In the 25 years that O. Henry’s purveyed good spirits at 59 Haywood St., the club never took a day off, not once.
“Even in blizzards, some bartender would trudge in and open it up,” recalls Pete Moyle, co-owner of the landmark institution (which moved to a freestanding, single-story building at 237 Haywood St. two years ago).
During the formidable winter storm of ’93, when veteran bartender Bob set out on his normally 20-minute walk from home to open the place, it took him more than an hour-and-a-half to get there, he recalls.
“We had people waiting at the door,” Bob adds.
There are bars and there are bars. And to the faithful, O. Henry’s — the state’s oldest gay nightclub — transcends mere drinks and conversation.
“Oh, it’s much more than that,” gushes longtime patron Tim Robinson.
“I can’t imagine what life would have been without it,” agrees one of the club’s most consistent customers, whose drag-show stage name is Miss Green.
O. Henry’s has worn many faces in its 27-year history. Some years ago, regulars jokingly dubbed the club The Fish Camp, Bar, Grill, Wedding Chapel, Funeral Chapel and Auction Barn. And they weren’t entirely kidding.
In its time, O. Henry’s has served as a men-in-drag-cabaret escape from the ugly tide of prejudice that lapped at the door. As a local information hub, once AIDS began decimating this country’s gay population, back before the virus became everybody’s sexual burden. As an outreach mission and a therapist’s couch, to succor the afflicted. As an impromptu funeral parlor, a place to mourn the loss of yet another fallen friend, or to stage a wake. As a haven where the faithful could celebrate strength in numbers.
And as a grassroots meeting hall, where patrons could seek meaningful ways to fight back, as the club has done time and again.
It’s a stalwart community resource in a town whose gay-and-lesbian population is integral to both the local character and the eclectic esprit de corps that has attracted so many hip-seeking searchers, fakers, movers and shakers to Asheville in recent years.
Raise a glass, then, to O. Henry’s, a gay club for us all.
Where everybody knows Miss Green’s name
Pete Moyle has been involved with the bar for 16 years; his partner, co-owner Steve McKain, has a 20-year-plus history with it.
O. Henry’s opened on Oct. 13, 1976, as a sandwich restaurant that served beer and wine; the place quickly gained a reputation for being gay-friendly. “They used to have a line out the door for lunch,” remembers Robinson. And in the evenings, after the kitchen shut down, the bar stayed open.
The original owners, Jay Bentley and partner Tony DeRose, first called the place The Skylight Room, a nod to an O. Henry short story of the same name. After a couple of months, the moniker was streamlined to simply O. Henry’s.
In the old days, local retiree Jim Webb also used to stop in. Seeing O. Henry’s as a sound financial investment, he and his wife, Jo, bought the business from Bentley and DeRose about 21 years ago, Moyle reports. And when Webb decided to sell O. Henry’s in 1992, McKain (then the club’s manager) bought it from him.
O. Henry’s went private in 1988, in order to secure a mixed-drink permit; the restaurant side was phased out.
The bar’s relocation two years ago stemmed from lease disagreements with the Chestnut Street LLC (which owns the building) following renovations to the stretch of storefronts sandwiched between the library and what is now Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. Sensibilities Natural Body Care now occupies the upstairs portion of the original O. Henry’s site; the former downstairs is now part of John Henry’s Downunder restaurant.
And though Moyle and McKain say they would have liked to continue leasing space in the heart of the old Castanea Building, the new venue (which opened Aug. 10, 2001) does have its advantages.
For one thing, the couple owns the place, which sits across Haywood Street from the Friendship Baptist Church and next door to the Humane Alliance Spay/Neuter Clinic.
“We don’t have to wait for someone else’s approval or wait on another lease before we put money into it,” Moyle explains.
On the downside, O. Henry’s has become a destination bar; there’s little walk-in traffic. In the old days, residents from the nearby Vanderbilt and Battery Park apartments would frequent the club, notes Robinson.
“One little old lady [named Mamie] from Cheyenne, Wyo., would always stop in for a glass of wine,” he recalls wistfully.
Relocation also meant closing the bar for upward of four months during renovations. It was a tough time for many patrons, remembers Bob. In the interim, a group of regulars often met at The Bier Garden, just across Haywood from the vacated O. Henry’s space.
“I couldn’t even look across the street,” Green admits.
And when O. Henry’s cleared out of its old digs, it didn’t look back, taking the fixtures (antique lights, the century-old back bar), the R. Nipress paintings (battle scenes, Rubenesque nudes, a portrait of an old downtown wino cast as Moses), the Greek-styled sculptures and the classic Gibson Girl logo. (Apologies for the cliche, but the only appropriate word here is “fabulous.”)
“When we left, we only left a pair of walls,” McKain reveals.
Other local nightspots may boast extensive gay clientele (Scandals, Club Hairspray, Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues, The Flying Frog Bar), but O. Henry’s is still the gay bar in town, known far beyond the city limits. You’ll even hear about it on the Outer Banks.
“Gosh, they’re an institution,” confirms Christopher McGinnis, an organizer with the North Carolina Pride Fest, the annual Raleigh-area gay, lesbian and transgender festival.
Asheville resident Ray, the son of Native parents who still speak the old language, used to make pilgrimages from his Cherokee home to Asheville on weekends to visit O. Henry’s. Often, Ray recalls, he would bump into people from his high school in Sylva who’d never come out as gay back home.
“They could feel relaxed here,” he says.
