*Editor's Note: Spotlight Room's lease was recently renewed for six months, Lassiter reports.
Stepping into the Spotlight some 20 years ago — a dark, hole-in-the-wall bar on the corner of Cahuenga and Selma in Los Angeles — I never guessed this place would change my life. I’d come to town to be a player in the movie business and wound up a bartender at Hollywood’s oldest gay watering hole. Some might consider those years misspent, but I count myself lucky that fate delivered me into a community that accepted and trusted me on faith alone.
On January 3 the Spolight shines for the last time. We’ve lost our lease after 47 years*. And while I mourn its passing, I’ll take the memories and laughter through the rest of my life. I may have missed out on the glitz and flash of the red carpet, but I was given a family of friends, and therein lies my tale.
Seemingly hopeless in my search for a job, I turned one day to see an old, rusty sign — “The Spotlight Room” in flickering neon.
Motivated more by curiosity than anything else, I just had to take a look inside. Not knowing whether it was a treasure chest or Pandora’s box, I pulled the door open. In the few seconds it took for my eyes to adjust, the scene became clear. I couldn’t believe it. The place was packed. It was standing room only, like Mardi Gras on New Year’s Eve. The jukebox blared at 10 decibels as a group of guys dressed as Marilyn and Cher danced in stilettos.
Well, slap my ass and call me Judy. I had wandered into a gay bar.
My first instinct was to walk away. But the spectacle was strangely compelling. It was like walking into a John Waters film. I inched my way through all the commotion and cologne and noticed that every little nook seemed to have its own theme. Off to one corner was a group of studious chaps. Books and newspapers covered their booth. Adjacent were the businessmen ... half a dozen suits all discussing the Dow. The back room housed all the sports enthusiasts — multicolored jerseys shooting pool and waxing philosophical about why their team would prevail. Surrounding the jukebox were the music connoisseurs — seemingly best friends grilling each other on the latest tunes all in the name of good taste.
What a curious little place, I thought. Working here would have to be the greatest acting class in town! Who cares what kind of bar it is. It’s packed at all hours and looks like fun. So I asked to see the manager, and the bartender directed me to a man in the corner. “His name is Don Samuels.” As I approached him, he looked right at me as though he knew I had just asked to see him. He looked like a Norman Rockwell grandpa who couldn’t refuse anyone. We spoke for only a minute or two, and I walked out with five shifts like it was divine intervention.
I remember how overwhelming this big city was when I got here. How
Lenny, a Tuesday regular, showed me all the sights of Los Angeles from the Polo Lounge to Olvera Street. He knew all the old stories of
Chaplin and Fairbanks, Valentino and Garbo. Within a few weeks, I felt I
had lived in L.A. all my life.
When I got my first apartment I had the
decorating skills of sewer rat. It was a beautiful place, but I had no
sense of style. Upon telling this story at work a few times, an army
of Spot Light regulars stampeded my little studio. Within 48 hours my
one-room apartment looked like a master suite in the Playboy Mansion.
the makeover crew scurried back to the bar, my friend Alex stayed over
to give me a few pointers. “If you plan on getting any girls up here,
the Spam and Velveeta have got to go!” Al taught me every dish imaginable — veal piccata, coq au vin. Over the next two decades that man was
available at all hours for instructions on how to make anything. Truth
be told, these guys taught me more on how to woo women than I ever
learned from Bogart and Gable.
In 1999 a car accident put me in the
hospital with five broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Nothing brings
reality home quite like a brush with death. Visits from my golf buddies
and a girlfriend were comforting. But for the first time in my life, I
really wanted to see my parents. However, I knew they’d never make the
trip. But wouldn’t you know, within a matter of hours, word hit the bar
that I’d been in a car crash, and like the Santa Monica Boulevard pride parade, the
guys came marching into the ICU to wish me well. I don’t think I knew until
that day how important these fellas had become to me. Somehow they’d
become my surrogate family.
A few years later my father passed
away. We weren’t close, but I felt a need to return home to my roots. At the wake there were abundant floral arrangements and prayer candles. I
walked slowly through, reading the names on the cards for each
arrangement. Then suddenly before me was a tower of dogwoods and a
card that read, “With our sympathy and condolences — Don Samuels and your
friends at the Spotlight.” Next to it was another, and then still
another. I stood there in silence and let the warmth of these people
flow through me. These guys from the bar, who hadn’t known my dad, were
bringing me brotherhood from 2,000 miles away.
That all came back to
me a few days before I learned of the Spotlight’s final closing date. I
came to work a little early that day to have a little toast with the
I smiled and reminisced as the whole room seemed to suddenly move in slow motion.
were the guys who had ushered me through all the tumultuous days of my
youth, cheered me on each night before an audition, and taught me the
next day how to deal with rejection. They listened to me bellyache over
countless girlfriends. They taught me how to cook, entertain, and
decorate. Most important, how not to go crazy when lofty ambition
gives way to sensible security.
This was trust I’ve never
experienced before or since, and I was privy to it long before gay went
mainstream. Nothing I had ever been told about these people was true.
They were not the spooky goblins hiding under your bed at night. They
were generous, creative, community-oriented people trying to get from
the cradle to the coffin as smoothly as the rest of us.
I’m proud today
to have been given the opportunity to work and live among the kind of
folks who can turn the most mundane things into something