Pride 2011 • 26 years of success, and it keeps getting better

Co-grand marshals Alan Pierce and Gary Miller say they are fortunate to have family, friends and a successful business

Grand-Marshals-Gary.Alan
Gary Miller, left, and Alan Pierce

Tammye Nash  |  Senior Editor
nash@dallasvoice.com

Grand Marshals

Alan Pierce and Gary Miller, co-grand marshals with Chris Bengston of this year’s Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade, have been partners in life for 26 years, and partners in business for 12.

The two, who own the popular country-western bar Round-Up Saloon, said this week they’ve seen a lot of changes through the years, and are first-hand witnesses to the fact that it does, indeed, keep on getting better.

“Last year when we were celebrating the Round-Up’s 30th anniversary, we asked some of our customers who have been around awhile what they remembered from the early days of the bar, back in the 1980s,” Pierce said.

“Back then, the cops were still harassing people in the gay bars. It was still illegal for two people of the same sex to dance together. So when the cops would come in the bar, all the customers would just stop whatever they were doing and sit down on the dance floor,” Pierce said. “They would just sit there, very calmly, until the cops left.”

It was the same, he added, in Houston where he lived and worked for about 5 years as a school teacher.

“They were still arresting people in Houston,” Pierce said. “Since I was a school teacher, if I had been arrested, I would have immediately lost my job.”

These days, he said, “It’s definitely not that way anymore. It has definitely gotten better.”

Pierce, who was born and grew up in New Mexico, made his way to Texas when he went to college at Abilene Christian University. After college, he moved to Houston where he worked as a school teacher and came out as a gay man. In 1983, he left the field of education and bought in as co-owner of the Brazos River Bottom, a gay country-western bar in Houston, in 1983.

That’s how Pierce met the new president of the Texas Gay Rodeo Association, a man from Dallas named Gary Miller.

Miller, born and raised in the Lake Texoma area, was married “for awhile” to a woman with whom he said he and Pierce “still have a great relationship. I have a wonderful son, and a wonderful daughter-in-law and two wonderful grandsons.

“They are all very accepting of us [he and Pierce]. They come down here to the bar to socialize with us, and we are included in all the family gatherings and events. That’s a big part of why it just keeps getting better for us, because we have these children and grandchildren in our lives,” Miller said.

Because he got married early and had a son, Miller — who Pierce gleefully points out is the older of the two — “didn’t come out until I was a little older, in the early 1980s,” Miller said.

But he quickly got involved in TGRA, and it was on a TGRA trip to Houston that he met Pierce.

“We were just friends at first. We were friends for at least a couple of years before we actually started dating,” Pierce said. Miller added, “When
we started dating, I was in Dallas, and Alan was still in Houston. We kept Southwest Airlines pretty busy, going back and forth to spend time together.”

In 1987, Pierce finally decided to move to Dallas so he and Miller could be together full time. By then, Miller had been working for several years at The Round-Up Saloon, thanks to his friendship with bar manager Tom Davis. And when, two years later in February 1989, the Round-Up’s building was destroyed in a fire set by an arsonist, Pierce was there to help rebuild.

After the fire — which was set by a man who had robbed the offices of the Dallas Gay Alliance next door and started the blaze to cover up the robbery — the Round-Up relocated temporarily to a building on Maple Avenue at Throckmorton (the building that most recently housed The Brick/Joe’s until that bar relocated to Wycliff and
the building on Maple was torn down).

It was the end of what had been a difficult decade for Dallas’ LGBT community. “So many people were sick and dying,” Pierce said, “and there was nobody willing to take care of them except the [LGBT] community.”

But as the ’80s came to an end, advances in treatment for HIV/AIDS were beginning to give those with the disease a brighter outlook, and Dallas’ LGBT community was also beginning to shine.

“The whole thing was really beginning to blossom,” Pierce recalled. “We had all these organizations and services in place. We were still fighting the police department’s ban on hiring gays and lesbians, but that was changing, too. Things were getting better.”

Even the fire, which was without a doubt a horrible thing to happen, turned out to be a kind of blessing in disguise for the Round-Up, giving bar owner Tom Sweeney a chance to rebuild, creating a bigger and better space than before.

And Pierce, who had worked in construction, too, in Houston, was there to handle most of the rebuilding for the bar, Miller said.

Eventually, longtime Round-Up manager Tom Davis died, and Miller took over as bar manager. Then in 1999, owner Tom Sweeney decided he was ready to sell, and Miller and Pierce were there to buy the nightclub.

The Round-Up came with a long history of community involvement, and Pierce and Miller said since they bought the bar they have worked to keep that tradition alive.

“We lived through the ’80s, through the AIDS crisis when we all got involved to raise funds to help our friends,” Miller said. “And we have just kept on helping. Because once you get that feeling that comes from doing something good for someone, you never want that feeling to go away.”

As a country-western bar, the Round-Up has always had close ties with TGRA, and has always helped to raise funds and supplies for the Resource Center Dallas’ food pantry and other AIDS programs. The nightclub and its owners developed a relationship with Legacy Counseling Center and Legacy Founders Cottage, a hospice for people with AIDS, when some of the bar’s employees needed the hospice’s services, and the Round-Up continues to hold annual fundraising events for Legacy.

“We have a great venue for events, and it’s necessary to continue raising money, so we do it,” Miller said. “There’s still an AIDS crisis and there are still a lot of people who need help.”
Pierce added, “And if it’s not AIDS, then it will be something else, someone else who needs help. I have always said that about the gay community: We take care of our own.”

Despite the sometimes dire economic situation over recent years, Pierce and Miller said the Round-Up has continued to thrive. Its reputation as the premiere country-western gay bar in the country brings in plenty of people visiting Dallas, including some well-known celebrities over the years, like Tyne Daley, Chelsea Handler and Emma Watson.

And of course, there’s the Round-Up’s status as the bar in Dallas that helped Lady Gaga get her start, booking the singer in 2008 when she was still an unknown. Now, Mama Monster makes it a point to visit the Round-Up whenever she’s in Dallas.

The Round-Up is also a longtime member of the Dallas Tavern Guild, with both Pierce and Miller having held several offices there. They are also proud members of the Cedar Springs Merchants Association, which this summer revived Razzle Dazzle Dallas.

“We enjoy what we do, and we are always trying to think of ways to make things better,” Miller said. “We’ve been very fortunate. And I’ll tell you one thing that has helped make things better for us is the ban on smoking in the bars. Alan and I were behind that from the start. I know it hurt some of the bars, the ones that didn’t have patios and didn’t have any way to build a patio. But it’s been nothing but good for us. Our business increased the first night of the ban, and it hasn’t gone back down since.”

Both Miller and Pierce agreed that luck has been on their side over the years, giving the Round-Up a chance to evolve into “a great place to socialize,” Miller said.

“I think people like coming to our bar because they can relax and enjoy themselves there. There’s no big drug scene there, and we work hard to keep the drugs out. We’re not known as a place where there’s a lot of fighting in the bar, because we just don’t allow that,” Miller said. “The scene has changed a lot over the years. There are a lot more straight people who come in now. They like our music; they like to dance. Everyone gets along.”

Pierce added, “I read somewhere not that long ago that gay bars are becoming extinct. I don’t think we are becoming extinct, I just think we’re evolving. And that’s a good thing.”

Miller and Pierce said it is a great honor to have been chosen to serve with Bengston this year as grand marshals of Dallas’ Pride parade, and Pierce said they feel doubly honored tohave been chosen grand marshals of the Dallas parade and honorary grand marshals of the International Gay Rodeo Association’s finals rodeo coming to Fort Worth in October.

“It’s a good feeling, a really good feeling, when you’re chosen by your friends and colleagues for something like this,” Miller said. “Alan and I are very lucky in our life. We’re a good fit for each other, a match that will really last. We’ve been together now for 26 years, and it really does just keep getting better.”

For more information, go online to RoundUpSaloon.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Pride 2011 • The mom of Caven Enterprises

Chris-B.1-cropped

From cooking Thanksgiving dinner for Daire Center clients to heading up the team that builds the Caven parade float, parade co-grand marshal Chris Bengston has been a force behind the scenes of the community for 26 years

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

GRAND MARSHAL

When Caven Enterprises’ Chris Bengston saw the list of people nominated for grand marshal of Dallas’ 2011 Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade, her name was not on it. And she wasn’t at the Dallas Tavern Guild meeting where her name was added.

So when Caven Enterprises President Gregg Kilhoffer called her to come back to the office, she had no idea what was going on.

When Kilhoffer called, he told her that there was an incident at one of the bars and her name was involved. So Bengston ran back to the office as quickly as possible, frantically trying to figure out what she had done.

Actually, everyone at Caven Enterprises just wanted to see her face when she found out that she would be one of this year’s Pride parade grand marshals.

