The Fading Flowers of Clementines

I invited people to share their thoughts on the closure of Clementines, and went to the bar last night to talk with the patrons. The scene was emotional: many fought back tears and one bartender broke down more than once. Everyone at Clems knows one another. One employee I spoke with worked there for 14 years, and another for 30. The patrons have been coming for just as long – many began back when it was a notorious cruise bar – and stayed as it evolved into what some called a “Cheers” type place. It’s a second home for hundreds and on the first night after the news broke, people were grappling with the thought of never being together in one place again.

Some shared colorful tales, others vented their anger. I’m not editing what they had to say, and I’ll be on hand through the weekend to gather additional quotes, and will also accept comments via email at chris@thevitalvoice.com.


 

“I worked here for twenty years. It’s part of my life. It’s where I met my husband of sixteen years. I’ve never been showed anything but kindness here. Customers were always kind. It’s like Cheers, when I’m down and out there’s always someone here to lift me up. That’s the one thing that scares me to death: Where am I going to meet my friends? Where will us fading flowers go? I’m just thankful. It’s like losing a friend, but when you look back you have to be thankful.” – Josie, 52

“I came out in this bar, and have been coming here for thirty years. The only thing I’m feeling is betrayal. Gary & Jan have no loyalty to the community, selling to someone who will shut the place down, and they’ve shown no regard for customers or employees. I know everyone in here, and none of us will be together like this again. Everyone will be scattered to the wind. They’ve stabbed me in my heart.” – Dennis

“I’m straight and met my girlfriend of eleven years here at the other side of that bar. It was a Saturday night in 2003, and I was here with my gay best friend. I always tell my straight friends you meet the nicest girls at gay bars.” – Dave

“See the guy with the hot pink goblet? That’s Miss Davey. He’s been coming here every single day for years and they keep that goblet just for him. One day I asked Jan ‘How do I get my own goblet?’ and she said ‘Well, you’ve gotta come here every day!’ I’ve asked Miss Davey to talk to you, but he’s too upset and is afraid of what he might say. Give him a little time.” – Johnny LaMar

“Sunday Funday will never be the same.” – Tory Johnson

“This is Howard, he was here for the grand opening!” said Dennis, who grabbed Howard Campbell, 79, upon entering the bar. “Go get a drink and we can talk when you get back,” I said. “You’re giving him too much time, he might die in the next five minutes! He’s about a hundred and forty!” – Dennis

“I feel bad that it’s closing. I live in Illinois and if I’m out on the strip I’ll stop here to get my bridge drink before crossing the river. I came here back when Wally opened it. I had a partner and would sneak over here from time to time. After he died in ’97 I started coming regularly and became known. I only learned about this today. When my friend Charlie told me I said ‘You got to be joking me.’” – Howard Campbell

“This is a refuge for a lot of people.” – DJ

“Back in the day Soulard was kind of rough. We used to meet someone here and have sex in one of the empty derelict buildings.” – Beaux

“I was here the last time they closed, back in 1985. It didn’t feel as heavy, it wasn’t as big of a deal. The bar hadn’t yet become an institution like it is now. We had the Front Page down on Menard and Lami to go to, and we figured they might reopen. I came here tonight with no idea. A friend pulled me over and said ‘Do you wanna hear some sad news?’. I really did not believe it. This place is a huge part of our lives. Every straight person in the St. Louis area knows you’re talking about a gay bar when you say ‘Clementines.’ Everyone knows. It’s hard to absorb this – that this won’t be our place anymore.” – John, 59

Many stories were shared about other legendary bars that are no longer around, including Helen Schrader’s in East St. Louis.

“Those early days were revolutionary. There were bars that were straight by day and gay by night, and Helen Schrader’s started out that way. Helen had been a notorious madam with fifty women working for her, and she had an account at a department store on Collinsville Avenue and would send all new girls there to get outfitted. When one girl, Alice, got older she worked the front door, which was like a speakeasy. You’d knock and Miss Alice would slide a little slot open and look at you. If she knew you, she’d let you in. If she didn’t she tell you to go away.” – Beaux

“Lady Harvey performed there [Helen Schrader’s], and she’s still alive, although she’s not well. You really should talk to her before it’s too late! (Pulled out his phone and called Lady Harvey). She’s not up for talking but offered two quotes: ‘I never complained, sweetheart’ and ‘Be courteous and smile even when you’re insulted, because those persons are speaking about themselves.’” – Beaux & Lady Harvey

“Oh I remember Midnight Annie (the drag queen entombed in the wall). She was a trust fund baby and when she’d get an installment she’d blow it in no time. Once she sauntered into a Cadillac dealership and bought TWO Cadillacs. One for her and one for her trick! That’s just how she was. God I still remember her sitting at that bar drunk as Hell with her lipstick going up her face and her wig on crooked. She had this trademark sound she’d make, and when she’d do it everyone around the bar would mimic it. Like a bird call.” – Tyler

