Remembering L.A.’s last great piano bar.
Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a profile of Steve Ross, one of the city’s last great Cabaret artists. Ross has been playing at piano bars across the city since the 1980s, bringing the camp classics of the Great American Songbooks to newer, younger audiences at venues from the Algonquin to Birdland.
While New York has always had a history of small, intimate bars built around a piano, L.A.’s relationship to the classic queer cabaret bar has been different. While the opening of Tramp Stamp Granny’s in Hollywood sparked a type of renaissance for that certain type of New York-style bar that’s so adept at mixing show tune singalongs with boozing and debauchery, there’s still nothing that can replace L.A.’s classic piano bar “The Other Side,” which closed in 2012.
Before Silver Lake was the collection hipster eateries and cafes that we know and love today, it was kind of a dive. It was also pretty gay. Back in the early 2010s, the Silver Lake community was composed of, according to writer Besha Rodell, “a couple of single mothers raising teenagers, older gay couples, a Perry Farrell-like dude named Adam who created and tended to the neighborhood’s famous chandelier tree… a neighborhood of artists and outsiders, people who had left small towns to find a home more suited to their needs for freedom and creativity.”
In Rodell’s recent article about “The Other Side” for Punch Magazine, she cites the bar as being the glue that held this small, queer community together.
When the bar first opened in 1967, L.A. had plenty of piano bars to speak of. Richard Little told Rodell that Silver Lake, at that time, was like no other part of the city. “There was no place like it.” He said. “West Hollywood did not have the kind of diversity you’d find in Silver Lake. We ranged in age from old to young; various ethnic groups were welcomed. West Hollywood was never like that.”
While this description might fit a broader swath of today’s queer L.A., there’s still something special about the memory of a place where queer folks could go not to be anonymous, but to be truly intimate. To coexist in the presence of other singing queers and a grand piano. While Silver Lake is still home to Akbar, one of the last historic gay bars in the city, nothing has come up to truly take the place of “The Other Side,” with its funky interior, community-oriented vibe, and frequent singalongs. There are many factors that may have contributed to this. Was it the fact that AIDS came along and laid claim to so many lives? Was it the creation of hook-up apps that made it unnecessary to seek out human company? The rising cost of rent in the newly-hip neighborhood? Most likely a combination of all three.
Even in the midst of so many historic closures of gay bars across the country, L.A. hasn’t suffered nearly as much as some smaller cities. But during the holiday season, when queer folks want to drink, revel, and escape their relatives, it’s nice to remember a place where everybody sang your name.