What they saw there on her face was shock.

To Bengston, all of the events she planned and dinners she cooked and money she raised for practically every organization in the city over the years was just something she always did out of love for the community.

“I guess people were paying attention to what I was doing,” she said, still incredulous that she would have been named to lead the parade.
Kilhoffer calls Bengston the company’s mom.

Before moving to Dallas, Bengston was married. Her husband served in the Army and went to Vietnam.

“When he came back, things didn’t work out,”she said, adding that she just never remarried.

“That’s just the way things worked out,” she said.

But when she was in her 40s, Bengston became pregnant, even though, she said, “I wasn’t supposed to be able to get pregnant.”

Her son, Alex, was the first Caven baby. He’s now a sophomore at Texas State University in San Marcos.

But while Alex was the first Caven baby, he wasn’t the last.

“What’s neat,” Bengston said, “are the number of employees with children now.”

Kilhoffer said several employees became like a dad to Alex.

When Alex was young, Bengston took a number of young Caven employees along with her son on a variety of outings — to the Fort Worth Zoo or the Arboretum or sporting events. She exposed many young people to things they’d never done before.

Kilhoffer said Bengston gave many of the company’s young employees the family they never had. He said she was “Caven’s own Youth First Texas” and “It Gets Better” campaign before either existed.

“I’m constantly getting emails about her, thanking her for going above and beyond,” Kilhoffer said. “She’ll drop anything she’s doing to help anyone.”
Bengston has been involved in hundreds of projects over the years that benefited the community.

One of her fondest memories is working with the Daire Center, an adult daycare center for people with HIV/AIDS, when it was part of Oak Lawn Community Services. Kilhoffer remembers the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners that Bengston cooked for the center.

“At 4 in the morning, she’d call to see where I was,” he said. She was already preparing the holiday meal.

He said she spent days, not just cooking, but doing all the shopping and making more than just a ham or turkey. She wanted to make sure, he said, that people who had nowhere else to go would have a holiday celebration that started with hors d’oeuvres and didn’t end until they had her homemade desserts.

“I could go on and on,” Kilhoffer said. “She’s been involved in so many things. Everyone knows they can call on her and she’s the volunteer who will make things happen.”

For years, Bengston and fellow Caven employee Donald Solomon have been involved in the holiday gift project for students at Sam Houston Elementary School. That school, located just a block behind the Cedar Springs bars, is one of the poorest in the Dallas Independent School District. Each year, Caven employees, led by Solomon and Bengston, make sure that every child at the school gets a gift at Christmas.

And before the school year begins, they make sure that there are enough school supplies. During the year, Bengston will get calls from the school for additional items, and she always responds. The Oak Lawn Library also has relied on her help when they’ve needed supplies.

“For Razzle Dazzle Dallas [revived this year by Cedar Springs Merchants Association, of which Caven is a member], she was the one who calmed us down and kept us focused,” Kilhoffer said.

Bengston organized a fundraiser after Hurricane Katrina for people who had been evacuated from New Orleans and were staying at Reunion Arena. And she’s helped stage fashion shows in an alcohol-free Rose Room, located in Caven’s Station 4 bar, to benefit Youth First Texas.

Bengston’s also involved with GayBingo, held monthly in the Rose Room, helping Resource Center Dallas and a variety of other beneficiary organizations raise money. And she helps with LifeWalk. And the Pink Party, which raises money for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Much of the $50,000 that the Dallas Bears raised for community groups at their weekend round-up this year came from the Bear Dance — an event that Bengston made sure went off without a hitch.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, Caven lost quite a few employees to AIDS,” Kilhoffer said. “She [Bengston] was such a help to those who were dying, and to their partners. She sat in the hospital and comforted so many people in their last days.”

For years, Bengston spent the night before the parade building Caven’s parade float along with three friends. Then she spent parade day working behind the scenes.
So she’s rarely gotten to just enjoy the parade.

But after she was named grand marshal this year, Bengston said she asked those three friends — Scott Pepin, Stacy Golf and Bill Scott — to join her in the carriage to enjoy the parade with her.

Bengston said she does the things she does because she’s worked in the LGBT community for 26 years and she wants to see it remain strong.

“I am truly blessed,” Bengston said. “I’ve made a very nice living and appreciate all of the years of memories and acceptance. I’ve had the best times of my life here.”

And she plans to keep on giving. But there’s one lesson she said she learned that keeps her humble after years of working with Caven.

