Gay bar thrives in suburb - Forest Park tavern marks 30th anniversary
By Russell Working
Copyright by The Chicago Tribune
Published July 28, 2006
Back when owner Mike Zych first started at the Nutbush City Limits, he kept a Louisville Slugger under the bar to chase off punks who threatened his gay clientele.
Once, a group of teens showed up yelling slurs and menacing customers in the parking lot of the Forest Park tavern. Zych, a Vietnam veteran and South Sider, says he persuaded them to move along by smashing the headlights of their station wagon with his bat.
This week the Nutbush celebrates its 30th anniversary--and a history that coincides with sweeping changes in the way gays are perceived, both in the nation at large and in the suburbs where homosexuals long lived closeted lives and had few public places to socialize.
"Don't forget, back in the early years, gay people didn't have no place to go," said Zych, a no-nonsense saloonkeeper in a white shirt and black vest. "Nowadays, pretty much everything is open and people can go where they want to go. But in those days, it was rough. I got three concussions out of the deal. Bottles over my head outside in the parking lot."
Despite the assaults, the Nutbush became a rare haven in the western suburbs where an openly gay couple could sip a beer without worrying some bully across the bar might pick a fight or lob a verbal stink bomb into their evening.
The bar has its bawdy side: It sometimes hosts "leather nights" and strippers, and its newsletter contains a photo of the backside of a man dropping his pants. But it is the tavern's more ordinary qualities that its customers emphasize. There's a softball team, and the Nutbush competes in a Forest Park dart league against other bars, something patrons say they never would have done a few years back.
Wayne Matulionis, a regular, compares the Nutbush to a bar in a sitcom of the 1980s and '90s.
"I call it `Cheers' for queers," said Matulionis, who raises money for AIDS and HIV victims through the bar. "It's the kind of place where, if you don't show up for a week, someone will call and see how you're doing."
Added customer Eddie Messina, "I'm a 16-year regular, and I've always felt comfortable here. It's not a pickup spot. It's a neighborhood bar."
Wayne Brekhus, a University of Missouri-Columbia sociologist who has studied suburban gays, said the situation has changed radically in recent years. Once it was rare to find gay bars outside urban centers. Now such establishments are more commonplace, though they tend to be more generic--like the Nutbush--and less focused on a particular theme or ethnicity.
Also, suburban gays live more openly than they once did as stigmas wane, said Brekhus, the author of "Peacocks, Chameleons, Centaurs: Gay Suburbia and the Grammar of Social Identity."
"There are obviously still people in the suburbs who are very closeted and leading double lives," Brekhus said, "but much less than before. It's not so unusual for a male couple to live openly in a small city or a suburb, whereas 10 years ago that was unusual and 20 years ago, if it happened, it was very hidden."
Twenty-five years ago, gay bars tended to last little more than four years, facing pressure from police and other authorities, said Art Johnston, an owner of Sidetrack, which opened on North Halsted Street in 1982. Where such bars have succeeded, they have tended to be surrounded by a large gay and lesbian clientele, as on North Halsted, which has become "the Main Street of gay Chicago," Johnston said.
"The Nutbush has been going it alone for a long time," Johnston said. "So what they've done really is quite amazing."
Located on Harlem Avenue a block south of the Green Line `L' station, the Nutbush presents a poker face to the middle-class community around it. It is a nondescript wood-and-brick structure, its windows bricked in to provide the privacy and safety its customers once demanded.
There is a door out in back for those who, in the past, wanted to slip in without being noticed. Inside, the lights are dim and regulars start gathering in the afternoons.
Zych's former partner, who opened the bar, borrowed the name from Tina Turner's song about her hometown in Tennessee. Zych joined the Nutbush about a year after it opened.
The Nutbush itself is marking 30 years, but the building has a storied if boozy history that stretches back to the 1920s. For a time, it operated as a speakeasy with a hidden system of tubes that brought liquor from the second floor down to hidden taps, Zych said. Legend has it that Al Capone once ran a still downstairs.
Perhaps because of its free-living speakeasy roots, the tavern developed a reputation as a gay-friendly place decades before the Nutbush opened in 1976. In 1984, the Tribune stated that it had been known as a gay bar since 1961.
The Nutbush once drew gays from downtown Chicago in search of anonymity, Matulionis said. They could take the Green Line out and slip in the back door, confident that they wouldn't be recognized.
Regular Chuck Plimmer, who grew up in Oak Park, says the Nutbush was the first gay bar he ever visited. But he can recall a time when he was one of the troublemakers.
"I remember when I was 14, I was throwing firecrackers through the front door," Plimmer said. "A few years later, I was walking in through the door myself."
Lt. Mike Cody of the Forest Park Police Department said there have been few reports of trouble in recent years.
"Any time you have a gay bar, you're going to have that," Cody said. "But it's infrequent."
Zych said that for many years, he tried to avoid trouble and handle incidents without calling the cops, fearing a crime report might become a pretext to shut down the bar.
Others in the community agree the tavern has kept a low profile. Said Rev. David Steinhart, pastor of Forest Park Baptist Church just down the street: "Other than just being there, they certainly haven't been in your face in any way."
Recently, Kelly Carrasco of Berwyn shared a pitcher of beer with her partner, Cyndee Kayes, as they explained why they hang out here, even though women are in the minority. It's a friendly place, she said.
"We walk in, and it's like, `Oh, the lesbians have arrived,'" she said. "It's more of a men's bar."
Kayes said the bar serves a deeper purpose than mere socializing. Many gays and lesbians become estranged from their families when they come out. At the Nutbush, they find a new circle of friends.
"This is where we do business," she said. "This is where I get a mortgage. This is where we buy a house or a car. Somebody wants to take a trip to Honduras or Cancun, we've got guys who are travel agents. This is family. We keep it in the family."