The Garage, a legendary gay hotspot, is coming back
by Bob Vitale
The first time David Ryan stepped into a gay bar, it was so awful – dark, dingy, depressing – he went back into the closet.
Then he entered the Garage. (Cue the ’80s dance music. Cut to the men with moustaches and high-waisted jeans bitching about Ronald Reagan.)
“It was New Years Eve 1988. … When I entered into the Garage, it was like I died and went to gay heaven! It was loud with crazy lights and lots of guys who were out to party and hook up. I got hit on by at least three guys but was a nube and went home with my new friends who took me there.”
Ryan, now 50, is a lifelong Columbus resident who maintains a website called ColumbusGayBars.com. The Garage, he says, was an LGBT institution where the drinks were strong, the music was good and everyone – all races, gay, straight, guy, girl, young, old – got along.
Fast forward to 2013. Dance music from the ’80s is back again, but the hair is better and the jeans are more flattering.
And the Garage is coming back for a new generation.
In the same space Downtown where it enjoyed a run that spanned three decades from the early 1970s to 1995, business partners Mike Gallicchio, Chris Corso and Brian Swanson plan to resurrect the Garage. With more than 10,000 square feet, the new place will feature three distinct environments: a lounge as patrons enter from Long Street, a Florida room-style patio with a retractable roof, and a dance club with sound and light systems they promise will be state-of-the-art.
The new Garage will flip on the disco lights sometime this winter, but the exact opening date has yet to be set. Renovations and redecorating are set to begin in January. The club will be open on Saturdays to start.
The buildings at 40 E Long St, between High and Third, are known now as the Long Street District. Gallicchio and his partners at The CGS Group (Park Street Cantina, Park Street Patio, the Social Room) came in after its last occupant, Club Ice, shut down in 2010.
The three CGS partners are straight, and the Garage is their first business foray into gay nightlife. Gallicchio knows the scene well, though, and he vows to be an active supporter of the GLBT community.
“We loved the Garage. We came here and hung out,” he said while walking through the place in December. He got his start DJ’ing there in the 1980s.
He says he wants the club to attract the same people – everyone – that the old Garage drew in. But it’ll be more than just another gay-friendly place, he said.
“It’s a gay bar. Yes, absolutely.”
Like other gays of a certain age, Maria Garrison remembers stepping into the Garage and into a whole new world.
“It was the first bar I went to,” said the reigning Miss Garage. She was crowned in 1995, the year the club closed.
“It was a place for me to go, a place I could step into and feel like I was part of something. I could be comfortable with being myself and not worry about what other people thought.”
Garrison will be in charge of entertainment at the new Garage. She has big plans.
“A little bit of something in every corner,” she says. “Boys on dancing boxes. Girls on dancing boxes. Really cool theme parties. Shot girls and shot boys. You name it, we want to have it.”
There will be a stage in the front lounge for drag shows and a bar running almost the entire length of the room. What was called Trends in the old days will have an upscale but laid-back vibe.
Through a hallway, people will move from the lounge to the patio, which Gallicchio sees as “bamboo-ish” and tropical, with palm trees and light colors. It’s as long as the main dance club behind it but much narrower. It’ll be another spot to get out of the crowd, have a seat, relax.
“We’re bringing a big mirror ball over,” Gallicchio says as he steps onto the club’s dance floor. One column already has been made over to house the LED lights that will be synchronized to the music.
There are two bars in the dance club, a stage, and an area (“don’t call it VIP,” Gallicchio says) for groups and private parties. And back in a corner, there’s a black corrugated-steel garage door that’s the bar’s namesake.
With many local performers locked into contracts elsewhere, Garrison says drag shows will feature big-name out-of-town acts, independent Columbus queens and local up-and-comers.
She pictures the new Garage as a cross between Level and Dayton’s Club Masque. But then again, “I really don’t know of another bar I could relate it to.”
Garrison and Gallicchio say they hope the Garage will make Downtown a gay destination again. Ryan and others remember constant traffic between a host of Downtown bars that have all since gone away.
“I called it the gay triangle of the Garage, the Eagle bar and Herbie’s, as all were Downtown and close to each other,” Ryan said. “When I came out I went out almost every night, and if the Eagle was not active I would just walk down to the Garage.”
JD Martin, a Columbus native who’s now a fashion designer in Dallas, calls himself a “Garage guy.”
“It seemed massive at the time, and it was the place to be seen. There was a huge dance floor right in the middle where everybody congregated. I remember dancing ’til the lights came on, then heading to Jon’s Village Junction in German Village for breakfast (and to catch up with that cute guy that you’d be giving bus fare in the morning).
“And my outfit of choice: a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, over a baseball shirt. It was a step up from the headbands and double-wrap belts of the Kismet days.”
Those are the types of memories Garrison wants to create for today’s crowd.
Well, maybe minus the sleeveless sweatshirts and double-wrap belts.
“I think it’s going to be a place for everyone,” she says. “I want young people in 25 years to be telling people, ‘This was the first gay bar I went to.’”
Bob Vitale can be reached at email@example.com.
Share your memories of the Garage and other Columbus gay bars of the past at www.outlookcolumbus.com or on our Facebook page (like us at Outlook Columbus Magazine). Got pictures? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.