Bretz Nightclub celebrates 25 yearsWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The dressing room is strangely quiet, each beat from the music downstairs tapping lightly beneath the floorboards.
Dejà D applies her lipstick. Autumn DeLaRue tugs on her black and red wig.
Then the tapping turns to a thud, as the door at the bottom of the stairs flings open and belches out a gust of voices and music.
“Oh no — here comes the calm before the storm,” Dejà says.
And with that, Felaciana Thunderpussy comes barreling up the steps, belting out the lyrics to a Rihanna song and tossing her blonde wig across the room. The three of them heckle each other about whether Rihanna is overrated before checking the clock. The next show is in about 10 minutes.
By now it’s 12:50 a.m. and Dejà has been at Bretz Nightclub on Adams Street since 9 p.m. That is when she transforms from Floyd Anderson the art instructor to Dejà the dancer.
“When I put this wig on, I can escape to a whole other world,” Dejà says.
The wigs in bright orange, black and hot pink, curly blonde, black and Afro-style that hang on the wall behind her are only four of 25 that she has to choose from.
Dejà sacrifices her bank account for beauty — with her most expensive wig cashing in at $100. She also forfeits facial hair.
“I am a man and I look amazing with facial hair,” she said. “I love a beard.”
But the sacrifice works for her as she struts across the bright red dance floor, clad in leopard print shorts and a tan-colored Afro wig accentuated with a sequined bow. Tonight, she makes an entrance with a Whitney Houston song, and the men and women lining the edges of the dance floor are stuffing dollar bills down her cleavage within the first minute.
The crowds at Bretz “know what they’re getting into,” and are more accepting than at other bars, Dejà said. The group is inclusive; only a few dance alone and if you stand on the sidelines for too long someone will grab you by the hand and pull you in.
“When they come in the door, it’s to have a good time,” she said. “They don’t come here to bitch about something.”
This is an atmosphere the management has worked tirelessly to create. April 28 marks Bretz’ 25-year anniversary. But just five years ago the bar was losing money on Saturday nights. The back wall was so porous rainwater gushed in “like Niagara Falls,” owner Michelle Woda said. And some say the reputation of the place was in danger.
“I remember thinking, ‘How are we going to make this go? We can’t do it with this amount of people’,” said Woda, who bought the business five years ago from the original owner, Greg Knott. “We had to start thinking outside the box.”
The new owners spent tens of thousands of dollars to install new piping, rip carpeting from the walls, develop the back patio, renovate the bathrooms and spruce up the dressing rooms for the performers. Manager Chris Borton brought themed parties and new DJs. His signature move — something he learned from his stint as a Florida bar ender — is the foam party. Borton constructed a device that blows bubbles for back patio parties. For a short night, he’ll use 428 bottles of baby shampoo and 2,000 gallons of water.
Borton said Bretz has grown somewhere around 350 percent in the past four years. And the staff is up to 20 from three.
This is, after all, the evolution of “Bretz the Bar” to “Bretz the Nightclub,” Borton said. The 25th anniversary party will celebrate that with a foam party and the unveiling of new lighting and newly finished decor.
Woda said after buying the bar she sometimes questioned whether she had made the right choice. Borton said he and Woda struggled with the reputation of the bar.
“There was much talk of, ‘Is the name tainted?’ when we first bought it. ‘Do we change the name, do we lose something that’s been there for 20 years?’” he said.
Just before Knott sold the bar, regular fights had started breaking out on the dance floor. Knott himself was charged with felonious assault in 2007, which was dropped to negligent assault after he pleaded no contest to smashing a beer glass over a patron’s head.
Steve Witker, an employee of 15 years, said he didn’t think the place had a damaged reputation, and that Knott was blamed for a lot of the actions that unruly patrons committed inside his bar.
Witker attributed the lag in business to the economic downturn and high gas prices. Regulars who typically drove in from Detroit, Dayton, Fort Wayne and Sandusky could hardly afford the trip anymore, he said.
Knott, who died at 62 years old in 2010, opened the bar as a safe place for young Toledoans to come out and meet people. Knott grew up in Massillon, Ohio, where his family and peers pressured him to be masculine, Witker said.
“I remember him telling me as a young kid he couldn’t be gay and he was contemplating suicide trying to figure out how to make it look like an accident,” Witker said.
But by the time he overcame this and got a little older, you could spot him driving around with the signature license plate: “OK2BGAY.”
He intended for Bretz to be a resource center as well as a bar. Having started the bar in the heat of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Knott opened the property’s office on the second floor to a nonprofit that helped people who were diagnosed, Witker said. Bretz sponsored bus rides to Columbus for the annual Pride parade. He also mandated that staff ensure patrons felt at home. A cocktail waitress told Witker that if an employee asked patrons how they were doing and they responded with a “canned response of fine,” that employee would get fired if he or she let the conversation end.
Borton remembers his friends taking him to Bretz in the ’90s, before he came out. The place was shoulder to shoulder from 11 p.m. until 1 a.m. on a regular basis, he recalled. Crowds never failed to boom even though the place was not lit up outside and was not particularly advertised. Even now, Bretz is marked only by a maroon awning and its address.
“That’s what gay bars used to be — they were holes in the wall quite literally, because that’s what they wanted to be. They wanted a place that no one else knew about and no one was going to come in and bug them,” Borton said. “Now that’s all changed — kids are coming out in junior high and high school. Being gay is not the big faux pas anymore.”
Dejà, too, recalls the time when going out at night required a great deal of whispering.
“It put into perspective of how life is a big secret,” Dejà said.
Anderson (Dejà) started going to Bretz before he was 18 years old. He said that it was intimidating then because the place consisted mostly of “topless white boys dancing.”
Now when you go you’ll see a diverse range of people. And Anderson tells as many people as he can — as loud as he can — that tonight he’s going to Bretz.