- Posted June 12, 2014 by
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HOLLYWOOD'S ICONIC CLUB: THE SPOTLIGHT by CARLOS MANUEL AGUILAR
If there is a naughty list of cultural icons Hollywood's oldest gay bar, the Spotlight Room had to be at the top.
Cultural icons are symbols recognized as having great public significance to wide and diverse groups. The Spotlight Room exemplified this definition. In the summer of 2011, The Spotlight, Hollywood's oldest gay bar closed its' doors forever after 48 years on Cahuenga Avenue, a block from Hollywood Blvd. Like all classic icons, the Spotlight is imprinted in our memories, irreplaceable, and timeless.
First opened in 1963, the club reached iconic status in the late '70s. Tony, a 40-year veteran bartender said, “The Spotlight became an icon when it grew to be a part of its client's vocabulary.” Like all icons, it has gone through many transformations. The Spotlight became a landmark because of what it meant to people from all over the world.”
I walked in for the first time in 1977 and visited regularly until the day it closed. For me, it's easy to define why-I created a family of choice there that has changed my life in countless positive ways. Tim, a long time patron, explained it best: “When my family found out I was different, I was told I wasn't welcome anymore. I traveled to Hollywood and walked directly to the Spotlight from the old bus depot on Vine.” Tim paused and went into deep thought. I realized the importance of the silence and froze. Tim reached into his shirt pocket and took out a vintage Spotlight drink chip. “See this? It was my first gift upon arrival.” I took the chip and analyzed it. Tim's voice quivered. “I walked in that day and this nice man gave me this. We went home that night and I never left. We were together 25 years until he died of AIDS. It's no wonder the place became a second home for me!”
Don Samuels, the club's proprietor, created an inimitable ambience that allowed people to be themselves. Samuels said he had but one requirement-that you respect the house and its patrons.” Samuels personifies respect. The success of his establishment can only be attributed to a man with extraordinary determination for enterprise and compassion for people. Rodger, a patron from the Philippines, said Samuels was like his godfather. “He's such a generous man, very kind, loving. He created this place that made you want to be with people, be with friends.”
Bill K. came to Los Angeles in 1953. He was a Spotlight regular since the '60s. In he mid-'70s he decided he was going to travel the world and told Samuels about his plans. “Don looked at me and said, 'Why would you want to see the world Bill? The world comes here!'”
It does seem like the world came to the Spotlight. The club was one of the most diverse places around-every ethnicity, nationality and race could be found there. Although it's referred to as a gay bar, the club really did not have a defined sexual orientation. LGBT and straight people mingled with one another regardless of their preferences. It was evident that studio executives, actors and even unemployed day laborers lost their socioeconomic status when they walked in. One thread ran through the fabric of the patrons, said Ron L., a ten-year veteran who defined it distinctively: “There was no judgement there. We're all different, but when you walked past the the door, we were all the same.” He emphasized, “The gathering of people from all walks of life has always been the nature of this bar.”
The sexual revolution of the '70s and '80s and Hollywood's decline at the time brought problems to the bar, but tight security in its last years made the establishment extremely safe. Rick H., a longtime patron, said, “[Patrons] are very protective of the club. It's familiar. It's comfortable. Why wouldn't I want to protect the most familiar place in my life? First timers have difficulty adjusting to the uniqueness of this club, unable to identify the authenticity of the place and its patrons. There are no smoke screens, no falsehoods-you're appreciated for being just who you are.”
With karaoke three times a week, Saturday go-go boys and free buffets on holidays, it was impossible to stay away once you warmed up to it. Rumor had it that every Real estate agent in Hollywood was looking for a new location, yet some of the people I spoke to felt very ambivalent about moving. Jay, a ten-year patron, was saddened by the rumors of moving the club. “The Spotlight became a pioneer at the corner of Selma and Cahuenga. It'll take me a while to adapt to a new location, but I'll follow it wherever it goes.”
My 33-year outlook tells me that many people came here over the years after the loss of their biological families. The Spotlight provided a safe and relaxed home to create a families of choice that have lasted generations. At the time, it seemed to me that family was breaking up.
Over the years Don Samuels became the idealization of one's father-someone to whom one looks for guidance and protection. I believe he will come through for his family once again wherever he goes.
Carlos Manuel Aguilar is a Los Angeles based filmmaker/writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ~
PICTURED: THE ROCKFORD FILES. In its 48-year history the Spotlight Room was a busy Hollywood filming location. It appeared in hundreds of films, TV shows, commercials and even a few adult films.