Staff, performers and patrons reflect on the history and lasting legacy of the defunct queer club

The culture is changing. Gay clubs and bars are dwindling throughout the nation. Depending on whom you ask, Columbus had between 30 and 40 at its peak.

Though there are fewer gay-owned spaces — only one lesbian bar, Slammers, remains — the community is finding new ways to keep those legacies alive. Performers and DJs who got their start in now-abandoned or repurposed buildings can be found at bars like AWOL in Olde Towne East or Cavan Irish Pub on the South Side.

Others are focusing more on creating events like the monthly “Queer Bomb” dance party at Two Truths, which defies old labels that never fit trans and gender non-conforming communities.

Still, some acknowledge a void. People reminisce about the old dance clubs Downtown, especially Wall Street, once located, aptly enough, at 144 N. Wall Street. From 1987 to 2015, the establishment brought all facets of the LGBTQ community together and hosted everyone from drag kings to burlesque performers — all while landing on the radar of celebrities and out-of-town partyers.

Here's an inside look at the club from the people who were there.

“Everyone was welcome”

Jill McDonald (former Wall Street owner): My first little bar in Columbus was called Jillian's, and it was on what is now Nationwide Boulevard in the old Flatiron Bar & Diner building. This was before the Arena District was there. And there was [also] a bar there called Herby's, and that's where all the women went to dance on Friday nights. It was a men's bar and they did not want us in there. I was sitting around thinking, “All these women are begging to come in there and have a good time and spend money and they're just treated horribly.” … There just weren't any woman-owned [dance clubs] and there was a very large community.

Kelly Coate (former Wall Street general manager): We used to drive around Downtown Columbus looking for spaces, and this one day we saw a “For Lease” sign on the High Street side. [McDonald] circled the block and I went through the back doors even though it said, “Do Not Enter.” … And I ran out to the car and said, “Jill, this is it. I stumbled onto something I think that nobody even knows is here.”

McDonald: We had a lighter in our pocket and walked through that massive place with a lighter, and we were like, “This is it. We found it.”

Coate: Because it was so dramatic with that two-story atrium and the wraparound balcony and the size of it and everything, it was very exciting. Nothing in Columbus had that sort of big-city feel.

McDonald: One of the things that I tried to do was to make it a community bar. We had a very diverse staff, from men to women to some straight people. Everyone knew where they were and where our focus was and, as long as they respected that, then everyone was welcome.

Coate: That first year we were trying to figure out what format we were going with and struggling with all the rumors. The gay men's crowd would say, “Oh, don't go there. It's a lesbian bar.” And the lesbians were like, “We don't think this is for us.” … We even took out an ad. On one side it said, “People think we're a gay men's club.” And on the other full page it said, “People think we're a lesbian bar.” And then on the bottom between the two pages we explained that we were trying to be for everybody.

McDonald: We had such a very diverse lineup at Wall Street. Wednesday night was called Progressive Night (later nicknamed “boy's night”). It was a very famous night and it was much different music than what we played on the weekends. The weekend was more of Top 40, current hits — very dance-y. The men's community really came out on Wednesday nights.

Coate: Around the fourth Wednesday [after we launched it], word somehow got around. We went from like 50 people to like 600 in one week. We started seeing all of the “cool people” around town. Restaurant owners were coming because their employees were there. I remember when Kent Rigsby [of Rigsby's Kitchen] walked in one night. I was like, “Oh, my god. This is really the deal.”

McDonald: My favorite nights, of course, were First Fridays. First Fridays are very legendary in the women's community. We opened the doors at 6 p.m. and at 7 p.m. you couldn't move in the place. At 6 p.m. we started playing '50s music. At 7 p.m. we'd play '60s. We kept going up a decade every hour. … The hotel across the street back in the day would fill up with women coming in from around the state just for First Fridays.

Lori Boldman (former Wall Street manager): I started going within a year or two of when it was open. Some of my friends were going and I went with them. … Back then you didn't admit that you were a gay bar. Like nobody had signs. [At Wall Street] you'd go down this alley and they took me in a door and I was like, “Where are you guys taking me?” I had no idea what was going on because we didn't have the awning and the sign. It was just a light over the door. And I was like, “What am I walking into?”

McDonald: People came here because they felt safe and they didn't want to run into their boss or their co-worker. So we didn't really want the people to know where we were.

Boldman: It just felt really comfortable and it just kind of blew my mind. The music was amazing, the lights were great and the staff was really nice [unlike] campus bars. The floor wasn't sticky. I didn't know what to do with myself. And I immediately started making friends.

McDonald: You can never please everybody, but you do try. Thursday nights we had country and western. [We] were the home of the Columbus Stompers [dance team]. Their club would come in there and dance and practice for their shows that they would travel with. And then it would turn into hip-hop night. So it was really interesting to be in there on a Thursday night and watch the transition.

Boldman: The DJs were always amazing. I don't know how [DJ Mitch] used to do some of the stuff that would get pulled off in the DJ booth. [Mitch] managed to find songs that we could line dance to that were kind of hip-hop and that would transition. We'd be dancing and all of a sudden it's like, “Oh, we're in hip-hop night.”

McDonald: [DJ Mitch] is legendary in my mind.

Michele ‘Mitch' Chaney (former longtime Wall Street DJ): I didn't think it was going to lead to where it did. … I used to go in early before the other DJ would come in and I would practice. The first night I ever got to DJ was after the Melissa Etheridge concert. It was nerve-racking. I remember I had to hold [one hand steady] to put the needle on the record because it was shaking. I remember playing “I'm the Only One” and everybody went nuts, and I'm like, “Oh, I like this feeling.” The only other song I remember playing is “You Suck” by Consolidated.

Boldman: That was actually a really crazy night because we were like, “Oh, we should open up [on an off day] because there's a Melissa Etheridge concert.” We figured maybe a few people will come over after the concert. I don't know if somebody told everybody that she was going to show up or something. I was on the dance floor and all of a sudden I turn around and waves of people are walking in. I just looked up at the DJ booth and I know my eyes were huge.

McDonald: If any celebrity was in town, they always ended up at Wall Street, from the B-52's to Dead or Alive, Bonnie Pointer, Barry Manilow, Jodie Foster. They would report on WNCI [radio] who was seen at Wall Street on Wednesday night.

We had what we called “Off the Wall Comedy” and we brought in gay comedy troupes from all over. We would get stuff in the mail from gay comedians that wanted to play there. I got one [request] in the mail one day and I was reading it and I said, “She wants $3,000. That's a huge amount of money. We can't afford this. I've never even heard of her.” Her name was Rosie O'Donnell. And I didn't do it.

Chaney: Even though there would be bad times … all in all [Wall Street] was there for the community. We were there for the benefits. We were there for people to come in and raise money.

Coate: Downtown there was Tradewinds, The Eagle, The Garage and then us. Those were the big dancing clubs, all within a two-block radius. So people would bounce around. And the owner of The Eagle at the time tested HIV positive [along] with many of our friends. And he came up with the idea of a program called “The Long Cold Nights of Winter.” For a month, we did AIDS fundraisers in each bar. … You have to understand it was in the beginning of the [AIDS] crisis and the Columbus AIDS Taskforce was struggling. Every dollar that we could raise was crucial.

Pride, Heaven and Hell

Chaney: Pride was always my favorite night. It was just the energy. Everybody was there to have fun.

Pandora Foxx (burlesque performer): I was 17 the first time I actually went there for Pride and it was bananas. There was a line outside the door. And it was just this euphoric feeling of just like pride and happiness and being free. I mean, yeah, people were a little inebriated, too, but I was captivated by it. And I come from West Virginia [with] evangelists and [Southern Baptist] preachers, so it was liberating to see that there was a group of people who really cared about each other and they had the same identity that wasn't church-based.

