“The DJs made us,” says Backstreet co-owner Vicki Vara, who along with her brother Henry managed the iconic Midtown gay disco for most of its nearly 30-year historic run from 1975 to 2004. “Everyone who came in the door knew these DJs were the best.”
With 10,000-square-feet of space, a massive dance floor and state of the art lighting (“there were so many glowing buttons on the light board it looked like the bridge of the starship Enterprise,” says DJ Bill Berdeaux, who spun at the club from 1997 to 2004) Backstreet’s turntables produced so much sound, each had to be insulated with large bags of ground coffee.
Says Berdeaux: “The best feeling in the world was arriving for work at 5 A.M. and standing out there on that DJ platform looking down on a packed dance floor and the other DJ said, “OK, it’s all you.” And then, playing your first song as that sea of people down there just screamed. When you got the music cranked during peak hours, the whole building shook. It was almost like the building was breathing.”
Backstreet debuted in 1975 at the dawn of disco and through the next 29 years, the venerable club’s DJ booth in the sky both kept up with and help to influence dance music trends as tastes shifted from the closed high-hat cymbals and wah-wah guitars of disco to House, Electronica, Trance and Techno.
Below, down on the dance floor, Backstreet regulars like Avedon Elliott were absorbing every new beat. “Before Backstreet, I was mostly a hip-hop girl,” recalls Elliott. “I wasn’t big into dance music until I went to Backstreet. And then, I was just all over it. I was buying remixes by Amber, Alice Deejay, you name it. You would get introduced to things at Backstreet and then fall in love with the artists.”
As you crank the volume on your favorite dance tracks, don’t forget to register to attend our final virtual Atlanta magazine Pride Conversation on Wednesday, October 21 at 7:30 P.M.—A Backstreet Reunion with Charlie Brown’s Cabaret emcee Charlie Brown, DJ Bill Berdeaux, co-owner Vicki Vara, and the club’s longtime technical director Fred Wise. RSVP for free here.
It was the Studio 54 of the South even before the infamous New York club opened its doors in 1977 and, miraculously, it endured nearly 10 times as long. In 1975, at the dawn of disco, Backstreet officially opened for business at 845 Peachtree Street in the heart of Midtown.
In the beginning, the massive, three-level, 10,000-square-foot space (it had housed Lang’s Interiors in the 1950s), catered almost exclusively to the city’s burgeoning white gay male population. But by the time it closed in July 2004, Backstreet had become a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week playground for the entire city.
Or, as the Backstreet staff T-shirts more succinctly stated, “Always Open & Pouring.”
As other nightclubs, including the Limelight, Club Anytime, the Velvet Room, Club Kaya, Esso, and Club Rio, opened and shuttered around them, Backstreet remained party central for nocturnal revelers for nearly 30 years. But as the century drew to a close, Midtown, once a haven for hippies, slowly reinvented itself into a swanky live-work-play district, with million-dollar penthouses near the club’s main entrance—condos owned by working professionals who wanted to sleep at night.
Over the decades, the club was featured in the HBO documentary Dragtime, Comedy Central’s Insomniac, and MTV’s ElimiDate. In 1981, the space even served as the set for the NBC TV movie For Ladies Only, starring Gregory Harrison and Marc Singer, a peek inside the Velcro-fastened, police-uniformed world of a male strip club.
In 2003, after years of battling neighbors and city hall, Atlanta officials declined to renew the club’s 24-hour liquor license, the sole remaining one in the city.
On July 17, 2004, the club closed for good and is now the site of the 36-floor Viewpoint luxury condos, built in 2008.
Here, we chronicle Backstreet’s infamous 10,000-plus nights of dancing, drag, drugs, and debauchery, spanning the years from 1975 to 2004—recounted by the people who owned the club, worked there, documented its life span, and, of course, partied inside the legendary Atlanta nightspot.
VICKI VARA: Backstreet was owned and operated by the Vara family, first by founders Carmine and Janice, then by their children Vicki and Henry. The siblings managed and owned the club from the early ’80s to 2004. Now 65 and retired, Vicki lives on Lake Lanier. Back in the 1960s, in Boston, our grandfather [Henry D. Vara,] my dad’s dad, owned the Punch Bowl, one of the most prominent gay bars in Boston. People went to the basement to dance. Lights and a bell would go off if the cops showed up. My grandfather knew gay clubs were big money. My father and mother came down from Boston first, and Henry and I followed a few years later.
HENRY VARA:Now 63 and retired, Henry lives in Sarasota with his wife, Nancy, and owns a farm. Our dad, Carmine Vara, ran gay nightclubs in Boston and Provincetown. Back when I was a child, my dad’s clubs were located in Boston’s Combat Zone—basically, it was the red-light district. He also owned a place in Provincetown called the Crown & Anchor, which was a hotel, gay bar, and cabaret for female impersonators. He was always looking for investment opportunities in different cities. Gay clubs made good business sense. Gay people played hard, they drank hard, and they danced hard and had more money to spend than the straight crowd. It was definitely a lucrative business.
VICKI: At first, the doorman would go up and down the line like they did at Studio 54 in New York and decide who got in the door. They were looking for the well-dressed pretty boys and their companions. It was that way for a short period of time.
LENA LUST:From 1993 to 2004, Lena Lust (aka Lester West), a Black singer who came here from St. Louis, became a drag performer at Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, which opened upstairs in 1990. Now 69, Lust has continued entertaining fans at Blake’s on the Park and plans to return after the pandemic. The first bar I went to as soon as I got off the plane was Backstreet. People in Atlanta didn’t know me, so I had some problems getting in. And there was some prejudice at the time. They were charging people different rates. They wanted to charge me $30 because that’s how Carmine wanted it at the time. He wanted it to be a white male gay club. I didn’t think too much of it at first. Then, I saw that other minorities who were trying to get in were experiencing the same thing. This was the South, and I was used to how things were in the North. It was one of many incidents I had to endure when I first came to Atlanta. I learned, living through the civil rights and the gay rights eras, how to deal with it. I knew one day it would pass, and it did.
HENRY: In the early years of the club, there were a lot of door policies in place you certainly couldn’t do today. For example, women couldn’t come in unless they were escorted by men. The club wanted to maintain a gay, male-dominated bar. We also had a dress policy designed to keep out drug dealers. Over the years, the times changed, and we changed with them.
LUST: All that stopped when Carmine stepped down and Henry and Vicki took over.
VANESSA VARA:Henry’s daughter Vanessa, now 40, worked for her parents. Post-Backstreet, she went to work in the food industry, attending culinary school and training in Italy. She now works for the food-distribution company, U.S. Foods. Married to Sean O’Shea and residing in Lawrenceville, she is mom to Rowen, six, and Veda, four. I loved hanging out at the door with my dad. A lot of action happened at the door. When people were digging through their purses looking for their ID, all sorts of weird shit would inevitably come falling out—dildos, coke, pills, you name it.
ANDREA VARA ERWIN:Henry’s other daughter, Andrea, also worked at the club. Now 38, Andrea studied business administration at Georgia Southern. She and her husband, Reid Erwin, reside in Johnson City, Tennessee, and she’s currently staying at home with her son Mickey, age four, during the pandemic. Checking IDs could get tricky because there were a lot of transgender people who still had their biological appearance on their IDs, but they would be dressed as the opposite sex. So, that could be a challenge. Everybody was always really polite about it.
CHARLIE BROWN:The emcee of Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, which ran upstairs at Backstreet from 1990 to 2004, Brown was married to technical director Fred Wise on December 29, 2019, on Brown’s 70th birthday. They’ve been a couple for 43 years. Brown was still entertaining fans at Lips, an Atlanta drag restaurant, until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now 70, he plans to return to work postpandemic. Fred Wise and I met in Knoxville in 1977, and by Christmas 1978, we had moved to Atlanta. Everyone in Knoxville and Nashville had heard of Backstreet.
FRED WISE:Wise is now 64 and retired. The club kept these intentionally long lines to get in. They would cherry-pick who they wanted inside. At the time, Backstreet was not very drag queen–friendly.
BROWN: They didn’t want to let us in.
WISE: It was the hottest club in town, and Charlie wasn’t going to be denied.
