The LGBT-themed exhibit SameSex continues at City Lights Gallery, where one of the most memorable works is a mini-Cedar Brook Cafe.
“The Brook,” as it was known, was one of the oldest gay bars in the country, and until last summer it stood on the Post Road in Westport. It closed in 2010, as many gay bars have, the victim of rising rents and dying nightlife.
When the Brook was torn down, much of Ricky Mestre’s artwork went with it. His murals were everywhere. Bu Ricky salvaged a few mementos, some signs and fixtures from the bar, and was able to assemble a small piece of it at City Lights.
“It’s a Cedar Brook Cafe shrine with actual pieces and artwork from the club as well as a couple of replicas of signs and designs that I created for the club but no longer exist after it was demolished,” says Mestre. He also painted himself and his friends dancing in the club, in image reminiscent of the iconic portrait in “Good Times,” showing actual patrons in dancing positions or just hanging out.
On one of the Brooks’s old tables are sticky notes for visitors to write a tribute, some recollections of fun times with friends at the club.
“This whole installation really reflects the last few years of the brook standing after it was given a makeover and a new coat of paint,” says Mestre.
The bar had been threatened with closure many times. In 1990, the Norwalk Hour reported that then-owner Paul Kish had been in talks with Lafayette Bank to build a branch on that spot, but an “uncertain economy” had put his plans on hold.
Then, in 1998, Reuters reported this story:
Landmark U.S. Gay Bar Set to Close
WESTPORT, Conn., July 30 (Reuters)- Connecticut has lost a national
landmark, but one that was not listed in conventional tourist guidebooks.
Last weekend, the Brook Cafe, which claimed to be the second-oldest
continuously operated gay bar in the United States, closed its doors in
blueblood Westport, Connecticut.
The cafe, which opened in 1939, was “the Stonewall of Connecticut,” said
patron Keith Hyatte, 46, referring to the New York cafe commonly called the
birthplace of the modern gay-rights movement after a three-day rebellion
there in 1969.
Though generations of gay and lesbian patrons revered “The Brook,” as it
was known, owner Paul Kish, 59, sadly concluded that the property was more
valuable as an office and retail complex. Another factor in its demise might
have been the gay community’s recent shift away from barroom socializing,
partly as a result of the AIDS pandemic, some patrons said.
“I feel bad about closing the bar but it’s just too valuable a commodity
and I can collect double the rent as a retail office complex,” Kish told
Reuters in an interview. The Easton, Connecticut, man bought the property
Westport, a privileged southwestern Connecticut enclave whose 25,000
residents include many corporate executives and celebrities such as Paul
Newman and Martha Stewart, has a unique place in gay history.
WORD SPREAD THROUGH GAY GRAPEVINE
The Brook Cafe was called the Cedar Brook when it opened in 1939 under
original owners Eddie and Millie Bowe. The Bowes did not set out to cater to
a gay clientele but because of their easy-going nature– and given
Westport’s reputation as a tolerant and artistic community– word soon
spread through the gay grapevine that the bar was a great place to hang out.
The Cedar Brook was patronised not only by gays but by the “straight but
not narrow” crowd, longtime patrons said.
“It was quite a place in its day,” said Jane Kealy, 66, of Fairfield, a
weekend regular with her husband until his death two years ago. “It was
always a gay bar known from coast to coast, from Maine to California,” she
Kealy said the Cedar Brook was where the “swell” people from Greenwich,
Connecticut, and New York City hung out on the weekends.
In 1973, the bar’s ownership was transferred to Kish, a gay who was just
coming out of the closet at age 30. “We completely renovated the bar and
added a disco dance floor complete with flashing lights,” said Kish, whose
changes also included shortening the name to the Brook Cafe.
“Everyone flocked to it from the beginning. There was a constant stream of
limos on the weekends. It was just like Studio 54,” Kish said.
During the bar’s disco-era heyday, the Brook regularly sold more alcohol
than any other bar in Connecticut and was the only gay bar between New York
and New Haven, Connecticut, he said.
It was located just a few blocks off Interstate 95 at Exit 18 amd people
planned their vacations and weekend getaways to include a stop during Friday
evening “happy hour” or the Sunday afternoon T-Dance on the return trip.
MANY STARS POPPED IN
Many stars both gay and straight have popped in over the years. “Bette
Davis came in in the mid-’70s with a gentleman friend one Sunday afternoon
and had a drink at the bar,” Kish said. “Ralph Bellamy, Dan Hartman, who
sang the disco song ‘Instant Replay,’ Harvey Fierstein, Cyndi Lauper, they
all came in. Neil Sedaka lives in town and he’s been in.”