Boldman: [One time] I was filling in at Pride … and we looked down and you couldn't see the floor at all, there were so many people. … One of the other bartenders was joking around and dropped a napkin over the balcony to see how long it would take to hit the floor. It didn't. It just kind of floated on people.

Mary Nolan (draq queen, former Glamazon): They would have these big parties. You had “Heaven and Hell,” which was the day before Thanksgiving. That party came about because so many people in the community were shunned and ostracized by their families. That gave them somewhere to be.

Chaney: The upstairs would be all Heaven. We put white everywhere. We would take two feather pillows and we would rip them open and put the feathers all over the floor. It was fun but that cleanup sucked ass.

Boldman: And then downstairs was Hell. So it was like lots of reds and blacks and they'd have go-go dancers.

Chaney: At the beginning of the night everybody wanted to be in Heaven and then normally everybody would drift down to Hell.

“A reason to come out”

McDonald: I had vacationed in Key West, Florida, and I had always said that one of my plans was to own a business there and live there. I had an opportunity come up … so I just thought, “OK, it's time. I've had this club for 20 years. I started it from scratch, built it up. It's highly successful. It's known throughout the country.” Scot [Hafler] had been my general manager for a very long time and also a good friend. He wanted the nightclub [in 2007] and so it was the perfect match.

Scot Hafler (former Wall Street owner): I felt a really deep connection to not only the building but what it represented. It really served a purpose for the community for so many years. And I had my vision of where I wanted to see it go.

Amber Yeater (former and final Wall Street owner): People were like, “Oh, no. It's going to be just a gay [men's] club. They're going to get rid of all the women's events. Watch, it's just going to be another Axis. We're going to lose our space.” … But it never really happened.

Hafler: I really made it a point to reach out to the groups that were integrated into that community. Like the Royal Renegades [drag queens] and Viva Valezz and the Velvet Hearts [burlesque troupe]. [Christina Basham] started the Vagina Monologues under my tenure. So things that were strategic to ensure that that community knew this wasn't going to change.

Helena Troy (founder of The Glamazons): As the nightlife and nightclub scene was starting to dwindle, [Hafler] saw [Wall Street] as a community center. He talked about that when I moved back to town from Chicago in 2011 and I looked into bringing my drag back. … He understood that you had to have all the doors open and have something for everyone.

Nolan: The Glamazons were Helena Troy's brainchild. She wanted a troupe of drag queens that were outside of the box. We didn't want to adhere to standard drag.

Troy: The first show that we did every year was called “Project Glamazon.” That was a contest where we would find our newest member. Each of those had a theme. One year was fantasy. … We had another show that became very popular called “Glamazonia,” which was our space opera. … That's where we could really go crazy with costumes.

Foxx: I think Wall Street was one of those stages that made it very safe for it to be traditional or neo or any kind of art you wanted. I remember there was a fundraiser there to shed light on abuse and I was like, “I really want to do an interpretive dance, but I want to be an abuse victim.” It was a very intense dance and I remember it just being super silent through the whole number and thinking, “Maybe this was a bad idea.” But then as soon as the number was over, it was such a huge applause.

Devon Ayers (drag king and forever reigning Mr. Wall Street): It was literally the only place that was regularly booking drag kings. They could have entire showcases. Any king that came through and had a good product was able to go onstage. It was one of the few places where we didn't have any censorship.

Hafler: The concept was really to take it to more of an entertainment spot because at that time between 2007 and 2014, that's really when we started seeing social media come into play and things were changing. People were starting to catch up online, whereas before, when you wanted to catch up with friends, you had to go out and do that face-to-face. So because of that, we had to start gearing a little bit more towards a reason to come out.

Brandon Chapman (owner of Traxx Columbus LGBTQ event brand): I was privileged to host Mayor Michael B. Coleman for a campaign election event there. It became more than just a club. I can remember that anybody who was running for office who was affirming, they would come to the club, shake hands, talk to people. It was a wonderful experience. It was a staple within the community.

