My black Honda Element rolls into the parking lot of Commercial Center, through the maze of buildings, past derelicts and overflowing garbage bins. The driveways and sidewalks appear to be in worse repair than usual as I pull into a spot across from the future home of the Rainbow Lounge.
It isn't much to look at right now.
Behind two wooden doors cracking with black paint, the Rainbow is still just a work in progress. After I survey the room for a few minutes, a man wearing a short-sleeve black silk shirt approaches. Tall and stocky, with thick, gray hair, owner Ray Makuch gives the grand tour, narrating his vision of what the space will look like in two months. Pipes, wires and air ducts hang out of an exposed ceiling frame. Chairs and tables wrapped in cellophane are stacked around the room. The bathrooms are all tile and no fixtures.
This fall, the renovated bar and restaurant will be at the forefront of a gay renaissance in Las Vegas. At least, that's what Makuch believes.
"What we are really going to do is bring that Steve Wynn mentality down to this bar," says Makuch. "Where the customer comes before anything else. What we're trying to do is take the traditional gay bar and bring it to another level."
Makuch and his partner—in life and in business—William Kumor-Makuch have spent nearly a half-million dollars renovating the suite formerly occupied by Cobalt, another gay bar, which closed last fall. That's a big chunk of change to invest into one of the city's oldest—and most run-down— retail centers. But Makuch, like many of his peers in the gay business community, is sensing a major shift in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender) population, nationally and locally.
"We're not in that lower level anymore," says Makuch. "Society itself has placed us up, with the gay marriage thing and all, and moved us into [being considered] real nice, decent people."
The news media's attention in the past year has focused on the hot-button legal issues of gay marriage and civil unions at the same time that gay-themed television programs such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L-Word have become overnight hits. "Queer" is no longer a four-letter word, and even in this conservative town, the notions of "mainstream" people seem to be loosening.
"Socially and culturally, the citizens of Las Vegas are generally becoming more open-minded about the queer community," says Jere Keys, editor of QVegas, a monthly local LGBT-targeted magazine. "We are constantly becoming more and more metropolitan—with all the respect of diversity that comes with that."
If anyone could be called a cheerleader for the gay community in Las Vegas, Keys would be the man. When asked if Las Vegas is ready to "go gay," Keys responds, "Absolutely!"
And why not? This year's Las Vegas Pride event was one of the biggest in its 21-year history. The total estimated attendance for the weeklong group of activities—parades, parties and a festival—was 13,000. Just over a decade ago, in 1991, attendance was about 500.
Much like the burgeoning Arts District, the LGBT community has been sanctioned—officially and unofficially—by the City of Las Vegas, aiding in its growth. For 2004's Pride parade, the city donated its mobile stage and bleachers for the Downtown event, a gesture resulting from Mayor Oscar Goodman's proclamation of Pride Day in 2003.
This kind of validation is a huge step for Southern Nevada's gay community. Think Richard Ziser's successful attack on gay marriages was a major loss for equal rights in Nevada? It wasn't until 1993 that sodomy was decriminalized in the state, and just five years ago that Nevada gays and lesbians started to receive legal protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Despite the uphill battle for equality, Sin City's LGBT community is ready to come out of the proverbial closet. In addition to the Rainbow Lounge, close to half-a-dozen new additions to the Valley's gay nightlife scene could signal just the type of rebirth Makuch believes his bar sits at the forefront of. Plans and rumors are turning into licenses, permits and construction.
Three new businesses in the Fruit Loop—the widely used name for the gay bar-dominated intersection of Paradise Road and Naples Drive —will open in the next six months. All three will fill locations that were formerly gay and lesbian nightclubs. Paul San Filipo—the owner of Las Vegas' premier gay nightclub, Gipsy—owns all three: Toxic, located in the former Tramps; 8-1/2 Ultra Lounge, filling the front half of the former Icon building; and Piranha, which will occupy the back half.
What sets these new clubs apart from the closed clubs they are replacing—aside from simply infusing life into buildings that have been abandoned for months—is their ambition to compete not just with other gay clubs, but with world-class ultralounges and nightlife establishments on the Strip.
8-1/2 Ultra Lounge would be the first of its kind for the gay nightlife scene, and the designs for Toxic are very swank.
"None of the [established] clubs look like an ultralounge," said Brandon Johnson, who represents 8-1/2, Gipsy and Toxic, speaking of 8-1/2. "We're going for a Tabu, V-bar, Risqué type of look [speaking of 8-1/2] ...
Of Toxic, he said, "Wall coverings, paint, furnishing, lighting fixtures—I've never seen anything like that—not even in this town."
