Keeping up appearances

For Midtown’s gay nightlife, size does matter

Gay nightlife tycoon Terry Sidie figures if he builds it, they will come.

Gay nightlife tycoon Terry Sidie figures if he builds it, they will come.

Photo By Larry Dalton

One morning last week, Terry Sidie had a rare few minutes of downtime to talk about what his newest business venture, the forthcoming Head Hunters Video Bar & Grille, means to the corner of 20th and K streets and what that corner means to Sacramento’s gay nightlife. “What I’m seeing is the need for more of a social environment,” he said. “We’ll have food, a coffeehouse called PickUps, the patio, the fire pit. It should make this the 5 o’clock destination for people on their way home from work. We’ll have hors d’oeuvres. And plasma screens. There’ll be music you can talk over.”

Behind him, a health-department inspector poked around the gleaming kitchen. A couple of the plasma screens were up and running, showing the DVD of Anger Management. The curtain of bamboo poles had been hung, and the bar was fully stocked. Occasionally, Sidie glanced out the window and across 20th Street to where workers were digging up the land behind his 20-year-old dance club, Faces, in preparation for its own ambitious new addition, which includes a swimming pool. “That was supposed to be done by Thanksgiving. Now I’m being told February. I’m thinking March,” he said. Head Hunters seemed closer to ready. As it has emerged from the drab husk of its former auto-shop self gradually to become the swanky island-themed outpost Sidie has in mind, his investments of money and faith have begun to bear fruit. Anticipation is in the air. “The gay area,” he said. “It’s a great selling tool.”

Helping the matter considerably is Sidie’s rival across K Street, T.J. Bruce, who owns The Depot, a video bar, and has broken ground for his own major expansion, a 4,500-square-foot dance club, also to open when it’s good and ready. “We’re gonna take as much time as it takes to do it right,” Bruce said later that day. “I think that the gay community’s been pushing for it for years. Most cities have at least a couple of clubs. I think it’s going to be a big anchor, in a different way than The Depot is.”

Bruce discussed his plans while nimbly fielding questions from Depot staff about technical difficulties impeding that evening’s screening of Ellen, offering condolences to a friend for the passing of a loved one, and otherwise surveying and attending to his customers’ needs. Evening descended, the crowd swelled, and a buzz arose.

“In Chico, Reno, Tahoe, Modesto, they all have to make a decision about where they’re going to go to party,” Bruce continued. “The stronger the corner, the better for all of us. It brings value to property. It’s a really good energy.”

As is reflected in The Depot’s programming, from Melrose Place and Designing Women in the early days to Will & Grace and Queer as Folk these days, options, clearly, have evolved. Many of Sacramento’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community’s growing pains have played out on the corner of 20th and K streets, with conflicts arising between generations and between camps. There were those who figured Faces too straight-friendly, and those who figured The Depot too small-townish. Those who called the local scene too inbred, and those who called the whole culture too assimilated. What’s more, rising Midtown rents have dispersed people and made a palpable enclave, wishfully thought of as Lavender Heights, unrealistic. There remains the general question of how essential nightlife is to establishing such a place and whether being on the map comes at the expense of being a cohesive local community.

“Maybe the competition now is more between Sacramento and the Bay Area than between the bars,” said Bill Snyder, president of the board of directors of the local Lambda Community Center, which at 1927 L Street isn’t far away from the growing club corner. “Now we’re finally going to have places like in the big cities. It’s exciting that all of our clubs are getting bigger. It means the former capacity doesn’t work anymore. The bottom line is that Sacramento has grown so much in the past 10 years.” Snyder estimates the local LGBT population at around 100,000, which, he said, exceeds the capacities of his own institution.

At the Lambda Community Center’s two weekly youth group meetings, for instance, the average attendance has increased over the last three years from 15 to 70. “Yes, it goes up and down,” Snyder allowed, “but now we really don’t have the facilities to adequately have a large meeting like that; we have people standing in the kitchen and on the stairs. Like the bars, we have to expand our services and our programs.”

Snyder said the center likely will move, sometime in 2006. “It depends what we can afford in a building, and the help we can get from the city, county and state,” he said. “It would be great to stay here because of what the neighborhood represents.”

It’s safe to say the stewards of what the neighborhood represents are Bruce and Sidie. Bruce said the two of them have had many conversations about how to ensure sufficient business for their new ventures. “You run ads in very specific publications,” he said. “And rather than advertising a specific place, you advertise 20th and K.” That’s a generously collaborative strategy, given the oft-cited tension between the two men’s bulging nightlife empires. And in spite of their enormous investments—millions of dollars between them—neither shows any signs of apprehension. Both seem sure that if you build it, they will come.

“Now I wish I’d have bought more property!” said Sidie, who also owns the nearby Club 21 and several other local buildings. “We’re up every year. We’re way over a million a year in liquor sales.”

“I don’t think the local gay business owners are misjudging their demographic,” said Chip Conrad, who owns the Bodytribe Fitness center on 21st Street. “Their success so far proves that.” Conrad, who is straight, said the area’s development has been a topic of discussion among his gay clientele—so much so that it prompted “an idea I’ve been playing with for a while,” he said, “which would be a pre-clubbing workout, some sort of open gym for a couple hours on Friday evening before everyone goes out for the night.

“The core of the late-nighters tend to have a pretty high vanity quotient,” he explained. “Sex doesn’t go out of business, and a bar or dance club in a gay community always has the potential to do well. Sacramento may be growing at a rate that makes things real hard for upstart small businesses, so when something as successful as a homegrown club network just keeps growing, we should have a bit of pride.”

“I don’t think you could go wrong on this corner,” said Bruce. “I can’t see people not coming.” Or, as one eager anticipator observed, “it will be like a gay buffet.”