Windy City Media Group Frontpage News


home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-09-06



If These Walls Could Talk: Man's Country anniversary
by Owen Keehnen

This article shared 8306 times since Thu Sep 13, 2012
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Rudolf Nureyev ran naked down these hallways shouting, "Who wants to swing on a star?" Wayland Flowers and Paul Lynde showed up one night in a limo; later Wayland roamed the halls wearing a towel; his puppet, Madame, was on his hand in curlers and a chenille robe.

Specialty dancer and silent film star Sally Rand entranced her towel clad audience with her balloon dance on this stage. Countless men explored their sexual nature in the rooms along these labyrinthian corridors. Sexual awareness and abandon, devastation and education have happened beneath this roof. The cornerstones of community were strengthened here. Lifetime friendships were born here as were five-minute and five-decade romances. Nearly 40 years of gay history live within these walls.

Forty years ago The Waltons and M*A*S*H began their long television runs and the campaign in the news was Nixon running for reelection against McGovern. Bobby Fischer was chess champion of the world and 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian gunmen at the Summer Olympics in Munich. A postage stamp was eight cents, a gallon of gas was 55 cents, and the average cost of a new home was $27,600. It was also 40 years ago when Chuck Renslow first toured the multi-unit structure on the 5000 block of North Clark and realized its potential. At the time Renslow owned the enormously popular Gold Coast leather bar and several other Chicago businesses. He'd owned bathhouses before. At the time he was co-owner of the Club Baths in Chicago, Kansas City and Phoenix.

After seeing the space, Renslow took a gamble and sold his share of the Club Baths as well as a building on Belmont and bought the structure at 5017 N. Clark St. His partner in the purchase and in life was Dom Orejudos, also known as the erotic artist Etienne. Renslow had a dream about this new endeavor. Taking his initial inspiration from the Continental Baths in New York, Renslow began extensive renovations. His goal was to create not just a bathhouse, but an entertainment complex.

Built in 1907 as a lodge hall and fraternal organization, the building provided several surprises during the renovation. There was strong evidence of on-site gambling. One room was built behind a steel bolted door that contained poker tables with a separate staircase for a hasty escape. Another room had a rising door and inside only brackets remained which were inscribed Bally's Manufacturing. Slot machines had been mounted there. A skeleton was also found during the overhaul though the truth is hardly as diabolical as it sounds. It was the sort used in university classrooms with numbered bones and a steel hinge on the jaw.

Initial renovations took almost a year. When Man's Country first opened on September 19, 1973, it was just one floor. Renslow recalled, "The first night we opened, it was free." At the time in order to be a member of a bathhouse and purchase a membership, a person had to be invited by a member. Since Man's Country was a new business this created an obvious problem. How do you invite members when you don't have any members to extend the invitation? Renslow had a solution, "I advertised that the first night we were giving free admittance. We had 700 people and that's how we got our original membership to refer other people." Since then Man's Country has charged a nominal registration fee which includes a free lifetime membership. For every subsequent visit members are then charged a rental fee for a locker or room.

Overhaul of the building continued and by April 1974, the bathhouse consisted of a locker facilities, a basement and steam room, a whirlpool bath, an orgy room, a small lounge with a juice bar and sandwiches, and a TV lounge. There were 26 rooms, three of which were double occupancy. Though still in the process of renovations, this was still far above the typical bathhouse of the day, which was room or locker, white towel and key.

The crowning achievement in the overhaul of the building was the completion of the Music Hall. The gay megaplex could now hold 1,500 people. Some of the great entertainers of the 'K-Y Circuit,' as the bathhouse and gay club venues were called, performed at the Music Hall. Its grand opening on New Year's Eve 1974 was a "black towel optional" affair. In the years following a myriad of talented performers graced the stage. Sally Rand did her balloon dance there and ventriloquist Wayland Flowers and his puppet, Madame entertained. Campy impersonator Charles Pierce played the Musical Hall as did Bruce Vilanch and singers such as Betty Rhodes, Frannie Golde, and Jade and Sasparilla. Comics like Rusty "Knockers Up" Warren, Pudgy, and Judy Tenuta brought their unique humor to the stage. The Music Hall hosted magicians, dancers, hypnotists and more. Playing to a half-naked crowd was just part of the gig and if some frisky business was going on during the show, the entertainer had to just roll with it.

