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

Hope on the range

Animal Angels Rescue provides unwanted beasts a chance at a better life

PAWS-1

ANGELS IN AMERICA | A Jacksboro animal sanctuary benefits from, from left, Matt and Beth Kelley, Carole Sanders and Nita Burgoon, who serve 300-plus dogs and horses. (Photo courtesy Rodrigo Orta)

STEVEN LINDSEY  | Contributing Writer
stevencraiglindsey@me.com

There are dog lovers, and then there’s Carole Sanders. With 300 dogs and counting under her roof, Sanders’ Animal Angels Rescue, Rehabilitation, Adoption and Sanctuary represents a last chance for many unwanted canines. But unlike the fate of many other homeless animals on this 38-acre ranch in Jacksboro, Texas, these dogs (and 18 horses) have a place to live out the rest of their lives with food, shelter and most of all, love.

Sanders, now 72, loved dogs from a very early age and knew that somehow her life would end up in the service of animals.

“I just didn’t know I was going to do anything at this level, but I’ve always seen the need out there and I have the will and determination to do what I had to accomplish. You have

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OVERRUN WITH DOGS | The author, above, learns first-hand how friendly a rescue dog can be — and how adorable they are just being themselves, below. (Photos courtesy Rodrigo Orta)

to take time,” she says. “If you try to do too much too fast, you can’t do it well. That’s why some rescue groups burn out and fail.”

It was vitally important to Sanders that the sanctuary, which she started in 1992, grow slowly and that everything was in place to sustain it. In 1993, Animal Angels received its non-profit 501(c)3 tax status. Then in 2001, Sanders retired after 40 years of serving a completely different yet equally unruly animal — the airline passenger.

“After being a flight attendant for so long, I figured out that I’m a giver,” she says.

Thankfully, she’s not alone in the giving department. Along with her life partner, Nita Burgoon, Sanders continues to buy up surrounding land — not just to provide more space for the dogs, but to keep neighbors far, far away (300 barking dogs could lead to complaints that might jeopardize the entire mission).

In the cozy lodge that Burgoon had custom-built for the couple, more than a dozen smaller dogs have graciously allowed the two women to share their space, though it’s difficult to find a chair, sofa or any other soft surface without a furry face staring up from it.

More recently, former Operation Kindness intake coordinator Beth Kelley, her husband Matt, and three children have moved into a house on the property and are in charge of many of the daily chores and upkeep that an organization like this entails. Serving the needs of the animals has created a unique situation for Kelley and her family.

“When making the decision to all work at the sanctuary as a family and not having to commute to an outside source of income we feel that we not only have enhanced the upbringing of our children, but the lives of animals that are in great need while educating the community that we live in,” she says.

Part of that education is in-your-face messages that appear on every Animal Angels vehicle. “Only and idiot would let a dog ride in the bed of a truck” adorns their pick-ups; a gestured middle finger from bubbas who drive past isn’t uncommon.

Other messages are less provocative, though no less thought-provoking — like the fact that one female dog and one male dog can be responsible for 67,000 more dogs in just seven years. (For cats, that’s 420,000 in the same time frame.) These statistics are just one of the many reasons that every dog at Animal Angels is spayed or neutered by a vet who comes to the on-site medical facility at least once per month.

With all the dogs spayed or neutered, there is no threat of breeding, thus presenting opportunities for less restrictive doggie interaction. When Kelley first came on the scene in February of last year, most of the dogs were in chain-link “neighborhoods,” large fenced-in areas where dogs could socialize with each other in like-minded packs.

“We couldn’t let them roam the whole property at the time because we didn’t have a full perimeter fence,” Sanders says. “So the best solution was large neighborhoods with dogs that got along. We’ve now taken it a step further. Other sanctuaries still have a lot of pens, but here we have a lot out and I think that’s the best place for them. Thanks to Beth, she started turning dogs loose left and right.”

PAWS-3Now there are more than 170 dogs that are lovingly called “free range.” Dozens of shelters dot the landscape under large trees and among rocks and low-lying bushes. Huge containers of dog food are available on-demand for any dog with an appetite. And baby pools serve as the drinking bowls necessary to quench the thirst of so many active animals.

What’s immediately noticeable after spending any amount of time at Animal Angels is how sublimely happy the dogs appear. With little hope of adoption, they’re still able to get the human interaction that many (though not all) crave. Even more importantly, they benefit from the instinctual bonding with fellow dogs. Throughout the grounds, packs have formed naturally and few dogs within any of them venture into the territory of others. Occasionally they fight, but little more than a growl or a quick nip is needed to keep the peace.

The remaining 130 or so dogs are segregated into neighborhoods for good reasons. For one group, they’re too small to roam freely and safely among a majority of large-breed dogs. Others have been in the neighborhoods too long to adapt to a life outside their fences. The rest simply can’t be trusted to be loose because they don’t get along with people.
With other dogs, however, they’re right at home.

Not all dogs that come to Animal Angels are immediately lifers, either. Puppies, small breeds and other more “adoptable” dogs are given to rescue groups that will give them a much greater chance of finding a forever home. If that doesn’t work out, they always have a place at the sanctuary.

Yet keeping the sanctuary operational takes more than the 24/7 dedication of Sanders and her crew — it requires consistent monetary donations. Animal Angels is able to purchase food, medication and other supplies at such deep discounts that they can stretch a dollar — an important skill given that they need approximately 10,000 pounds of dog food per month just to feed their current residents. That doesn’t include any other operational or medical expenses.

But one look at the loving eyes, happy faces, and spastically wagging tails and it’s clear that these dogs have found heaven on earth. And Sanders, Burgoon and the entire Kelley family truly are angels to each and every one of them.

“You can’t save them all, but you try. That’s what counts,” Sanders says.  “You do the best you can.”

To learn more, or to donate, visit AnimalAngelsTexas.org.  

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

—  Kevin Thomas

Best Bets • 10.07.11

Saturday 10.08

Pretty in pink
Edna Jean Robinson steps out of the box and into the pink. She hosts Pinktober 2011 for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Between fundraising and premiering two new songs, Edna Jean should make the event a fabulous one.

DEETS: Hard Rock Cafe, 2211 N. Houston St. 8 p.m. $10.
HardRock.com

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Saturday 10.08

Keep it hush-hush
Uptown Players regional premiere of The Temperamentals closes out the season on a high note. If you were “temperamental” in the ’50s, that was code for gay. Jon Marans play touches on the alternatve vocabulary used by gay men to communicate in a more conservative time.

DEETS: Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. 8 p.m. Through Oct. 23. $25–$35.
UptownPlayers.org.

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Sunday 10.09

Dog day late afternoon
Support Animal Angels this weekend as the sanctuary for homeless animals celebrates 20 years. The event includes drinks, appetizers and prizes. This sweet dog will thank you.

DEETS:  Sambuca 360, 7200 Bishop Road, Plano. 6 p.m. $25.
AnimalAngelsTexas.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas