Newport’s Only Gay Bar Closes

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday May 25, 2006

GLBT locals and tourists in Newport, R.I., no longer have a place to call their own. The City by the Sea's only gay bar is now just a memory.

Plagued by controversy from the time they opened Castaways on Solar Winds at 28 Prospect Hill St., owners and life partners Lionel Pires and Alan Dillabough have thrown in the bar towel.

On May 24, the Newport City Council unanimously approved the transfer of Castaways' liquor license to Mach I, the tentative name of a new bar that will stay at the Prospect Hill Street site until its owner finds a new location, likely within a few months, along Thames Street, the heart of the city's tourist district. Castaways' owners sold the license to Mach I owner Mark Lester. The Prospect Hill Street building will become a private residence for a Massachusetts couple not identified by Pires or Dillabough.

A stone's throw from Thames Street, 28 Prospect Hill St. has been a bar for 117 years--dating not quite to the days when Newport was one point on the triangle trade route between the Caribbean, Africa and America.

Before Newport was overrun by tourists, the city had two faces. One was a summer home for the wealthiest families in America. The other was a gritty, busy shipping port and one of two headquarters for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Sailors and seamen used to bend many an elbow at the bar--one of many in the vicinity--at all hours of the day and night. The long mahogany bar installed when it opened was still there when Castaways closed.

The watering hole has had many names in its long history: The Emerald Cafe, The Kangaroo and--when it became gay in the late 1960s--David's. As a gay bar named after its first owner, David's was one of the few Newport clubs with a dance floor and a popular hangout, locals say. The location operated as Club 28 from 1984 to 1992. Then another owner bought the site and restored the David's name.

David's owners sold the bar and its liquor license in 1999 to someone who reopened it as Club Craz, a straight club aimed at a clientele of students at Salve Regina University. That lasted only 16 months and was the start of the location's controversial phase. The bar is located along a quiet, residential street and neighbors complained about the loud noise and slovenly behavior of the customers, often typical of a place where a college crowd gathers.

Pires and Dillabough bought the building, which also has an upstairs apartment where they lived, in 2003, but inherited its recent bad image and so faced opposition from the outset. Neighbors, burned by the experience with Club Craz, didn't want to hear about the location's return to a gay bar, even though during its days as David's it had a reputation as a quiet spot that was rarely the subject of police calls.

Castaways also faced roadblocks from city government. Pires and Dillabough were unable to obtain the license that had been held by Club Craz, because the city council had revoked its license after a police raid resulted in the arrests of 30 underage patrons. Through lobbying and support by members of the local gay community and others, the owners finally were granted a liquor license transferred from another establishment.

"Clearly, people now have disappeared back in their homes and have no place to go."

Then on March 13, 2004, just as the owners were preparing for Newport's big St. Patrick's Day festivities, Castaways was vandalized. Joseph Lungarelli of North Kingstown, R.I., eventually pleaded no contest to vandalism after smashing the front windows with a baseball bat. Lungarelli was ordered to stop drinking, seek counseling, apologize to Pires and Dillabough, and pay the cost of replacing the windows. Because the incident was deemed a hate crime, Lungarelli could have faced 30 days in prison, but the city withdrew the request after consulting with Pires and Dillabough.

The owners were able to get the place cleaned up in time for the March 17 parade. Newport's mayor, Providence Mayor David Cicilline and Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch visited Castaways after they marched to offer support.

The bar never was the success Pires and Dillabough thought it would be. In an interview with EDGE May 25, Pires said business never really took off during the week, and they eventually cut back weekday hours and closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Weekend business was better, thanks to the out-of-state gay tourist trade, but pressured by neighbors, the city restricted use of the outdoor patio. No alcohol could be served on the patio and eventually patrons weren't even allowed to drink it there.

The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was the city's ordering closing the patio at 9 p.m., Pires said. "It would have been impossible to make any money without the use of the patio," he explained. "It was really the draw in the summer."

Castaways never had a violation, even though one neighbor called the police every weekend, he added. "The police came every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night like clockwork even though they knew we weren't in violation. We had a decibel meter and the doorman kept a log of readings."

After Robert Sexton, a tenant in a house on the other side of the fence from Castaways, had collected 19 signatures on a petition asking that the patio close early, the city council imposed the 9 p.m. patio restriction May 24, when the license transfer was approved.

"It was really not worth it," Pires told EDGE. The Castaways' closing means gay locals and tourists won't have a place to go where they feel comfortable. He especially empathizes with the locals. "Isolation is suffering," he explained. He said the weeknight regulars were "interesting people in the community we really miss." Unfortunately, they were only a handful. "Clearly, people now have disappeared back in their homes and have no place to go."

Pires said he and his partner will stay in Newport until summer's end, then likely move out of Rhode Island, perhaps to the west coast of Canada because Dillabough is Canadian and they plan to get married there because it is legal. "We want to decompress from this a bit," Pires said.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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