The resident drag queen emcee and DJ of Man's Country was Wanda Lust. In addition to entertaining, Lust became the face of STD testing in Chicago during the dawn of gay men's health. During that era Man's Country became a site for VD and STD testing with a full clinic upstairs.

As a result of the enhanced atmosphere and services, Man's Country was a sex club, which also became a sort of retreat. Men would sometimes come for the weekend and even arrive with luggage. In addition to sexual accruement, they would bring beads to hang from the doorframes, throw rugs, colored lights, candles, incense, and anything else to make their cubicle their own. For many Man's Country was a haven, a place of sexual expression and experimentation, social interaction, openness and camaraderie which was all crucial in the early years of gay liberation.

Joey McDonald recalled, "We'd check in and get five rooms in a row. We were there Friday through Sunday. We'd ingest massive quantities of different substances and this was a safe place to do it—we weren't driving, we had a bed there, we had food there, we had sex there. It was a place for us to really socialize. We'd all be in one room and, really, it was like a bunch of teenage girls at a slumber party, until some hot number walked by and then we'd all giggle before butching it up to run out of the room to see who was going to get him."

Many of the fondest memories people have of Man's Country are not simply the unbridled sexual encounters, but the socializing, the friendships and the building of community. Men recall sitting in the snack shop or in the TV lounge and chatting or sharing stories of life and love, conquests, crushes, and the trick that got away. It was a relaxed freedom for many gay men who less than a decade before were terrified of interaction and becoming "known." Previously Chicago bathhouse patrons ran the risk of ruined careers and devastated lives in the aftermath of police raids which, in addition to arrest, often resulted in having a person's name, home address and sometimes occupation printed in the newspaper.

Award-winning author Edmund White captured Man's Country's during its heyday in his 1980 travelogue of gay America, States of Desire. "On the ground floor are the showers, a steam room and a hot tub, all fitted into a stone grotto. On the second floor are rooms, lockers, the TV room and the orgy room—TV viewing and orgy viewing seemed comparatively tranquil. Upstairs I found the disco. Lying on mats along the wall were sleeping bodies. A twirling mirrored ball cast scintillas of light over these dreamers. At one end of the room was a spotlit stage, bracketed by art deco caryatids framing a set: a painted skyline of skinny skyscrapers in black and white, stylized to look hundreds of stories tall. The polished dance floor was empty until a black man in red-striped, calf-length athletic socks, a jock strap, a red T-shirt and a baseball cap began to dance by himself. He was joined by an outrageous white fatty, who performed something 'interpretive'—of what, I couldn't be sure. Coiled metal stairs led me up to the roof garden, where, under a cool, blowy sky, I watched two couples fucking."

In June 1981 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced that five men in Los Angeles had been diagnosed with a rare pneumonia. The "gay cancer," or gay-related immune deficiency (GRID, as AIDS was initially called), had dire effects on Man's Country. Early on in the epidemic Renslow closed the orgy room and glory holes. The bathhouse did not distribute condoms until the means of HIV transmission was known. Once it was discovered, condoms were given with a towel at check-in and became readily available throughout the facility. Renslow maintains that it was his cooperation with the Chicago Department of Health on previous issues, such as STD testing, that kept Man's Country open when bathhouses were closing in San Francisco and New York. Renslow flatly denies that it had anything to do with his significant political clout in the city. As a result Man's Country not only remained open, but became a venue for safer-sex education with signage and literature available throughout the complex.

Despite this, attendance at Man's Country during the peak of the AIDS era plummeted drastically. To compensate for the shrinking number of patrons and occupied rooms, Renslow opened Bistro Too on the ground and second floor in the rear portion of the structure. When Bistro Too eventually closed he opened the leather bar The Chicago Eagle on the lower level and main floor of the back portion of the building and reopened the Music Hall. With the closing of The Eagle, Man's Country has once again converted that square footage into additional rooms.

