The other night I watched a documentary called Gay Sex In The 70s. It's about gay sex in the 70s, and at one point the film delves into the world of gay bathhouses. This old ad for a place called Man's Country caught my eye. What a friendly gym it seemed to be.
Chuck Renslow, a leading light of the Chicago gay scene during the entirety of the late 20th century (as publisher, bar owner and political activist) opened the very popular Man's Country Chicago in 1972. With fantasy rooms including "a full-size model of an Everlast truck where visitors could have sex in the cab or in the rear," Man's Country is legendary. In the early 70s Bette Midler launched herself here, accompanied by Barry Manilow on piano as Bette flung poppers into the crowd. However, some contemporary reviews I found are less than complimentary, with folk describing "a horrible state of disrepair," "the stench of very stale poppers," and "air so hot and humid it was hard to breathe." I called up Mr. Renslow for a little chinwag.
Vice: I read that when you bought and renovated the club in 1972 you found the remains of a speakeasy in there.
Chuck Renslow: I wouldn't say it was a speakeasy, we found the remains of gambling equipment. It was a private club before we bought it, a Swedish club. But yeah, we found poker tables and slot machine bases and so forth, and hidden walls that went up and down.
Did you make use of the hidden walls?
No, not at all. We tore them all out.
And you found a skeleton under the stage?
We found an artificial skeleton under the stage, not a real one. It used to be a lodge, and that was part of the initiation process.
A Freemasons' lodge?
Yeah. It was like a medical skeleton.
What did you do with it?
Somebody stole it!
Of course. I've been reading about your fantasy rooms. Have you still got the truck room?
The truck was removed about three years ago. I used to own a leather bar in the same building, and we closed that. The truck was just an entrance to the leather bar.
What about the fake prison, is that still there?
Oh yeah. We have a lot of fetish rooms. About a dozen. With lots of devices in them.
Are some of the rooms more popular than others?
Not really. We have a heavy fetish clientele, because of my reputation in the community, I run the International Mr. Leather competition, and I opened up the first leather bar in the United States. We've had fetish rooms in here since we opened. They've always been popular.
How has the club changed over the years?
Oh, we've changed quite a bit over the years. In the early days we had a lot of entertainment, we had a lot of top stars. Now it's strictly a bathhouse. We still have entertainment on the weekends, but now it's male strippers.
You had Bette Midler perform in the early 70s, before she was famous. What was she like, was she popular?
The crowd loved her. We had her, we had Sally Rand, the stripper, we had - what were those six guys who sung? I forgot their name.
The Village People?
Yes. The Village People. They were here.
I heard you had Divine on in the late 80s.
Yes we did. As a matter of fact we were the last place that Divine ever performed.
How was he?
The show was terrific, but I remember we'd got his contract before and I didn't think I was going to like this man. Because the contract said he had to have his own room, which was fine. But he had to have a guard posted outside it, and after he got off the show, he had to go into that room, and he had to have the guard outside and a gallon of iced water inside. And the guard would make sure nobody came in for half an hour after the show. And I thought, "My god, this guy's so strict with this, I don't think I'm going to like him." But when he got here he was the most wonderful, nicest person you could ever imagine. And he explained to me the reason he had the guard out there was because he expended so much energy in his show with the dancing and everything, that after the show he had to lay flat on the floor, to look after his heart and catch up with his breath, and he didn't want anybody to bother him. He was a wonderful person. And he died shortly after he left here.
What was his show like, was it edgy?
Not particularly. I don't remember. It was good, he had some off-color jokes, but so what.
In terms of entertainment now, you just have male strippers. Why is that? Do you think if you had cabaret acts and singers today, they wouldn't go down so well?
No, because don't forget in those days when we did that we were the gay cabaret and people came here because they weren't welcome in other places. Today gay people are welcome all over - why come here when you can just go get a drink at some bar? Times have changed. Once the attitudes towards gay life, and especially leather men and everything started to change, then all our people started to go to regular bars. Two or three blocks from here there's a cabaret bar and they've got some top notch acts in there, and it's mixed, they get lesbians, gay men, straight people… they don't have to come here any more. At a time, we were the only place for gay people to come.
In terms of just hanging out, as well as just for sex?
Right. A common misconception is that people come here just for sex, and that's not true. A lot of people come here just to be with their own kinds of people. Birds of a feather flock together. Lovers come here, just because they enjoy the atmosphere, they enjoy the strippers, they don't necessarily want sex. If they want it, it's available, yeah they'll grab it, but they're really here to be with people of their own kind.
Is there generally not as much demand for bathhouses today?
Oh absolutely. Much less demand. People can meet on the internet now. A lot of gay bars are going down, there used to be a dozen leather bars in Chicago, now there are only two. And the one thing that's really saving bathhouses is that if someone meets someone on the internet and they don't want to go to each other's house, they can meet here. It's neutral ground. But things have changed, yeah. More people cruise on the internet now than anywhere else.
Has the clientele changed?
Well the only change that I've really noticed that sort of amazed me is the amount of bisexuals that are coming in. That's really increased. And it's strange, I've seen wives dropping their husbands off.
Yeah. It's become much more open.
How's business at the moment?
It goes up and down. It's in a slump right now, once the economy thing hit we really took a beating, but we're starting to come up.
I found some reviews online and some people talk quite negatively about how the club hasn't changed since the 70s, particularly in terms of decor and environment. A few of them talk about the smell. They say it's not too clean in there.
Well I hear that too, but here's what the problem is - we've had the health department investigate us and we are clean, I've got two clean-up people, this place is spotless - the problem is, it's old. And a lot of people equate it to these new bathhouses, and yeah: we look tacky by comparison. But we are clean. We just put new carpet in the whole place. Our competitors on the other hand don't even have carpeting, they've got nice tiled floors. We're 35 years old. But it's not a question of whether we're dirty or anything. As far as odor, there's odor in every damned bathhouse you go to. We can't help that, some people stink.
Indeed. I wondered if maybe the smell is even a selling point to some people.
Oh yeah, some people like it. There's no question about that.