Losing The Connection 

The dance club that redefined gay Nashville nightlife shuts its doors

The dance club that redefined gay Nashville nightlife shuts its doors

Last weekend, Russell Yarbrough did something he hadn't done in 12 years of Saturday nights: he stayed home. For more than a decade, Saturday night for DJ Russell was a surging wave of heads and bodies 30 feet below his booth at The Connection, Nashville's largest dance club. Now—as the gay publication Church Street Freedom Press announced last week in a front-page headline—the party's over.

The massive nightspot that billed itself, not implausibly, as the country's largest dance club shut down two weeks ago in the bleary morning hours after the 3 a.m. closing time. In an email to the gay newspaper Xenogeny, Louisville-based owners George Stinson and Ed Lewis thanked the city for a 12-year run but decided "we just don't have the time to give the attention to the Nashville Connection that it needs."

When The Connection padlocked its doors Feb. 26, it closed another chapter in the development of the city's GLBT community. The history of gay life in Nashville has often been measured in nightclubs. In the 1960s, Juanita's in the Commerce Street red-light district provided a safe haven for hassled patrons; in the 1980s, the industrial dance complex The Warehouse operated without incident near staid Berry Hill. The long-lived Chute on Franklin Road is a social history unto itself.

But The Connection, all 44,000 square feet of it, brought gay Nashville into the mainstream like no club before it.

"It gave everyone a great sense of pride," says Todd Roman, who moved from Louisville to open the club's Nashville location. "It bridged the gap between gay and straight—it brought out all those people who didn't feel comfortable going into some small out-of-the-way bar. It put the city on the map."

In the early '90s, Stinson and Lewis already had a successful Connection operating in Louisville and wanted to expand. They picked Nashville, which was close enough to commute and had almost no competition. What was here, Roman observes dryly, "wasn't real hip."

The first Connection opened at Fifth and Demonbreun in a site once occupied by a Cadillac dealership. At the time, it triggered a major social shift in the city. As The Connection was opening, Roman explains, the gay scene in Nashville revolved around local "celebrities" who held court at chosen bars: they, not the bars, were the attraction. When the splashy, flashy Connection came to town, suddenly the club was the draw—not the clientele.

If that alienated much of the older, established crowd, it made The Connection a hit upon arrival. Not only did it draw away The Warehouse's business, it eventually hired DJ Russell, who had built a loyal following at the Franklin Road club. "They told me they were tired of hearing my name," Yarbrough remembers. His first New Year's Eve at the club, he recalls, was "an undulating sea of tuxedos and hair and noisemakers."

In a rash move, after only two years, the club decided to relocate to the enormous, unused Nashville Center Stages facility in a Cowan Street industrial district by the river. Relatively remote and enormous, it could have been a disaster.

Instead, the club became a sensation far beyond the Nashville city limits. Suddenly the city was a destination in gay travel guides, then on websites. "It was a great place to take friends from out of town," says Chad Hughes, a patron who moved here in 1997 to attend MTSU. "I'd bring in people from Atlanta or D.C., and they would just be amazed at the size of the place."

The new Connection had a patio, a fountain and a huge lobby with mirrors, black-and-white tile and French doors. Beyond that lay a gift shop and a second lobby. From there, a lonesome cowboy could mosey over to the C&W club, or a straight Vandy frat kid could head straight for the giggling bachelorettes at the bar. ("I've always said gay bars are the best place in the world for straight guys to pick up women," Roman says.) The space was needed. Saturday nights at the club routinely drew close to 2,000 people, and cars would line Cowan Street for blocks.

For thunderstruck small-town boys, who often fled inhospitable childhoods and high-school hell, it was "a palace," Hughes says. One early customer was a kid from a "super-religious" upbringing who had just served a stint in the Navy and had never seen the inside of a gay bar. His first time there, he sat alone at a small round table sipping a Sprite, his legs trembling. That night the kid began to disappear, and in his place a Connection goddess was born: Calpernia Addams.

