Last week Chuck Renslow gathered his employees and told them the news: After 43 years, he was selling Man's Country, located at 5017 N. Clark, just south of Andersonville's main strip of businesses.
"The place is holding its own, but it is just getting to be too much for me," he said.
At 87, Renslow still comes down to the office three times a week. That's something he says he'll miss: "I don't know what I'm going to do with myself." After a pause, he smiled, "Bathhouses are still going strong. Maybe I'll open a new one."
Renslow shrugged when asked how the long the selling process for the building might take. "Someone could buy us in a month or it could be a year. I have no idea when we will eventually close," he said. "In the meantime, we are still open. They'll probably tear it down and put in condos. Land is premium in Andersonville and Man's Country occupies a lot of land."
The remaining Man's Country complex occupies nearly 20,000 sq. feet which includes 113 feet of street frontage and 160 ft. depth. When asked what they might discover if the building is, in fact, torn down for condos, Renslow laughs, "Oh, there will be some surprises I'm sure. Walls built on top of murals that are built in front of mirrors. Who knows what all they will find."
Renslow maintains that nostalgia and a hundred favorite memories will make leaving Man's Country difficult. He cites his bathhouse as having been an integral part of building community.
"Back in its heyday, it was something," he said. "One time I did a survey and asked our members why they came to Man's Country, only 20 percent said for the sex. A large part of the rest came to see the shows and have fun and to be with other gay men. Being with each other, that's what was so much fun."
Memories are everywhere.
Rudolf Nureyev ran naked down these hallways shouting, "Who wants to swing on a star?" Paul Lynde arrived one night in a limo. Wayland Flowers roamed the halls in a towel with his puppet, Madame, in curlers and a chenille robe. On the Man's Country stage specialty dancer Sally Rand entranced a towel-clad audience with her balloon dance. Countless men explored their sexuality in the rooms along these labyrinthian corridors. Sexual awareness and abandon, devastation and education happened within these walls. Here lifetime friendships were born along with five-minute and five-decade romances.
Forty-four years ago Renslow first toured the multi-unit structure on the 5000 block of North Clark and realized its potential. At the time Renslow owned the Gold Coast leather bar as well as several other Chicago businesses. Renslow had 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. He sold off some property to buy 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. Taking his 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 renovation. There was strong evidence of on-site gambling. Behind one steel-bolted door was a room that contained poker tables with a separate staircase. In another room only brackets remained where slot machines were once mounted. Even a skeleton was discoveredbut it was the sort used in classrooms with numbered bones and a steel hinge on the jaw.
When Man's Country opened on Sept. 19, 1973, it was a single floor. Overhaul of the building continued and by April 1974, the bathhouse consisted of locker facilities galore, 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 also 26 rooms, three of which were double occupancy. Though still in the midst of renovations, Man's Country was far superior to the typical bathhouse of the era.
The crowning achievement of the renovation was the Music Hall. The gay megaplex could now hold 1,500 people. The grand opening was a "black towel optional" affair on New Year's Eve 1974. In the coming years all the stars of the KY Circuit ( as the gay bathhouse/gay club circuit was called ) graced the Man's Country Music Hall stage. Divine performed here as did campy impersonator Charles Pierce. Comics like Rusty "Knockers Up" Warren, Pudgy, Bruce Vilanch and Judy Tenuta all brought their unique humor here. The Music Hall hosted singers, magicians, dancers, hypnotists and more. Speaking of Vilanch, his disco scene in the gay Christmas movie Scrooge & Marley was shot in the Music Hall, and several other scenes from the film were also shot in the complex. Renslow was even cast as an extra.
During its heyday, the resident drag queen, emcee and DJ of Man's Country was Wanda Lust. Lust became the face of STD testing in Chicago during the dawn of gay men's health. During that era of expanding community, Man's Country became a site for VD and STD testing with a full clinic upstairs.
As a result of the enhanced atmosphere, Man's Country was a sex club which became a sort of retreat. Men sometimes arrived with luggage and stayed the weekend. They might bring beads to hang from the door frames, throw rugs, colored lights, candles, incense and anything else to make their cubicle home. For many, Man's Country was a haven, a place of sexual expression and experimentation, social interaction, openness and camaraderie. All these elements were vital in the early years of gay liberation.
Author Edmund White captured Man's Country 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 … . 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 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 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 were made readily available throughout the facility.
During the peak years of the epidemic, attendance at Man's Country plummeted. To compensate, Renslow opened Bistro Too on the ground and second floor in the rear of the structure. The Music Hall stage became the Bistro stage which hosted performers from Grace Jones to the Village People to Boy George. When Bistro Too closed, Renslow opened the Chicago Eagle on the lower level and main floor at the back of the of the building and reopened the Music Hall. With the eventual closing of The Eagle, Man's Country added more rooms.
The entire complex has been repeatedly altered and modified from the original structure. The sun deck Edmund White wrote about was eventually closed as part of the Bistro Too conversion. The Man's Country internal complex once even included 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.
Renslow is rightfully proud to say that for a long while Man's Country was the finest bathhouse in the country. After 43 years, the eventual closing of these doors will also be the end of an era. For generations Man's Country stood as a symbol for the evolution of gay liberation and consciousness. Though its original grandeur has tarnished, the value and necessity of this building and it's place in the evolution of Chicago LGBT history cannot be minimized.
Though Man's Country is up for sale and open for business, several iconic treasures remain. The Leather Archives and Museum will be coming though to remove some of the plentiful historic erotic artwork, like the multiple murals and pieces by erotic master Etienne, the dozens of Kris Studio photo prints, assorted statuary, artifacts and maybe an iconic sign or two. Renslow added, "Whatever they think is worth keeping, I want them to have."
When asked what the the most precious thing in the place was for him, Renslow nodded towards the large teak elephant statue in the lobby. "That's something they can't have. That is something that will be going with me."
Owen Keehnen is the co-author, with Tracy Baim, of the biography Leatherman: The Legend of Chuck Renslow, available in color and black-and-white editions from Unabridged Books and Amazon. The book details not just Man's Country, but Renslow's political activism, bar ownership, newspaper ownership, founding of International Mr. Leather, and much more.