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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Sidetrack marks 30 emotional years
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2012-06-06

This article shared 8968 times since Wed Jun 6, 2012
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After the closing ceremony of the 2006 Gay Games, the sea of sporting LGBT individuals made its way south from Wrigley Field into the heart of Boystown, many heading directly to Sidetrack.

The bar was almost instantly filled that Saturday afternoon, with a lengthy line of others just waiting to get in.

"The sound that you heard over the room, with multiple languages [ being spoken ] , along with the energy and excitement, it was unbelievable. It was a moment. There was an emotion in the air that was so incredible," said Chuck Hyde, 50, who is general manager of the world-renowned Lakeview bar on Halsted Street owned by life partners Arthur Johnston and Pepe Pena, both 68.

Hyde, years later, still recalls the moment, the magic—and a text message he received that night.

Cyndi Lauper, who performed at that ceremony, also made a visit to Sidetrack that night, "and the bar went crazy," Hyde said.

Lauper then sent a text message to Hyde. It read, "Thank you, Chuck; we had a great time."

"That [ text message ] blew me away," Hyde said.

Sidetrack has, for 30 years, been the site of so many fond and memorable LGBT memories, moments that last a lifetime. The bar has survived "the plague years," as Johnston defines the early HIV/AIDS era, and has since bloomed into an award-winning bar. On multiple occasions it's been tagged the best gay bar in the United States and the world.

Sidetrack has even been successfully portrayed on stage by the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, which created a series of musicals based on the bar. When the play idea was pitched, Johnston said it was a "bad idea" and too much of an "in-joke." However, every time any of the versions of the musical has been performed, with videos literally coming to life, the production has been a "major success," Johnston said. "To walk into the theater and [ basically see ] Sidetrack on stage, it sent shivers to all of us. They did a hell of a job."

Pena added, "It was very surreal to see our bar on stage, but definitely great validation of the bar."

The three have heard the accolades for Sidetrack from around the world, literally. Johnston and Pena, for instance, were at a small café in the 1990s in Istanbul. There were only a few others present, including visitors from France and Italy. When they heard Johnston and Pena were from Chicago, one of the foreigners said that they then must know this Chicago bar that is filled with TVs and people singing along with the music.

"That was quite a surprise," Pena said.

Sidetrack is now a mega-bar, spanning 14,000 square feet, with capacity for 1,202 patrons when all areas are open. It has about 50 full-time employees, 20 part-timers—and 37 TVs.

The 30-year celebration is Wednesday night, June 13. But does it feel like 30 years?

No, the three owners said simultaneously.

"Feels like a blink of an eye," Pena said.

"It's gone by quickly; we obviously love our work and the business has been successful," Johnston said.

It's been so successful that one of the most pervasive myths about Sidetrack remains—that it sells the most vodka of any bar in the world.

Truth be told, Sidetrack just sells a lot—so much, in fact, that the president of Absolut Vodka has twice visited the nightspot from Sweden to see what's happening.

Sidetrack did sell the most vodka in the world in its frozen drink, specifically, with Absolut Kurant. In fact, sales of Absolut Kurant picked up elsewhere within the LGBT community once the flavor was incorporated into Sidetrack's frozen drinks, Absolut officials confirmed.

Absolut also took a direct financial hit when the company decided to limit its support of the LGBT community. In turn, Sidetrack announced it was not going to feature Absolut in its frozen drinks.

Sidetrack immediately contacted Ketel One to fill the void, and Ketel One agreed, without hesitation. The bar then offered—and still offers—the frozen Ketel One Krush, the bar's most popular drink.

"When Absolut Kurant was taken out of the frozen drinks, [ its ] sales tanked. Absolut [ officials ] came back months later to be back in frozen drinks, etc. But we told them it was too late; we were sticking with Ketel One," Hyde said. "Absolut did subsequently bring [ its ] community support up to earlier levels, but sales of Absolut in Chicago's gay community have never fully recovered."

The Sidetrack owners are, as Absolut learned first-hand, activist owners. "We do not sell any product that the [ drink ] owners and/or distributors do not put money back into the community, period," Johnston said.

Take, for instance, Evian water. It is sold at Sidetrack because Evian is a major sponsor of LGBT-related sports events, teams, etc.

Conversely, Sidetrack years ago sold Rolling Rock beer. "Rolling Rock was non-responsive to our suggestion that they support things in the gay community, so we stopped carrying" the beer, Hyde said.

Sidetrack owners want support for the gay community from anything sold at Sidetrack—be it for civil rights ( Johnston's personal passion ) , gay sports, gay health issues, etc.

"What we've always said is, our community is major consumers of your products, so we want you to put a fair share [ of resources ] into our community. We don't ask for any more than anyone else," Johnston said.

Thus, Sidetrack has secured aid through its products for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Lambda Legal, Affinity Community Services and many more. In fact, Hyde said more than 130 groups/causes have benefited through the stance of Sidetrack's activist owners.

Hyde does most of the negotiations on behalf of the groups/causes, and the three said that between $2 million and $3 million has been donated back into the community over past 10 years or so through their project.

Opening

Hyde was working in the accounting department at a local hotel in early 1982. He knew the original owner of Sidetrack and was a customer on that April night when the bar—without even a sign out front—opened.

He loved the atmosphere that night and was hired to work at Sidetrack a few months later.

Hyde isn't surprised Sidetrack is still his home away from home.

"There was just something exciting about it," that first night, he said.

"We never have had anyone as ambitious as Chuck, never had anyone work harder than Chuck," Johnston said.

Sidetrack was 800 square feet with seven employees in its first year.

Thirty years later, the busiest days at Sidetrack are Pride Sunday in June and Market Days weekend in August, followed closely by IML Weekend in May.