"It was so cool to be in a building with 2,000 other gay people," says Addams, who now lives in Hollywood and just finished playing a saloon gal on Deadwood. As a pre-operative transsexual, she says, "you're such a minority you're always walking around wondering who else is out there."

After what she recalls as a disastrous Talent Night appearance ("I did 'Rhythm of the Night,' " she says with a shudder), Addams finally honed her act enough to join the club's hugely popular drag shows. It was not uncommon on Saturday nights to find the theater's two-tiered balcony full, drawn by star attractions such as Bianca Paige, Rita Ross and Mahogany. Addams soon took her place among the club's superstars, with "a dressing room the size of an efficiency apartment," as she remembers. She would do her signature "Pussy Song," in her costume of teddy-bear heads and a strategically placed Kit-Kat bar, while fans threw money. "I felt like a rock star," she says.

The club had its darker side. Pay was low, and the temptations of club life were many. "I saw drugs mess up a lot of people's lives," Addams says. One staffer claims you could practically chart the early years by chemical stimulants: coke, ecstasy, GHB. More lethal, though, were glimpses of the outside intolerance that belied the club's all-embracing vibe. The most notorious case was the brutal murder of Barry Winchell, a 21-year-old Fort Campbell private whom Addams had befriended at The Connection. In 1999, he was beaten to death in his sleep in an apparent hate crime. The convicted accomplice was reportedly the same person who introduced him to the club.

Still, The Connection itself was one of the few places in Nashville where openly gay and straight audiences mingled with ease. As the club's renown spread, country stars such as Trisha Yearwood, Le Ann Rimes and The Dixie Chicks came to check things out. Straight girls could dance among buff, shirtless male bodies without gropes or getting hit on—although Roman remarks that some women couldn't handle the sudden lack of interest.

The Connection's fortunes began to shift with the rise of Church Street's booming gay nightclub district. By all accounts, the nail in the coffin was Play—the gleaming new dance hub whose owners include Todd Roman and Tribe impresario David Taylor. Suddenly, The Connection saw its Saturday-night crowd dwindle to a few hundred. At a smaller club, that would be a respectable crowd. At The Connection, it looked like a huddle in a gymnasium.

What's more, the Church Street club owners were visible and active in the community in ways the Louisville ownership never was. And they poured new money into their clubs. Had The Connection invested in serious upgrades, some say, there might not have been room for a Play.

What no one disputes, though, is that The Connection took gay nightlife in Nashville to a new level—"a blueprint for tolerance," as Yarbrough puts it. "If you look at where we are today socially," Roman says, "the lines between gay and straight are much less defined."

Rumors of The Connection's imminent demise had been circulating for several weeks. But employees were still stunned to see the club close without notice. Most left that Saturday night thinking the place was going to remodel. Russell Yarbrough got the news from a voice-mail message, after 12 years of work. No plans for the facility have been announced.

Which leaves only memories—and for most people who passed through The Connection's French doors, those involve New Year's Eve. Every year it was a madhouse, with people jammed in every doorway and corner. Every year DJ Russell would put on his warbly 45 of Guy Lombardo's "Auld Lang Syne," and at the stroke of midnight balloons would rain from the ceiling. From above, remembers Danny Proctor, editor of the Church Street Freedom Press and a Nashville theater veteran, "it looked like a scene out of Penny Serenade. Or Hieronymous Bosch."

More vivid, to Russell Yarbrough, is the last call that always followed. "From my perspective, 30 feet in the air, the floor was nothing but black-and-white tile," he says. "But there wouldn't be a tile in sight. There'd be snowflakes twirling around the room from the glitter ball, and when the lights came up there'd be this collective, 'Awwww!' Those weren't the people who paid my check, but they gave me more value than anything."

Is there anything he won't miss about The Connection? DJ Russell thinks for a minute, then laughs. "Not much," he says. "I won't miss people hollering, 'Play Cher!' "

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