Man's Country has constantly evolved over the years. Its structure has been shifted, built upon, covered, demolished, torn out, and everything in between. The sun deck Edmund White wrote about, with the plants and fountains, was eventually closed as part of the Bistro Too conversion. The Man's Country internal complex has also changed to include stores such as The Erogenous Zone which sold bath-related items—caftans, jocks, lounge pants, 'aromas,' magazines, and lubes. There was a country store, a leather store, and even a gym with weight equipment and machines. When discussing the logistics of the structure Renslow laughs, "Someday when they tear this place down they are going to be amazed by the things they find. There's walls built in front of mirrors and murals, sealed rooms, hidden staircases and everything else."

With the smell of sawdust in the air it's clear that renovations are actively underway once again at 5017 N. Clark St. In the past several months a number of specialty bear, sling and fetish rooms have opened. New areas have been transformed, revitalized, and created anew with a saloon door blow job area, a specialty "service" stage off the Music Hall, a shower stage display, and additional surprises to add variety to the atmosphere and capacity to the 465-locker and 72-room facility. In addition, an array of new artwork adorns the walls, joining the notable gallery, which includes numerous murals, paintings and prints by such artists as Etienne as well as an array of classic gay physique photos by Kris Studios—which Renslow launced in the 1950s.

In 2012, 1970s-era Man's Country met 2012 filmmaking with the making of an independent Chicago movie starring, among others, Bruce Vilanch. Vilanch returned to Man's Country to play the owner of a 1970s disco called Fezziwig's, in Scrooge & Marley, a gay retelling of the classic film, A Christmas Carol. Man's Country was transformed back into a 1970s disco for the film shoot.

Almost 40 years after he first toured the facility, Renslow is proud to say that Man's Country remains in business and anticipates an exciting future. To celebrate entering its milestone 40th year, Renslow and his staff have implemented a special week:

Monday, Sept. 17: Founders Night, which means a free locker to membership numbers under 100,000.

Tuesday, Sept. 18: Fetish Night, which means a free locker to anyone wearing a major piece of leather, rubber, or fetish wear.

Wednesday, Sept. 19: Free Night. A FREE single room or locker to all members while availability lasts.

Thursday, Sept. 20: Bear Night. Free Pizza and Spaghetti at 10 pm.

Friday, Sept. 21: Birthday Party. To celebrate the official launch into its 40th year Man's Country will be giving away an assortment of gifts including flip flops, silk jock straps and flashlight pens. There will be birthday cake at midnight and strippers on the main stage.

Saturday, Sept. 22: Sex Show. At midnight there will be a live Special Sex Show on stage in the main stage in the Music Hall.

Sunday, Sept. 23: Movies in the Music Hall. Showing starts at 10 and will begin with Queer as Folk Season 1, Episode 1.

Renslow is also excited to announce that several of these "anniversary week" specials will soon become part of the ongoing, locally owned Man's Country roster with Tuesdays becoming Fetish Night, Thursdays becoming Bear Night, and Sundays becoming the night for movies in the Music Hall.

In the past 40 years Man's Country has become an iconic symbol for the growth and evolution in several generations of gay men. Though its original grandeur has tarnished a bit, it's now larger than ever and with new events and revitalized reconstruction in place to help it begin a new and vibrant chapter in the history of Chicago's gay community.

For more information about Man's Country, Chuck Renslow, and the bathhouse history of Chicago read Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, by Owen Keehnen and Tracy Baim.

This article shared 8306 times since Thu Sep 13, 2012
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Out and Aging
Presented By


Gay News

MOVIES Director Daniel Peddle on the sequel to the classic doc 'The Aggressives' 2023-12-05
- In 2005, Daniel Peddle released The Aggressives—a groundbreaking documentary filmed during the late '90s and early '00s in New York City that profiled several masculine-presenting/transmasculine people of color. Fast-forward to ...

Gay News

SHOWBIZ 'Black Adam,' Cyndi Lauper, Sondheim, Oscars, OutFest 2023-03-18
- Cultured Magazine recently profiled Quintessa Swindell—who became the first out, non-binary actor to play a lead superhero in the DC universe when they portrayed Cyclone in the 2022 movie Black Adam. Swindell grew up in Virginia ...

