Friday, March 8, 2002

Good-Looking 25-Year-Old: Saloon Celebrates Its Silver Anniversary

(Article published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #177, March 8, 2002)

It opened as the “Sundown Saloon.” Then it was the “Y’All Come Back Saloon.” (Officially, that’s still its name). For a time it advertised as “Saloon Electric”. But for 25 years people have been calling it The Saloon—or sometimes, affectionately, “The Salon”. And for 25 years, while other venues have come and gone, The Saloon has been a constant fixture of the Twin Cities gay bar scene and is now the longest running disco/dance club in the Twin Cities and perhaps in the entire upper midwest. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s certainly given owners John Moore and Jim “Andy” Anderson many good stories to tell.

The bar opened in March of 1977 as the Sundown Saloon, a western-themed disco; the back area of the bar was called the “Rear Entry.” The crowd was leather/Levi, young, gay and all-male—women and heterosexuals were not allowed. This policy, along with other internal management problems, led to a community boycott which culminated in a mutiny and employee walkout in the autumn of 1977. Moore and Anderson, who were tending bar there at the time, were part of that walkout.

The bar reopened (with the same staff but a different manager) as the “Y’All Come Back Saloon,” partly because of the Oak Ridge Boys’ hit of the same name. According to Anderson, “Dolly Parton was big at the time, and we really did play Western music, and we always finished the night off with that song” (a tradition which continued into the early 1990s). But the bar’s new name was also commentary on the politics of its relation with the community, and a new door policy meant that everyone was now welcome, including women and heterosexuals. That’s the way it’s been ever since.

Moore and Anderson became business partners when they bought the bar in 1980, but they’ve known each other since age 18. They were roommates at the University of Minnesota (both English majors), and got involved in the gay-lib politics of the time. “We were at the first meeting of F.R.E.E. (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression),” said Moore, “and we went to the first dance at Coffman Union with the NBC Television cameras there, and the Anita Bryant marches, all that stuff.” Both men are still politically active.

Moore and Anderson were the first openly gay men in Minneapolis to attempt to buy a gay bar and, says Anderson, “The city didn’t want us as gay bar owners. We had a hard time getting the license past the City Council for a couple years because we were gay, and we had to fight with our attorneys, with City Hall, with the Health Department, with the bank to open an account, with the Fire Department.” The license wasn’t transferred officially until December 21, 1981.

Little did they know the problems that were ahead. “I think when we first opened the bar, the sky seemed the limit—there seemed to be all kinds of possibilities,” said Anderson. “And then we weren’t even wet behind the ears in terms of running a business when we were confronted with the AIDS epidemic. I think that’s why the expansion of new bars stopped and people retrenched a little bit. I know there were many years when I felt that we would be fortunate just to hang on, and we put most of our energy and effort into just keeping the place open.

“Our major concern was to keep a gay space open while all of this went on, because who knew where it was going? There was a lot of fear, and a lot of difficulties, and of course a lot of funerals.” The Saloon’s first manager died of AIDS in 1984. Anderson continued, “One of the major reasons we own the Brass Rail” (purchased by Moore and Anderson in 1986) “is the fear of AIDS and declining revenues—the owner wanted out before there was nothing left. I think there were many years when we didn’t see a lot of upgrade in the bar business, we saw the other places closing. So I think we’re fortunate to still be here.”

The space that makes up The Saloon has been constantly changing over the years, and according to Moore, “Almost everything, even the music venues, has been in response to customer requests.” The patio was opened in the late 1980s, and the country/western motif gave way to the current “distressed” look in the early 1990s. In 1993 the former Tourist Hotel, located above The Saloon and also owned by Moore and Anderson, began catering to a gay clientele as the Hotel Amsterdam.

Walter McLean, who had been DJ’ing for the club for many years, became the club’s general manager in 1994; he has been responsible for many innovations including Hard Mondays, a weekly Goth scene complete with BDSM demonstrations and the occasional live band. March 9, 1997, saw the unveiling of The Tank, an alternative Sunday-night only leather space at the back of the bar. Other recent changes have included the glass-block bar and a revamped men’s room.

Upcoming improvements include adding windows to the 9th Street side of the building and a general exterior sprucing-up. But not to worry: “We always make changes carefully and respectfully,” says Moore, “because it really isn’t our bar. It’s really the customers’ bar, and we want to make sure improvements are done with great respect to this place that’s been here 25 years and is such a sacred space to a lot of people.”

That focus on the customer is what has kept people coming back to the Saloon for 25 years. Anderson explained his and Moore’s philosophy: “It’s not our party, we’re giving the party. We tell our staff we’re caretakers—we come in and clean the place up every day, and we throw a party every night, and basically we’re taking care of this space for the community as long as they want it as their space. If that’s how we approach it, I think we’re on the right track. I think we’re on the wrong track when we become more important than the customer, and it starts to become about our needs or our staff’s needs.”

Anderson has high praise for the bar’s staff: “They’ve stayed with us. We have staff that have been with us for twenty years or better. And it’s not just the loyalty of the staff—these are skilled men and women. They’ve got sharp minds and they’ve connected with the customer. They know the customer’s names, they know what they drink, they known something about them. Doc (Steve Johnson) works five nights a week and has for over twenty years, and I think for twenty years people have said he’s the best bartender in town.”

When they first bought The Saloon, Moore and Anderson had a goal of being open for five years, and according to Moore, “We were pretty much counting the years up to 1985 or 1986.” Anderson concurred: “It seemed like a tremendous mountain to climb, just to be open five years, but I felt that initially if we could accomplish that we could say, ‘Job well done.’ Then if somebody came in and opened a bigger, better place and they were where the customers wanted to be, at least we could say we had the good fortune of being the hosts for the community for five years. And the truth of the matter is, it’s been a lot longer than that! So we’ve had a lot of good times and a lot of good memories and been very fortunate.”

A Saloon timeline

March, 1977: Saloon opens as “Sundown Saloon” (back area is “Rear Entry”)

Fall, 1977: Community boycotts the new bar and staff walks out. Reopens as “Y’All Come Back Saloon” with different manager and same staff.

1980: Saloon bartenders John Moore and Jim “Andy” Anderson buy the bar. (Ownership is officially transferred on December 21, 1981.)

June, 1984: Saloon’s first manager dies of AIDS.

1986: Moore and Anderson become owners of The Brass Rail.

Late 1980s: Patio opens.

Early 1990s: Country/western motif gives way to current “distressed” look.

1993: Non-gay Tourist Hotel above The Saloon becomes the Hotel Amsterdam

1994: Walter McLean becomes general manager

June, 1996: Hard Mondays debuts

March 9, 1997: The Saloon unveils “The Tank,” its Sunday-only leatherspace, with an appearance by porn star Donnie Russo.

March, 2002: The Saloon celebrates 25 years!

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