It was 1983 and Mitch Grooms had just moved to Atlanta from rural Paris, Tenn., where he found work at a Krystal restaurant on Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross.

One Friday night, a co-worker told the 20-year-old Grooms, “I’m going to take you to a fag club.”

“That’s what we were called back then,” Grooms, now 56, said of the invitation.

That club was Backstreet. And when Grooms entered the legendary nightspot, he was overwhelmed by what he saw and felt.

full-4The expansive 47,000-square-foot building with three levels at the corner of Peachtree Street and 6th Street was alive with hundreds of men dancing together to booming beats under an electric light show and that unforgettable, giant shimmering disco ball.

“I started crying. I broke down on the dance floor,” he said. “I thought I was the only person like me. It was something I never experienced before in my life.”

Ask anyone who danced at Backstreet during its heydays in the 1980s and 1990s and you will likely hear similar stories. The club became a home while the bartenders, the staff, the drag queens, the partiers were their family.

Featured on HBO, the Travel Channel, MTV, VH1 and numerous Atlanta TV shows, Backstreet welcomed everyone and provided that safe haven so many sought.

“It wasn’t safe anywhere, but it was safe there,” Grooms said. “It was a place where we could be ourselves. It was an incredible feeling being there.”

Move to 24 hours leads club to take off

Backstreet was purchased by Vicki Vara’s father in the mid-1970s and the club was first named Encore. Before it became a 24-hour club in the mid-1980s, Backstreet was known for its Sunday T-dances, Vara said.

backstreet2“We would bring in big entertainers. Sylvester came. I thought it was just wonderful,” Vara said, who later owned the club with her brother, Henry. “It was strictly gay and exclusive in the beginning.”

When Backstreet became a private 24-hour club around 1985 or 1986, the club truly took off, Vara said, and on a good weekend, some 6,000 people would pass through the front doors.

“When we went 24 hours, crowds sorted and the straight people went upstairs,” Vara said. “I loved it because we finally had such a good reputation … it always had been like a family.”

Backstreet earned national and international acclaim during these years and attracted some of the hottest acts of the time – Sylvester, Gladys Knight, the Weather Girls.

“The first song I ever danced to with a guy was ‘It’s Raining Men,’” remembered Grooms. “And years later I got to meet the Weather Girls when they performed at Backstreet.”

The disco stars always brought in huge crowds. But the star every night for more than 20 years was drag legend Charlie Brown.

The birth of Charlie Brown’s Cabaret

Charlie Brown was doing a drag show at Tallulah’s, a lesbian bar in Buckhead, when he got the boot from that club. That same night, he was offered the third floor at Backstreet and in 1991 Charlie Brown’s Cabaret was born, featuring the best in Atlanta’s drag scene.

Charlie Brown and Lily White (Courtesy photo)

Charlie Brown and Lily White (Courtesy photo)

“I promise you we did shows from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and people would still be begging us to do more,” Brown said. “We’d be standing out there in our beards doing drag all night.”

In 1993, former gymnast Cathy Rigby was starring in “Annie Get Your Gun” and after a performance at the Fox took in some Atlanta nightlife at Backstreet.

“I said there was no way Cathy Rigby would come to my show, so I told her if you’re really Cathy Rigby, do a back flip—and she back flipped all the way across my floor,” Brown said.

The crowd exploded with shouts and applause and security raced to see what was happening, Brown said. “And it made it in Peach Buzz [in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution] the next day,” Brown said.

Plenty of other celebrities came to Backstreet and witnessed the showstopper that was Charlie Brown and his cabaret, including Elton John and even Janet Jackson, he said. They would come in incognito, with no fanfare, and enjoy the show and dancing just like everyone else.

“[Backstreet] was the grandmother club of Atlanta’s nightlife,” Brown said.

Politicians and the beginning of the end

The club also was a popular stop for politicians stumping for votes and seeking the gay vote. Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank made a stop one night, Brown said. Atlanta politicians including U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Cathy Woolard, Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin and Vincent Fort also made speeches to the crowd.

