Saying goodbye to Friends

Nationally known Cedar Creek Lake bar closes after 15 years

Friends-001

BUSINESS DRIES UP | Owner Leo Bartlett said low lake levels caused by the ongoing drought resulted in fewer visitors to the area, forcing him to shut down his club for good. (David Webb/Dallas Voice)

DAVID WEBB  |  Contributing Writer
davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com

GUN BARREL CITY — For 15 years Friends was the little gay bar that did it all in the most unlikely of settings, but it came to a sad end just before Christmas.
Friends owner Leo Bartlett sent out a message on Facebook Dec. 20 saying he was closing the iconic gay bar, and he never unlocked the doors for business again. Situated in the middle of one of the most conservative areas of the state, the humble little private club had featured charity drag shows and raised many tens of thousands of dollars — benefiting homeless animals, the elderly, the poor and HIV patients — for years.

Known not only throughout Texas but literally around the world, Friends often saw visitors from far away who had read or heard about the bar. Reporters for major mainstream U.S. newspapers like the Washington Post contacted the bar’s management for comments on LGBT issues. In 2007, Out magazine named Friends one of the top 50 gay bars in the world, saying the atmosphere was the friendliest in the state, the fish tank was filled with well water and the drag queens’ hairdos tended to be big, much like they were.

In a clever complement to the drag shows, a local theater group known as Friends Players put on variety shows that were well attended by the lake’s gay and straight residents alike. The entire cast, including performers in full drag, traveled down the road to the American Legion Club a couple of times each year to put on performances.

But now, the music, acting, dancing and laughing are just memories for Bartlett, who opened the bar door late one afternoon this month to allow a few customers to retrieve several pieces of personal property. The walls that once were covered with pictures of bewigged drag queens wearing tiaras are now bare.

“It’s all over,” Bartlett said as he stood in the sunlight flowing through the open door into the dark bar. “I said my goodbyes on Facebook. It’s all there to read. I’ve thanked everyone. There’s really nothing else to say.”

Bartlett said sending out the Facebook message was painful for him, and he didn’t want to have one last party in the bar to mark its closing, although many former customers had hoped he would.

Bartlett.Leo

Leo Bartlett

“It would just be a funeral for me,” said Bartlett, who noted the bar’s net revenue had been on the decline for about three years, just as with many other lake businesses. “I didn’t see any point in that. I’ve already said my goodbyes.”
Bartlett said economic conditions on the lake led to Friend’s closing, and he didn’t blame it on the competition from a new gay bar, Garlow’s, that opened nearby two years ago.

He disputed the popular opinion among some members of the lake’s LGBT community that there weren’t enough customers on the lake for two gay bars, and that the newer, more attractive Garlow’s had stolen his customers.

“There were enough customers,” Bartlett said. “There just wasn’t enough participation. If you talk to the owners of the straight bars, you will hear the same thing from them. Everybody is having trouble.”

The lake has a sizable LGBT community made up of retirees, Dallas commuters and natives, but many just don’t enjoy the bar scene. The gay and lesbian population increases greatly on weekends, holidays and during the summers when LGBT second-home owners are in residence, but many of them also prefer not to go out to the nightclubs.

Last summer’s drought — which caused the lake to drop almost 8 feet, leaving boat docks sitting in sand and beaches where water once stood — finished Friends off, Bartlett said. People avoided the lake, and that made all of the lake’s businesses suffer, resulting in several businesses shutting down in 2011, he said.

“It was time for me to close,” said Bartlett, who also separated this year from his longtime life partner who had helped him run the bar. “It was 15 good years. That’s what is important.”

For many customers though, the closing has left a void, and some seem almost resentful about it. Many of Bartlett’s customers would not go to Garlow’s out of loyalty to Friends, but others who went to both bars are also disappointed. And some who didn’t go to Friends at all also expressed dismay.

Friends’ closing is a loss to the lake’s LGBT community, said Troy Luethe, who with his life partner owns a bed and breakfast in nearby Ben Wheeler. The couple once participated in the Friends Players productions and visited the bar socially as well.