BROWN: When we finally got inside, I was blown away. I was from Tennessee—with all those tiny gay bars—and, suddenly, I’m standing inside a three-story club.
RUSSELL BOWEN-YOUNGBLOOD:Atlanta gay nightlife photographer Bowen-Youngblood was a Backstreet customer from 1994 to 2004. Beginning in 1999, he captured Atlanta’s club scene for David magazine, Eclipse, and Southern Voice until Backstreet closed in 2004. Now 61, he is a marketing consultant and shoots for Q ATLus magazine and Project Q Atlanta. The first time I walked into Backstreet was in 1984. It was around 8 p.m. and the place was empty. I went back in 1994 to see Charlie Brown’s Cabaret. A friend took me. Backstreet became my destination after that.
AVEDON ELLIOTT:A Backstreet customer from 1998 to 2003, Elliott was then a flight attendant. Now 45, Elliott is based in Frisco, Texas. She currently works as a licensed counselor. When I moved to Atlanta in 1997, I was all into hip-hop. It was Club 112, Kya, Esso. I was all over those places. One night, friends convinced me to go to this cool club. They told me it was a gay club, but that didn’t matter to me. It was a club. That’s what mattered to me. I couldn’t believe the size of the place. It was my first experience inside a gay club. I saw all these men without their shirts on, gorgeous men. Different flavors—vanilla, chocolate, caramel. It wasn’t like I was attracted to gay men. It was more about the beauty of these men dancing together. I even remember the song that was playing—[Barry Harris’] “Dive in the Pool (Let’s Get Soaking Wet).” I was just mesmerized.
BILL BERDEAUX:Backstreet DJ from 1997 to 2004, Berdeaux is now 50 and currently works with his former Backstreet colleagues Lena Lust and Shawnna Brooks as a DJ at Blake’s on the Park. I was from Montgomery, Alabama. I felt like the tiniest fish in an ocean of people. At the bar I had come from, Hojons in Montgomery, everybody knew everybody. In comparison, Backstreet was a small city. I couldn’t get near the DJ booth. It was like this fortress in the sky. I knew I needed to get inside that DJ booth. My whole plan in moving to Atlanta was to become a DJ at the biggest club in the Southeast—Backstreet.
LUST: The walls were covered in red carpet. The stainless-steel DJ booth was built into the wall. I loved it.
VICKI: I walked into Backstreet for the first time in 1980. I had never seen such plush carpet. The upstairs bar had a huge fishbowl and a bird aviary.
HENRY: When I got there in 1980, the rooftop bar had lots of couches, lots of mirrors, and nooks and crannies for people to hang out and be, well, intimate with each other.
BROWN: In 1990, I had a show in Buckhead at a lesbian bar named Tallulah’s, and I had just been served my notice. Bev Cook was the manager at Backstreet at the time, and she had been coming in to see the dinner show. She said, Don’t sweat it, bitch. You’ll be opening at Backstreet in two weeks. Henry was out of town at the time, and he wasn’t too happy that Bev booked a drag show on the third floor of his club. But he got over it real quick when we started packing that room and bringing in money.
VICKI: The cabaret changed everything. It was our crowd starter. The show got so popular, it went all night.
BROWN: Before the cabaret opened upstairs in 1990, they had tried everything up there. People would just go up there to cool off from dancing and to do some drugs, and then, they’d go back downstairs. They couldn’t get anything to work. Charlie Brown’s Cabaret worked. It stuck. People were standing on the shrubs on the island so they could see the show. I got them to tear that out. Then, the fountain went. We knew we were a hit when they finally took out that goddamn barbecue pit.
LUST: At its peak, we had nine cast members in the cabaret show. The show ran continuously all night. We started before 11 p.m., and it was daylight when we got out of the bar. You would see folks all dressed up, on their way to church.
ERWIN: One of my jobs was restocking the vending machines. That was unique. They were filled with things like rolling papers, condoms, snacks, lube, and video head cleaner people sniffed to get high—basically, anything you needed to stay for the entire weekend.
BERDEAUX: I was originally hired to work the floor, which meant taking out the trash about 20 or 30 times a shift. You couldn’t get through the crowd because there were so many people dancing. The DJs wouldn’t let us sweep the floor or even take the trash cans from around the dance floor. That would interrupt the party. Sometimes, I wouldn’t get to sweep up until 1 or even 2 p.m. People were still dancing. It was truly a 24-hour metroplex.
ELLIOTT: I was a flight attendant at the time. I would come back on a “nap” from my last leg of flying at 7 o’clock in the morning, go home, change, and go to Backstreet. Or I would tell my friends to let me get some sleep and to wake me up by 7 or 8 a.m. so I could go to Backstreet. That’s how addicting that place was.
VANESSA: We had our family birthday parties there. I was 10 and Andrea was eight, and our brother, Carmine, was about age six. We had a ’50s dance party. Dad brought in a DJ, they had the lights going, and our friends got to go behind the bar and use the fountain drink guns. Even today, sometimes, when I walk into a bar, I can smell my childhood.
ELLIOTT: You generated friendships there. Even if you didn’t communicate with these people on the outside, you looked forward to seeing these same folks at the club. They were always there on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
HENRY: I would get the call from the managers of celebrities asking if I could discreetly get them in. It was our job to do it quietly.
BROWN: Elton John would come in incognito in a hat and without the wig. The first time he came in, I discreetly went over to his table, introduced myself, and said, You’re here to have fun. No one in my cast will ever mention your name from that stage.
HENRY: Word got around that celebrities could be anonymous inside Backstreet. I got to escort Madonna into the club one night in disguise, the Baldwin brothers, Lenny Kravitz. Janet Jackson and Jermaine Dupri had a whole entourage. There were black SUVs and, traveling behind, was a Bentley.
BROWN: Their people had called ahead and wanted reservations. This was on a Saturday night at midnight. The place was packed to the rafters. I just walked out on stage and pointed. I need this table, this table, and this table to move. They said, Why? I said, Cause Janet Jackson’s ass is gonna be sittin’ there! Then, I told the room, Listen up, when she comes in, I don’t want y’all asking for autographs or bothering her. She’s here to enjoy the show. That’s how I handled it whenever somebody famous was on the way.
LUST: Janet Jackson tipped me $50 for performing my Tina Turner medley. She had the tip sent up to the stage. I never saw her personally. It was nice to know she appreciated what I did. Queen Latifah came in a couple of times too. This was before she was out of the closet, but we all knew—her posse was all girls! She stayed to watch me do Eartha Kitt’s “Champagne Taste.”
“Bitch, if you’re Cathy Rigby, do a backflip for us.” She stood up in that chair and did a backflip all the way across the motherf**king stage.
BERDEAUX: After I’d been working the floor for maybe a year, Stuart “Sweet Daddy” Gardner, the big downstairs DJ, needed the night off and asked me if I would open for him. Talk about nervous! Playing those first records was one of the most electrifying moments that I’ve ever had in my whole life. It was magical. Then, 1 a.m. rolled around and no DJ. It’s Saturday night, and the dance floor is packed. Then, I get the phone call in the booth from the office: Bill, do you think you can carry the whole night? I almost dropped my chin on the floor. The rest is history. That’s how I got what turned out to be the primetime shifts on Friday and Saturday.
HENRY: In the ’80s, when they were looking for a nightclub location for For Ladies Only, we agreed to let them shoot inside Backstreet. The only rule was they had to shoot during the day, break everything down, and be out before our crowd came in at night. I watched a lot of the scenes being filmed. We were paid very well for that. They hired extras to come in to play the crowd for the stripping scenes. They had these big generator trucks that showed up. They had their own power system.
VICKI: It was a scramble on some nights, but they had enough crew to break everything down. Honestly? I just wish the movie had been a little bit better. They even brought in their own dance floor. They left it for us. We never used it. Nobody liked it. I mean, it lit up like Saturday Night Fever, and this was in the early 1980s when those Disco Sucks stickers were on everything.
BROWN: Cathy Rigby, the Olympic gymnast, was doing a show at the Fox Theatre and she turned up one night sitting at the edge of the stage. Someone yelled, That’s Cathy Rigby! I walked over to her and said, Naw, you ain’t Cathy Rigby. Bitch, if you’re Cathy Rigby, do a backflip for us. She stood up in that chair and did a backflip all the way across the motherf**king stage. The response in the room was so loud, security came running up the stairs.
