Saturday, 05 September 2009 00:06
With the exception of pasties and wisps of patent leather, a severe lack of clothing will be your first clue that you are approaching something significant.
An abundance of glitter and metallic frou-frou will be your next. And when the guttural boom of fast-paced dance music begins to rumble up your spine, you know you have arrived.
The Club, the UC, the University Club; call it what you want, but Gainesville's three-story haven for dancing and drag shows is turning 20—about 10 times as old as many of its neighbors. Here's how it made the distance.
By Tee Gopinath
When Mark Spangler founded The University Club in 1989, he threw open the doors and never looked back. The founder and general manager of Gainesville's notorious GLBT nightspot got his start working for a club owner in Sarasota and West Palm Beach, but decided to open his own place when he visited the Gainesville area to scout locations.
“I came up here and realized I didn't want to work for someone else when I could do it by myself,” he says. “So I found a space, cleaned it up and two weeks later we were in business.”
Located at 18 East University Avenue, University Club is one of only a few nightclubs that caters specially to Gainesville's GLBT community, and it is the area's only nightclub to feature its own drag shows.
Enter the tri-level space on the mezzanine floor, which has a sitting area and looks over the expansive dance floor below. Walk upstairs to find another wide lounge, a little darker and tougher in character; each level has its own bar.
Mark says the club has been successful because it truly caters to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
“I know it's a called a 'gay club,’ but we get all kinds of people here,” he says. “We have something different every night, from Indie music on Mondays to karaoke on Wednesdays.”
But Mark may not even need to make the effort as long as the club continues to feature Lady Pearl, a flamboyant drag queen with her own show on Thursday and Friday nights.
“She just gets out there and does her number,” he says. “She emcees the show, talks to the audience and hassles them in a fun way.”
The Lady Pearl Show also features other local performers as well guests from Tampa and Jacksonville.
“A lot of the entertainers are really, really good,” Mark says. “Most people don't expect it, and they're amazed at how great they are.”
The University Club recently went all out in hosting a dazzling event to celebrate the club's anniversary with the annual Slut Party. The two-night party raged on as dancers poured through the doors and spilled over on to every floor of the club.
Chastity is a UC employee who kicks ass, takes names and admits people at the door. Sprinkled with brilliant blue glitter on the second night of the Slut Party, she says she looked even more fabulous the night before.
“I was a full-on girl last night. I went all out with shoes, the hair, everything,” she explains.
The sparkly door-girl (who goes by Chas as a guy and Chastity as a girl), has been working at the club for more than six years. She believes the atmosphere has made a big impact on her life.
“I saw my first drag show here, and fell in love with it,” she says. “Then I started dabbling with drag a little bit, and thought 'I can do this!'”
Chastity also has advice for anyone about to meet Lady Pearl.
“Once you get past the roughness and the attitude, she can be a really nice person,” she says.
But then she tacks on a disclaimer: “That's if you get close to her and she doesn't hate your ass. But go ahead and tell her I said that,” she jokes.
Ernie Erbin, another long-term member of Team University Club, says the club has a way of grabbing you and holding on.
“I've been working here for longer that you've been alive,” he exclaims. “I got out of the Navy and came here to go to school, but I realized bartending was just more fun. I've been working here for the last 19 years.”
Needless to say, Ernie has plenty of stories to share.
“When it was legal back in the day to stay open all night, we had an after-hours event that was kind of a fetish party. Everyone would come in with piercings, leather, chains and tattoos, and people would get up on stage and spank each other.”
It seems that almost everything at the club has a history behind it. Ernie says the tradition of the Slut Party is even older that the club itself.
“One of the managers used to host it in his home, but once it got too big for his house he moved it to the club,” he explains. “We've been doing it for like 17 years here now, but the actual party has been going on for more than 20 years.”
Ernie has tales about the bash that seem to have come straight out of a Tom Waits record.
“One year a girl came in with her whole body done in camouflage paint. All she was actually wearing were pasties and a G-string.”
“It's still a great party to me, even after all these years,” says the self-proclaimed connoisseur of good times. Ernie admits to having partied with The Weather Girls, as well as Grace Jones in her “Warm Leatherette” days. Standing behind the bar at the Slut Party, he shows off some leatherette of his own.
Both Chastity and Ernie agree that the University Club is queen at being welcoming and open-minded. Chastity explains that ultimately, the club is something of a sanctuary in a difficult society.
“I know we all judge a lot,” she admits, “And individually everyone can be judgmental.
“But here as a bar environment we don't judge anyone. There are people who come in who have never seen a drag queen, or even met a gay person before. They come in and love it.”
When asked for his secret to nightclub longevity, Mark credits a constantly changing student body with making his job a little easier. “Every year there is a new group of incoming students,” he says, “And about every four years there's almost a full overhaul. The same club is like a new club every year, and that's how it keeps going.”