“I think it is sad,” Luethe said. “I never like to see a business fail, and it was part of the history of the area and held a lot of memories for me and others.”

For Jennie Morris, another former member of Friends Players, it is more personal. She also went there socially to meet with her friends.

“I feel like I lost a good friend, really, and one of my major connections to the community,” Morris said. “As a member of Friends Players it has left a pretty big hole there, too.

Friends was my Cheers, I guess — a place where everybody knows your name. Friends was safe, comfortable and like an old flannel shirt — just home.”

Several former customers of Friends declined to comment for the story, saying they had mixed emotions. Some people complained that Bartlett ran the bar too much like a nonprofit organization rather than a business, and blamed its closing on that.

Michael Slingerland, owner of Garlow’s, said he was shocked when he first heard about Bartlett announcing the closing of Friends. Slingerland formerly worked part time at Friends as a bartender before opening his own business, which appears to be doing well.

“We’ve talked about it a lot here,” Slingerland said. “It’s really sad.”

Slingerland said he had hoped for a cooperative effort between the two bars that would have helped both prosper, but that never happened.

“We could have helped each other out a lot,” said Slingerland, who envisioned back-and-forth traffic between the two clubs.
Regardless of what factors led to the closing of Friends, it is now a reality that the bar is gone for good. Although Bartlett has said he has no plans to return to his nativeArkansas, he is exploring other options for his future life in the Cedar Creek area.

“I’m thinking about a number of things,” said Bartlett, who acknowledged being a “hermit” since he announced the closing.

In the meantime Bartlett has listed the building for sale or lease with a gay Cedar Creek Lake real estate agent. The ad might run something like this: “Little private club with an unusually intriguing past available for new operator and members.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 20, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Gun Barrel City bar Friends closing

Leo Bartlett, owner of Friends in Gun Barrel City, announced Tuesday, Dec. 20, on his Facebook page that the bar is closing.

“Due to uncontrollable events, the clubs doors must be closed,” he wrote.

The bar has been a center of activity for the LGBT community around Cedar Creek Lake for about 20 years. Pageants, shows, food drives and charity events took place regularly at Friends. The most recent charity drive was a collection for Toys for Tots.

The closing was announced suddenly. Events were posted through January.

“From the bottom of my heart, I have never thought that this notice would go out,” Bartlett wrote. He called the closing a “heartbreaking decision.”

A number of financial factors apparently contributed to the closing of Friends but this summer’s drought, the worst in Texas’ history, was also likely a contributing factor. The lake level was down almost eight feet — far enough that many boat ramps were closed so weekend residents stayed away.

Friends is located in Gun Barrel City, located centrally on Cedar Creek Lake, which is about 60 miles southeast of Dallas. The lake was built by the city of Fort Worth to supplement its water supply in 1964 and is the fourth largest lake in Texas.

The area began attracting LGBT lake house buyers in the 1980s. Many Dallasites bought weekend houses there but the area has also attracted a number of LGBT retirees and other full-time residents.

Since Friends opened almost 20 years ago, other LGBT businesses and organizations have grown around the lake. LGBT-friendly Celebration Church on the Lake in nearby Mabank grew with help from Celebration Church in Fort Worth. Garlows, a second LGBT bar in Gun Barrel City, opened several years ago. Gay campground Circle J Ranch is near the lake in Eustace.

In addition, two cities on the lake have elected gay mayors.

The gay bars draw not only from lake residents but also from nearby Corsicana and Athens as well as a number of other smaller towns in Navarro, Henderson and Kaufman counties.

—  David Taffet

Spirit of Giving: Linze Serrell’s Toys for Tots Show

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the holiday season kicks into high gear, the LGBT community of North Texas once again is responding in a variety of ways to help out those who are less fortunate.

This week Dallas Voice profiles five events intended to raise funds or other donations for a number of different causes. But the community’s good will doesn’t end with these events.

