Looking back on the LGBTQ space's progression from dive to destination

When reminiscing about the early days of AWOL, the first word that came to manager Heath Rowland-Davis was “dark.”

“We weren't as public as we are now,” said Rowland-Davis, who still has his first pay stub, dated May 31, 1999. “The front window was painted over. … People would open the door and it'd be like a beacon of light out in the street.”

Inside, there were four lights on the walls — and just 15 choices in liquor on a single shelf behind the neon-lit bar.

“I would say it went from more of a neighborhood dive bar to a destination bar,” said Mary Nolan, who has been performing drag shows at AWOL for 12 years. “But it still retains its neighborhood roots. We're bringing in people from all over the country to do different forms of entertainment here.”

While the establishment now boasts a full stage area, Nolan's first performances were done atop a pool table.

“They would put plywood on the pool table, paint it black, and then they would put a black curtain around it,” said Nolan, who now does multiple shows per week at AWOL and other clubs in the city.

“She's definitely come into her own,” Rowland-Davis said of watching Nolan's progression at AWOL. “Her art and talent have just blossomed and expanded.”

In celebration of the bar's 20th anniversary, Nolan put on a major production, featuring four numbers that included throwbacks to 1999 (Whitney Houston's “It's Not Right, But It's Okay” was the closer).

“They've spent a ton of money and time on lights and sound and DJ equipment,” Nolan said. “So now we're really able to take the shows to another level.”

But AWOL presents more than just a party atmosphere. Even as the LGBTQ community finds representation and acceptance in more spaces, bars still hold great significance in the culture.

“You get a sense of community,” said Rowland-Davis, who moved to Columbus from a small town in Northwest Ohio. “I remember my mother was so nervous about me living in Columbus. And then she came to AWOL and she met everybody here and she was like, ‘You know what? You're safe. You're fine. You've got a family down here.' … In my 20 years here, I've always strived to make it feel like Cheers.”

“I would not be surprised to see AWOL still open in 20 [more] years and still just as fantastic,” Nolan said.