VICKI: DJs like Bill Berdeaux made us. Everyone who came in knew these DJs were the best. Any new music that came out, they had it on the turntables. Our DJs were Billboard reporters, so they were hooked into everything new. Plus, we hired big names to perform the Sunday Tea Dance: Gloria Gaynor, Bonnie Pointer. Gladys Knight came as a visitor, but we got her on stage. Sylvester was a regular performer for us.
LUST: Sylvester and I used to party a lot together. Grace Jones and I partied many nights together. She was a trip. She loved her party favors, let’s just say.
BROWN: Celebrities never really got me tongue tied. I never really got fazed unless there was a redneck in the room. I’d always know because Fred would come back to the dressing room and say, You’d better get out here. I didn’t even care what I had on. I’d hit that stage, man, and grab many a redneck, spin his arm around his back, and march him out those double doors. One night, this guy was really putting me through it, and I grabbed him and took him to the door. He turned around and spat in my face. Just like that, 400 people shut completely up. He took off running, so I took off my wig and my heels and went after him. He went down those steps so fast he rolled down the last flight and right under the feet of Henry.
WISE: As that redneck went down the steps face first, everybody in the upstairs cabaret jumped up, and 400 people had their faces pressed to the glass of those French doors across the entire back of the room.
BROWN: When I walked back inside that room, there was no sound, no music, nothing. A customer handed me a napkin and said, Charlie, you’ve still got spit on your face. I said, Don’t you f**king hate when that happens? I wiped it off and got back up on that stage. I paid my rent with the tips that night.
HENRY: For years, it was mostly a gay crowd. But after we got the 24-hour liquor license [in 1987], it was a gay bar until all the other bars in town closed and then, everyone piled into Backstreet. The later it got, the straighter it got.
VICKI: I had been working at Backstreet, a gay club, for years but I didn’t officially come out until I was 32. I was just afraid. I knew that my dad didn’t want his daughter to be gay. It really hit him hard. But it was such a relief off of me. I didn’t have to hide it anymore. Once Dad got over the shock of it, he came around. He was a good dad.
HENRY: My father was a manly man. He had this rugged exterior. He wasn’t thrilled at first, but he accepted it. I mean, it wasn’t like we were going to start discriminating against gay people. It was our family business. I hope that working in the environment of the club made it easier for Vicki to come out.
LUST: One night in 1997, my equilibrium was off. I just thought I was working too much. Fred told Charlie, Lena looks green. Charlie told me to take my ass to the doctor. Thank God, my health insurance had kicked in two months before that so I could actually go.
BROWN: We had 401(k)s, and they made sure we had health insurance.
WISE: Backstreet had nearly 100 employees on payroll.
Backstreet represented the good old days of gay life in Atlanta. We had the best clubs, the best bars, the best discos, and when they all shut down at night, they came home to mama, Backstreet.
BROWN: We lost a lot of people over the years, some of them cast members. We would work a number into the show each night and do a collection for the ones we could help.
HENRY: I started at the club in 1980 as the AIDS epidemic was starting. It was probably the most frightening time of my life. I had young children, and, back then, we didn’t yet know how it was spread. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do, what to touch, what not to touch. Eventually, I got educated. We started handing out free condoms. Our customers and our employees were dropping dead. They had Kaposi sarcoma. It was a horrible thing to watch. As they would pass on, I would meet their families. We would try and put them up in hotels, give them traveling expenses, and help with burials. It was a nightmare. We did what we could to help.
VICKI: I would get so upset when a staffer or a customer would tell me, Well, I just can’t use a condom, sorry. And then, they would end up dead. I got so angry. I remember saying, You guys aren’t paying attention here. We put out condoms, but we couldn’t make anyone use them.
VANESSA: We held many, many memorial services at the club up in the cabaret.
LUST: I’m a longtime survivor. I was officially diagnosed with AIDS in ’97. The doctors told me I likely contracted it 10 years before that. I shouldn’t be alive. I was in denial for a long time. I had lost so many friends and boyfriends over the years. When I finally got diagnosed, my T-cells were at six, and my viral load was over two million. They immediately put me on the cocktail. I was lucky.
ELLIOTT: The weirdest thing I ever saw at Backstreet? Weird is subjective. A lot of stuff went on in the parking lot, okay? I went out to get into my truck one night, and I looked in the car parked next to me and saw two guys involved. I had never seen that before. I didn’t want to be rude, so I watched for a while.
VANESSA: One night, I begged my dad to take me with him to the club. I was maybe 13. He told me, We’re not coming home if you get tired. You’ll have to stay the whole night. I ended up sleeping on some boxes on the floor of the liquor room. In the morning when we left, the sun was out as we walked to the car. This was before the Dakota condos were built across the street. There in the field, we saw two dudes just going at it. My dad and I both kept our eyes straight ahead. We never spoke of it again.
HENRY: [laughs] Their mother was in charge of having those kinds of conversations with them.
VANESSA: Growing up at Backstreet, you kind of got desensitized to things like that after a while.
ERWIN: Because we were exposed to gay people at such an early age, it made us more open-minded. People became members of our family. They came over on Christmas, and we went on vacations together. I think it made us better people.
VANESSA: James Brooker, who was known as Jim or Peaches, worked as the head bartender downstairs. He took me to buy dresses for homecoming and prom. The cabaret’s tallest drag queen, Ziggy Stardust (Chester Phelps), was my dad’s right-hand man. Ziggy took me into the cabaret dressing room and taught me how to put on false eyelashes.
ELLIOTT: Everybody was just kind. Your skin color, gender, your sexuality, socioeconomic status—none of that stuff played a role at Backstreet. You could just be yourself.
BOWEN-YOUNGBLOOD: My favorite photo I ever took inside Backstreet was shot from the balcony overlooking the dance floor. It was the same vantage point where I had stood the first time I went there and realized I wasn’t the only gay person in the state. Coming from a small North Georgia town, that was how I felt for so long. It was at Backstreet that I realized for the first time it was okay to be me.
VANESSA: It was a place where black, white, Asian, Latin, gay, straight, business people, nerds, everybody could come together and party. When you walked through the door at Backstreet, the lines that existed elsewhere in your life, those lines were erased. Everybody was welcome.
BERDEAUX: Getting a key to the Backstreet DJ booth was like getting the keys to the kingdom. On big weekends like Hotlanta River Expo, no one on the dance floor had a shirt on or, sometimes, no clothes, period—if security hadn’t gotten to them yet. It would get so hot from all the lights and all the body heat, the condensation from the ceiling would rain onto the people dancing below.
HENRY: Going into 2004, the city had refused to renew our liquor license. On New Year’s Eve, we were packed at midnight when the cops showed up.
LUST: The music stopped, and there was dead silence.
VANESSA: The liquor license had expired at midnight.
LUST: Henry and Vicki tried to get a dance hall license, and we hobbled along pouring Coca-Colas and water. Nobody was coming in. The club finally closed down for good [on July 17, 2004].
VICKI: It was a home for so many gay people. So many customers would come up to me and say, Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you’ve done here. It’s been 16 years, and I still miss it. How much money? [laughs] C’mon, don’t ask me that. I’ll say this—one night, one of the bouncers remarked, We make more money than God. And I remember thinking, He’s actually close.
BROWN: When we lost Backstreet, it was like the city’s gay community losing its grandmama. That’s what it felt like. When you walk into a gay bar today, everybody’s on their phone. They’re staring at some app, looking for a hookup a few feet away from them. Backstreet represented the good old days of gay life in Atlanta. We had the best clubs, the best bars, the best discos, and when they all shut down at night, they came home to mama, Backstreet.
Pat Hussain, who cofounded the Atlanta chapter of GLAAD and Southerners on New Ground, launched Olympics Out of Cobb with Jon-Ivan Weaver in 1994. The protest group was formed in response to a 1993 Cobb County resolution stating “lifestyles advocated by the gay community are incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes.” OOOC pushed for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games to move volleyball events out of the suburban county. On July 29, 1994, after months of high-profile protests, ACOG moved the venue to Athens. In 1996, Hussain and Weaver published a behind-the-scenes joint memoir of the historic protest, Olympics Out of Cobb: Spiked! For her contributions to the city, Hussain is a 2020 recipient of the Atlanta Mayor’s Office Phoenix Award.