After staging so many fundraising events at the Rose Room, Bengston said, “There are so many guys who look better in an evening gown than I do.”

For more information on Caven Enterprises, go online to Caven.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

COVER STORY: Straight in a gay world

Mitchell, Bengston, Hershner, Giles are just some of the non-gays who have found careers, friends and family within the LGBT community

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Stephen Mitchell has the world’s worst gaydar. And he has the story to prove it.

Mitchell, 24, started playing rugby when he was working in Antarctica three years ago. “I fell in love with the sport and every city I move to, I try to join a club,” he said. When he wound up in Dallas, he Googled local rugby teams. The Dallas Diablos’ site promoted a non-discrimination policy and welcoming attitude that Mitchell liked.

“The Diablos were one of three teams that practiced closest to me, but you wanna show up and feel you fit in well,” he said. “I thought, that sounds like an awesome group of people!”

After attending two practices, he felt accepted and comfortable.

But Mitchell must not have read the website too thoroughly. It wasn’t until about a week on the team, after his first game, that he realized most of the members were gay.

PLAYING  FOR OUR TEAM | Stephen ‘Cougar’ Mitchell, lower right, is one of several straight members of the predominantly gay Dallas Diablos Rugby Football Club. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

“With rugby, on the field it doesn’t matter whether you’re young, old, your orientation, race — you’re there to have fun. Then we had [my] first team dinner, we were drinking and having fun and after I while I noticed a couple guys were sitting real close to each other. Then they started holding hands. I said, ‘Ummm, are you guys gay?’ I hadn’t noticed anything. But when they get drunk, the queen comes out.”

Mitchell, who goes by Cougar to his teammates, has been a hooker for the Diablos for a year and a half now, and although he’s straight, he loves being on the team.

“We’re a good, strong bunch of guys, but our club is more socially focused instead of athletically focused. We’re more about being a family,” he said.

He’s hardly the token straight guy. As much as 20 percent of the Diablos male members, including the team captain, are straight. In a society fast changing its views on homosexuality, finding straight people intimately involved in the gay community has become far more common.

Chris Bengston, who became part of the gay community before Mitchell was born, was a pioneer in gay-straight alliances. But Bengston initially felt the sting of discrimination from the gay community against her as a straight woman.

In 1983, Bengston and three friends — two straight women and a gay man — moved to Dallas from Peoria, Ill. They secured apartments at Throckmorton and Congress, just down from the Strip. Since she didn’t have a car, she frequented the bars on Cedar Springs Road with her gay buddy.

Even though it was a quarter-century ago, Bengston felt comfortable being among gay people and became friendly with many of the staff. She asked Frank Caven, owner of Caven Enterprises which ran several clubs, for a part-time job, but he brushed her off.

Then, on Halloween 1985, she got a phone call from the manager of 4001, a club where Zinni’s Pizza is now located.

“He said, ‘I really need your help. I am short of staff tonight. No one knows I’m bringing you in,” Bengston recalled.

When Caven saw her, he blew up; the only straight woman he’d ever let work there was his own niece.

But Bengston showed mettle and was put behind the bar at a different club, the Old Plantation. It was a more mixed crowd — gay, straight, men and women, Caven said; 4001 was for men only.

Despite the initial resistance to her, Bengston wasn’t fazed. Soon this part-time gig became a full-time job; she eventually quit her job at an advertising agency and made Caven her career.

25 AND COUNTIING | Chris Bengston started as a bartender at Caven more than a quarter century ago, She was the first employee to give birth while at the company. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

“Just because I was straight, the fact I was working in a gay bar didn’t bother me in the least,” she said. “We had a gay bar in Peoria we used to hang out at, and I had been partying in the clubs for over a year before I started working there. To me it was a no-brainer.”

Bengston, now 62, was the first Caven employee to give birth while working for the company.

“I cannot even tell you the amazing support I received. When I had my son, they had an article in [the Voice]; they held a baby shower in the old Rose Room. My best friends are in the community,” she said.

Still, she recognized the stigma associated with being straight in a gay world: “When I would meet people and they would ask me what I did, I’d say I work in a nightclub. I told my son, Alex, never to say I worked in a gay bar when he was in school.”

Things are much better now — but we still have a long way to go as a society, Bengston said.

“It’s so mixed now: gay, straight, male, female, every color you can imagine,” she said. “But people still ask me, ‘Do you really think they’re really born that way?’ We all try to say we’re sophisticated and have come a long way, but we’re not as far along as we think we are.”

