Raising the bar
Sidetrack's top trio reflects on 25 years.
Love it or hate it, Sidetrack is a legend. No other LGBT-focused venue can claim as much credit for putting Chicago on the queer map (not that Steamworks hasn’t tried) as much as Halsted Street’s guilty-pleasure video saloon. This year Sidetrack turned 25. It’s also receiving a Trailblazer Award this week from Bailiwick for its tireless activism and ongoing commitment to the community. We asked owners Pepe Pena, Art Johnston and Chuck Hyde to elaborate on its history, its people, and, of course, showtunes.
On its origins...
Pepe Pena I had a regular customer [Rocco Dinverno] who had this idea of opening a gay bar on Halsted. He saw the Midnight Sun in San Francisco and was blown away by it. I thought it was a great concept, so that was the beginning. It took about a year and I basically put all the videos together. When we opened we had about 40 hours of material.
On early Halsted Street...
Chuck Hyde [It was a] wasteland. Little Jim’s was here, but there wasn’t much else. 7-Eleven was kind of a bombed-out gas station. We actually took a cab from Sidetrack to Little Jim’s or to the El. We didn’t walk.
PP Our front door was spray-painted fag bar the week after we opened and we left it. We never had a sign on the bar because of something to do with the permits. Fag bar became a way to find us.
Art Johnston Because we didn’t have a sign it was very common for someone to leave at the end of the night and say to the doorman, “I had a great time, where was I?”
AJ All bars took an enormous hit. We were all scared to death. For example, I saw a trend in all bars to not drink out of glasses. People started ordering things out of bottles because nobody knew. We’ve always been convinced that the nature of the entertainment of our bar helped make us popular during the AIDS crisis. People could go out and have an evening and be entertained without necessarily having to have made a hookup.
CH Those things were always popular even when we first opened.
AJ It was our first specialty night. We had a DJ who was a showtune fanatic. [He] ended up getting cold feet about it because a real showtune fan can be a difficult audience. He got scared so Pep said, “I guess I have to learn this stuff.”
PP There were only a few musicals available so it was kind of difficult. I wasn’t a showtune expert by any means.
AJ During the 1996 convention, [Clinton advisor] George Stephanopoulos came. Being a young attractive guy, the administration was sending him around to meet gay people. The campaign told us we couldn’t take any pictures of him in a gay bar. Needless to say that didn’t stop us. It was an interesting moment because, frankly, the political community was always weary about having anyone connected to a gay bar. It was an interesting shift for us when Howard Dean came and his campaign did a major event here. It was really a watershed in the connection between politics and gay bars because they sought us out.
CH I will never forget Bea Arthur because we knew she was coming and we had about four hours’ notice. She was in town to do her one-woman show at the Park West and they were going to bring her here. It was “tell a fag, tell a fag, tell a fag,” and all of the sudden we filled the bar. We played a few of her clips and then brought her onstage and the crowd would not stop cheering and yelling and clapping. She just started crying and it was really cool.
On 25 years...
CH We’ve had some really powerful moments. As recently as a year ago with the Gay Games here the room became a meeting place where all these athletes came from all over the world. There was an energy that was just unbelievable. After 9/11 people sought out a place to get away from a TV set that didn’t have the news. Things like that are pretty cool.
PP I feel we’re the best we’ve ever been right now, as far as what we do and how we do it. I can’t think of a better time.
AJ To quote one of our showtunes, for us I think the best of times is now. We could not be in a better city. I think it’s very important that Sidetrack is a part of Chicago.
Johnston, Pena and Hyde receive Bailiwick’s Trailblazer Award Monday 3.