“It was like Faces dark room in here back in the day. You’d walk in that door at have to stop for a minute while your eyes adjusted, and then it was just red lights and shadows. It was asshole to belly button from four to eight, and then asshole to belly button again from nine on. There were two shifts, and the only reason we didn’t squeeze in a third shift in was Missouri state law!” – Dennis

“We live three hundred feet from here. This is where neighbors meet, talk about news, religion, politics. I’ve been coming here for twenty-four years and I come to see my friends. Now, I’ll just drink at home.” – Matt

“I was devastated when I heard the news that Clementines was closing. My partner and I looked forward to our Saturday afternoon ‘beer bust’ every week! Clems was one of the few places where we felt comfortable going to meet new friends, in a strictly plutonic way. We orginally met a group of gentleman outside on the front patio. That was over four years ago. Since then, we referred to our group as the ‘Clems Crew,’ getting together regularly for dinner and drinks AFTER our Saturday afternoon gathering. From Christmas parties, to birthday dinners to summer bbqs, we could trace back the origin of our still-standing friendship to a sunny Saturday afternoon at Clems. My partner and I recently moved to Denver, however we stay in touch with our crew and were very much looking forward to our next visit back for our Saturday beer bust. We will, instead, have to pour a few ounces of a bud light on the front sidewalk in memory. We will miss you but will never forget the memories!” – Ryan and Paulie via Internet

“Well of course I have many a fond memory of working the crowd from that balcony for beads, either dressed as a Jester or just in one my crazy wigs and outfits….and got to see over the years got to see it transition from a mainly gay (and delightfully exhibitionist) crowd to seeing it be a much more young, straight (and boringly timid) crowd…but of course I’ll never forget being in the middle of doing a whole ‘show me something for the beads!’ routine when I heard from right below the balcony, ‘Oh just give some beads you old bitch!’ and of course looking down I saw Chris Andoe…pre Emperor days, but already knowing how to get a laugh-which he did.  I was suitably irritated but appreciative of the good theater of it all, and of course gave some beads over in homage to the well timed quip.” – “Auntie M,” via Facebook

“One really busy night – many years ago – I had sex right there on the counter of the bar – maybe 400 in the bar at the time. Surprised? It brought back memories of the first owner, Wally Thomas. He sold it in ’85 but it stayed a gay bar. That was the year I met Jon. Between ’78 and ’85 we had the Blue Max club rooms upstairs, while I would still go back on occasion it was just not the every night I had spent before. People don’t want to let go, But the past HAS to go. The past, the bars, the buildings, the people all have had their time and now need to go. And they will – no matter what is said. That place leaves far greater a legacy than I ever will. As one person said: The old heart of Gay St Louis will cease to beat. I see the passages. The old gay ghettos, the book stores, the peep shows, the gay bars, their time has passed. My tribe, my people, my places, become part of yesterdays mist. Museum pieces that fade and collect dust. And so does Yours truly.” – Dan White via Facebook

Update, 9/29 10:49 a.m.

“I was here on opening night. It was right around the time Martin’s was closing, and everyone from there came here. It wasn’t like it is now. It was super tacky. This was a rough neighborhood too and sometimes people would get beat up. Wally, the original owner, came from Chicago where he’d owned a leather bar – and it’s still open to this day. Clems was a leather bar when he had it. He wouldn’t allow drag queens. When Jim Briscoe and Gary bought it, though, they liked drag queens and of course that crazy old kook Midnight Annie was always here doing that famous scream of hers. Her family owned a Baby Carriage factory in Soulard and left her a lot of money she’d get in installments and then blow. Like the time she took a bunch of gay leeches to Europe and they all came back without her, leaving her stranded. Towards the end of her life she sold newspapers at 5th & Pine. Jim was a big heavy set man with grey hair, and Gary was his cute young lover, at least twenty years younger. Jim was the extrovert and would walk around and greet everyone. He had a good personality to be a bar owner. Clems would open at six in the morning, so guys would shut down the Red Bull in East St. Louis and then come here and start all over again. I never thought this place would shut down.” – Julio

“I was working at the Upside, a gay bar on Olive, and came here during Mardi Gras dressed in high heels. I knew Jimmy and when he saw he pleaded for me to help them bartend. At the time there was a little bar in the restaurant and only about eight tables. This was a MEN’S bar, you didn’t see women in here, and a belligerent man came up and said ‘How did YOU get a job here?’ and I replied, ‘The same way anyone else does. I slept with the owners.’ I covered for vacationing staff on and off for about a year, and then when Betty retired in 1989 I was offered her position. I’m straight but have been in gay bars since I was sixteen, beginning with Peyton Place and in Gaslight Square and the Golden Gate. 45 plus years. Jimmy was an executive with Chrysler and didn’t want the liquor license in his name, so he brought Jan in, his cousin by marriage. Working here was like a big happy family. Jimmy was here during the days, towards the end. It was his pride and joy. It was his vision. I think everyone is still grieving his loss, and didn’t want to let go. I’m going to work at Nadine’s up the street. Nadine once worked here and is really gay friendly.” – Debbie, 63

