A Tale of Two Dance Clubs: The Renegade & The Strand
He stepped out from a Trailways bus, a sole suitcase in hand, and hair, well-past his shoulders, blew with the breeze. The drawn-out ride from DC to his summer destination was not uncomfortable. From Route 16 to his stop, though, was just minutes as the bus sped through the two lonely stoplights. In 1987, along Highway 1, there were no outlet malls, no chain restaurants, no townhomes—just farmers’ fields and an occasional business.
On the town’s outskirts, along the service road to his left, he spotted Glen Thompson’s pale yellow and brown Renegade. He remembered first visiting the dance club and restaurant years earlier with DC friends. They enjoyed its beachy-feel, the grand patio, and a dance floor with its low ceiling and “a dryer hose that went around the back of the bar with holes punched through with lights in it. It was wonderful!”
The resort town had awoken from its wintery slumber. Along Rehoboth Avenue, traditional commercial establishments, some owned by the town’s leaders, were already open: Bob Derrickson’s Carlton’s Apparel and brother Donald’s nearby Sandcastle Motel, the Rehoboth Pharmacy which Gene Nelson had owned since the 1950s, and the office of Realtor Norm Sugrue at Lingo’s, a family name synonymous with Old Rehoboth.
There was the occasional car sporting a “Keep Rehoboth a Family Town” bumper sticker. Its advocates—Rehoboth Beach Homeowners’ Association and most of its band of city commissioners, the Anti-Gay Vigilante Movement, and Mayor Hughes—frustrated as the town’s queer presence was far from vanquished. The Washington Blade trumpeted Rehoboth as “an irresistible draw for ‘people like us’.” Wilmington’s Morning News, headlining “Rehoboth’s Growing Gay Population,” estimated 15 gay-owned businesses. Columnist Bill Frank asked readers, “Are the gays in Rehoboth Beach troubling you?”
During the six years since Hughes’ infamous showdown about “gay food” at the Blue Moon, other queer-owned or -friendly restaurants like Mano’s, the Palms, Astral Plane, and Sydneys had opened. Baltimore Avenue, once a sleepy side street a block off Rehoboth Avenue, was, by 1987, flourishing. Flanking “The Avenue,” was M-Style, a unisex clothing store owned by Debby Appleby and Beth Shinn, Terry Plowman’s Front Page restaurant, the Camel’s Hump which served Middle Eastern food, and Pat Whittier and Pegi Fuller’s Paper Nautilus B&B.
Down the Avenue, a former rooming house and courtyard had been converted into eight specialty shops, ranging from Crysti’s women apparel to Carole and Deborah’s Elephant’s Trunk offering fine crafted toys. Toward Second Street, on the other side of The Avenue, was the Rehoboth Muse, an alleyway of boutique emporia partly owned by commissioner Norman Sugrue. Secrets on the Beach showcased Crazy Shirts of Hawaii in its window. Its owner—a lesbian like many of these pioneer entrepreneurs—sometimes hosted champagne parties; gay men, on their way to or from the Moon’s infamous happy hour, would sometime partake. A Baltimore educator who played softball with a mostly lesbian team, she had volunteered for Women: A Journal of Liberation and had been part of the restaurant reviewer team, the Dining Dykes.
She worried about the Aryan Nation-type, t-shirted Anti-Gay Vigilantes, “which scared the crap out of us.” She, too, dreaded the next visit of lumbering “old school” landlord Sugrue, warning her about risqué underwear in the window, or the deceptively diminutive next door homemaker, Bertha Pusey, who sometimes stopped by with coffee along with complaints about the Blue Moon.
Around both the First Street and Second Street corners were other queer businesses such as Splash, owned by Bill Sievert and John Theis, who had met at San Francisco’s Stud Bar in 1973, Norma Reeves’ Whip Stitch, a lesbian-owned clothing store, and the Tijuana Taxi, a funky Mexican joint operated by restauranteurs Victor Pisapia and Joyce Felton. Along Rehoboth Avenue were the End of the Line, showcasing Key West merchandise, Greybeard’s of London, a tobacco and gift shop, owned by gay DC bookstore pioneers, Deacon Maccubbin and Jim Bennett, and, of course, the venerable Back Porch Cafe.
