I'll never forget the first time someone mentioned "The Park" to me. It was from a high school friend of mine who I knew since elementary school. I first thought my friend was talking about Wasena Park or Highland Park. No, he was talking about some club that had opened a little over a year before where boys who liked boys and girls who liked girls could go dance together, drink and take in the then occasional drag show they would put on. This year was 1980. I was seventeen years old, my friend also seventeen.
The beer drinking age in 1980 was eighteen years old and my friend and I were just dying to get into this club called The Park but both of our 18th birthdays weren't until December. Well summer vacation was upon us and we just didn't want to wait. Getting into The Park was about all we could think about. Nervous at the prospect, yes, but we were damned well determined to get into that bar.
We had heard about this photo place called Parker Studio, I believe it was on Kirk Ave., where you could get an I.D. made for $5.00 and no questions asked. You just lied about the year you were born and the little old man who ran the place would put it on your I.D. no muss, no fuss. So here I go on the Valley Metro to Downtown Roanoke to Parker Studio to get my fake I.D. so I could get into that forbidden place called The Park.
I remember being led into a very dark upstairs area where this little old man took my picture on a very old camera where the film was actually a glass plate. He let me watch him develop and print my photo and attach it to my I.D. He then typed out my information on an also very old typewriter. Of course I lied by one year about the year I was born,
Now I was all set, all I needed was some money and the proper excuse to tell my mother where I was going for the night so me and my friend could sneak out, head downtown to Salem Ave. to make our gay bar debut. Before that though, I was scheduled to go visit my cousins in Giles Co., Virginia. I spent about two weeks there swimming and going to the movies and the drive-in with my cousins, of course drinking beer and smoking cigarettes which I wasn't supposed to be doing...but who cared, the parents, we thought, were clueless.
My return trip to Roanoke was via the old trusted Trailways bus line and the ticket probably cost about $3.00 or $4.00 from Giles. My mother was waiting for me and she came busting out into the terminal to meet me and quite loudly announced, "How would you like to go to The Park tonight?" Well, being only seventeen and my mother saying something like this, I could have gulped down a piano. I was of course shocked she asked me to go to a gay bar and was thinking surely she couldn't have known about the diabolical plans me and my friend had cooked up...no way. I still remember the exact date; it was July 26, 1980 on a Saturday.
While I had been away, my mother had talked with a co-worker of hers at the Roanoke Public Library who was gay and had a partner, then known as a lover, and they planned to show me The Park when I came home. She knew I had acquired a fake I.D. which I said was to be able to drink beer with my cousin, Gary, and his girlfriend when we would go to Pizza Den on the weekends as we did quite a bit back then. Mama knew better and she figured out exactly my true intentions for my I.D.'s use. Connecting with her gay co-worker and his partner, my mother orchestrated a plan with them to take me to The Park for the first time. Mama was about 46 years old then and here she was going to take her underage son into a gay bar, where we could have easily been turned away. This was long before I gave my mother the pet name, Miss Mama. Her emergent nickname in the Roanoke gay community would come about a year later.
We got ready, met up with her co-worker and his "lover" and before we knew it we were entering that door for the first time. I remember trying to act like I had done this many times before yet doing my best to hide the fact I was scared shitless.
Ed Secrist, one of the original owners, was working the door that night. He judgingly looked at me, my mother and my fake I.D. Mama told him I was her son, and I remember him raising his eyebrows and his eyes suddenly grew pretty wide and I thought, "oh God we’re busted for sure", but he let us in. Later, when Ed got to know mother and I better, she asked him why he let us in that night and he said, "If you had the courage to bring your 17 year old son down here, you deserved to get in."
I'm going to tell you right now, you haven't lived until your own mother not only ushers you to a gay bar for the first time but also knows every gay person in the place. From working at the Roanoke Public Library, she knew every queen in town. This was something I was clueless about my mother.
She was going around buying me beer, hugging and kissing everyone in the place and introducing me to all these men who of course saw "fresh meat" but had the mother entanglement to deal with. Mama also planned this so she could act as a buffer between me and these men so I wasn't just cut loose in the place young and vulnerable.
Now some might argue my mother wasn't being a good parent bringing me to The Park for the first time but with the onslaught of a new disease called GRID and later AIDS which came just a short time after, I honestly believe to this day she saved my life by being there for me.
We went to The Park together for years afterwards. We performed in some of the shows there, we became part of people's lives there and they became part of ours. Miss Mama could do a mean Dolly Parton, and I was the one who helped her get into her Bali Bra. How many sons can say that about his mother?
This was during the years when The Park was the best kept secret in town. Long before there was any media coverage of it and when you saw someone in public from the bar, you had a specially coded language where you could talk about the bar without others knowing what you were talking about.
For instance if you saw a bar friend at the mall and he wanted to know if you were going to The Park that night he would ask something like, "You going to the club tonight?" Which you replied, "Oh yes, I'll be there tonight." Or if there was going to be a drag show that night your friend would ask, "You gonna see the show?"
I'll never forget the first time I saw a news story about the The Park on television. I knew when the secret was out, everything was going to change, and looking back now, I was right. It did start to change.
Later as I grew a bit older, life led me away from The Park. I lived with my sick grandmother until she died, I went back to college, got my degree and built a career.
I haven't frequented The Park with any regularity since the early 1990's. I would do the occasional visit and even they became more infrequent. I think the last I time I spent a Saturday night at the bar was in 2004 when I came down after doing a performance of "The Rocky Horror Show" in which I played Eddie and Dr. Scott.. It was Pride weekend.
When I think of The Park, I like to remember those early years when many friends, now gone, were still with us. We had our whole lives ahead of us and all we wanted to do was dance and sing too loudly on the dance floor.
Now, just short of its 35th anniversary, The Park is closed, an era past. We can look back and smile at the old days and recall all those memories in our hearts, remembering the people who touched us, both living and dead, and perhaps even recall some "what's their names" we cried in our beer over who are now long forgotten. Since it’s time to turn the page in Roanoke's history, we shouldn’t look back with sadness or regret, just smile and turn the page.
Some trivia about The Park:
In the early years, admission with a membership was $2.00 on a Saturday night.
The Park had matchbooks they gave away and inside the matchbook was printed in bold letters "TRICK" followed by a place for a name, address and phone number. I wonder how many of those got filled out...lol.
The Park's early drag shows were not every weekend as they were in later years. They were on a Sunday night and they had one about every month or two. They were then treated as a rare event which people would talk about weeks before. The stage was consisted of strong, heavy wooden crates covered in orange carpet. There were sections of them which could be constructed to different stage configurations. The permanent black stage came much later.
In the early days, there was no outside deck.
After The Park had been open a couple of years, they used to have cheap draft beer Wednesday's which started out as a nickel for a draft which would be poured into mugs. The little plastic cups for drafts also came much later as people kept breaking mugs or the mugs would be used as a weapon in the occasional fight. Later the price for the draft on Wednesday nights went up to a dime, quarter, fifty cents and then discontinued altogether until eventually the bar closed on Wednesday's.