In the three-plus decades since Bob Engel opened BJ's Carousel (1380 South Broadway), Denver's longest-running gay bar has gone through a number of ups and downs, from the oil boom and bust to losing a number of customers to AIDS in the '80s to taking a tough hit in the recent economic decline. Despite all the bumps, Engel says he hates to see BJ's coming to an end — but it will on July 31.
Engel has sold the bar he opened in 1977, and after it closes at the end of the month, it will become a straight bar. Engel, who'd been trying to sell the place for the last six years, says he's looking forward to retiring and traveling — something he hasn't had a chance to do over the last few years, since every dollar that's come in has gone back into keeping the bar open.
It wasn't always that way. Early on, BJ's attracted blue-collar workers and professionals alike who appreciated that it was a safe place to party. "About a year or two after we opened, the oil boom came along," Engel recalls. "A lot of people were working in the oil industry, and they had a lot of money to spend. And they did. Then we went through the bad '80s when the oil boom went bust — kind of like what we're going through now — with a lot of people losing their jobs and moving away. Then AIDS kicked in in the '80s; it was a double whammy there. But we stayed open, and there were a lot of times where you could walk in there and there might be three or four people sitting at the bar and that was it."
But BJ's has always been about more than the bar. The club's infamous weekly drag shows not only brought in customers, but those shows and the annual Carousel Balls, which ran for close to 28 years, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various charities and organizations, including the Colorado AIDS Project, where Engel once served as president.
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After all, he doesn't want to abandon his customers, or their causes, entirely. "That's why we're open," Engel notes. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be there. I just hope they'll be able to find some place to go to feel appreciated like we appreciate them. That's always been our mantra: There's only one star in this bar, and that's the guy who comes through the door to keep us open. And the rest of us are there to serve him and to take care of him and make him feel comfortable and welcome."
That attitude was part of what made BJ's "Denver's friendliest gay bar and restaurant," as it bills itself on its website. But the bar also welcomed a number of straight people. "There have been a lot of people who have come through the doors, and it's their first time ever being in a gay bar," Engel says. "They were just scared to death, but the customers have kind of taken them under their wings and helped them through it."
When BJ's finally closes its doors, Engel is urging regulars to head down the block to the Black Crown Lounge (1446 South Broadway), a gay-friendly piano bar that opened in May. "I hope they're able to go there and find the same people and the same camaraderie that we have at the bar," he concludes.
Club scout: On Thursday, July 14, the Stampede will kick off Ultimate Thursdays, an eighteen-and-over GLBT dance night when guest DJs will spin house, Top 40 and dance every week; there's also a free appetizer buffet from 7 to 9 p.m. (After 9 p.m., the cover is $5.) Also on July 14, Oak Tavern (1416 Market Street) will host the Denver Outlaws lacrosse team for an official meet-and-greet, with a pre-party presented by Ruckus Apparel.