The Connection’s last dance: The historic downtown club was a three-decade fixture of the LGBTQ community

Aug 8, 2016 at 4:33 pm
The Connection’s last dance: The historic downtown club was a three-decade fixture of the LGBTQ community

On Saturday night, The Connection had its last dance. The nearly-30-year-old dance club has been a fixture of the gay community since it opened in 1988.

Owners George Stinson and Ed Lewis have been planning to close the club and focus on their massive, new development on the edge of Smoketown.

So LEO went downtown to experience the historic Floyd Street club’s last night.

By 10:30 p.m., right around the time that the evening’s first drag show was starting, there was a line out the door, and people could be seen flocking to the club. I had to park several blocks away, and others did the same.

The crowd seemed especially festive, above exuding the general excitement that hangs around a nightclub devoted to dance, drinking and, perhaps, a touch of misbehaving. It extended to the employees working the door. Roman Young, who was stamping hands with luminous black-light ink has only been on the job for a month, but he said he had been coming as a patron for over a decade.

“Bitch, don’t tell no lies,” a sparkly man waiting in line told Young when he heard that. Young sweetly replied “I’m getting interviewed. Gimme your hand girl, so you can get out of my way,” before returning to stamping hands and moving people out of line and into the club.

The crowd represented several generations of gay culture, but it was dominated by more mature party-goers. Many readily admitted that they don’t go to clubs as often as they once did, but they felt the need to say goodbye to the club before it shut it doors.

“We used to come four nights a week, but I think I’ve been twice in the past seven years,” said J.C. Nixon, a patron who recalled visiting the club for the first time 21 years ago. “I had to come out to tonight,” said Nixon, who added that he’d been communicating with old friends. “I kept texting all my friends that went out of town, ‘tonight’s the last night.’”

photo by Nerissa Sparkman - © www.nerissasparkman.com
© www.nerissasparkman.com
photo by Nerissa Sparkman

Inside the club, people embraced freely and regularly, a sight not uncommon in a club, but it was occurring more often than usual. On Saturday, greeting and hugs where often accompanied by exclamations such as “Oh my God, how are you,” or, “It has been so long.”

Many people spoke not only of their personal history with the club, but about how that history fits into the changes society has undergone in the time that the club has been open. “This was the only place I could be myself,” said Gary Quick of New Albany, who also started hanging out at The Connection in the mid-‘90s. “At that time, you still didn’t come out — you just didn’t — and this is where I could come and be myself, and be with people like me.”

LEO reached co-owner Stinson by phone, and he also spoke of the rolling tide of history, and its effect on gay nightclub culture. “There were great strides taken in that time. In the three decades that it was there. So the forum of the gay club has changed drastically, because you can be gay anywhere.”

While LGBTQ people are starting to be welcome everywhere, there are still many things special about gay clubs, like the frequent drag shows The Connection has hosted throughout its history. On stage Saturday night, drag queens including Hurricane Summers strutted, and the audience was so packed, you had to squirm and swim against the bodies just to get to the bar. Summers and the rest always put on a good show, but there was an undeniable brightness to their performances as they walked that stage for the last time. The club’s patrons noticed this, forming lines at each side of the stage to hand over tips and dollar bills. The room was packed, and it could not be casually observed where the lines of tipping patrons ended and the audience began. Each queen this reporter saw ran out of music long before they finished collecting dollar bills.

The lit-up dance floor was almost as full. On a platform on one end of the floor, a pole stretched up to the ceiling, complete with a go-go dancing boy. He collected tips as well, and frequently stepped aside giving adventurous patrons a chance to try out the pole themselves.

Perhaps, as Stinson said, you can be gay anywhere now. But the dance floor, the drag show and the go-go boys suggest there is still something special about a specifically gay club. “We definitely have to have some place to go,” said Nixon.

Missy Vitale has been coming to connections since the first night it opened it 1988: “That night was Halloween, one of the best nights ever. They did a costume party, and we all came in, and it was a huge club, I mean, in the ’80s this was big. It drew everybody from everywhere.”

photo by Nerissa Sparkman - © www.nerissasparkman.com
© www.nerissasparkman.com
photo by Nerissa Sparkman

Vitale reflected on the growth of the gay community in the intervening 28 years. “You gotta remember, this is before AIDS really hit Louisville. It was a small community, a very hidden community, a bit taboo — which was fun.”

Vitale and many other patrons expressed a mix sadness and excitement about the future: “It had its moment, but they are moving on to another moment.”

Stinson and partner Lewis are ready to move on. After all, they have owned other clubs before, like The Connection’s predecessor, The New Downtowner. “Well, it’s just another page in one’s life, and the page turned, and now we’re on to bigger adventures,” said Stinson. That bigger adventure is a huge investment in Smoketown, between Floyd and Brook streets, which will include C-2, or Connection II, an event venue. “It’s a whole different business venture,” Stinson said. “A hotel, two restaurants, a 35,000-square-foot event space.” Stinson estimated that when all of the new spaces are open, they will employ between 150 and 175 workers and represent an investment of $21 million. Construction is projected to be finished by years end. "The contracting company tells me they will give us keys on Dec. 1," said Stinson. The event space will open shortly after, and be in operation by January. Stinson pointed out that while The Connection was a gay club, C-2 is a different beast: "It's an event space, you can rent it and put anything you want to in it.” The site of the The Connection is being sold for development into a hotel.

Young, the doorman, perhaps best encapsulated the bittersweet air of the evening: “There’s a lot of memories here. A lot of old memories. There’s new better, bigger things coming, but I don’t know if it’s gonna be the same.”