Facing Closure, Chicago's Oldest Bathhouse Throws Epic Party for the Ages

Man's Country

Chicago is a two-bathhouse town, though there are rumors of a “sex house” somewhere on the South Side. Steamworks, on rainbow-lined Halsted Street in Boystown, is the better-known of the two, with newer, sleeker amenities and a younger clientele. On Clark Street in Andersonville, the city’s former Swedish enclave and the recognized center of lesbian life, sits Chuck Renslow’s Man’s Country, open since 1973.

Renslow was the pioneering godfather of the leather scene — the ultimate leather daddy who opened his first bars and gyms in the 1950s, published erotica with partner Dom Orejudos (known by his pen name “Etienne”), accrued clout in Chicago politics, gave widely as a philanthropist, and founded the International Mr. Leather competitions and the Leather Archives and Museum.

Through the years, Man’s Country was always the biggest cash cow. Housed in a former Swedish–American fraternal lodge, it sprawls over three stories with private rooms on each floor. The basement holds the wet area designed to look like the Parisian sewers — the steam room still works, though the hot tub has long been out of order. The ground floor has lockers, a public play area, and a lobby with an aquarium and a mahogany sculpture of an elephant. Upstairs there are fetish rooms and a ballroom with a 30-foot ceiling and stage.

(RELATED: 28 Photos of Gay Bathhouse History in Chicago)

The heady urban hedonism of gay liberation defined Man’s Country’s early years. It had a sundeck, a restaurant, and performers like hypnotists and magicians. On Sunday mornings, men would lieon beanbag chairs in the ballroom and come down from the weekend’s highs to classical music. The AIDS crisis severely affected the business model, however, so Renslow partnered with Eddie Dugan, owner of Chicago’s premier discotheques, to open a dance club at Man’s Country in 1987. Ron Ehemann, Dugan’s attorney and manager, arranged the relationship and became Renslow’s partner of 35 years. They raised two children together.

Acts like Boy George, the Village People, the Manhattan Transfer, the company from Porgy and Bess, and Divine, in what turned out to be his final show, performed there.

“They weren’t necessarily gay bands playing,” Ehemann says. “If you were an entertainer trying to break into one of the bigger rooms downtown and they weren’t paying attention to you, you could play Man’s Country and the Tribune and Sun-Times would come here and review you.”

The dance club fell out of fashion and closed in the 1990s at a time when bathhouses were regaining popularity, though the scene had changed. “People didn’t really want to come in to party,” Ehemann says. “Before AIDS, this was the after-club. Anybody you’d run into at the bars on Halsted Street, you’d be liable to run into them here once they closed.”

AIDS had turned some men off of bathhouses, period, and most whodid come to Man’s Country were there to have sex, not socialize.

It has been six years since Man’s Country turned a profit. Ehemann points to ever-increasing Cook County and municipal property taxes, insurance costs, and postponed upkeep — not competition with Steamworks or a cultural shift away from bathhouses — as the reasons behind this. Put up for sale in 2016, it had not attracted a buyer before Renslow’s death during Chicago Pride last summer. Ever the sexual being, he had nearly fallen out of his deathbed in an attempt to grab his male nurse’s rear —“Here I am seven inches from death, and I still appreciate a good ass.” (The nurse took it in stride.)

The decision was made to close Man’s Country at the end of the year.

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Chicago’s legendary house music scene has thrived in the queer community since the days of Frankie Knuckles. In recent years, one of its most vivid manifestations were the Men’s Room parties held in venues across the Windy City and in the LGBT summer vacation hamlet of Saugatuck–Douglas, Mich. The organizers were inspired by the avowedly sexual atmosphere at IML and wanted to merge it into the gay music scene.

Harry Cross, a native Arkansan, came to Chicago seven years ago to do sketch comedy but instead found a calling as a DJ. He has a residency at Steamworks every Friday night, throws a monthly called Femme’s Room at the Berlin nightclub, and was a part of the collective behind Men’s Room, which went on long-term hiatus this year. He reached out to Renslow and Ehemann about having an event at Man’s Country, but it gained little traction as Renslow was ailing. Ehemann, however, was open to it, in light of his years managing dance clubs. Cross and Ehemann decided to host two events to mark the closing called Loose Ends. The first was from 11 p.m. on Saturday, November 18, through 11 a.m. the next day.

