Admit it, it’s a freaking hassle going out to State Street on any particular night of the week. This is especially true if the straight scene in Santa Barbara has little to offer you.
Gay bars in this city are few and far between. Chameleon is long gone, as is Fathom and most recently Gold Coast. Despite decades of faithful patronage and often having the dubious honor of being the only gay hangout in town, the latest bar to close its doors fell victim to the escalating costs of running a business so close to State Street. While some downtown bars may occasionally experiment with a gay night, it usually involves the spectacle of a drag show to draw in crowds. No gay club has managed to survive long in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara.
Away from the lights and cruising cars of State Street, quite literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, lies the most recent addition to Santa Barbara’s nightlife. I remember hearing rumors of such a place back in May. “They’re opening a new gay club off Montecito Street.” Of course, my first concern was the isolated location.
Despite the growing anticipation that most gay men in Santa Barbara felt just waiting for this new hangout to open, I found it hard to muster similar excitement. Call it what you will, I was simply pessimistic about the longevity of an establishment located so far from the other clubs downtown.
But as I am not one to dwell on my pessimism for long, last Saturday I grabbed a few friends and embarked on a Dante-like quest to explore the inner realms of Hades
Parking the car, I wondered whether the events of this past week, which glued the entire nation to its television sets, might have kept potential punters indoors. My fears were soon allayed as I paid the $5 cover charge and entered through the gates. Rest assured, Hades has a healthy population.
The club’s layout sets it apart from the majority of places downtown. The bar is located right at the entrance and far enough away from the dance floor to provide fast and easy access for thirsty patrons, without any of that unseemly elbowing and drink spillage. I made a beeline for the bar and ordered a Sapphire and tonic to calm my nerves. Did I mention the bartenders offer up some tempting eye candy for weary travelers? Of course a majority of the clientele are gay, but Hades’ owner Clark Garls remarked that a large number of straight people frequent the club for its safe and congenial atmosphere.
While Hades certainly has little of the meat market odor that permeates through many of the State Street clubs, it is clear that Hades focuses on providing a safe haven for Santa Barbara’s queer community.
One of the club’s go-go dancers and UCSB alumnus, Natalie Aston, stressed that gay clubs, as past examples have shown, don’t do well on Santa Barbara’s main drag.
“I don’t think any club like this can survive on State Street. … [Hades’] location is great for people who are still in the closet,” she said. “People don’t get ridiculed here.”
Hades has no shortage of the eccentrically dressed. From glammed-out drag queens to go-go dancers, it is clear that this club encourages people to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment. Taking a break from performing that night, Buffy, one of the drag queens, sipped a cocktail amid a crowd of admirers.
“It’s a perfect location – nobody has to worry about blending in,” she said. “It’s a great place, you know everyone and it’s a great atmosphere.”
Probably most notable at Hades is the eclectic mix of punters. While the perv bars on State Street make even a 24-year old feel geriatric, Hades attracts a significantly more diverse crowd with a wide range of ages and ethnicities accounted for.
“There are a lot of different people here,” Garl said. “There is a very present Hispanic/Latino neighborhood where many residents first visit out of curiosity, but then continue to visit the club. We like to try to give the Latino community somewhere to go.”
With so many different ages present in the crowd, people want and need different things from this club. Hades offers a DJ mixing tracks and a full-on dance floor as well as a patio area for smokers and a quieter room for playing pool.
Michael Manson, a regular at Hades and long-time member of the Santa Barbara gay community, described Hades as a place to get away in Santa Barbara.
“I feel this place is an oasis in a desert of heterosexual abandonment,” he said. “There are so many straight places and there is only one [bar] where we can be who we are. It’s nice to go someplace where everyone is like you.”
Hades’ owner believes the key to a long life in the nightclub business is a responsible attitude toward patrons and emphasizes the importance of building up a sense of community. Perhaps a note to State Street bars: Hades’ management will do just about anything to ensure that its clientele makes it home safely.
“Pay the bar and we’ll pay the cab,” Garl said. “We assume responsibility [for our patrons]. …We respect our neighbors. We haven’t had a single noise complaint.”
As for the longevity of a place like this, well, time will tell. But what I do know is that if homosexuals are going to hell, let’s hope that it is a place like Hades. A quick warning, however: pray that you don’t need to take a pitstop in hell – waiting for Hades’ one restroom is pure torture!