Farewell to the Palms, a bar — and a home — in West Hollywood
I remember the first time I walked into the Palms. It was late and packed; there were women everywhere, and the music was blaring. Through the haze of smoke, I could just make out the DJ booth in the back as the crowd moved to the beat of the music.
Struggling to get to the bar, I was both nervous and amazed at the sight. This was the first lesbian bar — first openly gay place, period — I’d ever been to, full of women just like me. I’ll never forget the rush of that feeling.
I finally noticed the bartender trying to get my attention, and I ordered the most sophisticated thing I could think of: an amaretto sour.
I laugh now, but I wasn’t laughing then. For the first time, I knew I wasn’t alone. And I felt safe.
I recently returned to the Palms on a warm Saturday night, a typical summer evening in West Hollywood. On the broad sidewalks lining Santa Monica Boulevard, crowds were flowing in and out of busy bars. Stepping inside, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim light.
Originally opened as a bar in the early 1950s, the Palms has the feel of an old watering hole. Deep and narrow, the long bar seems to stretch into infinity; a string of rope lights behind the bottles and a strip of purple neon overhead provide minimal light.
As my eyes adjusted, I could see the space that opens up farther back, a few lights casting a deep red shade over the worn wooden dance floor, several booths tucked into the corners.
This time, I’d come to bid the Palms goodbye.
The last remaining full-time lesbian bar in West Hollywood, a city arguably founded on LGBT rights, the Palms is slated to shut its doors at the end of Los Angeles Pride on Sunday.
The bar holds formative memories for countless women and men, spanning generations. Yet even as the news of the impending closure saddened the community, many would argue they saw it coming. Even I had seen it coming.
“Lesbian bars have outdated themselves; we have evolved,” said Michelle Agnew, co-creator with Linda Fusco of Fuse-Events, which hosts lesbian-centric events in cities including New York, Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco. Locally, it hosts the popular weekly Truck Stop LA event at Here Lounge in West Hollywood.
The Palms’ history as a bar dates back to at least 1953, according to records discovered by filmmakers Kate Eggert and Krisy Gosney, who are working on a documentary about the bar and building, which was originally constructed in 1930. The space came to be known as a quiet place for Hollywood to get away from fans and the press, a perfect location given its proximity to the clubs and recording studios in the surrounding area.
By the late 1960s, the Palms was a watering hole for rock ‘n’ roll royalty, serving the likes of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. While Tom Waits held court at the famous Tropicana Motel across the street, he would go to the Palms to escape fans, Eggert said.
“I met Roman Polanski [there] three days before he fled the country,” remembered longtime customer Jacci Ybarra. Later celebrities have included Ellen DeGeneres, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge.
Howard “Butch” Gottlieb and Jack Frohman owned the Palms by the mid-1970s. Gottlieb ran a number of gay bars at the time, and they brought in Norma Jasper from New York to run the new venture. Employees and regulars from the time credit Norma with molding the Palms into a lesbian bar.
Until the mid-1980s, many gay and lesbian bars had reputations for catering exclusively to one gender. Women have recounted being kicked out of gay bars for an offense as simple as “wearing heels.” Known for being inclusive, even the Palms had one manager known for removing men.
The AIDS crisis is largely credited with bringing the genders together. Indeed, during the early years, lesbians provided much of the care for their sick and dying gay friends.
“We went through the AIDS holocaust together and lost many a friend on Santa Monica Boulevard in those days,” said Marianne Basford, who worked at the Palms in the ‘80s. “We thought our world was ending. And it almost did.”
Although Shawne White, manager of the Palms, maintains the bar is not closing for lack of business — the property is to be redeveloped — she feels that lesbian bars may not be as necessary to the community as they once were.
“I blame Madonna for changing the course of lesbian history,” she joked, adding that the entertainer and others like her were instrumental in expanding society’s views on sexuality. Indeed, as homosexuality has started to lose its stigma, more gays and lesbians have come out and live openly.
I realized I was gay when I was 12 years old in the mid-1980s. Growing up in a conservative Lutheran household, I struggled for years to “make it go away.”
I finally accepted my sexuality in my early 20s, just as DeGeneres was coming out and had her first lesbian kiss on television. Living in Southern California, I was lucky enough to have numerous options and places to be out. But it was the Palms where I first felt at home.
The bar had its official closing party this past Sunday. Heading toward the bar, I remembered that first night long ago. Pausing for a second, I realized I was openly holding my partner’s hand as we walked down the street.
The Palms may not be as necessary for lesbians as it once was. Still, for so many women like me, it helped to shape who we became, and it will be missed.
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