Gay News

Show about trans+ women models to debut Aug. 5 on Here TV 2022-07-29
- The Here TV docuseries Road to the Runway—which focuses on trans+ women models—will debut Friday, Aug. 5. The series profiles the 20 hopefuls competing in this year's annual Slay Model search. Cameras follow the women to ...

Gay News

Local writer from Hillman Grad Productions Mentorship Lab to tell stories about immigrant experiences 2022-06-04
- Growing up on the South Side of Chicago without any sort of U.S. citizenship, Ruben Mendive said he started developing his identity as a writer while he was sitting in front of the TV, devouring "every show that came out ...

Gay News

PASSAGES Writer, attorney, activist Takeia R. Johnson 2021-07-25
- The local organization Affinity Community Services announced the recent passing of Takeia R. Johnson. According to Johnson's LinkedIn profile, she was editor-in-chief and lead writer at Inclusion at Work as well as a Ph.D. student focusing ...

Gay News

SAVOR Talking with new Travelle Chef de Cuisine Qi Ai; Profile of Travelle's breakfast 2021-06-09
- Travelle Chef de Cuisine Qi Ai Travelle at the Langham (330 N Wabash Ave.; has undergone a major change during the COVID pandemic: New Chef de Cuisine Qi (pronounced "tee") Ai was promoted from sous ...

Gay News

MOVIES Dutch journalist talks about making 'My Friend, the Mayor' 2021-02-17
- In the Amazon Prime Video documentary My Friend, the Mayor: Small-town Democracy in the Age of Trump, Dutch journalist Max Westerman profiles friend Sean Strub, an openly gay activist, activist, long-term AIDS survivor and POZ magazine ...

Gay News

Booksellers launch "Boxed Out" campaign, a look at consumer choices 2020-10-22
--From a press release - (New York, New York) 20% of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing. Today, theAmerican Booksellers Association launched the "Boxed Out" campaign to draw attention to the high stakes indie bookstores face this ...

Gay News

Author/academic John D'Emilio on new book, future endeavors 2020-10-01
- Queer Legacies: Stories from Chicago's LGBTQ Archives is a new book by Gerber/Hart Library and Archives President and University of Illinois at Chicago History and Women's and Gender Studies Professor Emeritus John ...

Gay News

Out Illinois State coach dives into new position 2020-09-16
- Logan Pearsall, an accomplished college diver who has since transitioned into master's level diving, was competing at the 2017 FINA World Masters Championships in Budapest, Hungary. He was doing a challenging inward dive from a one-meter ...

Gay News

Joseph Baar Topinka preserves legacy of mother: Pro-gay Republican Judy 2020-09-02
- Riverside resident Joseph Baar Topinka is still impressed with the resolve and stamina with which his late mother, longtime GOP politician Judy Baar Topinka, was able to "slug it out" in the political arena. "She got ...

Gay News

'Making Sweet Tea': Out NU dean talks about new documentary 2020-08-18
- Performer and Northwestern University Dean E. Patrick Johnson discussed his new film and the importance of reclaiming storytelling agency in a virtual Q&A Lambda Legal hosted Aug. 9. Johnson, dean of Northwestern University's School of Communication, ...

Gay News

Asha Ransby-Sporn talks building on the anti-racism movement's legacy 2020-08-05
- With anti-racism protests happening around the United States, in what some media outlets are saying is the largest movement in this country's history, demands to abolish the police have increasingly been a part of the rallying ...

Gay News

Local lesbian couple celebrate 50 years together 2020-08-05
- When Alice Cozad and Linda Young met each other as freshmen at the University of Iowa they knew almost instantly that they would be together as a couple for the rest of their lives. "The electricity ...

Gay News

Teen LGBTQ+ activist aims to inspire with Be You Tiful Initiative 2020-07-31
- Allison Frank is a 16-year-old lesbian activist from Lincolnshire's Stevenson High School who found her passion for activism and began the Be You Tiful Initiative. It all started when Frank was feeling overwhelmed in a makeup ...


Copyright © 2023 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.

All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.






About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam     
Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.