If you know of an individual, business or organization that is holding or participating in a charitable holiday event or effort, email the information to editor@dallasvoice.com.

…………………

Linze-Serrell

Linze Serrell

Saturday night, Dec. 10, Garlow’s in Gun Barrel City will play host to Linze Serrell’s annual Toys for Tots fundraising show, to gather donations of cash and toys for the U.S. Marines’ Toys for Tots program.

Brian Paris, show director at Garlow’s, said that this is the second holiday season since the bar opened, and the second year that the club has hosted the event.

Paris explained that the annual Toys for Tots benefit show was started more than 25 years ago by Bill Lindsey, known across the Metroplex as Linze Serrell, a female impersonator who sings live and focuses his efforts on charitable events.

“This is Linze’s baby, her pet project, on top of everything else that [Lindsey and his partner Michael Champion, aka Sable Alexander] do,” Paris said.

For Lindsey, the annual show is a way to give back and say thanks for the blessings in his own life.

“My mom was a single mom who worked three jobs. There were times growing up that we wouldn’t have had Christmas without the support of the church and organizations like Toys for Tots,” he said. “I know what it feels like to be without, and I want to do something to make sure other kids don’t have to go without.”

Despite a recent stroke, Lindsey said he would definitely attend the event at Garlow’s. “I’d have to be six feet under not to be at this show! And even then, they’d dig me up and put me in the corner! I even plan on singing a song in the show.”

Paris said the show will be “really just a regular drag show,” except that all the performers are donating their time and all the tips go to help buy toys for Toys for Tots.

“Last year, we had a stage full of people participating, and we raised about $2,000. And we had a lot of fun doing it. And all the people participating do it on their own dime. No one receives a penny of compensation.

“These entertainers, we all travel thousands of miles each year, whether it’s to participate in a pageant system for the Home for the Holidays [a program that raises funds to send people with HIV/AIDS home]. But there is nothing in this show that has any personal benefit for the performers, in terms of winning a title or anything. They just do it for the fun of it and for the chance to make Christmas a little bit better for some children who might not have had Christmas otherwise.”

He said that this show is also the only time that Garlow’s ever charges a cover charge, and that the suggested donation of $5 or a new, unwrapped toy at the door will also go into the Toys for Tots total.

But Paris said he knows that a trip to Gun Barrel to attend the show may be out of the question for some. “If someone wants to help but can’t make it down here to Gun Barrel City, then they should find someone where they are who needs help,” he said. “It doesn’t even have to be doing something for kids.

There are lots of people in nursing homes who need a hug. Just go and sit and spend some time with someone who needs your company.”

Linze Serrell’s annual Toys for Tots benefit show begins at 10 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at Garlow’s, 308 E. Main St. in Gun Barrel City.

— Tammye Nash

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 2, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Thanksgiving weekend at Cedar Creek Lake

I know there are a lot of LGBT folks in the Metroplex who have weekend/vacation homes down south on Cedar Creek Lake, and I am sure there are others who plan on spending their long holiday weekend in that area with friends and family. And that’s not even counting all the LGBTs who live on the lake full time.

So if you will be spending Thanksgiving and the weekend on the lake and are looking for something fun to do once all the turkey is gone, checkout Friends, one of two LGBT bars in Gun Barrel City.

Friends, 410 S. Gun Barrel Lane, opens early on Thanksgiving Day, with football playing on the big screens and a big Thanksgiving Dinner served at 6 p.m. Leo and the gang will supply the turkey and all the trimmings, but those coming to share the meal are welcome to bring their own side dishes, too.

Friends also continues its food drive through the holiday weekend, in support the American Legion Post 310′s annual Christmas basket program for families in need. So if you have some extra canned goods or dry goods in your pantry, or if you want to pick up some extra when you go shopping, be sure to take them over and drop them off at the bar.

Then you can wind up the weekend Saturday night with Friends’ annual Mr./Ms./Miss Cedar Creek Lake Pageant starting at 9 p.m.

