It all began with a phone call. Last year, David Cooley, the longtime CEO of the Abbey, received a ring from E! — the network known for its reality content, most notably Keeping Up With the Karshadians. In the call, executives expressed interest in creating a show set in his sprawling West Hollywood bar/club/restaurant.
Cooley, who founded the Abbey as a humble coffee shop over 25 years ago and oversaw its impressive expansion, had received opportunities to create a television series before. However, as he told The Advocate during a recent Friday afternoon visit, he had been "very protective of the brand."
It's a brand worth protecting. MTV once dubbed the Abbey "the best gay bar in the world." And it is certainly the most famous in Los Angeles. One would be hard-pressed to find a gay person in Southern California who had not visited the watering hole at least once for drinks on the patio or for dancing in its interior, where go-go boys (and girls) enliven the crowd and Elizabeth Taylor once held court. A portrait of the late movie star and LGBT ally still hangs on the wall, presiding over a scene where celebrities and politicians often mingle with the local gayboyhood.
In years past, the timing had never seemed right. But E! presented a unique and valuable opportunity.
"It’s Hollywood," said Cooley. "A lot of people would love to get that phone call! So I said, 'I’ll take a meeting with you!'"
The meeting went well. Cooley was particularly impressed by the network's employees, calling them "true professionals," as well as the diversity of E!'s programming and audience. "They cater to everyone as well. Straight, gay, there’s no label," Cooley said.
The same can also be said of What Happens at the Abbey, the fruit of the partnership between Cooley and E! that begins airing May 14. The series shows behind-the-scenes moments from the staff members of the bar — both queer and straight. Its storylines depict their lives, their romances, and above all, the quest for attaining the Hollywood dream, of which the Abbey itself is now a part.
The premise bears some similiarity to that of Bravo's Vanderpump Rules, a show helmed by reality star Lisa Vanderpump, of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fame. Rules depicts the lives of the workers at her eateries, Pump and Sur Lounge, which neighbor the Abbey. In fact, Vanderpump and her husband, Ken, were the first people Cooley turned to for advice as he considered creating his production. "Lisa and Ken and I have been friends for a very long time. I knew them when they actually lived in London, before they moved here," Cooley noted.
"I said, 'What do you think?' And they said 'It’s great. It’s great for the brand. It’s great for the neighborhood. You’ll have a lot of fun with it. And the only one downfall is ... you get asked for a lot of photographs and you get a lot of unwanted kisses.' But I’m ready for that."
The first trailer of What Happens at the Abbey was released earlier this month — and it certainly generated buzz. There were plenty of muscles to admire, the lion's share of them from Billy Reilich (a.k.a. Ellen's gardener). While the clip did show some LGBT storylines — a same-sex marriage proposal, a gay bartender or two — it focused heavily on its straight staff members and their romantic lives. In response, not all reactions from LGBT locals were kind.
"I’ve lived in this town for years and the Abbey in that trailer is not the bar I know. There are no gay men in that trailer," declared Michael, a commenter on WEHOville.com, a gayborhood news source. Dan Morin added, "I looked at the inane and asinine 2.5 minute promo so I can truthfully say that if anyone calls the Abbey a gay bar any more, they should be (fill in the blank/s)."
Cooley disagrees with his critics.
"My staff is very, very diverse," he said. "I have straight guys and girls, I have transgender [employees], I have gay guys, I have lesbians, people questioning themselves, and that reflects on the show." Cooley argued that the makeup of his show, staff, and clientele reflects a necessary formula for survival.
"When I opened up almost 26 years ago, I always had that policy that everyone is welcome. Everyone is welcome, especially today when you see so many of the gay bars that are closing. [Those bars] only cater to a specific [demographic]. Because years ago, it wasn’t as open and accepted, being gay. So if you wanted to see leather daddies, you’d go here. If you were a lesbian, you go to this bar. If you wanted muscle boys, you would go here. Everything had a certain label."
"Unfortunately, those bars have closed, because it’s becoming accepted [to be queer]. Everyone gets to have fun together. There are no longer any labels. So if I hear people saying I have straight characters on this show and not too many gay characters, [I would respond], it’s a blend of everyone who is accepted and is welcome at the Abbey."
Does Cooley, in light of this intersectional clientele, still consider the Abbey to fall under the label of a gay bar? He reiterated, "It’s a gay bar where everyone is accepted." He pointed to his recent opening of the Chapel, a gay bar adjoining the Abbey, as proof of his belief in the brand, his business model, and his willingness to take chances where others haven't.
"I took a risk on opening up a new gay bar when most are closing. If you don’t take risks, you don’t succeed, and it’s paying off," he said, citing the lines that stretch around the corner each Sunday.
The key, Cooley said, is to make all feel welcome, which he sees as important not just to keeping gay bars alive, but also to the larger LGBT movement.
"I don’t think they need to market to straight customers, as long as the customers know that everyone is welcome, especially in this political climate now," he said. "The [LGBT] community has to really stay strong together. Look after each other. Make that fraternity or sorority even tighter, because there’s so many people out there now that are trying to hurt our community. And more than ever our community has to stay closer and protect each other and support each other more than any other time I’ve seen in 26 years of doing business."
However, Cooley still draws some lines, especially regarding bachelorette parties. The Abbey famously banned these fetes after Proposition 8 passed and same-sex couples were denied the right to marry. While the ban was lifted with the court decision establishing marriage equality, there are still restrictions.
"I do not allow all the feathers and crowns and boas and penis guns and all that," Cooley said. "There’s a lot of talk right now. RuPaul came out with a quote: Bachelorette parties are taking over the gay bars, which I completely agreed [with]. And we do really control it here, because we don’t want to have our gay community as an accessory to their fun and their bachelorette parties. I’m glad they can get married — we can get married now too. ... Enjoy your night out, but don’t use our go-go boys as an accessory to your fun."
Those who walk around the Abbey today will still see a reflection of the current political moment. Banners printed with "Resist" and rainbow flags that read "Don't Tread on Me" wave around the courtyard. Cooley confirmed that the Abbey has joined the Resistance against the current administration and its attacks on equality. He supports L.A. Pride's plan to be a protest, instead of a Pride parade. That Pride weekend, Cooley plans to host a fundraiser for Pulse's survivors, as the event also marks the one-year anniversary of the deadly mass shooting.
Cooley stressed the importance of gay bars today, and how they still provide the "safe haven" and community that is lacking from digital apps. In fact, he hopes that What Happens at the Abbey will help him open a chain of Abbeys in New York, Chicago, Miami, and beyond, in order to expand this haven nationally.
"The gay bar is still the place that people want to explore their sexuality," he said. "They can go on the internet and do hookups and so forth, but I’m on the sidewalk at night many times by the host stand, and I can pick off all the people who are so afraid to take that step in, because it’s their first time to a gay bar."
"I hope people will come in and see what the Abbey is all about, that we love everybody," Cooley concluded. "We don’t label anyone. There’s no velvet rope and we’re [not] selecting people. We’re there to welcome everybody, and hopefully, have a good time."