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WeHo Bars Respond to Health Crisis With Change, Heartbreak, Resilience

WeHo bars are in crisis.

This article appeared in The Advocate's November/December 2020 issue. Since print publication, Los Angeles County has mandated the closure of all restaurants, including the Abbey, in response to a spike in infection rates.

It was a sight unseen before in West Hollywood. The gates of the Abbey — the epicenter of the gayborhood’s nightlife — were closed on a Friday night.

“Never in almost three decades did I think I would have to post a message like this. For the safety of our staff, guests, and entire community, The Abbey will be closed temporarily,” owner David Cooley wrote in a March 13 open letter.

It was Cooley’s Facetime session with a friend in Rome, where the line of gay bars near the Colosseum had gone dark, that made the Abbey the first WeHo business to shutter. Those gates did not reopen until May 30, when Los Angeles County first eased restrictions. The Abbey, once again leading the charge, unfurled its rainbow Pride flags.

But gone were the dancers, the drag shows, the packed club floor; all entertainment is banned under COVID-19 rules. In their place were hand sanitizers, masks, and mandatory food ordering. The Abbey, like many bars, can now function only as a restaurant. Seated guests are distanced across its patio, extending to Cooley’s neighboring Chapel establishment. Drag queen hosts take temperatures, and masked gargoyles stand guard above them.

It reminds Cooley of another pandemic from when he opened the bar in 1991. Then, he recalls, “We lost so many of our people in our community, but the businesses remained. And it just breaks my heart to see store after store [shutter].”

The Abbey, a WeHo icon, is closing temporarily.

The Abbey, a WeHo icon, is closing temporarily. (Photo by Unique Nicole)

Pictured: Abbey Road, an alley expansion of the Abbey in West Hollywood

Despite setbacks, the Abbey is comparatively lucky. Gay bars, which struggle in normal times due to competition from digital spaces and decentralizing demographics, are permanently shuttering due to financial strain from the pandemic. Baltimore’s Grand Central, Albuquerque Social Club in New Mexico, and San Francisco’s the Stud are among the decades-old institutions that have folded.

The plight of queer watering holes is felt acutely in West Hollywood, where four bars — Flaming Saddles, Rage, Gold Coast, and Gym Bar — have closed due to landlord disputes. Cooley praises some landlords as “helpful” with assisting tenants but castigates others as being “selfish” in “not giving a break.”

Three of these bars had the same landlord, Monte Overstreet, who owns significant swaths of Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of WeHo and has a reputation as a tough negotiator.

While at least one of these gay bar owners referenced “heartless” proceedings in a farewell Facebook post, Overstreet cannot bear all of the blame. (Overstreet could not be reached for comment by the time of this article’s publishing.) While the law permits rent deferment during the crisis, there is no sustainable plan allowing closed bars to continue occupying spaces while also keeping landlords afloat.

Jacqui Squatriglia, co-owner of Flaming Saddles with Chris Barnes, opened the WeHo location in 2015 after successfully launching a New York flagship. It took years to acclimate the bar’s country-western vibe to WeHo’s go-go ecosystem; choreographed line-dances to “Wild Wild West” evolved into shirtless cowboys swinging from ropes in Cirque du Soleil-esque feats. Crowds packed the bar every weekend in the before-times.

“You fight hard. … You finally do it all. And then you get shut down because of something that happened in the world,” says Squatriglia, who was “devastated” when her agreement with Overstreet fell through. “It’s such a vibrant little community that to have that many places close down, it’s a hit economically. It’s a hit emotionally.”

For now, WeHo bars that cannot convert into restaurants, like Mother Lode, remain boarded up. Others, like Rocco’s, the Bayou, Hi Tops, and Fiesta Cantina, get by with sidewalk dining — a change made possible by a temporary WeHo permit program, OUT Zones, which allows outdoor expansion behind patron-protecting barricades. With this permit, the Abbey has transformed an adjacent alley into Abbey Road, an open-air European-style dining area.

But how can other WeHo bars avoid closure? Squatriglia believes more action on behalf of local government, like a “mandatory mediator” to negotiate between landlords and tenants, might have helped keep her afloat. Additionally, she urges locals to avoid “getting complacent” about COVID; rising infection rates threaten the lives of people and businesses alike, and states like California will increase restrictions in response.

Cooley has weekly calls with WeHo city officials and praises their assistance. He encourages residents to support local businesses if and whenever they can. The most important tool for gay bar owners and their lovers, however, is resilience.

“The community’s fought before; it’ll fight again,” Squatriglia says. “And we have to just remember that and see the light and rise up and not get in a dark place.”

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