Beyond the activity in the Fruit Loop and Commercial Center, Krave will open in September on the Strip, at the former Ibiza USA location at Las Vegas Boulevard and Harmon Avenue; Downtown Las Vegas will get its own slice of gay nightlife when Celebrity Vegas opens at the end of the year.
Prominent in the media because of its leasing battle with Neonopolis, the Ohio-based Celebrity nightclub and cabaret will be located at Third Street and Ogden Avenue, adjacent to a whole different type of bar, Hogs and Heifers—better known as the real-life inspiration for Coyote Ugly.
Goodman—as would be expected from the "happiest mayor on Earth," who presided as grandmaster over 2003's Pride parade—came to the defense of Celebrity owner Donald Troxel when Neonopolis backed out of its lease with the club owner after Troxel had already invested thousands of dollars into developing the location. Though representatives of Neonopolis' operating company deny the charges, the club owner claims he was denied the lease because of the drag club's gay-themed atmosphere and his own sexual orientation.
"I'm a criminal defense lawyer by profession," Goodman said, "and upholding constitutional rights is of utmost importance to me. I felt that if the allegations made by Mr. Troxel were true—that he was being denied access because of disagreement about sexual preferences—then I felt this was entirely unacceptable."
The mayor has been boosting Downtown redevelopment for years, and as far as he's concerned, Celebrity's choice to stay Downtown falls directly in line with his vision of a revitalized city center.
"Celebrity is supposed to be very similar to the Birdcage," said Goodman, referring to the Miami drag club featured in the Robin Williams movie of the same name. "That place was full of excitement, energy, life and vigor. I think with the juxtaposition between Celebrity and Hogs and Heifers next door, it's going to make for a very happening place."
Hizzoner is convinced. Keys is exuberant. Makuch is confident. Las Vegas is ready for the next wave of LGBT nightlife, one that provides more options for tourists and locals alike. Trouble is, the scene seems to peak and decline every few years. Is there really enough demand to justify all the supply, and more importantly, to keep these establishments from going the way of Cobalt, Tramps and Icon?
Sitting around a construction-dusted table inside the future Rainbow Lounge, Makuch and Kumor-Makuch pay a lot of lip service to their business, set to open September 28. It's somewhat harder to get them to address the larger LGBT community.
Makuch—whose surname adorns the vanity license plate of his shiny black BMW—has lived in Las Vegas for 31 years. He has worked for both Howard Hughes and Steve Wynn, the latter of whom seems to be a major role model for Makuch. He is bold, expressive and knows the business of gaming and hospitality.
Kumor-Makuch moved to Las Vegas only a few years ago. His background is in information technology, and though unassuming and quiet, he is very well spoken.That is, when Makuch lets him get a word in.
As my Starbucks cup forms a condensation ring on our small round table, he and Kumor-Makuch are sure to remind me—multiple times—of how their club will be a nice place that anyone can come into and have a nice meal. They figure the thing that sets the Commercial Center apart from the Fruit Loop—in terms of its gay businesses and in general—is its proximity to so many other "mainstream" establishments.
The Center—a nonprofit resource for the LGBT community—calls this area home, as well as gay haunts such as Badlands Saloon, Las Vegas Lounge, Spotlight Lounge and Hawk's Gym. Further from the "mainstream" track are swingers clubs like the Green Door. However, there are also multiple churches, the Valley's best and oldest arcade, a well-respected violin shop, a multitude of Asian restaurants, a popular pool hall and dozens of other vanilla businesses.
"I think we have more mainstream people in this area [Commercial Center] than you do over there," Makuch says, confidently. He is unabashedly skeptical of the soon-to-be monopolized Fruit Loop. "Look at the area itself: you've got Gipsy, you've got 8-1/2, you've got Toxic—if that ever opens—you've got Free Zone, and you have a large traffic area. You have airport traffic coming around continuously. I can't tell you how many people in 31 years were killed crossing the street from bar to bar. This area here, we have some transient people, but you've got a lot of businesses."
Makuch's doubts about when and if Toxic will ever open are not based merely on competitiveness. Though his own business was advertised to open in July and will not open its doors to the public until September, San Filipo's new clubs—Toxic, 8-1/2 and Piranha—are even further behind their own publicity. Ads in QVegas also claimed a July opening for Toxic, but construction has not even started at the location.
"We had licensing issues with 8-1/2," said Johnson. He anticipates construction starting in October if permits and licensing are acquired; similar issues have postponed Toxic's development. "The prior tenant from Tramps let its entertainment license expire. We did not know that—we anticipated it being easier. The ads went out earlier than I wanted."
Johnson doesn't see a problem filling all of these new businesses with warm, high-disposable-income bodies. As far as he's concerned, having so many businesses within proximity of each other —as with the Fruit Loop or Commercial Center —does not create self-defeating competition.
"It's a stronger business community," Johnson said, "especially for the Fruit Loop. Most people like to go from bar to bar. That's the reason why Paul wanted to buy the businesses—if any other bars closed in that area, the area would die. Spruce it up by bringing in more options."
Keys agrees that more businesses means more opportunity for growth and development. Passionate as ever, the QVegas editor and activist feels the time is just right for the gay community to experience an explosive rebirth.
"The local gay community is stronger than it has ever been," said Keys, "with more people than ever comfortable being 'out' in the workplace and in their public lives. Businesses such as the Blue Moon Resort and my magazine QVegas have proven that the Las Vegas gay community and tourism can support more nightlife and more gay-friendly businesses. The community has been steadily growing for the past several years. We didn't have any new nightclubs open up last year, which is a bit unusual, and a few closed down. Certainly, there are spaces to fill in the community."
While the growth and development of the gay business community appears healthy, the population itself remains geographically scattered and sometimes at odds with itself. Many cities—most notably San Francisco, West Hollywood, and New York's Greenwich Village—have prominent "gay ghettos," where LGBT culture dominates a neighborhood much in the same way ethnic neighborhoods have done. As Las Vegas becomes more metropolitan, the question remains whether such an area will ever develop.
"Las Vegas will probably develop a thriving gay community more along the lines of Phoenix or Salt Lake City," Keys said. "While the bars and businesses might concentrate in one or two locations, people will continue to live all over the Valley. Really, the social forces that created gay ghettos in LA, San Francisco and other major metropolitan cities just don't exist in Las Vegas yet."
Others in the community, like Kumor-Makuch, think that the possibility of such residential concentration might not be so far-fetched.
"I've lived in Austin Texas, I've lived in the Northeast—there's always been a 'gay ghetto' wherever I've lived," said Kumor-Makuch. "When I got here, Ray said it's really fragmented here, there's no unity, gay people live all over the city. I think we're going to be on the vanguard of starting that unification with the gay community. I wouldn't mind at all if this were known as the 'style center.' It's just going to take time and it's going to take people to commit."
Makuch reports a flurry of gay Las Vegans moving into the Huntridge area, buying older homes with larger lots. He sees the move as part of the urban renewal happening in the older and denser parts of the city.
"They're doing what gay people do best," Makuch said, "And that's decorate. They're tearing out doors and putting new things in, and they've got beautiful homes."
The mayor not only figures that Downtown is likely to experience a convergence of the LGBT community, but enthusiastically encourages the idea.
"Arts districts and Downtown areas definitely have a gay component," saidGoodman. "They have always provided creativity and glitz."
Keys' passionate "yes" aside, is mainstream Las Vegas truly ready to warmly accept its long-oppressed and misunderstood gay community? Will areas like Commercial Center succeed despite stigmas based on years of neglect and homophobia?
"People who are comfortable with gay people have always gone to our clubs," Kumor-Makuch said. "And our clubs traditionally have been in bad sections of town. I personally think that right now we're on the cutting edge of this whole center undergoing a gentrification of urban renewal going on down here."
As my meeting with the Rainbow Lounge owners ends, Makuch suggests that I stop by the Pride Factory, another business taking a sizable financial risk by opening in Commercial Center. The Florida-based store is something like a one-stop shop for the LGBT community: retail items such as books, CDs, videos, clothes, Pride gear, and magazines are available, as well as beverages and pastries from the coffee bar.
"I would venture to say the Pride Factory put three quarters of a million dollars into that property," Makuch says of his neighbor. "It's exquisite. It's a gay Starbucks brought to another level."
I walk north across the Commercial Center parking lot. The sidewalk is torn up, part of county-funded renovations to the center's public areas. There is no signage for the Pride Factory, and the windows of the building it shares with a dozen other businesses are so dusty from the construction, I can't see what's inside from the parking lot. Finally, as I near the corner of the building, I get close enough to see rainbow-colored merchandise through a window.
Las Vegas already has one prominent gay book and gift shop—Get Booked, located in the Fruit Loop. What sets the always-open Pride Factory apart, aside from its size, is its discretion. Walking into the store, one would be hard-pressed to find anything offensive or overly "queer." Though its management is not pressing the issue like the Rainbow Lounge, the Pride Factory really is a place you could hang out with your friends—gay or straight—to enjoy a latte, watch a movie or listen to poetry. The adult and video section of the store is restricted to those over 18, and is not visible from the main room. There are no 9-inch dildos staring you down when you walk into the store.
After leaving the Pride Factory, I climb into the Element, turning the air conditioning full-blast. As I pull around the parking lot past the Pride Factory, I notice from a distance what I could not see close up.
On the roof above the store's entrance, five rainbow flags fly defiantly in the breeze, like a beacon—a proclamation, as if to say, "Ready or not, Las Vegas, we're coming out."