Sidetrack, as we now know it, is at its max. No further expansion is possible. Still, Johnston said, "I hope we can continue to find new ways to do what we now do even better. We want to do it better today than we did it yesterday; that's been our mantra, and continues to be. We're never satisfied, never content."

Hyde added, "The role of bars in our community has changed over the last 40 years. It's not the meeting place that it used to be. We need to re-establish that, make it the meeting place that it used to be."

Sidetrack has grow into a village of its own, some say. After all, Sidetrack has video editors and DJs, not to mention a design staff, architect and more.

In fact, Sidetrack owners ask their employees to bring all of their talents to the job—not just an ability to mix a tasty cocktail.

"When we opened in 1982, the life-span then of a gay bar was three years at most, for lots of reasons," Johnston said.

So what was the breakout moment for Sidetrack?

When the Cherry Bar opened in 1992, they said—because it created a traffic pattern that, previously, did not exist.

The Cherry Bar remains a popular portion, with about 300 square feet, and it has only ever endured one small case of vandalism to its distinguished look.

"In 1992, people thought [ the wood ] would be destroyed. But we've always believed that, if you treat our community with respect, they will give respect in return," Johnston said.

Sidetrack truly became Sidetrack—with a sign out front—after a few years. There was no sign early on because, well, "there just wasn't any money [ to purchase a sign, ] " Johnston said.

Still, everyone seemed able to find the popular bar—and its videos, too, of course.

"Videos were a novel development when we opened," Pena said. "People thought, 'Why would we watch TV in a bar?'" Pena said.

In fact, just acquiring the videos was challenging. There were only three video rental stores in the entire Chicago area at the time. So Pena drove to suburban Niles to rent videos.

Many customers long thought Sidetrack's videos were just a gimmick, a fad.

The craze carried on, and still does.

Sidetrack has, interestingly, been a stop for politicians over the years, too. Presidential candidates Howard Dean and Fred Karger have appeared or held events inside, not to mention Illinois governors and Chicago mayors.

They come because it is Sidetrack, because it is the heart and pulse of the LGBT community.

"We have never wanted Sidetrack to be a personality bar. So it's not Chuck's Bar, or Pepe's Bar, or Art's Bar. We've always wanted the bar and the videos to be the centerpiece, not our personalities," Johnston said.

To that, none of the three often are greeting customers—at the door or inside. They remain to themselves. Johnston often stands in one of four corners on busy nights. He's quiet and observes the chaos. Pena arrives at the bar and always enjoys a shot of Ketel One, then makes his way into the video-editing room. Hyde's first move daily upon arrival is checking out the staff wall in the office area "so I know what is happening," he said.

"We do the best we can to be anonymous," Johnston said. "We have spent our lives pinching each other, to confirm this is really happening."

The Sidetrack success is still amazing to each. After all, when it opened, Johnston and Pena were sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a small, cold house on Southport.

They survived, Sidetrack survived and the community survived.

Side By Side is the name of the corporation that owns Sidetrack, "and that's how we view this: the three of us have been side by side since 1982," Johnston said.

This was even during the dire days of HIV/AIDS.

Since 1983, Sidetrack has had health insurance available to its employees.

Still, the 1980s were a brutally painful period—personally, not professionally. Johnston said he went to two funerals per month, maybe more. "I used to say, if you give me one square-foot of carpet, I'll tell you what funeral home it's at, because we knew them all," he said.

"We're very, very proud to have had a part in the building of the gay community in Chicago. We reflect on all that our community has accomplished, and then we think of all the people we have lost. We wonder how much more could have been achieved."

Each recalls the "plague years," when so many customers wanted their drinks in sealed containers, such as beer, rather than open cocktail glasses simply because they didn't know how HIV/AIDS was spread.

"The foundation of who we are as a community has so much to do with those early years of HIV/AIDS; we have had to build over our losses; and there are still empty places in our hearts for our missing loved ones. Yet our community is resilient and we continue to move forward as we must," Johnston said.

More notes and quotes:

—"Everyone knows, to get on the [ bar ] shelf at Sidetrack, you need to support the [ gay ] community. We would not exist as a bar if we did not have the gay community; they are the primary people who come to this bar. So we owe this; this is what we should be doing," for the gay community, Johnston said.

—"We sell drinks and we play videos," Hyde said.

—"We think you can still be good to your community and still have a successful business," Johnston said.

—"A gay bar can no longer survive just by being a gay bar. We know that we need to continue to innovate," Johnston said.

—Johnston is six days older than Pena. The two live together in Lincoln Park.

—Hyde and his partner, Randy D'Agostino, live in Albany Park.

—Johnston's favorite alcohol: Ketel One vodka

—Hyde's drink of choice: Jim Beam.

—Johnston admitted, "I don't think it's much of a secret: I'm a big cry-baby. I cry a lot. I get very emotional."

—Pena is the opposite of Johnston: "I laugh at everything. I just try to find something amusing about even the worst situation."

—Hyde regularly answers the New York Times' Sunday crossword puzzles.

—In 1982, it took Johnston two weeks to find a gay attorney. In 2012, Sidetrack holds an event on the third Friday of every month that attracts up to 180 gay attorneys and law school students.

—"Chicago has been very good to Sidetrack," Hyde said, while Johnston and Pena each shook their heads in agreement.

—"Architect Richard Gibbons was, and still is, an instrumental force in the growth of Sidetrack, having worked with us on five expansion projects," Johnston said. "With his vision, design expertise, and openness to understand the needs of our growing business, he helped create an esthetically beautiful, amazingly functional and architecturally significant space for us."


This article shared 8968 times since Wed Jun 6, 2012
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