Still, Asheville is hardly San Francisco (or even Key West, for that matter). But as towns go, says Green, it’s fairly gay-friendly.
“It’s not the kind of place where you’d walk down the streets holding hands with your partner,” notes the Web site Gaypride.net. “But it’s pretty unlikely that someone will follow you from a bar and beat you with a baseball bat.”
But it wasn’t always so.
“Times have changed a lot,” notes Robinson.
At earlier gay clubs in Asheville, customers weren’t surprised at having bottles or firecrackers thrown at them as they arrived or left, he explains. Hired security would typically buzz patrons in.
“It was an ordeal to get in, because they were concerned about safety then,” explains Robinson.
There have been at least 10 other gay nightclubs in town since the region’s first, back in the mid-1960s — Joe’s Candlelight Lounge, which had a six-month run in, of all places, Candler, Green recalls.
“Asheville had an open gay bar long before they had one in Raleigh,” he adds.
And at the end of the ’60s, there was The Flaming Embers on Patton Avenue, near what’s now the Western Carolina Rescue Mission. (Green helped paint the Embers’ walls day-glo purple.)
At the corner of Asheland and Hilliard avenues, across from the current Hot Spot convenience store, stood BJ’s (its upstairs was known as BJ’s Body Shop). By the time that club closed in 1977 — following an explosion that burned it to the ground — it had been renamed After Dark, remembers Green.
But the town’s most prominent gay nightspot, after O. Henry’s, was probably the long-defunct Patton Avenue club that stood just across from Pritchard Park. It began in 1976 as The Treetops, a public bar, and ended about a decade later as The Hitching Post, a private establishment with on-site security. A below-street-level road, now closed off and unofficially known as Rat Alley, connected the rear of the venue to a courtyard on Wall Street.
“People felt so unsafe, or they were afraid to be seen coming in and out of [the bar], that they would use the back door off that alleyway,” Robinson recalls.
O. Henry’s, however, has outlasted them all, persisting long enough to witness the dawning of a different age. (Even Asheville’s oldest bar, the colorful and seedy Smokey Tavern on Broadway, is now being renovated to soon reopen as a private gay club, Smokey’s After Dark. And no, that’s not a joke.)
But these days, the venerable status of O. Henry’s and its rep as a conversation bar — or, less delicately, a “geezer bar,” owing to its sizable contingent of over-30 males — has the nightspot actively courting new patrons as views on sexual segregation have become somewhat more relaxed and younger Asheville gays feel increasingly comfortable in general-interest clubs.
“A lot of bars have become more gay-friendly, so we’ve had to become more straight-friendly,” says Moyle.
Last July, O. Henry’s opened the back half of its new building as Station 237, a separate dance space. DJs work the tables on Saturdays, Sundays and alternate Fridays, spinning techno-dance and hip-hop.
O. Henry’s launched its long-running tradition of raising money for AIDS-related research and support services back in the early ’80s, with most of the funds going to the Western North Carolina AIDS Project.
“Certainly, other places have helped [us] in different ways, but not like O. Henry’s has, and not as continuously,” affirms WNCAP board member Fred Friedman.
The bar has a very personal stake in these issues: The nation’s AIDS crisis hit not long after O. Henry’s first opened, and Asheville, with its large gay population, quickly began experiencing the human fallout.
“Everybody was dropping dead,” comments bartender Lee Ramey, who is HIV positive himself.
And within the club’s tightly knit clientele, notes Moyle, these were deaths in the family.
After the funeral for the first local AIDS casualty, Green remembers many mourners wandering into O. Henry’s in a daze. “It just seemed the right place to go and the right place to be,” he adds.
“When so many people frequent the bar for so many years, there’s a camaraderie,” Moyle explains. “How would anybody deal with it if [they were] losing a lot of friends? When this first started out, I lost about 20 people a year.”
Faced with watching loved ones die, bartender Bob felt he had to do something. So in 1985, two years after joining the O. Henry’s staff, Bob began conducting fund-raising campaigns in the bar — “$400 here, $1,000 there,” he recalls — and he hasn’t stopped since.
“Bob has always said, ‘If there’s something [WNCAP] is trying to do, let us know,'” reveals Friedman.
During one of Bob’s early fund-raising ventures, an O. Henry’s customer left a gold ring in the tip jar. Taking it to a friend’s antique store to pawn it, Bob was instead given more stuff to sell, he says. Soon other people were donating items as well.
“I started getting so much stuff that it turned into an auction,” he adds.
That event raised $3,250, which went to Duke University Medical Center to support AIDS research. (WNCAP, established informally to help coordinate medical and basic services for local people with HIV/AIDS and to provide educational outreach, didn’t officially exist until 1986.)
A year later, O. Henry’s held another auction, bringing in about $7,000, all of it earmarked for WNCAP. The third year, Bob decided to shoot for no less than 10 grand.
“Pete looked at me and said, ‘You’re crazy,'” Bob recalls. “And we did $10,000.”
The preparations for the auction had claimed all of Bob’s free time for months, however, and he knew that if the event were to continue growing, someone else would have to coordinate it, he says. So O. Henry’s handed it off — hook, line and sinker — to WNCAP.
The Raise Your Hand auction is now the nonprofit’s biggest annual fund-raiser. Last year, the event collected nearly $43,000, with about a $37,000 profit once expenses were subtracted, reports WNCAP Executive Director Ron Curran.
“O. Henry’s had the foresight to see this as a potential venue to raise money,” notes Curran. “We certainly give them credit for being the ones who got the ball rolling.”