“We were great supporters of other people who were opening up establishments that were a step above,” Joyce says. “Victor and I had the philosophy that more business brings more business.” She remembers “this new feeling of experimentation” but also the darkness. “On the flip side of that there was resistance, resistance, resistance. I give so much credit to these people. They were brave. They were fearless…. They were good friends of ours.” She pauses as a tear comes to her eye, “We lost some of them to AIDS.”
Gays—with hope and despair—smashed or were pushed out of their closets as AIDS emerged. The first local report of a known Rehoboth case appeared in 1983. By the late ‘80s, Sussex County cases had increased but it was yet to be as rampant as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and DC, whose gay residents increasingly vacationed in Rehoboth away from the virus’s daily reminders that “Silence=Death.”
Delaware provided some financial support for assisting persons with AIDS, but it fell upon volunteer efforts, like Sussex County PALS, to provide boots on the ground. Meanwhile, the Wilmington-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Delaware (GLAD), along with local activists like Keith Lewis, had to combat legislative efforts of House Speaker Bradford Barnes who advocated mandatory premarital AIDS testing and reinstating the sodomy statute. Barnes also blasted “gay bars in Rehoboth as ‘East Coast distributors of AIDS’.” Meanwhile, William Oberle, the House Majority leader, demanded the Department of Health investigate businesses permitting homosexual activities. “I see the owners as the real prostitutes in this system,” he demagogued. Thompson, who had opened up the Renegade to GLAD years earlier, responded: “The gay community is ready to fight.”
Meanwhile, the 27-year-old walked down Rehoboth Avenue with suitcase in hand and strolled into the Palms Restaurant. His eyes first centered on a giant palm, two ceiling lights beaming downward, situated near a huge Chinese urn with pink flamingos scattered about. Toward the back was a small dance club and a piano bar with an open-air patio. One Hawaiian-shirted waiter asked, “Who are you?” Wayne Hodge responded, “I’m the new manager.”
Weeks earlier, Glen Thompson, sitting in his cramped three-desk office above Badlands—one of several DC gay bars he owned—had turned to Wayne: “Do you want to go the beach for the summer?” Wayne looked up from a spreadsheet. “To do what?” Thompson—his doberman, Ripper, resting nearby—explained: “I need someone to manage the restaurant because there’s nobody there. I want someone to watch.”
Wayne had been Glen’s eyes on the ground for two years. In 1985, he had quit his government job to watch over the books of Thompson’s gay business empire. So, when the Palms manager died, Wayne seemed a logical choice. For more than a year he had visited Rehoboth monthly, arriving on Wednesdays and returning the next day. “All of the financials, even for Rehoboth, were done in DC,” explains Wayne. “We’d come down, collect all of the paperwork from the Renegade and the Palms restaurant…and dump everything into a little box computer and bring all of the stuff back.”
Hodge responded to Thompson’s summer invitation: “I’ve worked in restaurants, but I have never managed one before.”
In a calm voice, Glen replied, “Well, you know how to do it. Just go and watch everything and do the accounting to make sure everything is verified.”
As a teenager, Wayne had cooked in Norfolk seafood restaurants while dreaming of government office work and living with Virginia Beach drag queens. In 1981, his “family” rented a U-Haul and moved to the DC area. He landed a job at the Bureau of Public Debt, calculating non-interest payments for Treasury securities notes. But, after his 9-5 cubicle job, he worked the DC scene bar-backing, bartending, waiting tables, cooking.
Wayne’s first gig was the Eagle on 9th Street NW where black leather and leather chaps were the de jure dress.
“I wasn’t really making any money…. I was being your typical southern waiter. Finally, one of the owners said, ‘You’re in a leather bar! You need to be meaner.’ After that, I’d smack them on the back of the head and say, ‘What do you want to eat?’ I became popular and started making money!”
In 1983, Wayne began working part-time at the P Street Station, at the corner of 22nd Street NW. A month into this job, Hodge remembers first encountering the 40-something Thompson.
“The manager came over and said, ‘Y’all want to quiet down a bit. The owner just came in and he wants one of y’all to wait on him.’…I gave him a check at the end. He liked the fact that I gave him a check. I didn’t just wave it off and serve it to him for free,” Wayne recalls.
According to Hodge, the Palms—which had previously housed McKinley’s restaurant owned by the Harvard-educated local developer Gene Lawson—was opened by Thompson, who recognized the growing niche of Rehoboth’s upscale dining scene.