It is difficult to capture the impressionistic essence of a jockstraps-and-harnesses sex-and-music party held in an endearingly derelict, soon-to-be-closed bathhouse. Kegs were immediately drained, poppers huffed, and cigarettes and marijuana smoked freely indoors as the morning hours advanced. It feels superfluous to comment on the sex, besides to say it was omnipresent — on the ballroom dance floor, in the private and public rooms, in the hallways. A cage appeared on the dance floor in the early morning.

Towel-clad regulars seemed a bit taken-aback by the spectacle of it all. Many partygoers, mostly bearded and in their late 20s or 30s, expressed a wistfulness at the end of Man’s Country.

“If they did more things like this, I think they could still stay open,” said one. “If they could bring back big names into this performing venue, I think it could be revitalized.” “A lot of that old school, old guard stuff is closing down,” said another. “Man’s Country typifies that old-school, sleazy vibe that pre-HIV gay life had, and I feel like this is re-creating that a little bit. This is kind of my last chance to experience it.”

For the first time in 44 years, women were invited into Man’s Country after a poll of the membership returned little dissent. A small contingent of lesbians bought tickets and had audible sex in the bathroom stalls. One said she was upset at the longtime gender segregation, “But the other side is like, ‘If I stay home, it’s only going to prove a point to myself.’ I want to experience what this place looks like, and I want to bring women’s and other types of bodies into this space.” Another woman said how happy she was that the men were so welcoming, although 10 minutes later an old man in a towel exclaimed, “If I see one more pair of titties tonight, I’m going to throw up!”

Cross and five other DJs performed, three of them female. “The Chicago crowd likes to get banged-out. They like the energy pumping,” he said. Drag performers emulated the bathhouse divas of yore at 2, 4, and 6. Coco Iman was Grace Jones: “I did an amazing job! My heel broke, but that’s fine. I can just get a new pair.” Toyota Corona was Bette Midler: “I stayed up the whole time, and that was my goal: to stay vertical. The poppers in my corset were not a good thing — I was already doing a lot of blow, and I think my heart stopped!” Lucy Stoole was Divine, performing “I’m So Beautiful”: “It was fucking fantastic! That was one of my favorite numbers, this is one of my favorite venues. This is an important, fantastic gay relic, and I’m so happy that people like us came together to give it a good send-off.”

The crowd waned as the morning progressed, and only a dozen or so were on the ballroom floor at 11, as DJ Holographic played a vocal repeating “I’ll keep pushing on you” until it was all over. A ticket-taker told Cross that he felt a little dirty. “Why’s that?” asked Cross. “Oh, you know,” he replied.

Cross believes that freedom, whether expressed out in the open or off to the side, is the reason behind his events’ popularity. Though he looks forward to throwing parties that are less sex-centric, “The music I have been collecting for six or seven years has this sexual energy. It’s in my blood and will always be there.”

Ehemann planned to leave at 2 but wound up staying until 5:30. “This felt like a real bathhouse party,” he said, the first one at Man’s Country in at least a decade. “People got naked and occupied every part of the club.”

He paused and said, “It’s been a hell of a run, but my whole life with Chuck Renslow was a hell of a run. This club was definitely Chuck Renslow. He built it. It came out of his imagination. That concept, the big playground, that was Chuck Renslow. It was his sex drive, which was astronomical and insatiable. My only regret is that Chuck wasn’t here for it. He would have loved it. He would have loved that there were women, but mostly he would have loved that it was not a rave. It was a true bathhouse party.”  

“A bathhouse,” he concluded, “is a place for sexual freedom.”

The second Loose Ends party will be held from 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve through the first 12hours of 2018, at which point Man’s Country will close forever (LooseEnds-nye.eventbrite.com). The building on Clark Street will be torn down next year, and a condominium building, the Renslow, will rise in its stead. Man’s Country’s mahogany elephant will occupy the new building’s lobby.

Alongside Etienne’s, Chuck Renslow’s ashes are interred in his family vault at the Episcopal Church of the Atonement in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, where his children were baptised. They cannot be disinterred and brought to IML 2018, but he will be remembered there.

At press time, a group of investors is seeking out locations around Chicago to open another bathhouse. Chicago is a two-bathhouse town.

AARON GETTINGER is a freelance reporter in Chicago. His website is ADGettinger.com.

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