(This is a second in a series of articles about Pride and Knoxville’s LGBTQ communities by guest writer Oren Yarbrough)
If you walk up to someone in Knoxville and ask where the nearest gay bar is they may only be able to name one or two different options. Today, in Knoxville, if you want to go to an establishment that caters exclusively to the LGBT community and allies then you are likely going to be visiting either Club XYZ or Edge Knoxville. Sassy Ann’s House of Blues is also another Knoxville institution that has not necessarily branded itself as a “Gay Bar”, but has in more recent years garnered a rather loyal group of LGBT patrons. These places are a part of a very large collection of Gay and Lesbian Bars to have existed in Knoxville over the last half century.
The history of Knoxville Gay bars is fading and will be incomplete as it is written today. Each person I interviewed provided a small bit more detail than the person before on either a person or a bar. I hope to continue to add to this material in the future. Some of you reading this may have your own fond memories of some of the bars I’ll mention today. If you have a positive story to share, please write something in the comments.
One good source is a collection of posters constructed for Knoxville Pride Heritage events a number of years ago. These posters were passed down to various Pride organizations over the years until they were recently donated to the East Tennessee Historical Society for preservation. I have gathered information from the posters, from interviews with LGBT citizens and sifting through decades of Metro Pulse & small print gay media articles, in an attempt to create a cohesive anthology of Knoxville Gay bars.
Here goes nothing:
The Hideaway – According to one source, The Hideaway was first located off an alley on Gay Street near the present-day ATT Building. The bar operated in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, eventually moving to a building on the 200 Block of Gay Street where it was torn down during the expansion of Summitt Hill Drive. Reading one sources’ personal account, Hideaway operated during the day as a lounge and pool hall and at night hosted some of the earliest Drag Shows in the city’s history.
Masquers’ – This small bar operated in the atrium space of the former Andrew Johnson Hotel in the 1970’s. It is unclear whether this was an exclusively LGBT bar or if it was one of a handful of bars throughout the city that were open minded and friendly to the local gay community.
The Back Office – The Back Office was located off of Main St and operated in the 1970’s until the building was sold and demolished for the current City-County Building. For the Knoxville gay community, the Back Office was one of first large scale gay nightclubs for dancing and socializing.
The Zodiac – The Zodiac operated in the upstairs portion of a house located at the intersection of 13th & White Ave. Amazingly, this building has survived the expansion of UT into this portion of Ft. Sanders. The Zodiac was described as “clandestine” and operated mostly by word of mouth through the 1970’s.
A second Zodiac bar was opened in the early 1980’s off of Western Avenue on Pleasant Ridge Road and operated for a handful of years before it was burned down. According to the Pride history posters, the bar was burned down by angry neighbors. Today the site is a field located behind Kopy Kat Printing and across the street from Redemption Church.
The Colony/Friends – The Colony was located at the corner of Union Avenue & South Central Street, operating through the 1970’s into the early 1980’s. After The Back Office was demolished for the City-County Building, Colony became one of the more popular gay bars in Knoxville for a number of years. After Carousel 2 opened up in the Ft. Sanders Neighborhood, Colony’s business suffered and it closed down and re-branded and remodeled the bar as “Friends”. The reboot as Friends didn’t prove successful and the bar closed some time later. Today Colony is the site of the power sub-station beside the State St Garage.
Traditions – Traditions is one of the only gay bars on this list to be located in Market Square. Located at 16 Market Square, Traditions operated as a women’s bar but was welcoming to all people and was in business in the late 1980’s. Today in this building you can enjoy a nice pasta at Emilia’s.
The Circle J – Located on Church Street in the 1980’s, Circle J was a quieter place for gay people to meet and talk. The Pride posters reference this bar as a popular meeting place for the Knoxville 10%, one of the first gay political activist organizations in the city. I found it particularly cute that the text on the poster felt it was important to mention that the bartender at Circle J was very popular locally and he was from Clarksville, TN (my hometown) before moving to Knoxville.
Badlands Club/ Peppertree – Badlands Club opened during the Knoxville World’s Fair. Located across the street from the former Regas Restaurant, Badlands Club operated for a short time before closing down and reopening as The Peppertree. The Peppertree closed down in the late 1980’s when the owners decided to open a new place in West Knoxville called Sensations.
Sensations – From what I can gather, the owners of Peppertree closed down the bar in the late 1980’s and moved to West Knoxville opening Sensations off Kingston Pike near West Town Mall. Sensations operated for a few years and then was damaged by a fire and had to shut down.
Rainbow Club – The Rainbow Club was originally located in the Old City off South Central Street and was two buildings joined together to provide a lounge area and a dedicated Drag performance area. It’s unclear when the bar began operations, but it continued through most of the 1990’s until the owners decided to move to West Knoxville in the former location of Sensations.
The New Rainbow Club West – The second incarnation of the Rainbow Club was located at the former home of Sensations off Kingston Pike and operated through the early 2000’s. The New Rainbow Club West operated recently enough that many people will probably remember seeing a fabulous drag show there or dancing on the dance floor between shows. This was the first gay bar I ever went to in my life.
The Point After – The Point After was a women’s bar operating north of Cumberland Avenue off 19th street. One person described The Point After as a welcoming bar to all people, so long as you were kind in return. I was told that the owner of this bar was a very no-nonsense woman who was not afraid to chase drunk frat boys down the street if needed. The Point After operated from the 1970’s until the late 1980’s when the property was sold for the construction of a bank that still stands there today.
The Factory – The Factory, located at the intersection of Dale Ave and 17th St, operated in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Located at the back end of St. Sanders, The Factory was a large and gritty dance club in an old warehouse with rumored mafia connections. After the Europa bar closed, The Factory, along with Colony, became one of the most popular bars in the city. Eventually Carousel 2 would open up just a few blocks to the South offering a more central location and modern interiors with which The Factory could not compete. The two bars operated simultaneously for a while and one person I interviewed said it was common to walk between the two. Eventually the bar closed, remained vacant for many years and was demolished for a soccer pitch.
City Limits/ Trumps – According to one source, City Limits opened in 1988 in an old German restaurant on the back side of the Western Plaza Shopping Center. Originally opened as a straight bar, City Limits became very popular with local gays and in the early 1990’s changed management and rebranded itself as Trumps. Trumps was a bar that embraced its established gay following with popular drag shows and theme nights. Trumps closed in the early 2000’s and, after a handful of sports bars filled the old space, Western Plaza announced a massive remodel, including demolition of this portion of the complex.
Decadence/Bourbon Street – Located off Kingston Pike on Carr St, Bourbon Street was a nice and large dance bar that operated in the late 2000’s for a couple of years and was initially really popular with the local gay community. Bourbon Street boasted a nice outdoor area with a good brunch on Sundays. The bar’s business eventually suffered due to having to compete with Rainbow Club, Carousel, & XYZ; all bars with a specific niche market and a thriving drag show. Today the building is Marelli’s Italian restaurant.
Chrome Pony Saloon – The Chrome Pony Saloon is the only Alcoa Highway bar on this list. Located across the street from National Fitness, just past UT Hospital, Chrome Pony operated for a handful of years around the early 2010’s. Much like everything else in this area of Alcoa Hwy, the Chrome Pony suffered from the continual road construction and the decline of retail surrounding it. Today the strip mall is mostly vacant.
Electric Ballroom – The Electric Ballroom was a large warehouse that housed a massive dance club in the 1990’s. The young crowd and dance environment made this otherwise straight bar a gay friendly establishment to go dancing with friends, especially on gay-themed nights. Electric Ballroom, currently called The International, recently announced it is closing.
Kandy Knox – Kandy Knox is the only legitimate gay bar to be located on Chapman Highway that makes this list. It operated in the early 2010’s as a drag and male go-go bar with a variety of theme nights, shows, and karaoke. The retail complex that housed Kandy Knox had also had a handful of other bars that in previous years had been raided by the police and shut down due to ongoing violence. Kandy Knox couldn’t seem to shake the vibe left by the previous tenants and today is the location of a La Bamba, a Mexican seafood bar.
Lord Lindsey/ Six Fifteen – Lord Lindsey was a historic home-turned-church that was renovated by locally famous preservationist Kristopher Kendrick in the 1970’s as an event space and restaurant. Lord Lindsey hosted weekly dinners and parties that became quite popular and the building became a dance club in the latter half of the week. After bars like Back Office, Colony, & Europa were shut down, Lord Lindsey was one of the only places in downtown to go dancing on a weekend. The crowd on a typical weekend was mixed gay and straight but always friendly according to my interviews. For its final 20 years, Lord Lindsey hosted a pseudo Tea Dance on Sundays called Six Fifteen. The event was named after the address of the bar, 615 Hill Ave, and also after the time the festivities began. Gays that remember Six Fifteen told me that this event was a more subdued party with a mixed crowd that allowed for older generations of gays and those not into the party scene to enjoy the company of fellow gay men in a social setting.
Lord Lindsey stopped hosting dance nights and catered events in the early 2000’s. After Kristopher Kendrick passed away in 2009 his estate put the building on the market and, despite being purchased a number of years ago, has sat mostly vacant since then. (It was recently purchased and will be redeveloped. Ed.)
I will conclude by highlighting some of the more well-known or famous bars to exist in Knoxville over the years.
Huddle – While not a bar that younger generations of Knoxvillians will easily remember, Huddle is a significant establishment to the city’s LGBT history. Huddle was located in the basement of the Cook Building at the corner of Cumberland Ave and Gay St and it began operations sometime in the 1940’s. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree he describes Huddle as a “cool and dark” dive bar where people “of dubious gender” could be found. Huddle operated under the radar in downtown Knoxville during an era when gay bars were illegal and for many decades you could find a sign beside the entry that proudly read “gayest spot in town.”
In later years the bar was more popular with drag queens, lesbians, and the occasional prostitute; never being a place to pass judgement on people. People I spoke with said that Huddle was a popular place to go for a cheap drink before going to nearby bars like Europa or Colony. Huddle closed in 1981 and the space is now a private event space.
Europa – Europa was a popular bar that operated through the 1970’s on the same block as Huddle, hosting drag shows and dancing. A person I spoke with said that this bar was one of the first instances in Knoxville of a gay bar frequented by straight people for the novelty of the space and environment. The bar, located on the back side of an old building on the 800 Block of Gay street, was owned by a well-known Knoxville hair dresser named Joseph Weir.
People say Europa was one of the better gay bars of its era and that Weir would always sit up at the front of the bar and “hold court” by telling stories and gossiping about the goings on within the surrounding community. In the years leading up to the World’s Fair, Weir publicly fought back the city’s attempts to remove gay establishments from downtown in an effort to “clean up” the city for visitors. Tragically, Europa was shut down at the end of 1981 following the murder of Joseph Weir. The murder remains an unsolved cold case. Riverview Tower occupies the spot where Europa once stood.
Kurt’s/Exile/Kristtopher’s – Kurt’s was located in a retail complex off Homberg Place in Bearden, and the bar was a mixed men and women’s bar that had pool tables, darts, and a nice outdoor area. Kurt’s was open for a number of years until the early 2010’s when it was rebranded as Club Exile, which still had a mixed gay crowd but also began to try and add regular drag shows with some nights directed towards gay men.
Club Exile did not last particularly long and was eventually closed down, remodeled, and then reopened as Kristtophers. Kristtophers was a women’s bar that was very welcoming to everyone and hosted everything from drag shows and standup comedy to small concerts and karaoke contests. Kris, the owner, hosted trivia nights and held charity events in the bar for local organizations like KGMC & Knox Pridefest. Kristtophers always had the best local beer selection and the food was amazing.
Unfortunately, Kristtophers recently closed due to an issue with the building lease. I really enjoyed Kristtophers and would gladly patronize any future effort by these women.
Carousel/End Zone/Upstage 54’/Carousel 2 – Carousel is perhaps the most famous bar on this list that is not currently in business. Running continually as Carousel 2 since the early 1980’s, this gay bar was considered one of the oldest in the city’s history. The building first functioned as two separate bars in the late 1960’s with Carousel (the original) being in the lower level and End Zone being in the upper level. In the 1970’s Carousel expanded into a neighboring laundromat to take up the entire lower level of the building. In the early 1980’s End Zone, the upstairs show bar, and Carousel were combined to form a new place called Upstage 54’, which was soon renamed Carousel 2.
The Carousel was an institution in the gay community for decades. If you were a gay man or an ally living in Knoxville the last 30 years then there is a very good chance you saw at least one drag show in the upstairs show bar. The building had a dedicated dance floor and a dedicated area for drag shows, something still difficult to find in gay bars in major cities even today.
The separate spaces allowed for people to “choose your own adventure” with their night at the Carousel. Beer bust was legendary, along with the hangovers they produced; paying only 7 dollars for a cup and wrist band to have unlimited beer for a set amount of time. The sunken dance floor, constructed in the 1980’s expansion, lighted up in the era of disco but had long quit being turned on by the time I walked through the doors in the mid 2000’s.
Sadly, Carousel suffered a fate similar to many other landmarks in the Ft. Sanders neighborhood; being purchased for development in 2013. After purchase, the lease was not renewed and Carousel 2 hosted a “Farewell to 1501” sho,w with many generations of Knoxville Drag alumni in attendance. The club ceased operations on New Year’s Day in 2014 and over four years later the redevelopment sits stagnant and partially demolished. The building recently went on the market. (Carousel 3, anyone?)
Due to lack of room I will save talking about Edge Knoxville, Club XYZ, Sassy Anns, & Carousel 2’s roles in the Knoxville LGBT community for a later article. All of these bars play an active role in Knoxville and deserve more text than I could give them today.
And so, I end this very long compilation of Knoxville LGBT bars; I hope you found it enjoyable and will contribute to or edit this list by commenting below.