Where Cowboys Roam
October 4, 2013 by Jacqui
This sounds like the premise for a sitcom or a reality TV show: A straight couple opens a gay bar.
She favors off-the-shoulder tops and stiletto heels; he wears leather jackets and rides a Harley. The place — improbably for Manhattan — is a country-western joint where the staff climbs on the bar and performs dance numbers.
“It’s high drama and high energy for sure,” declared Kris Coughlin, a bartender there.
The bar, Flaming Saddles, at 793 Ninth Avenue, near 53rd Street, opened in 2011. The actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson and the television personality Anderson Cooper bantered about it on Mr. Cooper’s daytime talk show. And New York magazine, which named it the Best Gay Bar in New York City last year, said the bartenders “do-si-do on the bar top like an all-male version of Coyote Ugly.”
There is a reason to mention Flaming Saddles in the same breath as Coyote Ugly, the raucous First Avenue saloon where female bartenders dance on the bar. Jacqui Squatriglia, 48, who choreographed the moves at Coyote Ugly, does the same at Flaming Saddles, where she is an owner.
Now she and her business partner and boyfriend, Chris Barnes, 54, say they are on their way to opening gay country-western bars in other cities.
Mr. Barnes, a songwriter and actor who appeared on “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “30 Rock,” is also working on a musical about Flaming Saddles. And, indeed, a reality-television producer has been pitching a series that would focus not only on the bar and its customers, but also on Ms. Squatriglia, Mr. Barnes and their relationship. They have two therapists on call around the clock.
This is no shot-and-a-beer joint. The top-selling drink at Flaming Saddles is vodka and seltzer. (Amid calls for a boycott of Stolichnaya to protest attacks on gay people in Russia and antigay legislation backed by President Vladimir V. Putin, Flaming Saddles changed its “midnight Stoli hour” to a “midnight Absolut hour,” with the same $8-a-drink price.)
The jukebox has John Denver’s “Country Boy” and Will Smith’s “Wild, Wild West.” The room is a homage to a frontier-town saloon, or perhaps to the set of “Annie Get Your Gun”: comfortably dark, even in the daytime, with bordello-red drapes, velvety patterned wallpaper, wide-plank floors and an old-fashioned pressed-metal ceiling.
And there is a down-home sensibility rooted in a kind of nostalgia for places where the cowboys are real: The couple estimates that 60 percent of Flaming Saddles’ customers grew up in Oklahoma, Texas or Tennessee (even if, Mr. Barnes said, many headed for New York because they were uncomfortable acknowledging their sexuality there).
“There was not a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen for me,” said one regular, Brianne Demmler, who went there with her girlfriend on the day they became engaged last year. “I can walk into Hardware, and they’re cold. I can walk into Barrage, and they’re so busy. I can walk into Boxers, and it’s too loud. You walk in here, and even when there are 200 people in here, somebody behind the bar makes eye contact to acknowledge you’re here.”
Steven McWilliams started out stocking liquor and doing behind-the-scenes chores. Now he is serving up drinks and is part of the troupe dancing on the bar. “You know, gay bars for the most part thrive on sexual energy,” Mr. McWilliams said. “That’s how they keep people coming back, the whole idea of finding someone to go home with or flirting with a sexy bartender. I’m sure people enjoy flirting with us, and they like watching us dance on the bar, but we keep all of our clothes on and we’re not gyrating in people’s faces.”
Nor are they performing the ballet “Rodeo” just inches away from patrons. People pull out their cellphones and make videos as the bartenders jump and pivot; the dance captain, Dane Sorensen, likes to add cartwheels and splits. But the staff is under orders from Ms. Squatriglia not to let things get too suggestive.
“Our style is not raunchy,” she said. “Not to say that’s not good at other places; it’s just not what we set out to do.”
They may be long on energy, but they are short on space. The bar, only 32 inches wide, is a runway of possible hazards. As dancers, the bartenders must sidestep customers’ drinks, not to mention elbows. Ms. Squatriglia eliminated one potential problem in the beginning. She put in a flat bar top, replacing one that had an ornamental lip that could be tripped over, and she insisted that it be made of harder wood. “No divots from when they pound their heels,” she said.
The reaction from the crowd? “It’s a fun experience,” said Roger Welch, a theater director who discovered the bar when it opened. “Everyone’s excited. It’s country line dancing. I think for that style, they do quite well.”
Customers are not allowed to jump up and dance along. “We point to the sign,” Mr. Barnes said. It is over the bar and says, “No woohooing.” He said it was there mainly to keep out straight women’s bachelorette parties.
Flaming Saddles was Ms. Squatriglia’s idea. She and Mr. Barnes met in 2009, when he had a part in the film “Good Day for It,” an independent movie shot in rural Pennsylvania, and she was an executive producer. After what Mr. Barnes described as “the usual on-set romance,” they moved to Manhattan together and had one of those serious couples talks.
“I said, ‘Do you want to get married and have kids, or do you want to have fun?’ ” he recalled. “She said, ‘Have fun.’ I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ She said, ‘I want to open a gay country-western bar.’ I was trying to be spontaneous and comedic, so I said, ‘As long as we call it “Flaming Saddles,” I’m in.’ Then I said, ‘Not that it matters, but why?’ ” She said that at Coyote Ugly, she would work out a routine, only to say to herself, “I wish that was boys.”
She had definite ideas for Flaming Saddles — “I had opened 25 other bars,” she said. “I knew what I wanted.” — and Ms. Squatriglia and Mr. Barnes rejected advice they got as they prepared to open.
“We have a lot of gay friends we consulted with,” Mr. Barnes said. “They said, ‘Topless on the bar.’ Jacqui said, ‘I don’t think so.’ They said, ‘You have to have a D.J.’ Jacqui said, ‘I don’t think so.’ They said, ‘You can’t use a jukebox in a gay bar.’ Jacqui said, ‘I think so.’ We said: ‘You know what? Let’s just open a saloon we’d like to walk into regardless of sexuality.’ ”
The timing turned out to be good. Older gay bars have closed since Flaming Saddles opened. Rawhide, a stalwart on Eighth Avenue and 21st Street for 34 years, shut in March. Splash, on West 17th Street in Chelsea, closed in August after 22 years. “There’s something in the air about this that at this particular moment makes perfect sense,” said Marvin Taylor, director of the Fales Library at New York University and an expert on the history of bars and restaurants.
So does the location, he said: “They put it in the center of where the gay community is, in Hell’s Kitchen, because Chelsea has completely disappeared.”
Mr. Barnes said owning a gay bar had been something of a consciousness-raising experience. “As a straight man, I didn’t realize the bashing” gay men took, he said.
“We’d see Midtown West yuppie couples” walking by when the bar was under construction, Mr. Barnes continued. “They’d go, ‘I hope it’s not another gay bar.’ I’d say, ‘Excuse me?’ I had never felt it was my fight, but once we put our brand up, it was. And then I looked at Sean Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk” — the gay city supervisor in San Francisco who was shot to death in 1978 — “and realized, it’s a civil rights issue. What’s that …”
His voice trailed off, but Ms. Squatriglia finished the sentence with the word “Stonewall,” meaning the Stonewall Inn, the West Village bar known as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement.
“It was owned by a straight family, too,” he said. “They happened to be a crime family” — the owner was reputed to be a frontman for a Genovese crime capo known as “Matty the Horse” — “but they were straight.”
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