I was not initially aware of the anti-gay resolution in Cobb County because I had spent nine months living in Washington, D.C. working on the executive committee for the 1993 March on Washington [for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights]. I had promised my wife when I got home that I was hanging up my cape for a while. It was time to say, I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m gonna sit down for a minute.
Then, one night, I was walking to my car in the parking lot of the Charis bookstore in Little Five Points, and this white guy came walking up to me and asked, Are you Pat Hussain? I’ve been told I need to talk to you. That’s how I met Jon-Ivan Weaver. He and his partner had worked on the video that helped to secure the games for Atlanta. They were excited, but then they saw ACOG had placed a venue in Cobb County.
He was clearly impassioned, so I asked him, Jon-Ivan, what do you want to do? He said, I don’t know, but I’m pissed! As someone who, for many decades now, has been known as a pissed-off Black dyke from Georgia, that resonated with me. I said, That’s a good start.
I was told by many friends not to get involved in this because there was no way we could possibly win. This was a global entity. It would be like kicking a giant in the toe. That response mystified me. I said, I didn’t know we chose our battles according to the ones we knew we could win.
So, I talked to my wife about it, and Cherry said, You really want to do this, don’t you? I told her, Yes, because these people are wrong and we need to fight this. Everyone should feel welcomed at the Olympic games.
Then, Jon-Ivan and I had to have a long talk. I had this fear that here was this white man from Tennessee who had never done any activism, with zero street cred. My fear was, in the middle of battle, he would abandon me. We swore to each other that even if it was just us getting our broken, bloody asses arrested time and time again, we would do it together.
We started out by talking to folks at ACOG and saying, This resolution is incompatible with the values Atlanta and the Olympic Games put forward. All we want you to do is get out. They basically told us to go to hell.
Instead, we got busy.
We had to get their attention. We got wind about the unveiling of the Olympic cauldron at ACOG headquarters, and we knew we wanted to crash that party. We got a protest banner made, rolled it up, and handed it off to Olympics Out of Cobb members Don George and Ed Scruggs, two old white guys who were able to walk right in without attracting any attention. It was a Trojan horse we didn’t even have to paint.
They waited until all the speeches had been given about how beautiful the cauldron was. Then, they jumped up on the stage in front of all these people and the assembled press and unfurled this banner that said, “Olympics Out of Cobb.” Security didn’t know what the fuck was happening. It was glorious.
I was told by many friends not to get involved in this because there was no way we could possibly win . . . I said, I didn’t know we chose our battles according to the ones we knew we could win.
Then, there was Izzy, this big blue sperm ACOG had dreamed up as the Olympic mascot. OOOC folks made an Izzy costume we used for picketing outside ACOG headquarters, carrying signs that read: “Izzy Gay?” “Izzy Straight?” “Izzy Safe in Cobb County?” ACOG was furious. It got us to the bargaining table. But we weren’t going to talk on their turf.
I called in a favor. I called Lynn Cothren, a gay man who had worked as Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King’s personal assistant since he was 19. ACOG couldn’t figure how we got the King Center meeting space. We met with number four in the ACOG hierarchy, who turned out to be Shirley Franklin [ACOG’s senior policy advisor and future Atlanta mayor]. She listened and said, You have every right to protest, but we’re not pulling out.
Moving the venue remained off the table. We kept protesting. We got into [International Olympic Committee Chair] Juan Antonio Samaranch’s hotel when he was in town. We scheduled a picket outside the Capital City Club where he was meeting with ACOG.
Then, the IOC surveyed the volleyball athletes, and something like over half of them were gay. My question to Shirley then was, How can you not move the venue when you know these dykes, their girlfriends, their trainers, and their coaches are going into Cobb County to play ball, along with the dykes who want to come watch them?
Someone from inside the ACOG palace—one of us—had given Jon-Ivan a list of all the direct phone extensions. What most people didn’t know was there were people in high and low places, either queer people themselves or allies who knew this was wrong, who were giving us information.
We planned a candlelight vigil for the weekend when we knew the Olympic International Committee was coming into the city. At the vigil, someone hit a member of the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus with their car. I was scared, I was mad, and I was off the rails. It was late and I was pacing the floor over this. I picked up the phone and dialed [ACOG CEO] Billy Payne’s extension. And he picked up.
I told him someone had been hit. He said, Well, nobody should be hurt. I said, Somebody could have died tonight the same way someone could die in Cobb County. [Soon,] it was over.
They issued the press release on a Friday. We had an impromptu celebration that night at Ansley Square. We were jubilant. We were euphoric. We were stunned.
Ultimately, it was about principle. It wasn’t just for us, it was for the next generation. It was for the kids who today are coming out in middle school because they know we’re here, because they know they’re not alone.
Growing up gay and Baptist, Jim Harper and Darrell Card noticed the stark contrasts in Christianity as they marched to the corner of Peachtree and Fifth Streets during an early 1990s Pride parade. “On one side of the street, Atlanta police officers on horseback had been hired by the First Baptist Atlanta church to keep gay people off their property,” recalls Harper. “Across the street, at Saint Mark United Methodist, the congregation and the pastor were handing out water.”
Now married, Harper and Card (now also Harper) are longtime members of Saint Mark, where Jim, now 67, is also a staff assistant. “We refer to ourselves as recovering Baptists,” jokes Jim. The couple, who met in 1980, were officially wed on December 30, 2016.
In a time when the global Methodist Church is still wrangling with anti-gay doctrine written into its Book of Discipline, Midtown Atlanta’s Saint Mark UMC may offer a blueprint for the future. For nearly 30 years, Saint Mark has exemplified progression and inclusion, embracing Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ community and hiring gay clergy.
The church’s unique civil rights legacy extends back more than 50 years. But the seeds for the church’s groundbreaking leadership on gay rights were first planted on Gay Pride Sunday, 1990. That summer morning in June also happened to be incoming lead pastor Dr. Mike Cordle’s very first Sunday in the Saint Mark pulpit.
“I was locking up the front doors after Sunday Service, poked my head out, and saw the parade,” recalls Cordle, now 74 and retired in Highlands, N.C. “I remember thinking, Well, this is just like a small town, welcoming the new preacher. Then, I realized the parade was probably not for me.”
At the time he took over, Saint Mark had approximately 25 Sunday regulars. “I remember saying to the bishop who placed me at Saint Mark, Unless you’ve got black-and-white glossies of something I’ve done, I don’t understand why I’m leaving a 750-member church and going to a church with 25,” recalls Cordle. “He told me, They need you. Go and serve them with dignity.”
The bishop struck a deal with Cordle—serve Saint Mark for three years and in exchange, he would be appointed to a church with a larger congregation and commensurate salary.
“Simply put,” says Cordle, “Saint Mark was dying.” In 1990 Atlanta, so was the city’s gay population, as the AIDS epidemic spiraled out of control with few effective treatments.
“I’m not one of those preachers where God jumps in to talk to me every 15 seconds,” says Cordle. “I have a more quiet calling. But after I locked those doors that first Sunday, I felt this clear voice in my head that said, You have this big empty church and there are thousands of my children outside these doors who are not welcomed in church.”
Fearing that extending an invitation to worship to members of the LGBTQ+ community was likely career suicide, Cordle approached church elders with the idea anyway. Their reaction surprised him. “I expected them to say, No way, not in our lifetime. But then, I discovered these were the same people who invited people of color to worship at the height of the civil rights movement. These were the same people who had ministered to so-called hippies in the ’60s and ’70s, and who had started a home for unwed mothers, many of whom were prostitutes.”
“Just as they are, they were being welcomed, not just by our church but by God.”
Growing up as a kid in Rome, Georgia, Cordle had also personally witnessed the ugliness of racism. He was 11 or so when, one day, he and his brother ordered root beer floats at the local five and dime. The town’s Black physician came in, sat down, and ordered a cheeseburger and a Coke. The brothers then watched as customers spat on the Black doctor, put out cigarettes on him, and finally had him arrested.
