West Palm Beach is South Florida’s oldest municipality, founded in 1894. It’s no secret that it is probably often seen as the weakling in the tri-county area gay scene, but West Palm is able to offer an experience that probably goes unmatched in Broward and Dade Counties.
The city is smaller but the gay community is certainly active and close knit.
The area has four full time LGBT bars (and as of recently now has one of South Florida’s only lesbian bars), and several other major venues with gay targeted nights. There is also a large gay community center, a comprehensive AIDS program, a very active human rights council, and a branch of the Metropolitan Community Church.
Behind all that, West Palm Beach has always had an extensive gay scene, whether it was obvious or not. Prior to entities like MCC and gay community centers, the gay social life was centered around the gay bar experience.
Even today it remains an important focal point in creating a space that the LGBT community can come together and mingle safely among their own. Like Miami’s early gay scene, West Palm's earliest scene saw straight and gay couples alike mingling in the audience of various female impersonation shows.
The earliest such shows took place in the now demolished Kettler Theater on the corner of Clematis Street and Narcissus Ave and by the 1940s had a venue of their very own known as The Flamingo Club.
In the 1950s Melody Club in the center of downtown West Palm was among the most popular with these shows hosted nightly. In fact, demand for this type of entertainment was so high in the Palm Beaches by the 1960s, Miami based Carnival Bar opened up a satellite location in West Palm Beach.
Sharilyn Bergbom, a Palm Beach Post reporter and civil rights advocate who later wrote more about Palm Beach County's gay community, in the late 1970s went into several area gay bars to get the scoop on the gay scene in the area while Anita Bryant’s campaign heckled the gay community just to the south. She found herself at Le Cabaret…a quaint discotheque on South Dixie Hwy just before the Lake Worth boundary.
A sign at the club’s entrance said “LeCabaret is a GAY discotheque and Showbar operated for the GAY people of Florida and their friends….WELCOME, but minors or undesirables will not be tolerated!”
Upon chatting with patrons of the bar she learned that many chose the Palm Beach area for a quieter and more private lifestyle. They argued that should they want an uptick in their night out Ft. Lauderdale really wasn’t all that far away. Still most said they were often enough able to satisfy their night out cravings with the ample selection of gay bars and clubs around the Palm Beaches.
Today almost all of gay bars in the area are among the oldest operating in South Florida with an average age of about 25 years between them. H.G. Roosters on Belvedere Road has the unique distinction of being the oldest operating gay bar in Florida, opening in 1984, and the recently remodeled building’s roots go deep since it had been several gay bars prior to Roosters. Here is a list of some of the more notorious of the Palm Beach area’s long lost gay bars:
Adam’s Attic (1982-1989): Owned by Betty James, Palm Beach County's famed first openly gay mayor, the quaint neighborhood bar sat on the corner of Roseland Dr. and South Dixie Hwy.
Arties (1987-1995): Not one but two locations! Arties North and South. North was for the women and south was for the men. Today you can still find Artie himself at H.G. Roosters for Happy Hour.
Barracks/The Citadel (1977-1980): It was the Palm Beach’s only gay owned and operated discotheque. Remembered for its “earthquake like” speakers with tunes spun by DJ Richard. The club, being walking distance to the Port of Palm Beach, was frequented by sailors coming in port. By the time Disco died, so did this place.
Club San Francisco (1983-1984): It sat just outside the city limits and across the street from Palm Beach International Airport. At this time being outside the city meant they could stay open longer. This place hardly stood a chance when Kevin's Cabaret opened later the same year, nobody wanted to come here anymore. It did however have some very successful first months as Palm Beach's primary gay dance venue in early 1983.
Cupid’s Cabaret (1999-2008): The only full frontal male strip club to ever exist in the Palm Beaches, it was not only patronized by locals, but by people all over the country. Popular music and good looking men flaunting it all. I don’t think I have enough fingers and toes to count the amount of "straight" strip clubs long Military Trail in unincorporated West Palm today (which have been problematic as of late), but the county did not like this club’s existence and always gave them a hard time till the club was unable to operate anymore.
Bourbon Street, Decadence (1984-1988 and again 1990- 1992): Opened in the space that once occupied fondly remembered Mama Gilda’s Italian restaurant, it was just another big club (and a piano bar!). Bourbon Street featured among the “best light show in the Palm Beaches,” Decadence would have drag shows and Wednesday Wheel of Fortune tournaments.
Studds/5509 Club/Dillon's (1983-1988): In 1983, the city was outraged when it learned of plans to open an impromptu gay bathouse called Studds. An ad ran in David Magazine promising showers and sunbathing. Residents nearby complained of the venue citing the adult entertainment and homosexuality. The city refused to grant Studds a certificate of occupancy. The owners balked and bar was renamed Club 5509 which they claimed catered to straight clientele. Once the dust settled, three months later, the bar went gay again and was renamed Dillons.
Dude County (1976-1981): This is that typical little hole in the wall watering hole. Light food and heavy drinks. Chances are if you hung out here, you knew everyone else here. The building was even octagonal shaped! Today it lives on as Sand Bar, a straight bar, but if you look closely at all the decor behind the bar there is at least one remnant from Dude County, can you find it?
PB's, Enigma (1970s again 1994-2001): Right in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach on Olive Avenue just north of Clematis, this venue was known for its very timely nightclub vibe. As PB's it featured disco, Enigma mostly 90s dance music. The venue sits mostly vacant today, but was most recently Shout! a Karaoke club.
Heartbreakers (1991-1999): Originally straight and located downtown, the club’s owners, Danny and Marlane Cardona realized moving it to Forest Hill Blvd and going gay was a profitable way to go. The club occupied a gigantic space with a huge dance floor and a memorable sound system. For much of the late 1990s this was the place to go for a night out cruising and dancing.
