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Which way, WeHo?

The soul of Boys Town is at stake as success spawns a new diversity.

May 28, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

ON a balmy Friday night in West Hollywood, near the corner of Robertson and Santa Monica boulevards, two bright yellow school buses pulled to the curb. They had come to a stop in front of a nightclub called Here Lounge, one door north of the Abbey, a sprawling open-air bar and restaurant that in its 15 years has become the most popular gay watering hole in the city.

The doors whooshed open and what poured out was a sight to behold: Skinny sorority girls with long, straight hair, short black dresses, high-high heels and feather boas draped around their necks tottered past burly doormen and entered the sleek club. The girls were followed, like ducklings, by an unsteady line of insouciant frat boys.

The party, "Black and Bling," was a joint effort by four USC sororities and fraternities, tossed to celebrate a few birthdays. Anywhere else -- Hollywood, Santa Monica, the Sunset Strip -- the sight of so many exuberantly heterosexual merrymakers would not have raised an eyebrow. But what were they doing here in the middle of Boys Town, the beating heart of gay L.A.? And more to the point, how many more busloads of frat kids can Boys Town take before it starts to lose its gay soul?

"West Hollywood is having an identity crisis. It doesn't know if it's gay or straight anymore," said Raymond Weddle, a server at Hedley's restaurant, near the Abbey. As crowds flock to the lively bar scene, the town is inevitably confronting the strains of its popularity. Mostly, it's been a subtle shift. Many bar owners and patrons say that straight women have flocked to West Hollywood clubs because they feel safe in crowds of gay men. But on any weekend night, the distinctly gay vibe of the town has given way -- in some venues more than others -- to a more mixed and some think downright gay-hostile atmosphere.

The upsides are symbolic and palpable: Many applaud the integration, seeing it as a sign that the gay community has perhaps outgrown its need for the cocoon of a cultural enclave. For the businesses, crowds equal profit.

Inevitably, though, where straight women go, straight men follow. And then (with apologies to the Straight Male Lobby), unpleasant things can happen: alcohol-fueled belligerent behavior at closing time, physical altercations and a general sense that something important about the town has changed.

On a recent evening, 21-year-old Shelley Hayashi of Thousand Oaks and her friend 18-year-old Amanda Stackhouse of Moorpark were sitting on high stools on the patio of Rage, a well-known gay bar on Santa Monica Boulevard that was having Game Boi night for gay Asians. Stackhouse, who is straight, said she liked partying in West Hollywood because the atmosphere was relaxed. "I don't like being hit on," she said. "You can meet people and have fun and there's no pressure."

A little east, at I Candy, whose birth pains were chronicled in the reality show "Open Bar" on the gay-themed network Logo, a trio of straight professional women were having a drink with a gay friend. They wouldn't bring their boyfriends, but they felt right at home amid the mostly young, buff men. "You get complimented a lot more in a nice way," said 31-year-old radio sales executive Monique Reynolds, "but there is no expectation, it's not taken any further. When you get a compliment at a normal straight club, you think, 'What's coming next?' "

Many West Hollywood hospitality businesses -- including O-Bar, Fubar and perhaps most successfully places such as the Abbey and the Factory -- have benefited from this attitude. They've attracted straight crowds while maintaining popularity among gay men and lesbians.

It's worth noting that John Rechy, whose classic 1963 "City of Night" reverberates even today as one of the first honest takes on gay sexuality, has a contrarian view of the "straight invasion." "A lot of what is happening now is camouflage," he said. "The so-called heterosexual male uses women as an excuse for going to places they wouldn't go alone ... and yet, they can tell themselves they are not gay."

David Cooley opened the Abbey as a coffeehouse 15 years ago and has presided over major expansions of the venue, which is now 14,000 square feet and packed on weekends. He recently raised some local eyebrows when he announced he'd merged his business with SBE Entertainment, a company headed by entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, who has plans to take the Abbey concept to other cities, including Miami and Las Vegas.

"When I first started coming to West Hollywood years ago it was very stereotyped. Each bar had its own demographic -- gay Latino, leather, whatever," said Cooley. "We're not behind closed doors anymore. Everyone is welcome."

Well, almost everyone.


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