Eventually, some of those politicians who came to the club in the middle of the night and sought out the support of Backstreet voters decided it was time to do away with 24-hour nightlife in Atlanta and supported closing down such clubs.

Backstreet’s last call was New Year’s Eve 2004 after the club lost a protracted legal battle to keep pouring at all hours. Members of the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance flooded the City Council with complaints, alleging there was rampant drug use and prostitution taking place at the club.

maxresdefault“Developers were coming in and they wanted our property. They [MPSA] hired Peggy Denby to be a thorn in our side, and boy, was she,” Vara said, referring to the notorious member who is credited with being a main force leading to Backstreet’s closure.

Backstreet tried to stay open after Jan. 1, 2004, by not serving booze and remaining open as an all-night dancehall. In July 2004, the club was cited for not having a dancehall license and Vara said she knew the war to stay open was over.

The club closed down forever in August 2004 and Vara sold off the club’s memorabilia a month later. The building was torn down and in its place now stands the 36-floor condo high-rise Viewpoint.

“It was very, very sad,” Brown said. “We were pushed out by the neighborhood association, which put 120 employees out of work.” Employees who had health insurance and 401k plans that were matched by the club, Brown said.

“The old Buckhead Bettys got liquor out of Buckhead and then came to Midtown and came straight after us,” Brown said.

Brown now performs weekly at Lips Atlanta on Buford Highway and said young people regularly attend the show with their parents who met at Backstreet.

“I could never ever begin to thank Lips Atlanta and Backstreet and the people that love and support me … thank you, Atlanta, I’m still your bitch.”

Click here to read a number of unforgettable Backstreet memories as told by Georgia Voice readers.

7 Responses

    • John Sam

      “BACKSTREET – Just a page in our history of LGBT pain that was numbed by alcohol and drugs, thus giving all of us the relief we needed to free us from our own self induced oppression. Why? because we believed in the “FEAR” society produced about sexuality. For a little while, we were relieved from our individual suffering. The alcohol flowed… sometimes drugs, too …it helped us to dive in to the better emotional feelings. We gave this safe zone the power to make us believe that it was saving us. In the midst of all the drama Backstreet created…some of us awakened to our own individual #TRUTH and realized, like Dorothy in The Wizard of OZ…we had the power all along. Some are still searching for another Backstreet. Now, currently… the Vortex across the street still stands and serves the same cocktail to a diverse crowd in a different time and space. The physical structure of Backstreet changed. For some of us the party atmosphere / environment for the freedom of expression still stays trapped in our ego minds. We think if we can get back to this safe environment…happiness will appear again. There will never be another BACKSTREET – a total illusion of joy and happiness. It served us well …like a band-aid…while healing took place from the traditional conditioned fear ( False Emotions Appearing Real ) we were taught. The reality is… Backstreet lives deep in my own mind and is everywhere always…all of the time. No reason to search for this safe zone. This peace, joy and happiness was never on the outside. Instead, I found it on the inside. And always with me. I give it to myself. Awakened now, I can see the difference.”

      Reply
      • Kelly logue

        Beautifully put. Though i woul still like a nice place great music to dance to. Miss the original Backstreet the way it was when Peaches was at the front bar. Dont drink now. But would love to see that again.

  1. Dia Starr

    My husband Tony and I used to go to Charlie Brown’s Cabaret regularly. Charlie nicknamed us “the Willuses” (we are an interracial family). She often announced our arrival to the crcrowd.

    Reply
  2. Rick

    It was magic when you entered. I’ll carry it in my heart forever. I felt like I lived there in the early 90s and met my first love there.

    Reply
  3. Marilyn Monroe Reads | Chamblee54

    […] of Three on Outing with Girlfriend ~ Is clinical depression impossible to think your way out of? ~ Charlie Brown, former owner reminisce on Backstreet’s wild Atlanta ride Queer Up Your Inbox Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter for all the best and most vital LGBT […]

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  4. Jaci Field

    Thank you all for creating a safe and fun environment for us all. The fun, friends, dancing, and memories will always live in our hearts. You are a special treasure.

    Reply

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