“Somewhere along the way, God put in my soul that discrimination against people is wrong,” he says. “God put me at Saint Mark at the right time.”
By Gay Pride 1991, Cordle and his new congregation were ready with flyers printed with an invitation to worship and cups of cold water for thirsty parade participants. The gay people Cordle waved to were wary.
But the next Sunday, two new female congregants appeared in the pews. The following week, they brought a male friend. As word got around the city, the pews started filling up. The new gay members of the church also educated Cordle, a heterosexual married father, about correct terminology and offered insights into their struggles, especially surrounding the AIDS crisis. Cordle began visiting the sick in hospitals and speaking at their memorial services, whether they were held in the sanctuary or on the garden patio at Burkhart’s pub, a popular gay bar in Midtown.
“On most Saturdays, at the height of the AIDS crisis, I would drive as far south as Macon and over to Gainesville to hold multiple services for people who had died of the disease,” Cordle says.
One parishioner’s story especially stuck with Cordle: “This young man who had full-blown AIDS came to tell me he was going home to see the pastor of his family’s church in his hometown. He wanted to tell him he had AIDS and that he wanted him to do the service, and he was requesting to be buried at his family’s cemetery. I encouraged him, we had a prayer together, and he left. Instead, this boy’s pastor told him he was an abomination and an embarrassment to his parents and refused his wishes. Then, that boy went home and hanged himself.”
Recounting the story nearly three decades later on the phone, Cordle goes silent for a moment. When he speaks again, his voice is emphatic. “I have always been very clear on this. I do not believe being gay is a sin. This is the way people are born. God doesn’t mess up. We are all a part of God’s creation and need to be celebrated as such.”
When Cordle’s first three years were up, he turned down the bishop’s offer to relocate. The congregation grew to almost 2,000 and helped finance a $750,000 renovation of the church, which was built in 1902. The organ’s cracked leather bellows were replaced. The choir expanded to include 150 of the city’s best singers, many of whom had performed professionally.
One hymn has been particularly meaningful to the Saint Mark congregation: “Just As I Am.” “I would look out and see people in tears singing,” says Cordle. “They realized that song was for them. Just as they are, they were being welcomed, not just by our church but by God.”
“I have always been very clear on this. I do not believe being gay is a sin. This is the way people are born. God doesn’t mess up. We are all a part of God’s creation and need to be celebrated as such.”
One teenager attending on Sunday mornings was future Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, sitting with her parents, Robert and Carolyn, who were seminary students. Abrams says of her time at Saint Mark: “I watched Dr. Cordle lead the congregation by example. When hate-filled protesters streamed from churches on Peachtree Street to demean participants in the Pride parade, he literally opened the door of our church in a show of God’s love as we waved signs and handed out water.”
Over two decades later, as a candidate for governor riding in the Pride parade, Abrams paused in front of Saint Mark to receive a bottle of water from congregants.
At some point during Cordle’s 13-year tenure, members of the UMC North Georgia Conference began describing the church’s transformation as the “Miracle on Peachtree.” The nickname stuck.
The United Methodist Church remains deeply divided over gay rights. “If a split happens it will likely resemble what happened in the civil rights era,” Cordle predicts. “I’m old enough to remember when Southern Methodist churches pulled out of the UMC. Those churches have faded away now because those people’s grandchildren don’t hate Black people. My children and grandchildren don’t know how to dislike gay people. Like 50 years ago, these churches, too, will likely fade away.”
Saint Mark’s current lead pastor, Dr. Dana A. Everhart, vows, “We will continue the good fight. A great deal of this struggle comes out of fear and ignorance. I would love for those who would make the decision for our denomination to sit with the patriarchs and matriarchs of Saint Mark and hear the story of how open hearts truly opened doors.”
The city of Atlanta received perhaps its greatest Christmas gift when the Fabulous Fox Theatre opened to the public on December 25, 1929. In 2019, under the leadership of Fox Theatre President & CEO Allan Vella and the nonprofit Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., the Fox is one of the highest-grossing venues of its size across the globe.
But surviving to celebrate its 90th birthday has been nothing short of miraculous. The future of Atlanta’s crown jewel of theaters, originally constructed by the Yaarab Shriners, was shaky almost from its start. The Fox opened just two months after the worst stock market crash in U.S. history. To help underwrite construction costs, movie mogul William Fox stepped in to lease the main auditorium. During the Great Depression, Fox himself declared bankruptcy and his beloved Atlanta namesake ended up being auctioned on the courthouse steps for $75,000.
By the mid-1970s, the Fox had fallen into disrepair and Southern Bell was eyeing its lucrative Midtown Peachtree Street address, but Atlantans rallied and saved their beloved theater. In 1996, a fire threatened to engulf the Fox, but thanks to a fast response from the Atlanta Fire Department and the structure’s famed double-thick brick walls, the theater escaped serious damage.
“We’re thrilled to be celebrating a 90th year,” says Vella. “There are so few buildings in any city that survive this long. Thanks to the constant support of Atlantans and people across Georgia, the Fox has remained relevant and successful.”
Over the decades, the likes of Walt Disney, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Doris Day, Elvis Presley, future presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Donald Trump, John Wayne, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and the Rolling Stones have all appeared at the venue.
To celebrate the Fox’s milestone nine-decade reign on the corner of Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue, here are nine unforgettable moments in Fox Theatre history.
The Fox Theatre’s Grand Opening on Dec. 25, 1929: Even deep in the throes of the stock market crash, Atlantans turned out en masse in frigid cold temperatures to brave a line that snaked down Peachtree Street around to East Ponce de Leon Avenue in order to get a gander at the enormous, ornate theater, which took design inspiration from historic mosques. Inside, Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie, the Mighty Moller pipe organ, a performance of Beach Nights by the Fanchon and Marco dancing chorus, and a screening of the William Fox’s talking picture Salute—starring George O’Brien and Helen Chandler and directed by John Ford—the first-ever (if rather unremarkable) feature film shown at the Fox.
1946: Walt Disney premieres Song of the South: Although plenty problematic now for its cheery depiction of the post-war South (and buried for years inside a Disney vault, away from public view), the Oscar-winning mix of live-action and animation was based on the writings of former Atlanta Constitution editor Joel Chandler Harris. So it was a natural fit then for Disney to hold the film’s premiere in Atlanta. While he praised from the stage, black actor James Baskett, who portrayed the starring role of Uncle Remus and was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1948, was not permitted to attend the segregated screening. Disney didn’t watch the film’s premiere, instead preferring to nervously pace in his hotel room across the street at the Georgian Terrace. “I suffer too much,” he explained to Atlanta Constitution reporter Celestine Sibley. “Somebody coughed at a preview of Fantasia once and I was sick. I just knew they didn’t like it.”
1953:The Robe becomes the first movie to be shown in Cinemascope at the Fox: Hoping to stave off box office declines from the television sets popping up in living rooms across America, the Fox installed a massive curved screen in order to show these ultra-widescreen epic films. Or, as the Fox marquee proudly proclaimed, “The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses.” The biblical epic, starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, is perhaps best known today for a behind-the-scenes celebrity dust up. Actor Stewart Granger reportedly waved a gun at the future Mr. Elizabeth Taylor for bedding Granger’s wife, Simmons, between takes on the picture.
1956: Elvis Presley performs a series of sold-out shows: While dismissed as a “semi-hillbilly” by the Atlanta Constitution, the future King of Rock-n-Roll did a brisk business performing six shows over two days at the Fox in March of 1956. Also on the bill: Country music pioneers Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters with June Carter. Top-tier tickets to see Elvis set patrons back an entire $1. (Even in 2019 dollars, that’s about $9.50.) Alas, Presley’s largely teenaged female fan base had to sit through a screening of the Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine boxing drama The Square Jungle before the Elvis even hit the stage with his band.
1962: The Metropolitan Opera Presents Richard Strauss’ Elektra to the first integrated audience at the Fox: Two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fox Theatre paved the way for other Atlanta venues when it voluntarily integrated. The theater’s annual appearance of the Metropolitan Opera each spring ended up playing an integral role in the decision. Explains Fox CEO Allan Vella: “The Met had African-American operatic stars, so [in order] for them to [not] have any difficulty in either performing or performing in front of an audience that looked like them, as well as being able to get a hotel room here, the Fox and ultimately Atlanta, had to change.”
