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Manhole: The return and history behind a Boystown favorite

Sep. 21, 2014 - , It's no secret that Boystown has been going through major changes over the last couple years, with bars and restaurants closing down and springing up in storefronts throughout the gayborhood. While oftentimes these changes mean bidding adieu to long-established haunts, this weekend Halsted Street saw the return of an old favorite.

Manhole, the famous -- or infamous -- late night club known for their steamy, dress code enforced back dancefloor and pulsating music is back, thanks to LKH Management, who seeks to bring something new to Boystown by bringing back something old. They envision the new Manhole, located in the Chloe's space carved from the upstairs and basement bars of the old Spin Nightclub, as both a gathering place for the fetish and leather communities and a space where all of gay Chicago can experience the kind of deep house, industrial and trace music that made Manhole famous as well as the sense of community and the atmosphere that made it infamous.

This was before the Internet and iTunes, when the proposals we now make on Grindr and Scruff were made walking down Halsted, at the bar and on the dance floor...

"[It was] definitely a very different time in Boystown," Matthew Harvat, aka Circuit MOM, told ChicagoPride.com. "You went out to the gay bars because that's where you met people -- no Facebook, no Instagram, no 'social' apps. You cruised in person! You went to hear the DJs because that was the only way you heard new music."

"The great thing about Manhole was that, even though there was an enforced dress code of leather or shirtless, rubber, uniforms and/or a harness to be allowed into the back rooms and dance floor, it was never something that made anyone feel out of place," he continued. "Yes, it was a bar that had very specific rules and catered to a certain crowd, but when you looked around, there was a little bit of everything and everyone there -- all together in that late night chaos of smoke, lights, music and more."

Like many greats of the past, especially those from before the Age of the Internet, the details about the beginning and ending of Manhole's story can be quite fuzzy, even for Boystown veterans like Harvat, who arrived in Boystown in the late '80s just prior to Manhole's inception. (Luckily here at ChicagoPride.com we have LGBT historian Sukie de la Croix and his incomparable personal archives of Chicago's gay history). At that time the space on the southwest corner of Cornelia and Halsted was occupied by Christopher Street, a video bar and dance club that lovers Steven Brahill and Patrick Kasaris opened along with Kasaris' sister Susan and her husband Jeff Tessler back in 1982.

According to his obituary, Brahill died of complications related to AIDS in September of 1988. It was soon thereafter that Brahill's lover and his sister and brother-in-law converted Christopher Street into Manhole, which opened in October of 1990. Pictures from the club's opening night list Kasaris and the Tessler couple as owners alongside the bar's manager, Ben Pohl.

The original Manhole was dark, with a blacked out exterior and a "down and dirty atmosphere with a gritty feel and interior," according to Harvat and just about anyone else willing to reminisce about the old club. While it went through several incarnations during its run, the layout was similar to today's Hydrate Nightclub, but less open. The front bar area and hallway to the back remained the same, but the back space was divided by a brick wall into a middle bar and then the back dance floor -- "that tucked away, dark and dirty dance floor," Harvat reminisces.

The last remodel Manhole did saw them take the atmosphere even further. The front bar was made to look like one of the underground tunnels you see below the city on TV specials and in the back it appeared as though they'd used dynamite to blast a hole in the 2' thick brick wall and left the rest standing, creating the feeling that clubgoers were dancing in a subterranean construction zone.

"Manhole had the advantage on Halsted because it was a 4 a.m. bar, so when Roscoe's and Sidetrack closed, if you didn't go to The Closet or to eat at Melrose, you went to Manhole," Harvat explained. "Because there was an enforced 'undress' code, people were more forward with their cruise. Sort of like 'SCRUFF-LIVE'!"

Admittance to Manhole's back dance floor was only granted for the shirtless or those dressed in leather, gear or other festishwear. It became notorious for a steamy, sexy atmosphere and an "anything goes" mentality when it came to dark corners. Without dating or hook-up apps, gay men during Manhole's heydey did all their flirting and cruising at the bars, tete-a-tete. At a bar like the Manhole, where inhibitions were usually checked along with patron's shirts and pants, picking-up led logically to the physical.

"In order to protect the innocent, I will only say that there was this foam party there once and I was very thankful to at least make it out with a shirt, my shoes and a smile that lasted about 4 days," Harvat said. "OOOHHH, wait -- there was the time that some out of town, boozy queen thought they'd be funny and try to snatch the wig off the legendary performer Teri Michaels' head.  Well, let me tell you, if you want to see a 5'3", 100 lb. diva turn into Dragzilla and completely destroy a guy with nails, heels, flying rhinestones and a mean left hook...good times!"

In addition to its infamous reputation and status as Halsted Street's first leather bar, and thus a gathering place for those in the leather and kink communities, Manhole was revered for its DJs, performances and cutting-edge blend of music. While Sidetrack and Roscoes, which opened in '82 and '87 respectively and were even then staples in Boystown, played mostly pop, Manhole explored house music "with infusions of circuit party style anthems." According to Harvat "it had an edge and a beat like no other Boystown bars or dance floors" and he describes the DJs as "educational," especially for a budding performer like himself.

"Manhole was the where I heard Deborah Cox for the first time and probably knocked 10 people over getting to the DJ booth to find out what this song was and who was this voice!?" he remembered. It was the Hex Hector mix of 'Things Just Ain't The Same' in '96 and that one track, that one song, changed my whole dance floor experience forever. I will forever associate that song and that moment with Manhole."

"I used to go there and the original Crobar specifically to experience and learn about the music that would shape my own DJ style and events today," he continued. "Those two places held and hosted a crowd of everyone -- muscle boys, drag queens, twinks, bears (before bears were so trendy), conservative gays, industry professionals, leather guys...all of it. We were all a spectacle for each other as a group and that was what made it all so much fun."

Wildly popular throughout the 90s, Manhole's story began to wane around the time of the Millenium. Details are fuzzy here again, but Mark Liberson of LKH believes that after Steve Kasaris died, Tessler and the remaining management who took over stopped investing in the bar, which became less and less popular and successful. Finally they decided to sell the business and Manhole closed in 2002, shortly thereafter being bought by Liberson who turned the space into the still-popular Hydrate Nightclub.

Since then LKH Management has expanded to own several businesses along North Halsted, including Halsted's Bar and Grill, cocktail bar Elixr and recently Replay: Beer and Bourbon, but it all started with Liberson's acquisition of the old Manhole space.

"Since that we have not only invested in continuing to improve Hydrate, but tried to identify what might further benefit Halsted and ensure that it will continue to be one of the major gay destinations in our country," he said.

Liberson told ChicagPride.com that they threw Manhole events at Hydrate from the start, but the public wasn't ready for it yet -- with the wounds of the old club's closing perhaps too fresh. He continued, however, to protect the brand, saying he knew it would have a future eventually. That future was Andrew Kain "AK" Miller.

With Miller's help, Hydrate began throwing Manhole events several times a year. The nights usually featured a kink or fetish theme and the club resurrected Manhole's old dress code, denying dance floor access to anyone not shirtless or in gear. The nights proved wildly popular, bringing Hydrate bodies and attention, including that of the leather and fetish communities, who have few outlets along Halsted outside of Cell Block.

"I first approached Hydrate about producing Manhole events for very selfish reasons," Miller told ChicagoPride.com. "I wanted a place for men my age to gather and hear music and be surrounded by an energy that was different from what other venues were offering. Manhole was one of my favorite clubs when I first moved to Chicago and I missed it. Mark, Sean and the staff of Hydrate welcomed the concept and it quickly became a regularly recurring event."

(Continued on PAGE TWO)

Related: Legendary nightclub Manhole returns to Boystown

History of Manhole (Page Two)
Sep. 21, 2014 - , After Spin Nightclub abruptly closed this May, the vacant space at the corner of Belmont and Halsted was taken over and divided into two new venues that premiered in time for Pride just a month later: Whiskey Trust Tavern and Distillery and Chloe's. Just last month, owner Jason Zilderbrand announced that he was enlisting the help of LKH management to run the two spaces, praising their experience, knowledge and success in the community.

"When looking at Chloe's, and especially the entryway created by Homo Riot, the concept of Manhole was screaming at us," LKH managing partner Sean Kotwa told ChicagoPride.com. "It was the only choice we had for Chloe's and we are excited to be bringing it back to life."

"It wasn't till we decided that we were going to open Manhole again that we agreed to enter into this agreement," Liberson added. "The space is perfect for the Manhole with very little in the way of changes."

The greatest difference between the original Manhole space and the Chloe's space, Liberson says, is the size. The new Manhole is split across two levels, so they created the "Den at the Manhole," a U-shaped upstairs bar and lounge which can be accessed through Whiskey Trust and will be open everyday from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. (3 a.m. on Saturdays). AK MIller -- who will be running the new Manhole alongside fellow LKH veteran Tyler Rathje -- describes the Den as "a billiards and darts lounge that offers an option away from the dance floor, while still allowing people to enjoy a similar atmosphere." While the Manhole dance floor, located in the basement, will always require dress code or shirtless to enter, the Den is open earlier and the dress code isn't required for entry, similar to the front room at the original Manhole.

"The original Manhole was known for its sound and mix of industry workers, leather men and late night club goers," Miller said. "Led by DJ Mark Vallese and DJ Mark Hultmark, it was also a place where people could get lost in the music and enjoy letting go of their inhibitions... When LKH Management approached me about what Boystown was missing, taking the original Manhole concept and combining it with the updated ideology was a natural decision."

The basement dance floor, which can be entered from the Den or a separate street entrance, has been transformed into a larger version of Manhole's old back dance floor. Initially it will be open Thursday-Saturday from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. (3 a.m. on Saturdays) and will be enforcing Manhole's dress code, denying admittance to any not shirtless or dressed in fetish gear. A poster on Manhole's Facebook page advertises "Fetish Fridays," which will rotate themes every weekend -- the next four are Leather followed by Underwear, then Pup Play and lastly Rubber. Decked out with Tom-of-Finland-esque artwork featuring musclebound, scruffy men and vintage ads for bars like the now-closed Eagle, the former Spin space is definitely darker, rougher and sexier than ever.

"Although Manhole had a well deserved reputation for being a place where men could meet men, it was by no means a sex club. It was a sexy club," Miller says. "It was a unique combination of the leather, biker, punk rock and rave cultures. It is that energy that we are trying to create with this new venue. I feel that there is a need for a place in Boystown where older men will feel comfortable on a dance floor, where the leather and fetish communities can gather, and a younger class of gay men who will be introduced to the house, industrial and trance music styles that made Manhole so popular."

The team plans to continue Manhole's tradition musically, featuring DJs who spin the kind of deep house music pioneered by the performers at the original club. They believe Manhole caters to an often overlooked demographic in Boystown and are proud to be bringing back a club they can be proud to call home. Like the original Manhole, LKH hope their club will attract from all segments of the community, encouraging folk to explore new things and lose their inhibitions while bringing the community together. Unlike the original Manhole, however, they say their dedication to the club, and to the success of Boystown in general, is what will make this Manhole a success.

"When we create a place for our community, we create it to have a future," Kotwa said. "As you can see at Hydrate, we continue to invest in our businesses and the community. We evolve and change programming as people evolve and their needs change."

"The biggest difference is that while the Manhole was inherited by people who were not part of the gay community and unaware of what was occurring in our community, we are very involved and an active part of the community," he continued. "Across our company, we work with almost every charity organization, support sports teams, as well as theater companies, political initiatives and everything else that we can to help make our community healthier and more vibrant."