Kish attributes the place’s popularity to a friendly, cosy atmosphere where
gay people could relax and feel safe. It was always a twist of irony that a
Connecticut State Police Troop barracks was directly across the street.
“Connecticut has always been a tolerant place to live, but patrons were
still harassed by police and local toughs,” said Michael Collins, a gay
professor of mass communications at Quinnipiac College in Hamden,
“New York in the ’50s had a law that made it illegal to serve alcohol to a
homosexual, so they would come up to Connecticut,” Collins said.
Kish said he plans to demolish the building and redevelop the property, if
town officials approve, into retail and office space.
The oldest gay bar in the United States is believed to be Cafe Lafitte in
Exile on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which opened in 1934.
Hyatte said the Brook Cafe, like any revered institution, was ultimately
forced to close because it became obsolete.
“There is a growing anti-alcohol sentiment, especially within the gay
movement,” he said. “The AIDS pandemic has also taken a toll and has
altered the way gay people court one another. Gay people have found
healthier ways to meet.”
But then, in 2010, the last call wasn’t a false alarm. Westport Now reported:
Owner Prepares for Last Night at the Cedar Brook Café
By James Lomuscio
Clem Bellairs, owner of Westport’s Cedar Brook Café, expects his establishment to be filled to capacity Saturday night when the nation’s oldest, continually operating gay bar holds its farewell bash ending a 71-year run on Post Road East.
“It’s sad, very sad,” said the Stamford resident who purchased the business 12 years ago.
Bellairs, 57, cites hard economic times and harassment from neighbors at a time of “a more restrictive society.”
He also took aim at Internet dating, and in an ironic twist, increased societal acceptance of gays that has negated the need for gay bars once considered sanctuaries as well as meeting places.
“It’s not gay marriage, per se,” he said about gay and lesbian couples being more settled. “Gays have been accepted at straight bars, and they don’t need a gay bar. A lot of straight bars even have gay nights. And you have the Internet.”
Bellairs said that over the past five years he has tried to adjust to the times by advertising the Cedar Brook not just as a gay bar for men and women, but as dance club open to all.
“I created a New York bar scene here, and we didn’t know who was what when they were out on the dance floor,” Bellairs said. “Everybody was there just to have a good time.”
He said that his clientele is “50 percent male and female, and 50 percent minorities.”
Bellairs noted that blacks and Hispanics, especially, have found the same sanctuary there that white, gay males did when it first opened.
He said that Latin music nights have been a big draw for the club.
But despite these changes, Bellairs said he could not compete with a weak economy exacerbated by a rent spike with his new landlord effective July 1.
“He doubled the rent,” said Bellairs. “I was paying $3,800 under the old landlord, Paul Kish.”
In October, SNC Properties owned by Westporter Andy Im purchased the 5,455-square-foot, two floor café, adding it to the property Im owns next door. It includes a Subway franchise and Swiss Cleaners, which Im owns and operates.
Im, however, insists he did not double the rent. He also says that when he purchased the property from Kish the rent at the time was supposed to $5,800.
“I still charge him $3,800,” said Im, a Korean immigrant who purchased Swiss Cleaners 10 years ago.
He added that the new rent is $8,000 per month, “not bad for Westport,” and not double what the rent was supposed to be.
“I raised it to $8,000 and he not take it,” said Im. “He’s been here a long time. He’s a good man, but he said business was slow.
“It’s a free country,” he added. “If he doesn’t want to stay, I can’t hold him. It’s not a Communist country.”
Im said he is not certain what type of business will replace the café. Perhaps a restaurant, he said. But he did note that he would have to raise the rent to cover the cost of renovations.
“I have a mortgage,” said Im. “I have to pay a mortgage every month. If a new tenant comes in, I have to charge him $11,000.
“Neighbors don’t like cafe,” he added. “Too noisy. They get drunk. Make pee-pee outside.”
Bellairs disagreed, saying that is not the type of clientele that patronize the Cedar Brook. He also said that opposition to the café is indicative of a growing wave of neo-prohibition.“Westport is turning into every other town,” he says about a more staid, suburban lifestyle that has supplanted the dance club scene that burgeoned in the 1980s.
“People worry about being pulled over for DUI after having two drinks.
“And there are nonsmoking laws,” he said, noting that he was fined $250 for smoking in his office at the club.
The smoking ban, he said, forces many patrons outdoors to smoke, and with “the doors opening and closing and the music being heard outside,” neighbors have complained.
“I’ve been harassed by the neighbors,” he said. “I told them, ‘Don’t call the police, call me first.’ ”
But that point remains moot after Saturday night. Bellairs said that when the dust settles he plans to move to Provincetown, Mass.
Meanwhile, Belairs says he is sad, a sadness that is echoed on the café’s Web site with The Three Degrees singing “When Will I See You Again.”