1968: Actor-director John Wayne’s The Green Berets premieres at the Fox: Between their roles as grand marshals in the WSB-TV Salute to America Fourth of July parade, The Green Berets star and co-director John Wayne and cast including David Janssen, Irene Tsu, Jim Hutton, and the Duke’s son actor Patrick Wayne, also attended a lavish premiere of this Vietnam War drama at the Fox on the Independence Day night. The film represented a return to Georgia for some in the cast: portions of the film were shot at Fort Benning and in Columbus.
1975-76: The Save The Fox campaign: As multi-screen movie complexes began springing up at suburban shopping malls, the Fox, now run down and losing money, closed its doors in 1974. Phone company Southern Bell was eyeing the property for its new skyscraper. But Atlantans mobilized, creating the Save The Fox campaign and ended up raising $3 million to preserve the treasured theater. In 1976, the Fox was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1978, now operated by the nonprofit Atlanta Landmarks, Inc., the Fox finally paid off its mortgage. Says Vella: “With the Save The Fox campaign, Atlantans finally hit a breaking point. They wanted to preserve their history instead of replacing it with another glass office tower.”
1978: The Rolling Stones play a secret show as The Cockroaches: Weary of playing enormous arenas, the Stones opted to road test songs from its 1978 Some Girls album at smaller venues. To ensure the secrecy of the band’s back-to-its-roots theme, tickets went on sale to the public under the band name The Cockroaches. A top-tier ticket at the Fox for the June 12, 1978 concert went for $10 (about $40 today).
2016: Prince performs his final concert: Iconic pop star Prince played what turned out to be the final two public performances of his life on April 14 during his Piano and a Microphone solo tour stop here in front of two sold-out crowds, including celebrity fans Janelle Monáe and CeeLo Green. On stage alone, the singer performed everything from Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts theme Linus and Lucy to Bob Marley’s Wait in Vain. Fittingly, the shows ended with an encore of his signature song, Purple Rain. This wasn’t the only final performance at the Fox in this decade: a year later, during his 70th birthday concert celebration surrounded by friends and fans, jam rocker Col. Bruce Hampton collapsed on stage at the Fox and died a few hours later.
Back in 2001, in a room brimming with national media types, all covering the dedication ceremonies of the new multi-million-dollar Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, she spied the Atlanta press credentials dangling around my neck, patted the seat next to her in the front row, and insisted I sit beside her.
Lee, a 1997 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame and a 2002 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductee (the only woman inducted into both) was so distraught when house painters dropped and broke her 1982 Georgia Music Hall of Fame Award, she cried. Then, she picked up the phone and called then-Georgia governor Zell Miller to ask him for help to replace it. (He did.)
Since her daughter Julie is a University of Georgia graduate, Lee has spent considerable time in Athens and even had a photo op with Uga, the school’s mascot bulldog.
And the only time the pop, rock, and country icon got emotional during a recent 30-minute interview with Atlanta magazine was when she discussed what receiving the inaugural Georgia Public Broadcasting Georgia Legend Award from her home state means. The award will be presented to her during a gala in her honor this Saturday night at one of her favorite childhood concert venues, the Fox Theatre (some tickets remain: go toGPB.orgfor details).
The performer, now 74, who was born in the charity ward of Emory University Hospital, sang at her first talent contest at the age of seven in Conyers. Soon, she was a regular on the country variety program TV Ranch, hosted by John Farmer on Atlanta’s WAGA-TV.
By 1956, she had a record contract with Nashville’s Decca Records, recording with famed record producer Owen Bradley (who also worked with Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, a former UGA journalism student who was raised in Decatur). A year later, she made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry stage and danced in the wings with one of her fans, Elvis Presley.
Her song “I’m Sorry” hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1960. By the time she was 18, the Beatles were opening for her rockabilly act at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. Lee would go on to sell more than 100 million records worldwide, including the enduring yuletide hit “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” charting 46 hits on the Billboard charts throughout the 1960s, ranking right up there with Elvis, the Beatles, and Ray Charles. Lee is also one of the trailblazing stars interviewed for the upcoming 16-hour Ken Burns PBS documentary Country Music, which debuts on GPB on September 15 at 8 p.m.
In a wide-ranging interview by phone last week, Lee discussed all this and more. On participating in the Country Music documentary: It was absolutely wonderful. I [recorded] my part at least five years ago. We did the interview in a big house up on Belle Meade Blvd [in Nashville]. Oh good lord, I talked about everything. My roots, all the genres of music I’ve been in—rockabilly, country, rock n roll, pop. The hiccupping [vocal technique] in my songs and who invented it. It’s really a compliment being included in this.
On working with legendary Nashville record producer Owen Bradley: Even though I was a child when we started working together, Owen never treated me like a kid. He and the musicians always treated me as an artist and as a peer. I was always asked my opinion. I still remember the day [in 1961] when the Wilburn Brothers brought Loretta Lynn into the office. Owen and I were listening to a song. They brought her in with a song they pitched to Owen called “Fool Number One.” Owen said, “I’ll tell you what, you give me that song for Brenda Lee, and I’ll sign Loretta to a recording contract.” So we both won. I got a hit record and the record company won big time getting Loretta!
On her friend and fan Elvis Presley: One afternoon, my record label got a call saying Elvis Presley wanted an autographed photo and could I sign one for him? They thought it was a prank until Elvis sent a car to pick it up! I still can’t believe it happened, but it did. We had done the [Grand Ole] Opry together and just became fast friends. When I met Priscilla, she said the first time she had gone to visit Elvis in his apartment in Germany, he was playing [Lee’s hit 1959 song] “Sweet Nothins” on the stereo.
On her first encounter with the Beatles when they opened for her in 1962 at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany: I was backstage watching these cute boys in suits and listening to their songs, thinking, “I don’t know that song. Or that one. Or that one.” But they were all great. Why didn’t I know these songs? I was friendly with John. He was my favorite. So when they came off the stage I asked him, “Good lord, John, where did those songs come from?” Very nonchalantly, very unaffected, he said, “Oh, we write ‘em!’ I thought, “Oh my lord!” So I asked, “Do you mind if one night I tape-record a portion of your set?” I also took a photo of them. I brought the tape and the photo to my record company in New York. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. The people at the record company—I call ‘em the suits—they listened to it and then they looked at me. I was so excited. I said, “What do you think?” They said, “This look will never happen and neither will this sound.” And honey, don’t you know, several months later, the world was astounded. I just remember thinking, “You idiots.”
On campaigning for fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter for president in 1976: I flew into Atlanta on election night to go to his party. There was so much excitement because nobody thought he had a chance. It was magical. Here we were with a president out of Georgia and he’s a peanut farmer! My uncle Ralph was a peanut farmer. I thought it was the greatest night ever. A Georgia peanut farmer can become president of the United States!
What it means to come back to her home state to receive the inaugural GPB Georgia Legend Award: It’s hard to put into words, the fabric of my being is Georgia. Everything I am is Georgia born and bred. My loved ones, my daddy, my mama, and my sister are all in that wonderful deep red clay. To be honored like this, I don’t have any words because Georgia was so good to me. Everything I know I learned as a child I learned on stage in Georgia or at WAGA-TV. Everything I know about singing I owe to coming up in Georgia.
The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead was once an epicenter of Atlanta’s social scene, a mainstay for gossip and celebrity sightings, but on Wednesday, Marriott officially reintroduced the renovated and rebranded property, now named the Whitley Hotel Atlanta Buckhead, by hosting a lavish cocktail party for city dignitaries, media, and neighbors.
The hotel’s name is a nod to John Whitley, the scrappy Georgia farmer who is credited with inadvertently giving the city’s hospitality hub its name when, according to city lore, he nailed a Buck’s head to a pole outside Irby’s Tavern in 1840, creating a kind of Google Maps landmark for the era.
On Wednesday night, largely depending on their age and previous interaction with space, guests were either hypnotized or horrified by the transformation of the 22-floor, 507-room iconic property on the corner of Peachtree and Lenox Roads.
