This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of New York City’s Barracuda Lounge, and to celebrate, the bar is hosting an epic anniversary party on Sunday. When the scrappy little club opened its doors in Chelsea back in 1995, it became the first gay bar in the neighborhood to put entertainment front and center.
Barracuda showcased a bevy of now legendary performers including drag queen royalty like Jackie Beat and Sherry Vine and transgender singer and actress Candis Cayne. All three say they owe their careers to the club’s owners, Bob Pontarelli and the late Stephen Heighton. That’s why they're returning to perform at Sunday night’s bash, and it’s also why they agreed to share their memories of Barracuda with The Advocate.
The reunion warms Pontarelli’s heart. "It feels really wonderful that everyone who helped make it such a success cares enough to be coming back," he says. Pontarelli opened Barracuda with best friend and former boyfriend Heighton after their success with early-'90s hot spot Crowbar and other establishments. (They're also the team behind current nightlife staple Industry.)
"Stephen and I intended for Barracuda to be warm and friendly. We wanted it to be the friendliest bar in New York," Pontarelli says. The idea to host drag came from Heighton, who died in 2010. "Stephen loved drag. He was English and loved the English music hall kind of thing. He would go see drag all the time in London."
During a laughter-filled group call, Jackie Beat, Candis Cayne and Sherry Vine give a brief oral history of the little lounge they still call "home."
The Advocate: Can you put Barracuda and its role in LGBT and drag herstory in context?
Sherry: First of all, it’s so rare that something in NYC lasts that long. So many bars come and go. There’s a very short life span for bars and restaurants. So 20 years really is an accomplishment. It’s certainly the longest-lasting bar in Chelsea. And Barracuda was the first performance- and drag-based bar in Chelsea. It really gave everybody a platform to develop their own show, as opposed to just doing one number here or there. And this was before Drag Race. You actually had to have an act back then.
Jackie: Oh, snap.
Candis: That was the whole thing about Barracuda. We all could get jobs and have our own show and learn how to create a one-woman show and be confident. A lot of girls I know are performers in cast shows and they don’t understand the idea of being able to do the whole show by yourself for an hour or an hour an a half. Or, if you’re Jackie, four hours.
Jackie: This was pre-Internet, maybe not technically, but no one was on social media. And it was pre-YouTube. So it wasn’t like today. I don’t want to go down the path of ripping on young queens, but you couldn’t go online and click on a makeup tutorial — which I think is the reason why a lot of people’s makeup looks the same now. We had to swim to where we were going, and the queens today just get on a cruise ship and it’s like, "Honk honk, I’m here!"
Sherry: At Boy Bar and all the other places that preceded Barracuda, you were part of a group. At Barracuda, it was like, "OK, go up there by yourself. You have an hour." So if you were a naturally talented person, this gave you the platform to create — to do shtick, to do comedy on the microphone and keep it entertaining and do numbers and have rapport with the audience and deal with hecklers. Usually the DJ, whether it was Honey Dijon or whoever, would participate — they’d be reading you during the show. It was sink or swim. You had to develop your show. So the queens who came out of Barracuda were really solid; they can get up in their sleep and do an hour show.
Jackie: It was like boot camp. High-heeled boot camp.
How did Barracuda transform Chelsea as a gay neighborhood?
Sherry: Speaking for myself and maybe Candis — because we both lived in the East Village — before Barracuda, you didn’t go to Chelsea. Chelsea was really about the boys, the muscle queens and the gym boys.
Jackie: Chelsea was the West Hollywood of New York City. If you were an East Village girl, it was a little uncool. With Barracuda, it became a little cool.
Sherry: Before Barracuda, Bob and Steve owned Crowbar, which was in the East Village, and where Candis and I both worked. So they were taking a big step with Barracuda in Chelsea, like, Is this going to work over there or not?
Candis: It was really teaching Chelsea how to be and act around queens. For me personally, I transitioned onstage at the Barracuda from beginning to end. None of those queens had ever heard of a trans woman.
Candis, is it true Barracuda has fundraisers to help raise money for your surgeries?
Candis: Yes. On my nights, I would have fundraisers. I would ask Sherry to get in the dunking booth to get dunked for my new nose. [Laughter from all three]
So, it was pretty great of Bob and Steve to let all this go on there?Candis: Well, it wasn’t a Broadway stage, let’s put it that way.
Jackie: When Sherry said Barracuda gave queens a platform to perform on, she literally means a platform. [Laughter] When Candis says Barracuda taught Chelsea queens to watch a show, it also taught them how to have a sense of humor. Don’t take things so seriously! Chelsea clubs at the time were about the song of the moment. But at Barracuda, you’d have [DJs] Brenda Black or Honey Dijon and they would be playing older music. It just had a cool factor. Chelsea is very “rainbow flag,” and we ripped down that rainbow flag and turned it into a tube dress.
Sherry: It wasn’t just one night a week either. Every night there was a show. And [the club's Star Search drag contest host] Mona Foot, who was just outrageous. One of my all-time favorite memories of Barracuda is Mona starting the show and having to stop and say, "You guys, I’m totally in a K-hole. Just give me about five minutes." [Laughter from all three] Nowadays, people would be so offended or upset. It was hilarious!
