Alberta’s queer nightlife is seeing a number of changes with Play Nightclub in Edmonton closing its doors this month and three new gay bars on the scene.
Club Sapien in Calgary held its grand opening on July 29. The Junction is set to open in Edmonton on Aug 13, and a third gay bar, Flash, opened in Edmonton in May. Play will close on Aug 14.
For the past several years, Twisted Element has been the only gay nightclub in Calgary — until now. This is one reason why Mike Gray has opened Club Sapien — to give the community choice, he says.
“We’re trying to do our best to build the community,” says Gray. “To be able to go to more than one place makes people come out more frequently.”
At the grand opening, Club Sapien was lined up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. When its full-service restaurant opened last Monday, Gray says the bar “just got busier and busier.”
“It was phenomenal,” he says. “People just had absolute gratitude for a new place opening up, and I was shocked. We were happy to have people there and happy to be providing the service, but we didn’t know how well received we’d be, and it was very touching, actually.”
Most queer establishments in Calgary sent flowers to Club Sapien, welcoming the new bar to the city.
But the owner of Twisted, RJ Fafard, hasn’t been as hospitable.
“We’re still the only gay nightclub in Calgary,” says Fafard, refusing to acknowledge that Club Sapien is queer and a nightclub. He refers to it as “a restaurant with a dancefloor.”
“It’s not a gay bar,” he says. “It has a straight owner, and there’s not even any Pride flags on it. There’s nothing gay about it.”
Gray confirmed that 100 percent of the ownership is queer and says the Pride flags he ordered haven’t arrived yet.
Regardless, Fafard says Calgary’s economy and the city’s “fragmented” queer community can’t sustain two gay nightclubs.
He points to when Twisted opened in 2004. Back then, Calgary was home to a dozen gay establishments, says Fafard, including two other dance bars — Detour and Boyztown. Only Twisted and a few gay lounges remain.
But Gray says he’s already seeing people at Club Sapien who haven’t been out in years.
“It used to be on a Saturday night some people were hesitant to go out because there were big lines and they never knew if they were going to get in or have fun, and now it’s almost a guarantee,” he says. “You can come out on a Saturday night and have two nightclubs within a couple blocks of each other to choose from.”
He says it’s a “win-win situation” for both Club Sapien and Twisted.
Club Sapien is open Mondays, 5-11pm, and Tuesday-Sunday, 5pm to close. It is located at 1140 10th Ave SW.
When the majority owner of Boots ‘n’ Saddles — Edmonton’s longest-running gay bar — passed away in March, the bar closed its doors, leaving its regular clientele — mostly gay men — without a gathering place. Many started going to Prism, a lesbian bar.
Deborah Chymyshyn, co-owner of Prism, says everyone got along “just fine.” They got along so well, that Chymyshyn and her wife, Tracey Smith, are opening a new, inclusive bar, the Junction, where Boots used to be.
“In creating the Junction, we wanted a space where it wasn’t deemed the girl bar or the boy bar,” says Chymyshyn. “This is for everybody.”
The new space is more than double the size of Prism, which will be closing this summer.
“Everything’s been moving along at lightning speed,” Chymyshyn says.
The Junction will have a full-service restaurant where Garage Burger used to be (next to Boots), and it will be licensed to allow minors from 11am to 8pm. The menu will be a combination of what was served at Prism and Garage Burger in an old-style diner atmosphere to convey a nostalgic feeling.
Nostalgia is an important part of the Junction’s vision, says Chymyshyn. To commemorate the past 30 years, a committee will gather memorabilia from Edmonton’s queer community and assemble large collages on the walls.
“The whole idea of opening the Junction is to remember who we are, where we’ve come from, the path that we’ve taken up until now, celebrate where we are today… and then unite and build a future together,” Chymyshyn says.
The name, Junction, was chosen to symbolize a coming together of the community, she adds.
The bar is already starting to book up, with a farewell party for Prism, a bear bash and a women’s games night later this month.
“There’s an excitement and a buzz going on that I haven’t experienced in Edmonton,” says Chymyshyn, “and it’s so neat to be a part of all of that.”
The Junction is located at 10242-106 St and will celebrate its grand opening on Fri, Aug 13 at 8pm.
Dubbing itself “Edmonton’s hottest new gay club,” Flash opened its doors in early May and has been lined up on weekends ever since.
“I’m overwhelmed by the positive response by the gay community,” says Jeannine Bjornson, owner of Flash.
After running straight bars for the past 12 years, Bjornson, who is bisexual, says she saw an untapped market in Edmonton for an upper-scale, gay nightclub and lounge in downtown Edmonton. When she found “the perfect location,” she jumped on it, and flipped the space in three weeks.
“Word spread like wildfire,” she says.
Tiny disco balls hang from the ceiling of the 250-capacity club, and the inside is covered in slate, rock and granite.
“I’ve heard over and over again that Edmonton has needed this for a long time,” Bjornson says. “That’s the thing with bars — straight or gay — whatever is new and flashiest is going to be hot. You’ve got to maintain it so you have longevity.”
Bjornson says Flash hasn’t taken business away from Buddy’s — another queer nightclub with an established clientele — but she says it has affected Play, which opened two years ago and is closing its doors on Aug 14.
“My ownership is pulling out,” says Corey Wyness, general manager of Play.
Play is owned by Oil City Hospitality, which runs several straight bars in Edmonton.
Wyness rejected the idea that Play is closing because of competition from Flash.
“The market was kind of on its decline already, and I know my ownership was thinking, ‘Well, how can we change the concept a little bit or make it so we can get more people in here?'”
Wyness says the market has declined because queers don’t go out as regularly as they used to. He says gay bars still serve an important purpose, but more queers are frequenting straight bars nowadays.
“We’re living in an age, too, where a lot of our consumers like to go to the mainstream bars,” he says. “They don’t necessarily need a gay bar anymore all the time.”
When Oil City changes the concept of Play, the new bar will still welcome queers, says Wyness, but it won’t be targeted specifically to the queer community.
Meanwhile, Bjornson says she “couldn’t be happier” with Flash.
This is the first queer nightclub that Bjornson has managed, and there’s no turning back, she says.
“In 12 years, this is my favourite venue that I’ve ever done,” she says. “The gay community has just been awesome.”
Flash is located at 10018-105 St. Play will close after a final performance of the Saturday Night Live series in the ForePlay Lounge at 10220-103 St on Sat, Aug 14 at 8pm.