A reviewer in the Sunday News Journal, prior to Wayne assuming managership, opined that the restaurant’s purple facade “serves as a beacon for the gay community as does the Blue Moon’s bold design over Baltimore Avenue.”
At the end of that summer of ’87 and with the Renegade’s manager leaving, Glen asked Wayne, “Well, do you want to stay?”
“I’m ready to leave DC,” he quickly replied. At that point, Hodge explains, “AIDS had taken most of my friends. Everyone I knew from Norfolk was dead.”
During Wayne's first year at the Renegade, “I had to take care of the motel, clothing store, and a dance club—plus doing the Palms.” Meanwhile, Thompson renovated, raising the dance floor’s roof and adding a second story.
“Strobe lights were just kind of coming into the whole gay bar scene,” he recalls. “We put in the white-and-black checkered floor—like Staying Alive…. He put a light and sound system mechanism that came through the roof. He had the spin lasers…. We put a large bank of mirrors on one side of the bar. He had a 1969 Spit Fire hanging from the ceiling and a mannequin from the Male Image that we put in there; we would dress him with whatever theme party we were doing.”
According to Wayne, the Palms was also undergoing “a metamorphosis” under his management—carefully overseen by Glen. The menu changed from “subdued food…with a relative lack of flash,” says Wayne, to Nouveau French cuisine with innovative sauces. Even the grand dame of Rehoboth restauranteurs, Joyce Felton, recommended it to her clientele.
Entertainment, too, changed. In the Palms piano lounge, Rehoboth legend Scotty performed jazz and blues on weekend nights. Lesbian Sunday tea-dances also became popular. As Hodge remembers, “the guys were going to the Blue Moon,” so he advised Glen, “‘we got to figure something else.’ The lesbians just took it over.” It didn’t hurt, of course, that the gorgeous 23-year-old Paige Phillips bartended.
As Wayne assumed managership of the Renegade in the fall of 1987, the opportunity for Joyce and Victor to realize their dream of a New York-style night club in the heart of Rehoboth presented itself.
The duo had been doing business with Bill Larsen, who operated Arctic Ice at the rear of his mammoth Rehoboth Avenue 18,000 square foot building just steps from the Blue Moon. For decades it housed a popular second floor roller rink above the Rehoboth Lanes. The bowling alley, along with pool tables and pinball games, had stayed open well past midnight with young people briskly moving between there and the Boardwalk’s Silver Dollar Arcade.
In the 1950s, with the approval of Bill’s father and town elders, it had doubled as the Surf Club, where teens danced to bands from DC, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
Three decades later, with swift town approval, Larsen had transformed the building into Twin Cinemas, placing him in direct competition with the Derrickson’s seven-screen Midway Cinemas on Route 1. “I think there’s room for more theater business,” he confidently told a local reporter at the time.
Similarly, when Victor and Joyce negotiated lease-to-own terms with an ailing Bill Larsen during the autumn of ‘87, “we never thought we’d actually compete with Glen Thompson because we envisioned our nightclub to be more like a New York Studio 54.”
Wayne, though, sees it differently. “Rehoboth is a very small town. Even though we were outside the town limits, we were Rehoboth. Two dance clubs, even back then, can’t survive in a small town, especially when you’re dealing with summer and weekend business.”
Victor, in turn, argues that “the area was growing. There were a lot of gay people who wouldn’t go to the Renegade. They didn’t like the vibe there. They didn’t like having to drive out there. They couldn’t drink because they’d have to drive home.”
The political reality, as Hodge points out, was that the town’s leaders “saw Ocean City; they saw Dewey Beach. They wanted none of it…they were never going to allow a bar, much less a gay dance club, in downtown Rehoboth.”
In February 1988, before the Strand’s first permit could be approved, Joyce and Victor found themselves once again in the mayor’s office. Although the mayor was different, the message from Kimber Vought, like his predecessor, John Hughes, was the same: Don’t do it!
And so began what the Washington Post Magazine christened on its cover, “The Battle for Rehoboth.” It was a battleground, though, fought on multiple fronts—not simply pitting gays against straights. “Everybody talks about the battle between the Strand and the Renegade,” Hodge reflects, “Well, it wasn’t nearly as glamorous as people thought it was.”
(Editor’s note: Watch for news of the unglamorous battle in the first issue of Letters for 2021)
James Sears is the author of many books on LGBTQ history and culture; his forthcoming book is Beyond the Boardwalk: Queering the History of Rehoboth Beach.