“This is the most comfortable bar in St. Louis and I started out as a customer. I was one of the 24,000 people laid off from TWA after American took over, and I came in needing a job. It was between me and a cute young guy, and knowing how gay bars are I figured they’d go with him but they didn’t, and they really saved my bacon.” – Lew

“My lover is a bartender here and they’re destroying a family. I love Gary. I’ve traveled with him, but I feel really betrayed. But I don’t think this was Gary’s decision at all. I think he’s mortified. Back in 1992 the liquor commission made them go to can beer because of too many bottle fights. See that PVC pipe? That was to drop the beer cans down to the basement.” – Ed

“I’ve been coming here since 1992. I got my job as a school teacher because of a Clems connection. I’ve gotten legal advice here, and once I even had an electrical issue fixed because a guy here worked for Ameren! I’ll really miss the connections. When my school had donation drives, Gary and Jan were so great and I can’t tell you all the clothes they donated. It was amazing. Everyone here was really nice and I felt at home.” – Teacher Bill

“Terry used to work here and he was evil to everyone. Like catty queen evil. Once he thought my lover Erik didn’t tip him, so he snatched Erik’s cap and threw it over the fence out back!” – John

“I’m overwhelmed with emotion. All of the things that happened here. This is more than a bar to me. This place was the cornerstone for the gay community. With the progress we’ve made, there’s been tradeoffs. We had three gay restaurants when I moved here from Memphis, now I’ve just finished my last meal in the last one. This is the saddest happy hour ever.” – Mark

“I’ll never forget one Halloween a cab pulled up to the door and Lady Harvey stepped out slopping drunk wearing a nun’s habit. She tripped on her way to the door and fell flat on her face, then got up like nothing had happened.” – Ed

“The employees gave up when Jimmy died in 2002. A lot of us thought it would close then, but everyone sort of went on auto pilot for the next dozen years.” – Mark

“It’s amazing how good my memory is after all these Clems drinks!” – David

“Mardi Gras 2009 I was dancing in the middle of the restaurant with nothing on but jeans and beads. After too many hurricanes I lost my phone, but someone turned it in to Miss Jeffrey. I’m going to miss the shit outta this place.” – Timothy Murray

“I was throwing beads from the balcony and my very expensive watch flung off into the crowd. Someone actually brought it in and gave it to the bartender. I’m from Chicago, but stayed in St. Louis because of things like that. People here really are good hearted.” – Ed

“I’m sad to see it go but am happy the owners can leave on a high note” – Cole

“It’s so nice to see all these trailblazers here who made my life today possible. This is where you came to find and talk to them.” – Brian Johanan, 31

“In 1981 I was 22 and fresh out of the gate. I walked into Clems and found a dark, scary place. I got a drink and found a spot in the back corner. Guys were messing around and I pretended not to notice, just thinking to myself ‘This is fucking crazy!’ There was leather, whips, chains and handcuffs on the wall. Back then bars were raided and the charge was Suspicion of Association with Immoral People! Can you believe that? I was arrested during a raid at Veteran’s Bar on North Grand in 1961 and spent the night in jail. I moved from Gaslight Square and bought a house right across the street because of this bar, and when I’d throw parties three hundred people would come! Clems had a baseball team and would play against the other bars. I hate that it’s closing.” – Ed

“I was really young and had a boyfriend I came in with one night. Some guy walked up and got all flirty with him and I was like ‘Who is this?’ and my boyfriend got all defensive, puffed out his chest and said ‘You better not make a scene in here and start acting like you’ve got some sense!’ With that I shoved him into that brick wall and stormed out. A friend of mine said ‘You better go see Gary. I think you’ve been banned’ so I waked in and went up to Gary and he asked ‘So that was your boyfriend?’ and I said yeah and he asked ‘How many does he have? He’s in here with someone different all the time? No, you’re not banned, it’s fine” he said with that little flick of the hand he does.” – Anthony Jackson

“Thank you for your article, ‘The Fading Flowers of Clementines.’ I met my husband there. We now live in Los Angeles and were planning to visit for our anniversary in November. So sad.” – David Hawley, via Internet

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About the Author

Chris Andoe

  • Columnist
  • chris@thevitalvoice.com

In the preface of his critically acclaimed book Delusions of Grandeur: A Few Hundred Tales From the Emperor of St. Louis, Metrosource NYC editor Paul Hagen writes, "Chris's writing - in particular his chronicles of the goings on in around St. Louis - had the urgency of a journalist embedded in a war zone...He opened doors to a world of people with multiple aliases and secret identities, sinister perpetrators of long cons, and drag performers who embody every aspect of the world legendary." Andoe's long-running "Tales From the Emperor" column in Vital VOICE attracts an international following. When he's not writing or touring, his interests include politics, climbing through abandoned buildings and knocking wigs back.

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