The other LGBT club in town is called Garlow’s, so you might want to check them out, too, while you’re in town. Garlow’s is located at 309 E. Main St. in Gun Barrel City.

—  admin

Congrats to new Miss/Mr. Charity America

 

Congratulations go out to the new 2012 Miss Charity America Thelma DaZel and the new 2012 Mr. Charity America, Josh Joblin, who were crowned Sunday night at the climax of the annual fundraising pageant, held at The Round-Up Saloon. This year’s winner claim Garlow’s in Gun Barrel City as their home bar. In the photos above, Miss Charity America 2009 D’Aundra Dennay and Miss Charity America 2011 Kelly O’Neil crown Thelma, left, and Josh poses with Kelly O’Neil and Mr. Charity America 2011 T.C. Cleveland.

Brian Paris, show director at Garlow’s, notes that the bar is also home to Miss Gay Texas State Jade Brooks.

Mr./Miss Charity America is a fundraising event benefiting Home for the Holidays, a program that helps send people with HIV/AIDS home to see their families.

—  admin

COVER STORY: a DIFFERENT kind of CAMP

SADDLE UP | Mitch, right, one of the co-owners of Circle J Ranch, and a camper take the horses out for a ride around the ranch. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Gays defy stereotypes by communing with nature, cowboy style, at Circle J

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
Life+Style editor

jones@dallasvoice.com

It’s Mike’s 50th birthday, and so the usual Saturday night dinner bash at the Circle J Ranch is more of a celebration than usual. Not just because of the milestone birthday, either.

Mike, one of the four co-owners of this gay campground, had been in the hospital until earlier that week after a bad turn following chemo treatments, and it was touch-and-go for a while. Today, though, Mike appears to be the picture of health.

It’s hard to say how much of the promise of the outdoors contributed to his recovery, but you won’t find anyone here who doesn’t find something therapeutic about being out in the fresh Texas air.

Don’t expect log cabins and Conestoga wagons, though. Dinner here isn’t served out of a chuck wagon by a toothless cowpoke named Cookie slinging hash. The “farmhouse” (if you wanna call it that) is a rambling ’70s ranch-style with an enclosed porch, swimming pool and air-conditioning; across a field, a spacious but spartanly serviceable bunkhouse holds a dozen or so beds for campers who have neither RVs nor tents.

If it looks less like camping than you recall from John Wayne westerns, it’s still something different from what you expect of the gay community.

Horses are available to rent, and you can see some longhorns grazing in the pasture (though one of the owners says they are “more for ambience”). There are hiking trails, and at night, without light pollution from neighboring cities, the darkness of the primeval, with the starry sky ablaze with twinkling lights is beautiful.

There’s an undeniable connection to the land, a camaraderie borne in the dry winds and piney landscape of East Texas.

This weekend they expect about 40 guests (that’s average, though it’s hard to predict), but on a holiday weekend like Memorial Day, attendance shoots up to 200 or more. It doesn’t feel too busy, though; plenty of folks stake their camp out in the woods, away from the farmhouse, for some commune-with-nature time.

None of the guys who prefer to linger around the bunkhouse seems to mind; it’s not like anyone judges anyone else.

“It’s a different kind of experience within the gay community,” says Randy, another one of the owners. “People come here from the city, escaping stress and work. It really brings the stress level down being out here; you can see it an hour after they arrive.”

Randy is one of six children — the only gay one, but also the only one of his siblings to produce a grandchild for his parents (a daughter, co-raised with a lesbian couple) and the only one to go into the family business of ranching (albeit with a detour as a mortgage banker for a spell).

Circle J is a working ranch of 101 acres in Van Zandt County, about an hour’s drive southeast of downtown Dallas. Gun Barrel City, which for a rural area boasts an astonishing two gay bars (including Friends, deemed one of the friendliest gay joints in the nation by a national gay publication), is the nearest town of note, though about a mile from the ranch is where Ozarka bottles its water from the local aquifer. (The locals all agree that Ozarka is clean, fresh water — but they get it from their taps, and don’t much appreciate the company taking it from them.)

