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 itwe 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 roomTV 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 itemscaftans, 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 Studioswhich 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.