s LGBT residents
CEDAR CREEK LAKE — Leo Bartlett was a retail store manager 14 years ago when he heard that the owner of the small, four-year-old gay and lesbian bar he frequented in Gun Barrel City was closing down if the owner couldn’t sell out.
"I took it on as a hobby," said Bartlett, who renamed the bar Friends. "I just couldn’t see it closing."
Today, Bartlett is still a retail store manager, and the nightclub is still a hobby. But it’s a far bigger hobby than it was 14 years ago.
Last year, Friends raised about $42,000 in cash and goods for the charities it supports, including AIDS service organizations, food pantries, humane societies, libraries and a Christmas food and toy drive. This year, the nightclub is on track to raise even more for charity.
"It’s become a social gathering place for people who enjoy themselves here at the lake," said Bartlett, who notes the patrons include both weekenders and full-time residents and a wide range of socio-economic groups — both gay and straight.
"It is a business. But as a private club, it [is] more of a neighborhood community center."
Membership at the private club requires annual renewal to conform to state law governing the operation of private clubs, but there’s no membership fee. Cover charges for the near-weekly shows are either turned over to charities or go to support other endeavors designed to raise money for charity, such as a recent show produced to raise money for Friends Players theater troupe to participate in the Miss Gay Texas State at Large competition in Fort Worth over the Labor Day weekend. The money raised at that show will benefit Cedar Creek Lake Meals on Wheels and Legacy House in Dallas.
Because of the nightclub’s focus on raising money for charity, Friends is not quite so grand looking on the outside — nor on the inside.
It’s just a quaint little country bar with a lot of big-hearted people running it and frequenting it, according to both management and clientele.
"I tell people right off the bat that they are not going to have an experience in this bar like they would in Dallas," said Rick Foster, general manager of Friends, who is also Bartlett’s life partner of six years. "They tell me that’s why they came here and not to change."
The nightclub’s focus on helping the community — regardless of whether it’s gay or straight people receiving the benefits — has endeared it to local officials and other organizations.
Last Christmas, a small Protestant church in Kemp called Foster and asked for help feeding hungry families in its congregation. Foster asked the church representative if he understood who operated the club and frequented it.
"They told me they didn’t care who we were — they needed help," Foster said.
So the bar threw its support behind that project also, and truckloads of nonperishable foods and toys were distributed at Christmas from the nightclub to the needy on Cedar Creek Lake.
Foster, a former educator, said his position as general manager is the most exhausting one he’s ever had — it’s a seven-day per week job. At the same time, he enjoys it more than any other job he’s ever had, he noted: "It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had because of the relationships we’ve built," Foster said.
Bartlett agrees with Foster about the rich reward that comes from giving back to the community.
"This is the most fulfilling personal achievement I’ve ever had," Bartlett said. "I feel like I’ve become a well-rounded, respected person in the community."
That’s an assessment that any number of people who know Bartlett and Foster are happy to confirm. Life on Cedar Creek Lake wouldn’t be the same without them and Friends, they say.
Both Bartlett and Foster said they have heard rumors more than once about the bar for being sale, but they were all untrue.
"It’s never been for sale," Bartlett said. "That’s nothing that I’ve ever even thought about."
In other words, Bartlett and Foster aren’t going anywhere soon. They love their lives on Cedar Creek Lake.