The end of an era

Yeater: [My wife, Sandy Rollins, and I] had created and were running Bossy Grrls Pin Up Joint. We're producing queer shows in this bar that is not a queer bar. I'm like, “Damn, we need a bigger stage. This place is too little.” We want to produce bigger, cooler, more awesome events for queer people and all people, so we start looking for a new property [and landed on Wall Street].

Hafler: I had been in the business by that point since I was 19 years old. And my partner and I, we had been together 22 years and we were ready to move on to the next chapter of our lives. We had taken it to where we wanted to … but we knew that to really take it to that next level, it just needed a big influx of attention and money.

Yeater: [I thought] I was going to be able to build new stuff and create additional new business [and] people were going to be excited that, “Lesbians are finally taking back over Wall Street and we're gonna bring back First Fridays and we're gonna make it awesome again. And women are just gonna flock.” And the women didn't flock.

Christina Basham (former Wall Street manager): I think the culture was the catalyst for the decline and in [fewer] people coming to Wall Street. People just didn't need it. And the newer generation of lesbians, I think they didn't value it. If they went to college in Columbus, they had been running around with their girlfriend, hand in hand, at any bar they wanted to. And so they didn't realize what it meant to those of us in the community who are older who maybe didn't have that.

Yeater: In addition to that, we had this whole month of like — I can't even describe it. It was cold. It was like record cold in Columbus. One day I get a call from DJ Mitch [who said], “The pipes are frozen. We've got no water coming into the building.” … We closed down for a full month.

Troy: They didn't have the foresight to realize that this can happen with this old building, whereas Scot was prepared for that every year. So there were things that shouldn't have gotten missed that eventually did. I feel like they were out of their element.

Yeater: It was one thing after another and it was trying on my wife and I and our relationship. I was trying to save Wall Street and I really wanted to, but I had to stop and save my own self and save my own marriage instead. So we went ahead and said, “We're done fighting. We're not taking out another loan.” I spent my entire life savings to save that nightclub. … New Year's Eve [2015] was the final night.

Ayers: Me and Diamond [Hunter], being Mr. and Miss Wall Street, were part of the group that helped to organize that night. People were just crying in the audience and, mind you, the club had almost no bathrooms and very little heat at that time. It was barely hanging on. So it was a really intense, emotional experience, and I would say kind of taxing for a lot of people.

Yeater: It was really emotional for me because I failed. This sucks on a personal level, but I'd also met my wife there. It was the first place I danced with a girl. I was taking that [on] for all the future “me's,” all the lesbians who were like, “Where do you go meet other girls? Where do you go dance with another girl? Where do you go find your people?”

Diamond Hunter (drag queen, former Glamazon, forever reigning Miss Wall Street): It was just sad to see that place go. [We're] moving to smaller venues and more neighborhood bars. It's the end of an era where you have the big bars with an upstairs and downstairs. Sadly, some people won't get to experience it. Those were the good old days, in my opinion.

McDonald: In 1987 and prior, when you were gay, if you wanted to go out and be yourself and feel comfortable and feel safe, you had to go to a gay spot. Now, that's not necessarily the case. People don't care anymore, which is a great thing. So didn't we do our job? Isn't that something to be proud of?

“Go out and stay out”

Boldman: Our tagline for a while was, “Go out and stay out,” like be out dancing and also out of the closet. I think it gave people a space where they grew confidence and they had a voice that they didn't have anywhere else, whether it was just because they can be themselves there or because they were a performer.

Coate: I think it should be known as a premier club in the Midwest, if not the country. I think it should be known for its inclusiveness … and also its charitable [contribution] to the community.

Chaney: When business starts to drop off or you leave something, you're like, “Did it really even ever matter?” ... It's amazing even now just to hear how people talk about it and to realize that, yes, that place did have an impact. That says something for the legacy that Jill, Scot and Amber and Sandy carry.