A Requiem for the Fish

Posted May 4, 2016 by The Argonaut in News

Regulars say goodbye to a safe haven for gay culture that survived the AIDS backlash of the ‘80s but is doomed by rising property values

By Stephanie Case

 Roosterfish “funeral” pallbearers carry an inflatable beer bottle down Abbot Kinney Boulevard Photo by Stephanie Case

Roosterfish “funeral” pallbearers carry an inflatable beer bottle down Abbot Kinney Boulevard
Photo by Stephanie Case

It’s 6 p.m. Saturday, and a funeral procession swarms the sidewalk of Abbot Kinney Boulevard. It’s led by a woman in black with a velvet cape, a gigantic hat spilling with feathers and fish earrings. Two black tears are painted on her cheek.

Behind her walks a throng of men. Mardi Gras beads and rainbow leis hang from their necks, and some hold signs that read, “Save the Fish!”

Next up: half a dozen pallbearers wearing black veils, carrying a six-foot inflatable Corona bottle in lieu of a casket.

Two by two, they march past their home of 37 years: the Roosterfish, Venice’s last gay bar.

Even as the Westside gentrified, forcing other LGBT-friendly spots to close up shop, the Fish held strong as the last bastion of gay nightlife west of the 405.

That was, until their rent tripled this year.

After almost four decades, the Roosterfish will close later this month, leaving its dedicated patrons adrift.

“It’s not just a bar,” says David de Russy, a regular who’s built half a lifetime worth of friendships here. “It’s our family of choice.”

* * *

The family took shape in 1979.

“We didn’t start out on Abbot Kinney, the hottest street in the United States,” de Russy says in a mockingly posh drawl. “We started out West Washington Boulevard — a dead street with no business.”

He pulls out his phone and swipes to a photo of the old joint, circa 1980. It’s a hole in the wall with tiny windows. Above the door, “ROOSTER FISH SALOON” is spelled in crooked letters.

With the street name change came gentrification. While ultra-hip Abbot Kinney blossomed around them, the Roosterfish maintained its no frills vibe.

To this day, the bar is cash only. Drinks are dirt-cheap.

“There’s only one kind of wine,” Dave Poley, a 10-year veteran of the Fish, says.

When the bar’s original ‘70s jukebox broke down, the owner eschewed a trendy upgrade and replaced it with a near-identical vintage one.

Another element of the Roosterfish that’s resisted change: the men’s bathroom.

Plastered on its ceiling are hundreds of snapshots of muscle-bound, naked men, snipped out of Frontiers magazine and artistically collaged, like a saucy Sistine Chapel.

“A few times a year, [the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] would come over, look up at the ceiling and say, ‘You’ve gotta paint that over,’” Muffy, the funeral leader with the fish earrings, says.

They’d comply — then, once the coast was clear, paste new magazine cutouts right back up.

“The ceiling’s got to be this thick,” she laughs, gesturing a good six inches with her fingers. “It’s probably dropped half a foot over the decades from the painting and re-papering.”

* * *

Muffy first came to the Roosterfish decades ago, when she was “dating a guy who wanted show [her] how liberal he was.” (“He wasn’t,” she adds with a smirk.)

From her first step through the door, she felt more in sync with the patrons than her date.

“I walked in and I thought, ‘I have found my home.’ It was this wonderful, embracing welcome.”

Guy Smith felt the same. After moving from Northern California in 1990, he leafed through “Bob Damron’s” — an LGBT travel guide — and saw a listing for the Fish.

“I’ve been coming ever since,” says Smith. “Most of my friends in L.A., I’ve met here.”

Kent MacConnell lived around the corner from the Roosterfish, but it took him longer to find it. After coming out and getting divorced, he made a beeline for the West Hollywood club scene but felt out of place.

“I didn’t like the attitude,” he says. His friends call it the “S&M” crowd, a.k.a. “stand and model” — men who go to be seen rather than to let loose.

The Roosterfish was different.

“Here, we could be ourselves, and we didn’t have to worry about what people thought,” MacConnell says.

Friends could joke over cocktails on New Year’s Day, rollerblade through the bar, or belt “The Sound of Music” numbers on the patio, wearing beach towels as improvised nuns’ habits.

“Everything was spur-of-the-moment,” MacConnell says, smiling. “You can’t choreograph things like this.”

* * *

The bar was also a safe haven in a storm of bigotry.

“For a long time, [the world] was very harsh,” says Randall Ott, who started frequenting the Fish in the ‘90s. “Just coming to a place like this, you could lose a job. You could get beat up.”

During the AIDS epidemic, it got harsher.

Some young men had Kaposi sarcoma — a nasty manifestation of AIDS, where dark tumors spread across the skin.

“They couldn’t take their shirts off at the beach, because they would get terribly razzed or attacked,” says Muffy. “Here, they could wear wife beaters playing pool,” and no one thought twice.

“Nobody wanted to listen to us [about AIDS],” says David Larrabee, another regular. “President Reagan wouldn’t even say the word.”

“When Clinton got elected, everybody thought it was going to be unicorns and rainbows,” adds Ott. “Then, he ended up doing the worst things to us” — like the Defense of Marriage Act, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” a travel ban on anyone HIV-positive.

As the AIDS epidemic raged on, the Venice crowd clung to each other, watching their numbers dwindle.

“Between ’85 and ’95, I lost 60 friends,” Larrabee says. “There was nobody left.”

The Roosterfish held remembrances — often four or five a week — for friends who’d passed.

“We didn’t do funerals; we did celebrations of life,” says Muffy. “Because otherwise, we would just cry.”

Each was a bit like the funeral march: sparkling with happiness in spite of loss.

As the Roosterfish patrons march down Abbot Kinney in sequined masks, twirling ribbons and fringed umbrellas, onlookers can’t help but smile. The only tears are the two painted on Muffy’s cheek.

* * *

One look around the bar, and it’s striking how much has changed since 1979. Straight patrons mingle unabashedly with gay friends. Gay couples dance, wedding bands on their fingers.

“This is an end of an era,” Larrabee says. “When we were kids, [homosexuality] was still considered a mental disorder, and we were all afraid to sneak into a gay bar. Now, we really don’t need gay bars anymore.”

“But,” he adds, breaking into a grin, “we still like them.”

The Roosterfish will close its doors on May 22. In its final weeks, regulars are stopping by as often as possible — some every night.

“The last four or five days are going to be like the Titanic sinking,” says de Russy.

But for now, the impending iceberg is no reason to stop dancing.

As dusk settles in, the Roosterfish family keeps sharing old stories, pouring drinks, and grooving to soul jams under a glittering disco ball.

“It was a serendipity that this place happened,” Muffy says, “and that the people who found it found it.”

For that luck alone, there’s reason to celebrate.

The Roosterfish is located on 1302 Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice and is open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily until May 22. Call (310) 392-2123 or visit roosterfishbar.com.

One Comment

    Scott Hutton

    Sorry that I can’t afford to go and say goodbye. This bar was where I first worked for LA G&L Center’s Lifeguard Project. And where I met a good number of my Venice friends for the first time and many times thereafter. And where Ken & I frequently hung out in our 17 years of Venice living. Many fond memories of welcoming the New Year’s morning with Ritz Pick-Me-Ups; not so many memories of the following New Year’s afternoons .

    Sad to see the neighborhood bar go: but it is following in many Venician neighbors’ footsteps who could no longer afford to stay as our Gayborhood disappeared into the Silicon Beach. Even Ken & I are now living in Seattle. Black & Red Party hosts waving goodbye from afar.

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