The Ritz-Carlton’s trademark dark wooden paneling, ornate antique furniture, and heavy tassel adorned draperies are all gone in favor of a light, airy, Southern-chic vibe, still regal but more whimsical and with a sense of humor.
“I keep looking for the dimmer switch!” cracked guest and Legendary Events owner Tony Conway, who launched his hospitality career at the Ritz as director of catering in 1992. “The light is the first thing that grabbed my attention this evening. When I worked at the Ritz, affairs happened here, so dimming the lights was key.”
Just past the model adorned in a steel-hoop-skirted champagne dispensary in the lobby, southern jazz and western swing trio the VaudeVillains were performing for guests next to a fireplace. On the walls were large oil painting portraits with the subjects’ faces obscured by floral bouquets.
While the Whitley’s bartenders still sport ties, former Ritz hotel guests might need to be resuscitated with smelling salts, observing the addition of the bar’s new flatscreen TVs overhead. The hotel’s new Southern-inspired Trade Root restaurant and lounge menu is far less fussy than the Ritz’s storied Dining Room (once helmed by Guenter Seegar) where, based on feedback from millennial guests, executive chef Marc Suennemann has fashioned a more relaxed menu filled with the basics—scallops and grits, a grilled strip steak, sweet-tea glazed duck and a $19 “grown-up grilled cheese” filled with five cheeses, bacon, and tomato on toasted sourdough bread.
“We’re calling it Southern cuisine with a European twist,” said Suennemann. “The menu and the service are designed to be fun. When you come to the Whitley, we want to offer a Southern front porch feel.”
Among the visual highlights of the new hotel are the art deco-inspired staircase leading up to conference rooms adorned with names like Founders, Envoy, and Consulate and the massive ground floor technological wonder of a ballroom named Legacy, complete with a wall of ceiling-to-floor-length windows and an adjacent terrace.
Kory Davis, 33, who was hanging out with business peers, represents the hotel’s PSAV audio-visual division, moved from New York City and has observed the transformation first-hand. “I’ve watched this hotel come into the light and become modern and chic,” he said. “There was already a strong structure here. The space just needed a fresh design to transform it.”
Gazing at the LED, Saturday Night Fever-reminiscent dance floor blinking in front of him, Buckhead Coalition president and former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell, 91, contemplated a taking a spin. With a hand resting on a cane, he teased, “I might consider it once I trade this in for a new walking stick.”
Standing in nearly the same spot as she had one evening in 2002 when Julia Child was cooing to guests via speaker phone from California as the Ritz debuted a cocktail menu of husband Paul Child’s original libations, food journalist and former CNN reporter Carolyn O’Neil was attempting to take in all the changes. “It’s a little shocking to walk in and this not be a Ritz-Carlton but Atlanta has always been about change,” said O’Neil. “While this doesn’t feel as luxurious, the space has more energy. This feels like a very smart evolution.”
In the lounge, Conway was reuniting with Martha Jo Katz, the former fashion model for Halston and Bill Blass, who as the original hotel’s director of social events became the 23rd employee hired when the Ritz-Carlton bowed in Buckhead in 1983. “The entire city has changed so much and the dynamics of our social events have changed as well,” said Katz. “This was my first hotel home so this space will always have a special place in my heart. This sits on a great piece of property. I hope they’re very successful here.”
Added Conway: “We’ve both been in the event world for a long time and we recognize you’ve got to change with the times.”
It’s the busiest time of the year at the Southern branch office of the North Pole but even Elf on the Shelf co-creator Chanda Bell took time out to watch that very naughty Saturday Night Live sketch last weekend, starring Aquaman actor Jason Momoa as one of her iconic snitches for Santa.
“When Saturday Night Live feels that Elf on the Shelf is so ingrained in our culture that they do an entire sketch based on it and people get it, that’s a moment when you sit down for a second and say, ‘Wow, we did it!’” Bell says laughing.
Created in 2005 by Bell, her twin sister Christa Pitts, and their mother Carol Aebersold, and based on the Marietta family’s longstanding tradition involving an elf named Fisbee, Elf on the Shelf has grown into a global phenomenon, now employing 80 full-time Santa helpers on the two floors of their company HQ near Cumberland Mall.
This includes the nine animators who are now creating original content for the company, the latest offering, Elf Pets: Santa’s St. Bernards Save Christmas, airing on Cartoon Network, TBS, TNT and debuting on DVD this holiday season. This being from the creators of Elf on the Shelf, there’s also an accompanying story book and adorable plush toy that kids can adopt and name by interacting with the company’s website and mobile apps.
Among the new employees bringing writer-director Bell’s visions of the North Pole to life: former Turner Broadcasting director and vice-president Amy Lovett and Scout Elf Productions art director Joe Peery, who’s perhaps best known for his work on Archer and the Re/Visioned: Tomb Raider animated series.
“Amy had exactly the kind of background and expertise we needed and Joe, who’s been working in Atlanta since the 1980s, does these amazing storyboards,” explains Bell. “I’m really a storyteller at heart but together, we form a power team.”
Peery also worked on the 2011 inaugural animated TV special An Elf’s Story: The Elf on the Shelf. But like the evolution of Pixar’s successful Toy Story franchise, the animation in Santa’s St. Bernards Save Christmas looks richer and feels more immersive.
The story of Santa’s St. Bernards was inspired by a trip Bell, along with her sister and mother, made to the top of the Swiss Alps shortly after the death of her father. Bell was inspired by a Saint Bernard dog rescuer named Barry (honored in the St. Bernard Dog Museum) who worked beside local priests to find people lost in the area’s severe snowstorms in the 1800s.
Says Bell: “I began thinking, ‘Could these warm, caring, loving St. Bernards have a link to St. Nicholas?’ That’s when I knew I had the story.”
Still, the book and the animated special’s message of encouraging children to engage in acts of kindness feels more relevant than ever this holiday season, if Tuesday’s Oval Office bipartisan shouting match in Washington is any indication of how some adults are role modeling these days.
“When we came up with this story three years ago, we had no idea this story would resonate as much as it is,” concedes Bell. “But kids get it. They know what kind of a time it is right now, and that if the characters they love can make a difference, so can they.”
For Bell, who grew up watching How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas, the creative bar is high. Her goal for the new animation department arm of Creatively Classic Activities and Books (CCA & B, LLC) is to offer a new North Pole animated special annually (a new cartoon and accompanying plush toy and book are already in the North Pole pipeline for Christmas 2019). “I want our animated specials to be loved and last as long as the Grinch and Charlie Brown have been for me,” says Bell. “The North Pole is the Greek mythology of our time. We want to tell all of Santa’s stories. Some people might say that what we put out isn’t flashy or fast-paced, but it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be family entertainment, full of heart, goodwill, and cheer.”
And even if that hilariously tawdry SNL sketch was decidedly a bit off-brand for the family behind Elf on the Shelf, one message was clear to Chanda Bell. “Thirteen years ago, we maxed out a credit card and were selling Elf on a Shelf out of the backs of our cars,” Bell remembers. “Now, it’s on Saturday Night Live. It feels like we’ve arrived!”
Amidst a Japanese drum troupe, dense security, and throngs of media, Nobu co-owners chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert De Niro, and film producer Meir Teper gathered alongside Simon Malls executives and city officials Thursday on a parking deck outside Phipps Plaza to usher in a new era for Buckhead.
After a sake toast, the dignitaries donned silver hardhats and took sledgehammers to a Styrofoam wall to symbolically break ground on the upcoming Nobu Hotel and Nobu Japanese fusion restaurant, a 24-year-old brand started by De Niro and Matsuhisa in New York City and now a global brand encompassing 40 restaurants in 20 countries and eight hotel properties.
The 440,000-square-foot mixed-use retail, hotel, and restaurant development, which includes a 13-story office building and the planned 10,000-square-foot Nobu Atlanta restaurant and 150-room Nobu hotel, will be built on the current site of the Belk store on the north side of the iconic Buckhead luxury shopping destination.
Simon chairman of the board and chief executive officer David Simon told Atlanta magazine the success of the deal—over a year in the making—was thanks to re-acquiring the Belk property. The underperforming retail space will be demolished this fall with the Nobu hotel and restaurant debuting on the site in 2020 or early 2021.
