It’s Raining Men, and Women
Ah, the Renegade. The moment the enormous dance club the Renegade opened along Route One at the very entrance to Rehoboth Avenue Extended, it became a well-remembered iconic spot—and a lynchpin in Rehoboth’s LGBTQ history. It closed in 2003 after 23 great years.
This pink and blue squat building was famous as a restaurant, lounge, and dance bar and a continuous presence in the personal history of thousands and thousands of gay and gay-friendly shore visitors.
By a conservative estimate 30,000 people dined, danced, saw shows, and sang karaoke at the site each year. And the place was packed from its opening night on May 7, 1980.
Already affiliated with clubs in the DC area, Renegade owner Glenn Thompson had wanted to open a place in Rehoboth as early as 1970 but getting a license proved difficult. It wasn’t until 1979 that he was able to lease the building and get started.
It wasn’t the first bar on the property. According to Thompson, “there was an old nightclub called the Bloody Bucket nearby, and the rumor was, if you could see over the bar, they’d serve you.”
Thompson made sure his establishment played by the rules and by the book. They paid all their bills up front, cooperated with the county in every way, and got involved in local organizations.
Busy from the first night, the Renegade was a smash. But less than eight weeks later, on July 4th weekend 1980, the place burned to the ground in the middle of the night. Was it a hate crime? Thompson didn’t think so, telling me, “We really had no trouble with the local people.”
Whatever the cause of the fire, it devastated the business and the summer crowd. Determined to rebuild, Thompson parked a trailer on the property, posted someone there around the clock, and began clearing the debris. It took a month just to get rid of the old building. But the county did everything they could to help Thompson get permits and get back in business. They reopened by Labor Day.
Once the Renegade re-opened, people would pour into the club at night, and many would wind up with a late, late breakfast at the Robin Hood on Rehoboth Avenue. The Renegade offered name entertainers, as well as shows inside the club and outside by the pool.
While the early years saw the Renegade hosting many more men than women, by the mid-80s, when the dance floor filled for “It’s Raining Men,” there were lots of women there, too. Not all the bartenders or parking lot assistants were friendly to women at first; I remember people three deep at the bar and having to ask one of the guys to get me a couple of drinks. But—it got better.
How did the community react to the Renegade? The club had security for the first year of operation. They posted an armed guard in the parking lot and called him Sgt. Pepper. But there were few problems.
From its reopening in the fall of 1980, the Renegade expanded. Initially, they bought some 1940s-era motel units and had them moved to the site. In 1985, they added the 20-unit motel.
In 1987, Wayne Hodge came to town to help Thompson with some computer work. By the summer of ‘89, Wayne was floor manager at the Renegade and by 1990 he relocated here permanently as the general manager.
In the 80s and even early 90s, the bars were the focal point of gay life in Rehoboth. As many more businesses, restaurants, and bars opened up, friendly to the LGBTQ crowd, there were more places for people to go and socialize. To keep their customers coming, the Renegade diversified.
Not only did the Renegade offer a restaurant, dance bar, and accommodations, but they had a pool, video lounge, karaoke nights, cabaret shows, and a host of performers, contests, and special promotions. Iconic female impersonator Christopher Peterson first came to Rehoboth to perform at the Renegade. Many folks in the straight community loved the Renegade for its shows and entertainment.
Folks remember fondly drag queen Gladys Kravitz hosting karaoke in the video bar. On one touchstone night, I was there when Gladys had to stop the music and announce to the crowd that Princess Diana had died. At first, people didn’t believe Gladys; they thought a punchline was coming. Sadly, no. “It’s true. Really,” Gladys said again. The room went silent. Lots of people remember that shocking moment.
And lots of others remember the CAMP Rehoboth parties and fundraisers at the site. The Renegade was forever helping to raise money for good causes.
But time marches on; things change. Everywhere, not just here, dance clubs filled up on weekends, but not during the week. People’s priorities changed, young people came to Poodle Beach for weekends, but most could not afford to stay for an entire week. And Delaware’s indoor smoking ban also took its toll.
So after almost a quarter century, Rehoboth’s exuberant dance club, resort, and cabaret shut its doors after one last Valentine’s Day, on February 15, 2003.
Locals and visitors remember the Renegade for all the brash, flamboyant, smoke-filled, ear-splitting good times, where we “loved the nightlife,” and “loved to boogie.” At the time of its closing, we all sang “We will survive,” but we weren’t happy about it.▼
Fay Jacobs is the author of five published books and is touring with her one-woman sit-down comedy show, Aging Gracelessly. Her reports on Rehoboth’s LGBTQ history can be heard on RadioRehoboth, 99.1.