LeCabaret/Kevin’s Cabaret (1974-1977 and 1983-1991): It was gay, straight, then gay again! It was disco then it was Club Marakesh with a straight audience then gay with some New Wave dancing. Kevin’s is fondly remembered for its midnight drag shows featuring drag queens such as Melissa St. John, Dana Manchester and Brandie McDaniels and the sounds of DJ Mark Johnson.
The club also played host to many charitable AIDS functions, such as Mother’s Cupboard that took place in county at the time. The owner of this building now operates an interior design store in it but will recollect the fun times she had hanging out in these clubs. She'll even tell you about how at least a few times a year people drop in and share nostalgic moments of nights past they had in the building.
Kashmir (1999-2007): Situated at Forest Hill and Congress it was accessible from all directions of the county and close to other gay bars. After Heartbreakers went away, this became Palm Beach County’s premier gay dance venue and probably the last major successful one to exist.
Kathy’s (1977-1978): “Built by wimmin for wimmin,” so the saying went. It wasn't open very long, but this Lake Worth bar was among one of the first primarily lesbian bars in Florida.
Kismet Lounge (1978-1987): Just left of the Southern Blvd exit off I-95 this club was in the perfect spot. Nightly drag shows, drink specials, videogames, and dancing. If you got tired of Kevin’s you came here later at night. Instead of Culture Club, you hear Hashim's Al-Naayfyish. Mirrors, funky wall patters, and dice hanging from the ceiling made it your ultimate 80s era late night spot. Today it's a vacant lot, but its infamous rock/gravel parking lot is still there as is the outline of the building.
Club Malibu (aka Club Metropolis, early 80s): Hidden in the north end parking lot of the Polo Grounds Mall at Summit Blvd and Military Trail this night club not only occupied a huge space, but had some ground breaking performances one being chart topping European Group, Baltimora performed their hit 1985 song “Tarzan Boy” in this club one night in April 1986. Live monkeys, parrots, and other animals were present with trainers to give it that “Jungle Boy” theme.
Man’s Land (1976-1994): Open till 6 a.m. daily, this place offered everything the others didn't! Leather nights, roller skating tournaments, and the Mr. West Palm Beach contests. Hey if you came in on bare chest night with no shirt you got 2 for 1 drinks! It was even raided once by police for showing "pornographic" films. Opened in 1976 as Man's Country, a bar with the same name in Los Angeles threatened to sue the owners...so they became Man's Land and the owners, Dennis and Steve, were just fine with that.
Mister Sisters/InnExhile/DugRocks (1985-2006): This hot spot on South J Street in Lake Worth spent the better part of 25 years as 3 different bars. Mister Sisters, a controversial lesbian bar that took its owners months of going back and forth with the city to open. By the 1990s, InnExhile was the Palm Beach areas first “Video nightclub” where music choices pushed corresponding videos to the tv screens throughout the venue. They also had male go-go dancer nights too. Later DugRocks, today Propaganda, a live music club, occupies the space and every Wednesday night pays homage to its past with its popular DugRocks Drag shows.
Music Box Lounge (1968-1982): For a time it became the oldest gay bar in the Palm Beaches. Owner Bill Brunet knew how to draw in a crowd with the easy and relaxed atmosphere…piano background music and a pool table, plus amateur drag shows occasionally and all right in the center of downtown Lake Worth.
Paradise Club (1993-1996): One of a few Boca Raton gay bars, this one will forever live in infamy because of what happened there. In early 1994, 4 members of the Boca Raton Rugby Club dressed in women’s clothing and drunk marched into the bar and began tearing it apart and throwing stuff at its patrons while screaming vulgar terms. They were arrested and it was the first time a crime against the LGBT community in Palm Beach County was recognized as a “hate crime” in court.
Cafe Prospect (1986-1994): One of the few non bars on this list, this quaint cafe located in the Prospect Center Office complex along Dixie Hwy was the site of frequent brunch drag shows and Sunday T-Dances. They also actively participated in hosting events in cooperation with Mother’s Cupboard to raise money for the growing AIDS problems in the area.
The Other Place (1973-1974): It wasn’t a Turf Bar (see next entry), but was right across from Turf West on Belvedere Road. It was small but with a bar and a dance floor you could just “boogie all night long.” Today it’s just another straight strip club.
Turf Bars (1970s): Turf North, Turf West, and Turf South….no matter where you were in West Palm Beach, you were near a Turf bar. This was West Palm's primary gay bar chain the 1970s with the slogan “When cruising the Palm Beaches make friends at a Turf Bar!”
Turf’s main location on Datura Street was most recently occupied by Le Rendez-vous Restaurant and The Turf West location would later become H.G. Roosters and retains its popular gay tradition today. Turf North still has its bar facade on the outside today but sits mostly abandoned.
And that’s a wrap! But I must admit, this hardly scratches the surface. I didn’t even mention Palm Beach’s Colony Hotel with its legendary unpublished gay night on Thursday nights that dates back 50 years or more. Maybe a reader knows more. I didn’t have enough info to talk about Alibi (yes West Palm had a bar with that name), Blondies (Boca), Fantasies (Boca), Club 5101, The Forest Disco (Greenacres), Leather & Spurs, Lulu's, Nightstalkers, Rumors (yes West Palm had one with that name too), SIN, The Silver Dollar Lounge, Zippers (Lantana)….and that list goes on and on.
To see an interactive map of Palm Beach County's lost gay bars visit our website. It is an INCOMPLETE map, contact me to fill me in on bars that have no information or if any are missing. I like pictures and stories too.