“This will all come down,” Simon said, pointing to the hulking structure behind him. “We knew this was great real estate, but it was just a matter of getting the Belk store back. The mix wasn’t right, given our clientele here and the tourism this area attracts. Nobu is a great fit. They’re one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the world, they’re a global brand, and it’s just a great atmosphere to hang out. They’re very focused on the kind of real estate they select. They’re focused on great locations and great cities and Atlanta is among them.”
Wearing sneakers and shades, De Niro, a man of few words, strode to the Phipps Plaza podium to say: “It’s going to be great. Thanks, everybody!”
After his ceremonial sledgehammering, De Niro hung out, posing for selfies with executives and media types, so we attempted to get a more measured and nuanced response from the two-time Oscar winner, who has shot multiple films in the metro Atlanta area and is frequently spotted dining at Buckhead’s current premier sushi destination, Umi.
“I think it will work very well in Atlanta,” De Niro told Atlanta magazine. He allowed that part of the attraction for him is having a new place to relax and dine while filming on-location here (while reaping a few profits as a part-owner). “I suppose that’s part of it,” he said grinning. “But I just know that Nobu will work very well here.”
One logistical challenge for the project that city and Simon executives tackled behind the scenes was the relocation of a Buckhead fire station that is currently housed below in the bowels of the parking deck. Given the current price of real estate in the zip code, the initiative became a top priority for District 7 Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook, who announced that the fire station will have a long-term, state-of-the-art new home in the same vicinity.
Other dignitaries present for the groundbreaking included Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts, former Atlanta mayor and current Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell, and Atlanta Mayor Chief of Staff Marva Lewis, filling in for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who couldn’t make it to the event.
De Niro and Matsuhisa are the latest celebrity names to enter Atlanta’s highly competitive hospitality and dining scene. More than two decades ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone once opened (and eventually closed) a Planet Hollywood location downtown. Buckhead has also seen the opening and closing of eateries by Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, whose Craft Atlanta and Craftbar fizzled in 2010, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, and perhaps, most notably, Emeril Lagasse’s rare restaurant failure Emeril’s Atlanta, which closed a few thousand feet away from Thursday’s groundbreaking in 2008.
Perhaps Nobu CEO Trevor Horwell was taking those high-profile, celebrity-fueled flame-outs into account when he told the assembled late Thursday morning: “We don’t want to come into Atlanta with an ego. We want to embrace the local community. We want to create a social destination that’s exciting. When you walk into a Nobu restaurant and hotel, it comes alive with an energy that is brought about from the locals. We’re very proud today to be embarking on something we think will be a landmark project for Nobu.”
When Atlanta magazine caught up with activist, actress, and Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential founder Jane Fonda on Tuesday, she was about to embark on an Atlanta shopping spree with some visiting Native American friends she made at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, where she spent Thanksgiving 2016 protesting oil drilling beneath the Missouri River.
Fonda, 80, had a lot to talk about. She’s hosting the annual Empower Party fundraiser Thursday night at the Fairmont in West Midtown for for G-CAPP, her nonprofit that works to prevent teen pregnancy and promote adolescent health. And she’ll host the nonprofit’s first-ever YES: Youth Empowerment Summit with young people from across the state back at the Fairmont on Friday morning. Plus, she discussed her “favorite ex-husband” Ted Turner’s public disclosure on this week’s CBS Sunday Morning that he has been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, her riveting new HBO doc Jane Fonda in Five Acts, and her longtime friend, co-star, and fellow octogenarian Robert Redford’s retirement from acting.
The frankness with which Ted Turner spoke about his Lewy Body Dementia diagnosis during Ted Koppel’s interview on this week’s CBS Sunday Morning was very powerful and emotional for many of us here in Atlanta. I’m assuming this was not new information for you?
No. Ted told me about his condition a while back. People who saw my HBO documentary will recognize that he’s not the Ted we used to know. The energy isn’t there. It was pretty obvious that someone was wrong. I think it’s good that he’s said what it was and that it’s being managed. Through Ted, people will now have an opportunity to learn more about Lewy Body disease. Most likely don’t realize this is what Robin Williams [was diagnosed with postmortem after his suicide in 2014]. But in Robin’s case, it was misdiagnosed. They didn’t catch it in time to save him.
Robert McNeill, G-CAPP’s new president and CEO, is the first man to ever hold that position in G-CAPP’s 23 years. Earlier in G-CAPP’s history, putting a man in that role probably wouldn’t have happened, but as G-CAPP’s mission evolves, it makes more sense. Did you or the board get any gender-related push back?
No, no push back at all. Everyone was very enthusiastic. We had a search committee and everyone spent a lot of time on the hire. Everyone 100 percent felt really good about it. I’m really impressed with him. Robert is exactly what we need right now.
One thing you’ve always spoken about in regard to G-CAPP’s work is the importance of bringing boys into the teen pregnancy prevention conversation. That this conversation can’t happen in a bubble. Does having McNeill in place at G-CAPP help reinforce that?
Exactly. Having a man as CEO of G-CAPP makes it easier for boys to identify with G-CAPP and come in for services or programs. He will do a lot to ensure that our programming includes more boys. But it’s also about the impressive work he did for Boys & Girls Clubs, where he focused on taking a holistic approach to youth development. Where you don’t look at young people as “problems,” but look at them as “potentials.” Instead of “at risk,” put them “at hope.” When they’re “at potential,” they can become great. That’s why this year our fundraising is focused on youth empowerment. And he’s going to lead our expansion into South Georgia.
Let’s talk more about that expansion. With Georgia’s current lack of Medicaid expansion, we’re seeing more rural hospitals and health services shutter. But G-CAPP has this new TMI Georgia app that literally puts GPS-based health services into the palm of young people’s hands. When I launch the app here in Atlanta, I have health services and customer ratings for those services within a 0.7 of a mile from where I live. But for rural teens, this app can bring them connectedness and a potential lifeline to health services, right?
Exactly. That’s why this is so important. G-CAPP, along with the Jane Fonda Center at the Emory School of Medicine, we’re going to be looking into these rural communities that don’t have health clinics. As you said, the hospitals there are closing, so we need to pay more attention to those communities. While teen pregnancy rates in Georgia are dropping, STD rates statewide are rising. We’ve got to pay more attention to what we call dual protection, where young people are protected against both pregnancy and STDs.
Among the honorees at Thursday night’s Empower Party are Tom and Edwina Johnson. For those who are unfamiliar with the Johnsons’ impact, can you talk a bit about their support of G-CAPP over the years?
Tom became the president of CNN at the same time I was becoming Mrs. Turner. Tom and Edwina have always been very community-minded and very generous. They come from here, so they understand why this work is important in the state. They’ve always mentored young people, and we want to honor that.
On Friday, G-CAPP is hosting its first-ever YES: Youth Empowerment Summit, which is billed as a town hall conversation for young people and the adults who support them. What are you hoping to learn from these teens?
I’m going to be asking them, “What are the most important things adults can do for you?” and “What are adults not doing for you that they should be?” I want to tell them that no matter what the challenges are in your life, you can overcome them. I’m excited to have an opportunity to talk to them and take away whatever they want me to hear.
You gave the filmmakers behind the new HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts complete access. Why was now the right time to do this for you?
Susan Lacy, the director, is someone I very much admire. She created the American Masters series on PBS where she shepherded great documentaries for decades. She got tired of all the fundraising you have to do at public television, so when HBO invited her to join them, she went. I saw the documentaries she had done on Steven Spielberg and David Geffen and I was very impressed. We talked about it for a long time and how she saw it proceeding. I said yes because I knew she wasn’t going to make it just about a movie star. We started it many years back, before we knew who the current president would be. But the timing of its release right now seems to have had quite an impact on people who have seen it so far.
With the release of The Old Man and the Gun this fall, your pal and your most frequent film co-star Robert Redford is retiring from acting. Don’t get any ideas, OK?
(laughs) No, no. When we were shooting [the Netflix original film] Our Souls at Night, he told me that this film he’s just shot would be his last. We’re very different, Bob and me. He’s still going to direct, which is great.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.