Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest Blogger: Backintheday

Our friend Backintheday has checked in with another tale from times past. This time he shares a little history of The Woodward Bar in New Center - opened in 1951 and either the oldest gay bar in Michigan or the USA, depending on the person you are talking to.


“TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT” – Andy Karagas and The Woodward Bar



The Woodward Bar
sits on a rather forlorn block of Woodward Avenue just south of Grand Boulevard. Back in the day things weren’t a whole lot different. By day, straights from General Motors headquarters and the Fisher building walked in off Woodward for a drink and a burger during their lunch hour. By night, an unmarked door off the alley was the point of entry. While you might think that such a covert entrance must have had “shame” written in neon overhead, it felt more like the door to a secret realm of possibilities – straights need not apply.

I started going there around 1974. I’d like to tell you I was under-aged but I’m trying to be unflinchingly honest in my writing. I can at least say that, in the wisdom of the enlightened politicians of that era, the drinking age in Michigan had been lowered to 18. And, I believe it’s safe to say, I was Chicken.



Upon entering, the door would slam in announcement of the latest arrival. And emerging from a short darkness into the main bar, one found the entire place eager to see who it was. My entrance and that of any number of the younger crowd would provoke Andy Karagas, the fifty-something Greek-American owner to shout out in his gravely voice “HOT NUMBER!” I always met this greeting with a wan smile. I was young and nervous and leery of attention (all the while, fiercely wanting to be desired). As the years went on, Andy’s cry of “HOT NUMBER” began to carry less and less enthusiasm. Whether he became tired of his own schtick or I became less and less a hot number won’t be debated here but his great personality never wavered. We all loved Andy.

Another famous line of his was “TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT” which he’d bellow at any random moment giving us all a sort of cheer of encouragement. And on the weekends a middle-aged waitress called out “ANYBODY WANNA?” then paused before finishing up in a quieter tone with “drink?” thus clarifying her intentions. She had the kind of hair that earned her the nickname “The Governor” after Ann Richards, governor of Texas and the proud owner of a sky high, Lone Star State
beehive.

If all this sounds corny, it was. They knew it and we knew it. And that’s what made it so great. In the typically overheated, sexually charged atmosphere of any gay bar full of horny little twenty year olds, a little comedy goes a long way in defusing the tension.

"Hot number!"

As much as Andy made you feel welcome, he also knew the draw of a handsome boy behind the bar. And there were more than a few over the years. The one that will always stay in my mind was Robbie. Robbie of the long curly hair long after anyone had long hair. Robbie of the angelic face and languid eyes. Robbie of the gentle but completely masculine demeanor. When I first crossed the threshold of The Woodward, I knew if he was gay than it was okay to be gay. And all I could think of when Andy yelled in my direction “HOT NUMBER” was “Did you hear that Robbie? Did you? I’m a hot number!” Never mind that the phrase was repeated over and over with every new arrival.

At the age of nineteen, I was drinking Old Grand Dad bourbon and water because my dad drank Old Grand Dad and water. And I can tell you that at The Woodward they were 90¢ a piece because I sat in Robbie’s section staring, love-sick across the bar drinking one after the other until I had ten dimes in change lined up in front of me. At which point, unproposed to, I left him with that whopping tip and pointed myself in the direction of the car. Night after night this played out but I was never able to convince my Adonis to rescue me from my “well of loneliness.” Years later I saw him naked at the gym in Royal Oak. I confess I pleasured myself in the whirlpool.

Back then I fell in love every other day. But of all the boys I felt completely lovesick over, few came close to Robbie. Living life fully means puppy love, infatuations and having your heart broken, and – even though it’s unbelievable at the time – getting over it and moving on. While writing this, I inquired about Robbie through old friends only to find out that he died a few years back. He couldn’t have been more than 50.

By the looks of
its web site, The Woodward lives on today catering to a gay African-American crowd. The bar itself was never anything special, just two narrow rooms and a few tables – it was Andy and his crew that made the magic happen. It would be great to think that on any given night, the current owner is giving some insecure little newbie a shout out of “HOT NUMBER”, and letting him think for just a moment, “Hey. Maybe I am!”

.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mike, You are a great writer, We both enjoyed that trip down memory lane. Bessie had the behive, Betty went to Menjos, Mary and June. The real girls, My Dear !! Tommy & Jim

Anonymous said...

Oh, the good old days. Andy was one of the first real characters of Detroit (you were the second) that made me appreciate where I grew up and why I still miss it.

Once a Detroiter...

Kevin

P.S. It was beautifully written as well. And you went through the Public Schools system?

joe said...

I was one of those bartenders at the Woodward a little earlier than 1974. I was with Andy at The Red Fox Restaurant the day before Hoffa disappeared.Those days were ripe with mafia,payoffs and police corruption and thanks to Andy I saw a lot of it.

Anonymous said...

Hi - my name is Bruce from London, England and I used to work at the GM HQ in 1979 and 1980.
A crowd of us regularly used to have a beer and a burger at the Woodward most lunchtimes and we got really friendly with Sam who was either the owner or manager at the time. Our favorite barman was Jo-Jo, a black guy who at one time was in the USAF and was fantastic fun. His adding up for the bill was adding down! Jo-Jo was gay. I am not, but I did enjoy his company and had the occasional drink in the Woodward in the evening with him. We also went to a crazy punk club in Highland Park one evening - I think it was called Goodies or something like that, but I could be wrong.
When I left Detroit to go back to England Sam and the staff gave me a T-shirt with a picture of Sam as an under-dressed milkman on it and 'London Boy' on the back. I was also given two miniature statues (which I still have) - copies of the main statue in the bar at the rear.
I would love to hear what happened to Jo-Jo and Sam, and any other stories about the Woodward. My wife and I are planning a four month driving vacation thru the US in Spring/summer 2013 and I do intend to stop by the bar. Great memories! Please post any info you have!

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