by Sukie de la Croix
Gary Chichester is one of the most influential and important people
in Chicago's lesbian and gay community. After 30 years of gay
activismhe was up and running soon after the Stonewall Riotshe has
maintained what many of his peers have lost, i.e. a wonderful sense
of humor about it all.
Chichester was born in Chicago and lived in Old Town, until his
family headed for the suburbs, first to Budlong Woods and then Niles.
Like a lot of gay men, he always knew that he was different. "Not
being in anybody else's head but my own, I would kind of look at
people and feel the urges," said Chichester. "I came out in the
summer between my junior and senior year at high school. The first
gay bar that I could get into, and I was actually underage, was a
place on Clark Street called the Orange Cockatoo."
That was back in the late-'60s when Diversey and Clark was the hub of
the gay community: the Chesterfield and Annex bars were nearby, and
the hustlers worked on Diversey and Pine Grove.
"Before you go in the bars, you did street cruising," continued
Chichester, "And there was a coffee shop down there called the
Hollywood, which underage kids would hang out in. It was an
opportunity to meet and mingle."
Given his background, Chichester was an unlikely candidate for gay
activism. "I come from a very Republican background," he said. "If it
hadn't been for my homosexuality, I would probably be living in Glen
Ellyn or Hinsdale, and I'd be at the Bush rally today. I was always
on the conservative side, during high school I was involved in
various organizations; I was in class council.
"I also went to school with Hilary Clinton. We were in the same class
together. We worked together on the freshman homecoming float. She
was fabulous. She was also brought up as a Republican. When we went
to class reunion a couple of years ago, the Clintons were there, and
the guy that took her to the prom wore a t-shirt that showed the two
of them in their prom picture, and 'I took Hilary to the prom.'"
After leaving school, Chichester met Richard, his lover of six years,
who he describes as "an activist." Together they were involved in the
protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention, when old Mayor Daley's
police rioted and attacked peaceful demonstrators. "We were out on
the streets and we got tear-gassed, and we marched down to Dick
Gregory's house. He was an African-American comedian who was very
politically active, still is to this day.
"Right across the street from Lincoln Park was a bar called the Inner
Circle, where Hemingway House is now, and we would go in there and
have cocktails, watch all the Yippies in the Free Forum park area.
Then all of a sudden the mood changed, and they were being chased,
and we got out into the streets. So there was gay involvement in
that. Allan Ginsberg would hang out in the bar and then go back out."
The Stonewall Riots were never mentioned in the mainstream Chicago
papers, but Chichester got the scoop as they were happening. "My
lover and I had a dear friend who worked at Northwestern, and he
moved to New York. When the riots began, we started getting a
first-hand blow-by-blow description of what was going on in the
village. They were phoning and saying, 'You will not believe what's
going on here.'
"Then things started coming together here. We would go to meetings at
the Gay Liberation Front at the University of Chicago, then out of
that there broke off a North Side chapter, and we had meetings at
various people's houses, and that evolved into the Chicago Gay
Alliance. There was a split over political differences, and I think
location had a lot to do with it as well. There was a lot of
different politics you had to deal with at one time. It was difficult
for people. The people from Gay Alliance were after focusing on gay
and lesbian rights, and other factions wanted to change the world in
On Feb. 1, 1971, the Chicago Gay Alliance ( CGA ) took over the
ramshackle building at 171 W. Elm St. It took three months to clean
it up, and the grand opening of the CGA community center was May 1,
1971. However, the credit for finding the building goes not to an
activist, but to a dog named Jane. "We had already started the
Chicago Gay Alliance, and we were still meeting in people's living
rooms. A man by the name of Jerry Cohen was living on LaSalle Street
and he had a lovely Doberman Pinscher named Jane," recalled
Chichester. "They were out, and Jane went for a little walk behind
where Jerry was living and came across this house that was for rent.
It was just a shack really. It was cheap and affordable, so we signed
the lease and moved in. We had a good sized meeting room, we had a
library, we had a kitchen for potluck dinners and things. We operated
a helpline, and we took it in turns to sit by the phone at night, to
help people through problems."
The first anniversary march of the Stonewall Riots took place
Saturday, June 27, 1970. "That was organized by the folks from Gay
Lib," said Chichester. "With no permit, they marched from Bughouse
Square, down Michigan Avenue over to City Hall. The following year,
Gay Alliance started up and said, 'Why don't we do something on the
North Side, and we actually got the first permit to march down
Broadway, over to Diversey Harbor, going down to Lincoln Park Free
Forum. And we had floats; Chuck Renslow had a club named Sparrows at
the time and he had a float."
The Gold Coast, a leather bar ...
"I was always fascinated by the Gold Coast, which was around for a
long, long time. The first one I went to was 1110 N. Clark, just
south of Clark and Division. You would walk in and see the Etienne
paintings on the wall, and see men in Levis, the more masculine
"Going out to the bars, you would hear stories about Chuck Renslow
and his family, and you'd think, 'Maybe this is someone I should get
to know.' My lover and I had moved up to Belden, and the week after,
we heard news that the Gold Coast was moving to Lincoln Avenue, so it
was very convenient, just a block away. The Gold Coast on Lincoln was
a German beer garden type of bar. So I got to know Chuck even more
during that time."
Then, around the time the Gold Coast moved to its most "notorious"
location at 501 N. Clark St., Chichester's lover, Richard, decided to
move to San Francisco and join a commune. Chichester declined the
offer to join him. "When Richard decided to leave, I thought 'Well,
I'm going to be at the bar anyhow on Fridays and Saturdays, so maybe
I should work behind the bar.' That solved a couple of problems: it
gave me extra cash, and it was also nice being a bartender, because
you were the center of attention. By 1974 I was managing the Gold Coast."
It was at the 501 N. Clark St. address that Chuck Renslow started the
Mr. Gold Coast contest, which later evolved into International Mr.
Leather in 1979. Chichester has been involved with this annual event
since its beginnings at the Gold Coast.
Man's Country ...
When Renslow opened Man's Country, Chichester left the Gold Coast and
started working there. "I've always liked bathhouses, and so when
Chuck opened Man's Country, I said, 'Please let me help.' I was the
first manager there, and I was there for five years. When we had a
party on the opening night, the paint on the walls was still wet, but
we had a great turnout.
"There was a guy that worked for me called Montel Cade, and he went
by the name of Mona Lisa Artwork, and he did really great graphics,
and so he did calendars and posters, and we would have an act come in
like Wayland Flowers and Madame. That would be our big monthly act,
then we would have local talent."
The big myth about Man's Country is that Bette Midler once performed
there, but, according to Chichester "sadly she didn't." However, they
did get Sally Rand, the ex-silent movie star who danced naked behind
feather fans at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. At the Fair she
performed from May until August, when she was arrested by police and
ordered to wear clothes; it was an an order she ignored. Arrested
again in September, she was sentenced to a year in jail, but the case
was dismissed under appeal. In February 1975, 42 years later, she
returned to Chicago and shimmered her fans for several nights in a
"We were sitting around in the office one night, and we thought 'How
many gay guys have gone to a strip show?' We were thinking maybe if
we get Tempest Storm. So we finally found out who handled Tempest
Storm, and he said 'Oh you don't want to deal with her, she's a real
bitch. Why don't you try and find Sally Rand?' Steve Starr, of Steve
Starr Studios, had contacted her, and he was able to supply us with
numbers. She was always very concerned about getting into the wrong
kind of club, and she told the story about when she was booked one
time in a club in Lexington called the Gold Mule. She got there and
it's this really sleazy place, and also it wasn't the Gold Mule
either, it was called the Brass Ass."
"So she sent this elderly couple along to Man's Country, friends of
hers in Chicago who she trusted. They came and looked at the stage
and they loved it. They said, 'Oh the ceiling's so high she can do
her bubble dance.' So they gave the OK and we did the contract, and
Sally Rand turned out to be one of the most fabulous and fascinating
people I've ever met.
"After we booked her we realized her dance only took five minutes,
and we usually did a 45-minute to an hour show. But when her
publicity material came, it said she was open to any kind of
interviews. So we had her dance, then she came back out and told
stories, and it was absolutely amazing. People just loved it. Of
course, right before she died, the Lincoln Park Lagooners were doing
their 'Cruising The Nile' event, and we brought her in for that. The
poor lady was very ill, but when those spotlights hit her she was a
total trooper. She would hire secretaries when she was in town to
keep her notes in order; she would have phone numbers on matchbooks
and napkins ... she was just incredible."
Center Stage, the hot new disco ...
On Friday, Oct, 21, 1977, Chicago's gay community turned out in force
to attend the opening night of Center Stage, Chuck Renslow's new
disco, located at 3730 N. Clark St. ( where the Metro is today ) .
The club had two main levels: downstairs was the Cabaret room with
tables and a small stage, the upper level was a disco with a huge
dancefloor and lasers, and above that a balcony.
The first artists to perform on the Cabaret stage were Elaine
Caswell, a blues jazz singer, and Dennis Walsh, who formerly appeared
in the musical Let My People Come in New York. The manager of the
club was Gary Chichester, the assistant manager was Tony Lewis, and
the 35 employees wore blue outfits with the Center Stage logo on the back.
"It was a family type atmosphere at Man's Country, but I got the
disco fever in my blood and then Chuck had the opportunity of opening
a large dance club," continued Chichester. "We had made a lot
contacts in the entertainment world at Man's Country; we used to deal
with what they called the KY circuit, which would do a lot of the gay
clubs in New York, and Studio One in L.A. Originally we looked at the
Ivanhoe Theater, which was a huge complex, but we lost out on that one.
"So we went to where Cabaret Metro is now and we opened Center Stage.
It was huge, and it was a torture trying to fill itChicago having
those midwest values where you couldn't get a lot of people out
during the week. But we had Sylvester perform there live, we had
Grace Jones, and some of the White Parties were held there."
The Center Stage closed its doors Jan. 20, 1979. Renslow & Associates
issued a press release saying that dwindling crowds, due to the the
cold weather and record snows, had hampered the club's ability to stay open.
"At the time, the Bistro, another big gay dance club in Chicago, had
been closed down for some kind of licensing problem. Someone charged
them with discrimination. The penalty was closure for 30 days, and in
that time, they did an unbelievable design job on the club. The
dancebar business is kind of fickle, and for the Grace Jones
appearance, in her contract we had to have smoke machines, so she
could appear out of the smoke. So we ordered those and got them
shipped in through a blizzard in Ohio. Then we had the blizzard of
'79 here. So it was torture to keep it going."
Then AIDS came along ...
"After Center Stage, I went back and operated the Snack Bar at Man's
Country. Patrick, my lover at the time, had the Country Store in the
bathhouse. Man's Country had developed, and people didn't just wear
towels there, they wore outfits, from cut offs and cute little
shorts, and the Country Store sold that: cock-rings, a Man's Country
embroidered towel ...
"We would do STD testing at Man's Country, and we had an
epidemiologist of the 'old school' come in. He was a real asshole,
and was threatening that he would close us down. A couple of weeks
later, these two rather nice looking gentlemen came up, and my name
had been reported as a contact for somebody with syphilis, and I
don't even remember if I tested negative or positive. But they said
they could take my blood right there, and do the test.
"As I'm queasy with needles, I started conversing, and they were the
'new school' of epidemiologist. Although they were straight, they
were concerned about sexually transmitted diseases in the gay
community. So we developed a weekly program of testing at Man's
Country, and out of that we started the Chicago Gay Health Project,
which is where the VD Bus came in. We had Wanda ( Lust ) to make it
fun, and she did her Nurse Lust routine, which is quite famous now,
and we would go out twice a year for a week and bring the testing to the bars."
In the Spring of 1981 the first reports of what later became known as
AIDS began appearing in medical journals and the mainstream press.
"With AIDS you would hear the scare stories," recalled Chichester.
"There's a gentleman by the name of Harley McMillan who was the
executive director of the Howard Brown Clinic at the time, and one
day he called up and said, 'We have to do some fundraising for this
new disease, so we can start research.' So we had a meeting and
started the AIDS Action Project, and began fundraising for AIDS.
"The beginning of AIDS was kind of scary. You had a lot of fears,
like touching glasses, people were afraid to talk to each other. A
dark cloud fell over the community."
Doing the Snack Bar at Man's Country wasn't Chichester's "cup of
tea," so he returned to bartending at the Gold Coast downtown. He
stayed there until the bar closed and moved to 5025 N. Clark St., in
April '84, next door to Man's Country ( where Julie Mai's restaurant
is today ) . But what had been a successful leather bar downtown,
turned out to be a failure in pre-gay Andersonville.
"It was too early," explained Chichester. "We thought it would work
because the Baths were doing so well. When we first opened Man's
Country, we thought, 'Who's going to come all this way north?' But
people did because they came for an evening's entertainment. But when
people are in bar mode, they jump around from bar to bar. Downtown,
whatever your mood was you could find it, you had the Gold Coast, the
Baton, Sundays, Redoubt, Jumbo Jerry's hot dog stand, and if you got
bored with one place you could just bop over to somewhere else. But
up north there wasn't anything else around, except for the Baths."
Eventually the Gold Coast was sold, and later closed down Feb. 10,
1988, ending a chapter of Chicago's gay history that went back to
1958, when Renslow became the manager of the first Gold Coast at 1130
N. Clark ( it had five locations in all ) .
Throughout the 1980s, Chichester, who claims he "burned out," still
managed to find time to be involved in numerous organizations,
including the National Gay Rights Lobby, the Metropolitan Business
Association, and Strike Against AIDS. Then he got onto the board of
the Mayor's Commission on Human Relations. "The Commission on Human
Relations had various groups that were recognized," explained
Chichester. "When there was discrimination they could come to the
Commission and have it dealt with. Then under the Washington
administration they added gay and lesbian to the list, that's when
they had COGLI, which was the Mayor's Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues."
On Sept. 23, 1985, Mayor Washington appointed 15 people to the newly
formed Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues . Among those appointed
were Ron Sable, community activist; Chris Cothran, National Coalition
of Black Gays; and Linda Rodgers, co-owner of Paris Dance bar.
"Then the city re-wrote the ordinance during the time that Sawyer was
Acting Mayor, then under Daley.
"During the changeover, I thought, 'Well maybe this would be kind of
fun," and after being in the bars so long, I had a little bit of
legitimacy. So I applied for it, and with my background of getting my
fingers into a lot of things, they liked that idea. I was actually
interviewed under COGLI, but it took me a year to be appointed,
because of the changeover with the new ordinance."
Chicago Gay & Lesbian
Hall of Fame ...
"Actually, the Hall of Fame wasn't my idea," continued Chichester.
"The City of Chicago Commission on Human Relations Women's Advisory
Council had a Hall of Fame prior to that, and we thought that might
be an interesting project. We actually took a lot of what the Women's
Advisory Council did and refocused it. Then they stopped and we just
kept on doing it.
"The first year, which was '91, Linda Rodgers, Thom Dombkowski and
myself were on the Advisory Council ( renamed by Daley from COGLI to
the Advisory Council on Gay & Lesbian Issues ) , and we felt we
needed to have some kind of focus. Gay Chicago always did an awards
presentation, and I always thought that was nice. It's important to
recognize people for their contribution. Kids today don't realize
there was a time in this city when we didn't have dancing, you
couldn't walk arm in arm, dress in clothing of another gender,
without being harassed or thrown in jail. I feel it's important, and
that's why for the last 10 years I've been involved in the Hall of Fame."
"The Flying Rotundas" ...
Possibly the most bizarre of Chichester's escapades involved his
participation, with R.J. Chaffin, in Circus Vargas in 1992. "When
Circus Vargas came into town, the circus manager, and his lover, who
were both called Joe, would always come to the leather bars."
Interesting fact: Circus Vargas was owned by Cliff Vargas, who was
once a bartender, some say lover, of Louis Gage, who owned a
notorious gay bar on the Mannheim Road. After the bar was raided in
February 1964 by Sheriff Richard Ogilvie, later Illinois Gov.
Ogilvie, Louis Gage is rumored to have ended up in jail in a mob
scandal. Cliff Vargas, however, started the Circus Vargas.
"My most fabulous claim to fame was that R.J. and I did the 'Flying
Rotundas,'" laughs Chichester. "When Cliff Vargas died, it was a kind
of a memorial to him. When the circus came into town, they would give
us an evening benefit, no cost involved; we would sell the tickets
and the circus performance was on them.
"So we ended up starting the Big Top fundraiser, which was the
Chicago AIDS Benefit Committee. What we did was contact every agency
in the city and invited them to participate. So with the help of
Anheuser Busch and Budweiser, who underwrote all the advertising, we
would distribute tickets to 30-40 agencies in the city at no charge.
Then the agency would distribute them to their clients, or they could
sell them and raise money. So we had 3 or 4 years of very successful
fundraisers, raising close to $100,000 each year.
"Jeff McCourt ( the former publisher of Windy City Times ) was
attending one of the fundraisers and he came over to me and said,
'Next year, if you and R.J. perform on the trapeze, I will write a
check for $5,000.' So I immediately phoned Rick Karlin and told him
to put it in his column, so it was documented. We had a year to get
ready for it.
"I checked with Joe and Joe at Circus Vargas, and said, 'Is it
possible that R.J. and I could perform?' They said, 'Oh sure!' When
it came closer to the time, a friend of mine had a costume house
downtown, and he put us in these tight purple bloomers and these
fabulous sequin capes. We took one look in the mirror and decided we
were the 'Flying Rotundas.' We had the She-Devils as our backup
girls, and we actually performed on the trapeze and we got the check
from Jeff McCourt. Of course, there were still the black and blue
marks the next day. And that was the last year that Circus Vargas
came to town ... "