To look at Lonzie Hershner — 300-plus pounds of tattooed Texas beef — you might assume he’d be the kind of guy who’d beat up gays. You’d be wrong. Like Bengston, Hershner has enjoyed a career catering to the gay community.

The gay clubs Tin Room and Drama Room, the straight club Chesterfield’s and the soon-to-open Marty’s Hideaway were family-owned by Paulette Hershner and her sons, Lonzie and Marty. When Marty, who was gay, died unexpectedly last year, Lonzie took primary responsibility for keeping the bars going. That he is straight didn’t matter.

“It’s just been such a big part of my life for so long,” says Hershner, whose mother first bought the Tin Room 14 years ago, when it was a redneck bar called Judge Roy Bean’s Saloon. Marty was instrumental in converting it to a gay club. That was 10 years ago, and Hershner has felt like part of the gay community ever since.

“It’s such a comfort zone for me,” he said. “I have a house on Maple Springs — it’s my neighborhood. These guys are my friends.”

Marty was 22 when he came out to Lonzie, and was petrified his big brother would reject him. But Lonzie was completely accepting.

“It was OK with me,” he said. “He’s family.”

Because Marty was “the face of the Tin Room,” a lot of customers didn’t know Lonzie was his brother … or a co-owner … or straight.

“They thought I was a bear,” Hershner said with a laugh. “They call me Butch.” But just as big a deal as being accepted by the gay community is the acceptance of Hershner’s straight friends and extended family.

“I have a fiancé and she’s cool with it,” he said. “I get her lap dances from our dancers. Her own sons can’t wait ’til they turn 18 so they can dance at the Tin Room.”

For a dozen years, Tony Giles has been a fixture in the Dallas gay community, both as a personal trainer and (under his stage name, Tony DaVinci) as a model for Playgirl and other magazines and as a performer in solo adult videos. He’s now completely comfortable among his clients and fans (he and his girlfriend attended Pride last fall), but it wasn’t always that way.

“Before I began in training over at the Centrum [gym] in 1999, I had no prior exposure to the gay community,” he candidly admitted. “My first day of training was interesting because everyone said ‘Don’t go back to the steam room!’ As a straight guy, I was afraid and intimidated.”

A LOT TO LEARN | Tony Giles, right, knew nothing about the gay community when he began working as a trainer; he now estimates 95 percent of his clients are gay. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Now, Giles estimates that over his career, easily 95 percent of his training clients have been gay.

“When I’m talking to other trainers, they kind of envy me that I’m training in the gay community because I’m busy and keep a good retention rate of clients,” he said. “When you’re training a straight guy with a wife and children, he gets distracted — he’s not consistent. In the gay community, you get that client that wants to work out more times a week and go that extra mile. He’s not your seasonal client.”

Getting there involved a steep learning curve.

“As a straight guy diving into the gay world, I learned a lot,” he said. “Not every gay guy wants to fuck you; not everyone talks with a lisp or dresses feminine … although my first day [at the Centrum], there was a guy wearing pink shorts and a pink bandanna!”

Working in the gay community opened his eyes a lot to wrong notions he had about orientation.

“Before, I thought being gay was a choice — a rebellious thing or a learned behavior. And now I know it’s not! I educate people on this all the time — I argue with [straight] people who say otherwise. You’re born the way you’re born.”

Giles knows that in his field — he’s also a competitive bodybuilder — there are some preconceptions people attach to men who work their bodies.

“I had this guy come up to me at Gold’s today and say, ‘I’m not gay but your biceps are really bulging today.’ I thought, You don’t have to say you’re not gay! It’s OK.”

Giles, Bengston, Mitchell and Hershner all cite the friendships and affection they receive from their gay friends as the primary reason they feel at home in the gay community.

“I didn’t grow up gay, but I feel guys who do don’t have a sense of belonging,” said Mitchell. “This team really provides them a family and a sense of belonging. That’s one of the reasons I stuck around. I saw how these people created a home. It’s pretty powerful.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 25, 2011.

—  John Wright

Santa’s helpers

HOLIDAY CHEER  | Donald Solomon, Gregg Kilhoffer, Ben Polachek, Marcus Wuntch and Chris Bengston divide presents for each class at Sam Houston Elementary School in Oak Lawn coordinated by Caven Enterprises as part of an annual holiday gift drive for students at the Oak Lawn area school. Staff members and patrons from Dallas Tavern Guild member bars participate now in the effort. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens