This year H.G. Roosters in West Palm Beach celebrated 35 years of business.
This factoid makes them the oldest continuously operating gay bar in Florida. The bar right off exit 69 on Belvedere Road celebrates their anniversary every year in September but the bar was actually opened by restauranteur Bill Capozzi in April of 1984 and the H.G. stands for his two dogs Hilda and Greta.
What many may not realize about this mainstay is that its gay roots go back much further than you may realize. The building was built in 1945 and opened as Club Sirocco, a piano bar. It was later purchased by a man named Gene Greeter who can easily be considered the man that put West Palm Beach’s gay scene on the map…and he wasn’t even gay himself.
Greeter was born in Ohio and served time in the Korean Conflict and even earned a purple heart. After the war he settled in the West Palm Beach area where het met his wife, Earlene.
Greeter purchased a small bar downtown on Datura Street in 1953 and named it Turf Bar (the space is now occupied by PNC bank). He quickly realized the expendable incomes gay men had and was one of the first bars in the area to really claim themselves to be exclusively gay. He found a hook into the community and word of mouth spread since in the 50s there was no way else to really advertise a gay establishment.
The success of his initial Turf bar location allowed him to go on and purchase the raunchy Chi-Chi Club strip club on North Dixie Hwy just north of downtown. He called this place Turf North. In the early 1960s he’d purchase 823 Belvedere Road and call it Turf West. His chain of gay bars went by the slogan “when cruising the Palm Beaches, make new friends at a Turf Bar.”
In the 1960s Greeter had little competition.
The Music Box Lounge in downtown Lake Worth was the only other mainstay gay bar in the area. Others came and went quickly and police harassment made it hard to stay in business. Greeter advertised the bar nationally in many gay publications as they became more apparent in the 60s and 70s. Its star like logo was soon synonymous in the gay community with the gay scene in the Palm Beaches. Soon if you were a member of the LGBT community in the Palm Beaches, Turf was a known safe haven for hanging out, socializing, and meeting new people.
In fact, in an interview with David Magazine in 1973, Greeter stated he counted 17 competing bars that came and went since he opened the original Turf Bar in the early 1950s. He attributed his success to being extremely stingy from the get-go…and by stingy, I mean stingy to himself. He lived modestly and put much of his money into decor, comfortable seating, and entertainment.
Greeter was big on pushing his bartenders to be friendly to everyone. As much as he appreciated the local joints his bars would become, he wanted out of towners or closeted men to feel welcome and apart of the crowd when they entered the bar.
Greeter himself almost never hung out at his bars. A former Turf Bar patron tells me that Greeter was a man that almost everyone knew by name, but you rarely ever saw him. He hired bar managers for each location to look after day to day operations and they reported directly back to him.
Greeter was, however, still very involved in the community itself. He often hosted barbecues and parties at his own house on 39th Street in the North Shore neighborhood in West Palm Beach to celebrate winners of pool tournaments and other games or contests the bars would hold.
He noted to David Magazine that it made him feel good to know that he observed different LGBT social groups that would congregate within the bars…one of note that he mentioned was a Disney World club where the members would plan trips to Disney World together every few months.
Greeter never thought his bars would find the success they did.
This success did not come without problems though. Police often would harass patrons coming out of the bars and a short-lived competing bar even tried to burn Turf North and Turf West down, but nothing phased him.
The rise of Disco in the mid to late 70s would be challenging for the aging Turf Bars. PB’s opened on North Olive Ave in downtown West Palm with a multi-level dance floor and loud music produced by professional DJs. The Citadel’s opening on the northern tip of town with rave reviews in various LGBT magazines only continued to saturate the gay bar/club scene in West Palm.
Clubs like these quickly took business from Turf Bar and in the 1979 Gene Greeter closed Turf West, the last location to be open. He continued to own the building leasing it out to several other businesses that were not gay eventually ending with a bar called the Water Shed which billed itself as a sports bar but could never shake its attachment to the gay community. The building would then become Roosters which it has been ever since.
Outside the bar scene Greeter was an avid runner and even ran a downtown running group called the Palm Beach Runners akin to the current runner group aptly titled Nightrunners of West Palm Beach. He went on to invest in other restaurants and bars, most notably People Place, a swanky lounge on Military Trail near Okeechobee Blvd in West Palm Beach.
Greeter passed away in 2012. His Palm Beach Post obituary candidly mentioned he owned “several local businesses” but no direct mention of Turf Bar or his major influence on the LGBT community. There is some slight homage paid to Turf bar in Roosters today. If you look at the lights shining on the logo inside the bar, you’ll notice every few seconds they form the Turf Bar logo.
Check out our other LGBT History stories here: LGBT History Month 2020