There’s a definite Texas sensibility here, even if almost everyone at the Circle J is gay. Walk by the cars parked outside, you’ll see pickup trucks with “McCain/Palin ’08” bumper stickers alongside rainbow flags and HRC “=” decals.

The men here tend not to fit into the metrosexual stereotype of a gay man; they seem more like the stereotype of a Texas cowboy: Resistol hats, tight-fitting blue jeans, handlebar moustaches and western shirts with mother-of-pearl snap buttons. Except, of course, they are gay.

Which means they don’t fit any stereotype at all.

“We get people from all over. And we are conservative,” says Randy, who fits exactly the physical description of a cowboy. “And by conservative, I mean Sarah-Palin-Tea-Party-supporter conservative. Lots of gay people live rural lives and come from rural roots.”

But that hardly matters. Politics aren’t the main topic of conversation around the campfire.

The campfire, in fact, is one of the highpoints of a weekend here. Located on the upside of a hill just across a pond from the ranch house, it’s nuzzled in a clearing surrounded by a natural outcropping of rocks — a kind of organic henge around which guests commune over beer.

The men — and it’s all men; the Rainbow Ranch a few hours away is co-ed and family-friendly — come from all walks. Gary, the straight brother of one of the owners, is visiting from Chicago; he seems unfazed by what he jokingly refers to as the “overt homosexuality” of the guests.

Although the average age of guests skews toward the 40s, this weekend there are several men in their 20s here as well, out to enjoy what Circle J has to offer.

IMG_0094
GOOD EATS | Circle J co-owner Paul, right, pours out pounds of mudbugs for the ranch’s Saturday crawfish boil. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

“We come here a lot,” says one guest, who lives in Allen with his longtime partner. “Being from Kentucky, I like being outdoors. We started with tent camping, then got a pop-up [camper]. Now we have a 34-foot RV,” with all the perks of home (a/c, a kitchen, roomy accommodations).

They go to Rainbow Ranch, too (there are about a half-dozen gay campgrounds throughout Texas, all of which are supportive of each other), but what brings them back to Circle J time and again is the people.

Circle J, which has been around for about seven years, was clothing-optional until last year. That’s when a disgruntled former guest complained to the local authorities and the sheriff came out, telling them they would have to register as a “sexually-oriented business” if they wanted to keep the policy. They decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and canceled it (although, when you’re out in the woods, who’s to know?) The result has actually been an uptick in business.

“Those who had been intimidated by nudity decided to check it out,” says Mitch, one of the co-owners. (It is not a cruisy place, really, though certainly that happens.)

Mitch himself was new to camping — and to gay life — until relatively recently. Originally from Milwaukee, he was in the military and married to a woman for much of his life. He came out with a vengeance in 1996, leaving the service, divorcing his wife and moving to New Orleans; within a year, he was competing as Mr. Louisiana Leather at IML.

That’s where he met Randy; they opened a gay bed and breakfast in NOLA before buying the Circle J eight years ago.

Mitch bristles at the use of the term “resort” to describe the Circle J, almost to the point of taking offense. He doesn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.

“This is rustic camping,” he corrects. The best place to pee, newcomers are informed, is the nearest tree.

But there are some trappings of civilization. Cocktail hour is a nightly ritual, and guys play bocce ball to entertain themselves.

For Mike’s birthday bash, he and his partner Paul drove about 45 miles to pick up 20 pounds of crawfish for an old-fashioned mudbug boil. While Mike cooks — and everyone acknowledges, Mike has a way with Cajun food — many of the others chip in, taping down butcher paper and newsprint over picnic tables, drinking beer out of the complimentary tap.

All the while, the jukebox plays — everything from AC/DC to classical music to Madonna.

Hey, even in the country, gay men still like some Madonna. Some things just don’t change, no matter where you are.

—  John Wright