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.
The 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”