For many like Harvat (who spun in the basement this Saturday for opening weekend), Manhole is a chance to slip back into the past -- to a time when you didn't need to ask for a face pic because it was right there in front of you (unless, of course, it was obscured by a leather hood). This is also the appeal for younger clubgoers, who seek a taste of the gay world as it was in the heyday of the original Manhole and the feeling of liberation and community it came with that they've only heard spoken of by the previous generation.

"Obviously, the progress we are experiencing in the LGBT community is amazing and powerful, but 15-20 years ago, there was more of a sense of community. You planned on going out -- no, you HAD to go out so you could actually meet people and be amongst other gays," Harvat said. "Social media, for all the good it does, has definitely taken the 'hunt' from a natural human interaction to more of a 'hey, I'll just text/cruise from the comfort of my own home'. I can remember when I worked for Crobar and they had 'GLEE Club' every Sunday, we would have between 700-900 people through the door on a random, non-holiday Sunday night because that's what everyone did. Same for Manhole and the other bars in Boystown."

If the throngs of bodies that flocked to Manhole over opening weekend are any indication, the club is indeed fulfilling a much-felt gap in Boystown's nightlife. If the sultry atmosphere, pulsing, innovative music and chance to get undressed to the nines aren't enough, then curiosity -- about both the new and the old -- is certainly fueling interest. While we've made strides as a community and there are some things about the past that may be best left there, LKH saw an opportunity to move forward by bringing back something lost in time. So head on over to 3208 N. Halsted and see what all the fuss is about.

Welcome back, Manhole. You were missed.

(Return to PAGE ONE)

Reeling review: 'Tiger Orange' is 'original and entertaining'
Sep. 21, 2014 - , Wade Gasque's beautifully rendered Tiger Orange, a story of gay brothers Chet (Mark Strano, who also co-wrote screenplay with Gasque) and Todd (Frankie Valenti aka porn-star Johnny Hazzard) who different paths in life, like Ken Roht's Perfect Cowboy, has the ability to restore a person's faith in the lost art of gay indie American filmmaking. While it has enough similarities to Thomas Bezucha's 2000 masterpiece Big Eden to qualify as an homage, Tiger Orange is original and entertaining enough to stand on its own.

Set in a rural California town, just north of Los Angeles, Tiger Orange (whose title comes from a paint color sold at the hardware store inherited by Chet after his father died) utilizes flashbacks to illustrate the ways the brothers differed as children. Abandoned by their mother when they were small and raised by their perpetually raging father, Chet and Todd are as different as brothers can be. Chet stayed behind after college to help his father with the store, while Todd got the hell out of town as fast as he could.

Chet, who lives alone in the cabin where he took care of his father until his death, has his safe and stable existence rocked by a pair of events. First, Brandon (Gregory Marcel), an old high school crush who has since come out as gay, returns to town to take care of his ailing mother. Second, tattooed and pierced Todd, who has basically been run out of L.A. following a series of unfavorable events, also returns to town, and wants to stay at the cabin with Chet.

As you might imagine, the set-up is rife with conflict. But what gives Tiger Orange its roar is the way that the astute and sensitive screenplay handles an array of situations, including the way gay people are able to coexist peacefully with straight folks in a suburban setting, as well as the portrayal of the complex sibling relationship that arises when both brothers are gay. Strano and Marcel are quite good, but it's Valenti, who like fellow porn actor Sean Lockhart (aka Brent Corrigan), proves there's more to him than what we've already seen.

Tiger Orange,  Sept. 22, 2014, 9:15 p.m., Landmark Century Cinema

Reeling: The Chicago International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival opened on Sept. 18 at the Music Box Theater on Southport and runs for a week through Sept. 25. The majority of the Reeling screenings take place at the Landmark Century Cinema in the Century Mall on Clark Street, with others being held at Chicago Filmmakers on Clark St. in Andersonville. Reeling schedule and tickets available at reelingfilmfestival.org. 

Related: ChicagoPride.com's Gregg Shapiro provides a series of reviews of selected titles being screened at Reeling 32: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Related: Interview with Frankie Valenti

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