|Sept. 12, 2006|
| Grand farewell
| By Joe Morris
Some nights, 800 people would pack in, spilling over the balcony and writhing for dance-floor space. Parades of traffic-stopping drag queens trailed after stripper troupes to the stage.
Then, there'd be a drug raid.
Charleston had never seen anything like the Grand Palace, and probably won't again.
Demolition of the defunct nightclub at 617 Brooks St., long Charleston's biggest gay bar, begins today, with crews from Star Corp. of Sissonville shoveling out asbestos. West Virginia Demolition's wrecking ball arrives Wednesday, and a week later there should be nothing left.
The Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority took over the 8,000-square-foot building last month from longtime owner Hershel Layne, invoking eminent domain. The authority owns property to either side and plans to turn the Palace site into a parking lot, said Joe Lynch, the executive director.
It will be an unspectacular end to a building that, for the better part of three decades, rarely lacked for spectacle.
Before it was a nightspot, the Palace was the unassuming Summers Market, a grocery store run by Abraham and Takla Summers, said Jim Summers, one of their sons. The Summers family built the place around 1941 or 1942, he said.
In 1974, after Abraham Summers had retired and one of the Summers' daughters decided to quit managing the store, it was sold to another Summers son, Lee, who reopened it as The Greek Downtown Lounge. It was either the first or second gay bar in Charleston; Layne says he opened the Longbranch on Morris Street around that time, but can't recall the exact date.
In any event, The Greek was a haven for Charleston's homosexuals, remembers Ted Brightwell, a longtime female impersonator and performer in Charleston who now owns the Visions Day Spa downtown.
"It was an epiphany for me, seeing men dancing with men and women with women" he said. "I was 19 at the time, and not one hundred percent certain of who I was. But after that very first time [entering The Greek], I was convinced that this is who I am and who I will be."
There was nothing grand about The Greek. The building's first floor at that time measured only about 1,500 square feet, and the drag shows it put on were set to music from a jukebox, Brightwell said. But at some point in the late '70s, Summers built an addition that nearly tripled the floor space and housed a balconied stage and dance floor.
The Greek became the Grand Palace.
Brightwell recalls the Palace during these years as simply a safe place for gay people to socialize in a city that wasn't yet ready to tolerate them. The drag shows were mostly a novelty, drawing from local talent, he said.
In 1986, Summers, who has since died, approached Layne about buying the Palace, said Layne.
A few years after starting the Longbranch, Layne had opened the Queen Bee, a bar for lesbians near the Town Center. But rather than tapping a new clientele, the Queen Bee drew most of the Longbranch crowd. That signaled to Layne that he needed to move to a big venue rather than bother with smaller multiple bars, so he took up Summers on the offer, paying $200,000.
From that point, the Palace's popularity surged steadily. The shows drew performers from across the state, and Layne affiliated the Palace with national pageants. The club was grandfathered out of city ordinances barring nude shows, making it one of the only venues in town to see exotic dancers.
Especially on holiday weekends, "it used to get so packed you could hardly move," Brightwell said. Layne estimated that on some of the Palace's biggest nights, as many as 800 people crowded in. Gradually, it lost some of the stigma that went with being a gay bar. For a time, women performed in the exotic shows as often as men.
Gradually, longtime patrons say, the Palace lost some of the stigma that went with being a gay bar, gaining a reputation as a haunt for more generalized, male-driven lewdness. For a time, women performed in the exotic shows as often as men. More than most bars, it became known for uninhibited dancing, unprovoked come-ons and casual pairings.
"People think gay men are promiscuous because they're gay, but they're that way because they're men," Brightwell says.
"We had as many straight as gay," Layne recalls. "Husbands would bring in their girlfriends because they knew this was one place they wouldn't get caught."
In the late '80s, multiple police raids ended with charges against patrons and staff alike for selling marijuana and the hallucinogenic drug LSD. In the '90s, three men were killed after leaving the Palace in the early morning hours.
At least one of them, 35-year-old Robert Guinn, was stabbed to death because he was gay, in all likelihood. His assailant told police that Guinn had made advances at him earlier in the Palace, and he boasted afterward that he had killed "a faggot," according to court documents. The other two killings, both by strangulation, remain unsolved.
The killings were interspersed with a woman's alleged rape and several muggings and other assaults that took place either inside or in front of the club.
It was partly that element that began turning people away in the late '90s, Brightwell said. "A different crowd moved in," he said. "I can't put my finger on what it was, but within the last 10 years there was a decline of some sort."
Competing gay bars featuring drag shows had sprung up: the Broadway downtown and Trax on the West Side. They offered to pay the more popular performers, who came to the Palace for free, Brightwell said.
Layne said he also finally lost patience with the troublemakers the Palace was attracting.
One night a fight broke out, and Layne decided that he'd had enough, he said, closing on the spot. He bought a funeral home in Montgomery and ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor there. This summer, he announced plans to run for mayor of Charleston next year.
Layne said he doesn't remember the exact date of the Palace's closure. A Gazette story from 2003 quoted him as saying it was shut in May of that year.
His hope was that someone would buy the building and continue to run it as a gay bar. A few people asked about doing just that, but none could pay what he wanted, he said.
The asking price was steep, $2.5 million, because Layne assumed that the building retained its immunity from the city ordinance banning nude shows. But it turned out that he lost that right once the business was closed for more than a year.
The county's appraisal, carried out by the Charleston real estate firm Goldman Associates Inc., priced the building at $145,000.
The appraisal report details the interior's dilapidation, which Layne says is partly the result of multiple break-ins since the closure. But the report also notes the Palace's prime location across Brooks Street from the new Appalachian Power Park, calling it "ideally located to benefit from any growth the ballpark will create."
Layne is contesting the appraisal price, but he is powerless to stop the demolition.
Though there are other places to see drag shows in Charleston, he said, they're too small and improvised to match the Palace's pomp.
"The Palace was built as a show bar," with an elevated stage and lighted dance floor, he said. The Broadway, by contrast, had been a funeral home and restaurant in its previous lives. Its stage is far smaller, and the view is obstructed by support poles, he said.
The quality of the shows has diminished as well, he said. "Our shows were bigger, it was a bigger production; sometimes there would be 20 performers," he said. "Now it's not a big deal anymore, it's not like it used to be."
To contact staff writer Joe Morris, use e-mail or call 348-5179.
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