Candis: Star Search was pretty major at Barracuda.
Sherry: It’s the longest-running night in New York City. It’s literally 25 years old.
Can you share more of your favorite Barracuda memories?
Jackie: The night I quit? I literally said, "Who’s got my fucking money?" Then I dropped the mike and walked out the front door, but first I reached my hand out and the bartender handed me my cash. I walked right out the front door, got in a cab. and never went back again.
Have you really never been back since?
Jackie: Let me tell you something, me going to Barracuda for this party is very much like Vanessa Williams being on the Miss America pageant. They’re going to apologize to me onstage. [Laughter from all three] Listen, no. Nobody at Barracuda did anything wrong. It was just my diet pill wearing off and it had been a while since I had a cigarette, and probably somebody just looked at me wrong and I snapped.
Sherry: The night Candis got electrocuted.
Candis: Yes, I got electrocuted. At one point there was a metal lamp onstage, and if you were holding the mike and you touched that lamp at the same time, you got a shock. One time I was doing Madonna’s "Ray of Light" and I accidentally touched the lamp and I got shocked and I blacked out. Everybody started applauding. They thought it was part of the show! They were howling.
Jackie: "You idiots, I’m dying!"
Some of the celebrity stories are legendary. Eartha Kitt and Tammy Faye Bakker visited. Who else stopped by?
Sherry: This is one of my favorite stories, and it’s a hard one for people to believe. It’s probably like 1999 or 2000. I’m on the stage performing and this guy comes up whispering to me and I’m like, "Queen, I’m in the middle of a show! What the fuck is so important?' and he’s like, "[Broadway icon] Betty Buckley wants to know if she can come onstage and sing." I’m like, "Are you fucking with me?" It was packed. So I’m like, "Ladies and gentlemen, Betty Buckley is going to come onstage." So Betty Buckley comes onstage and sings "Memories" from Cats a cappella. The crowd literally went ballistic, just insane. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Jackie: And when Sherry says it was packed, she means like 17 people were there. [Laughter from all three] The place is the size of a broom closet! That’s what’s so funny. It really is such a small place.
Candis: It’s so small. I don’t even know what we’re going to do.
Jackie: I remember when Nathan Lane used to come in and sit at the bar and then be annoyed that people recognized him.
Candis: He was there all the time! Almost every Monday night. I remember that one Wife Swap woman who was really famous — the God warrior lady [Editor's note: She was actually on Trading Spouses]. I used to do her monologue online. She shows up one night with her daughter and her husband and she was like, "I heard you do me in one of your numbers." I did the number for her and then she got up onstage and she swore it was all editing. [Laughter from all three]
Sherry: The Jesus warrior!
Jackie: She’s the one who said, "It’s dark sided!"
Candis: "It’s dark sided!"
Sherry: I can’t believe she actually went to a gay bar.
How long has it been since you three have been back to Barracuda?
Sherry: I went back recently. Jackie and I did a photo shoot. [Bob and Steve] opened a new bar called Industry in Hell’s Kitchen, which is the new Chelsea, and I moved my act over there because I wanted to do something different. The last time I performed at Barracuda was three and a half years ago.
Jackie: It’s all a blur. But I live in Los Angeles now and I only come to New York a few times a year to do my show in a more theater setting where people can eat overpriced appetizers.
You all went on to such success. Jackie, you were a Fashion Police writer?
Jackie: Yes, I was. Until we went on strike. And then Joan [Rivers] died and it seemed like, "Oh, I guess that’s not going to happen."
You and Sherry have had fun with the Golden Girlz Live.
Jackie: Sherry and I have become America’s preeminent Golden Girls impersonators. I play Bea Arthur. We did total typecasting. I play the bitch and she plays the slut. [Laughter]
Sherry: Finally, we’re playing age-appropriate characters.
Jackie: Honey, the only reason I’m doing it is for the cheesecake.
Candis, we all know at least one of your current projects.
Candis: Well, I should be finding out soon if we’re doing a second season of I Am Cait.
Jackie: Can I just say what everyone’s thinking? Candis should have her own show!
Where would you three be if it weren’t for Barracuda?
Jackie: [Dramatically] Face down. dead in a gutter! Is that what you want to hear?
Sherry: The Port Authority bathroom.
Candis: No, for me, it was always like my bread and butter. I knew I had a Monday. I was there for 10 years. No matter where I was going or what I was doing or what nights were full, I knew Barracuda was going to be there. It was a perfect place to know that I had a family and I was home.
Sherry: I have to applaud Bob. I’ve literally now worked for Bob, in one of his bars, for 24 years. Nowadays, you can get two weeks, two Tuesdays in a row at a place, and if you’re not packed by the second one, the promoters are like, "We’re done." With Bob, you can have a year, and if it’s slow, he’s like, "It’ll come around. It’ll come back." It’s totally unheard of.
Jackie: In New York then — this was before we all traveled as much as we do now doing shows — it was important to have those regular shows in town to literally pay your rent.
Candis: And really, you needed 10 of those shows. [Laughter from all three] But at least we had one!
Barracuda Lounge's 20th Anniversary Party kicks off at 7 p.m. Sunday.