Coming out on the other side: 20 years after Atlanta LGBT bar bombing, Otherside Lounge owners, patrons revisit dark day

It’s a breezy, sunny day in February; just cool enough to require a jacket. The regular traffic hustles up and down Atlanta’s Piedmont Road, and occasionally a car turns into the unassuming parking lot at 1924.

The two-story brick building there has a personal trainer occupying half the downstairs. The rest of the place is home to Midtown Urology. With its well-lit, doctors-office-sterile atmosphere and multitude of artwork on the walls, it’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, 1924 Piedmont Road was home to a bar where two bombs were hidden by a man named Eric Robert Rudolph.

He didn’t like LGBT people. And he especially didn’t like LGBT people who owned bars like the Otherside Lounge, putting their sexuality in the public eye.

In the beginning

Dana Ford, former manager of Otherside Lounge and partner of former owner Beverly McMahon, returns to the site of the bar, now home to Midtown Urology. (Photo by Patrick Saunders)

Long before Atlanta heard of Eric Rudolph, two women met on a blind date in Florida. Neither 21-year-old Dana Ford nor 40-year-old Beverly McMahon wanted to go.

“I did it to make my friend shut up. He said, ‘You’ve got to do this. Just do this one.’ I said, ‘One time, that’s it, and it better be good,’” Dana said.

Beverly was cautious of settling down. The women she’d dated previously were wealthy, less likely to take advantage of her own money — she owned several salons and a nightclub at the time — and she fought her initial feelings for Dana.

“We were on a blind date, but I fell in love with Dana instantly and I didn’t want to do that,” Beverly said. “I took [my business partner] to meet Dana. He said, ‘You better hold onto that one.’ I’ll never forget that as long as I live. I did hold onto her.”

The two began their lives in Florida, where Beverly opened up the first Otherside Lounge in Fort Lauderdale. She and her business partner drew names out of a hat to decide what to call their new nightclub. The bar expanded, and Beverly decided to franchise it, despite regular attempts from city officials to shut the place down because it was owned by a lesbian.

She went to Atlanta and bought 1924 Piedmont, formerly a steakhouse. The family moved to the city and grew by two — Kellyann McMahon and Justin Ford.

“It was very important to me early on that I would have a business, no matter what it would be, where everyone was welcome: gay, straight, black, white,” Beverly said. “My dream again there was just to have a club for everybody to have fun, to have different sections of the club, different ages.”

Her proudest memory at the Otherside, which opened in 1990, was talking to her customers, many of which came from broken homes that threw them out. Sometimes, when they had no family left, the Otherside became their family, taking them in on Thanksgiving and Christmas, turning the bar into a holiday feast for those who couldn’t go home.

A nightclub for the community

Kellyann was a young child when her mothers had the Otherside.

“I don’t remember a lot, but the stuff that I do remember is kind of magical. I remember being there after hours or before hours when it was closed, my parents were doing their business and they would turn the disco ball on for me so I could play on the dance floor. I still love disco balls,” she said.

Stacey L’Hoste, an Atlanta resident who frequented the Otherside, remembers dancing under that same disco ball, drinking beer with her girlfriend and watching the late drag queen Amber Richardson perform. It was a rockin’ bar Thursday through Saturday, but offered a place to hang out Sunday through Wednesday.

“It wasn’t just a lesbian bar,” Atlanta LGBT historian Dave Hayward said. “As a gay man, I felt perfectly comfortable going in there.”

It was “really hard to get bored” once customers walked through the door.

The Martini Room was home to jazz, gospel and comedians. Sixteen-piece orchestras played in the early evenings for the older crowd, and the patio stage was the place to be on Friday nights.

“When you walked in, there was a huge dance floor. There was several bars that you could go and sit at. There was lots of tables and pool tables, but they also had this other area that was like a lounge,” L’Hoste said. “It was just a great bar. It was a women’s bar, primarily, which we don’t always get very much. Most of the bars are usually geared toward all guys, and that particular time I had just found myself and I was able to go out and be around other women and feel fun.”

Tuesdays were country nights; hip-hop nights were on the weekends. Out television personality Ellen DeGeneres was known to come to the Otherside, and Beverly remembers once telling her manager to kick off the two girls singing on the patio stage — only to learn they weren’t just any two girls. They were the Indigo Girls.

“It was a safe place to go, a place you could come to be yourself: period, dot, the end,” Dana said.

Feb. 21, 1997

It was a Friday, almost seven months after Centennial Park was bombed, and less than a month since a Sandy Springs abortion clinic was similarly attacked. Beverly and Dana were at home, less than a mile from the Otherside, settling baby Justin and young Kellyann down for the night.

“We heard a loud pop. I believe then our manager called and said he thought somebody was shot,” Beverly said.

Dana, who had just returned home from the bar, missed the first bomb by a minute. She returned almost immediately, and it was evident the shooting wasn’t a shooting at all.

“The fire department was triaging somebody at the front door,” she said.

Atlanta police respond to the first bomb detonation at Otherside Lounge on Feb. 21, 1997. (Cox Media photo)

She handed her keys to the valet and asked him to move the car before the rest of the emergency vehicles arrived, then headed inside. In the Martini Room “somebody was bleeding profusely and being worked on aggressively.” Others were injured, including a woman named Memrie Wells-Creswell. She was not out at work, and according to several news stories at the time, was outed by then-mayor Bill Campbell at a press conference following the attack. Wells-Creswell was later fired from her job because of her sexuality.

When Dana reached the smaller bar area, she saw the patio doors blown open.

“Everything was strewn about and there were particles of shiny dust everywhere and holes in the ceiling of our tin roof. [The police officer] said, ‘I think it might have been a bomb.’ I said, ‘I think you might be right,’” Dana said.

Given the past bombings, emergency officials were prepared for a second bomb to go off, and evacuated everyone. Dana realized the valet hadn’t moved her car.

That was good, because when the second device was found, it detonated unexpectedly. The car absorbed most of the impact and shrapnel. Justin and Kellyann’s car seats were in the back, covered in shattered glass.

“I saw our two baby car seats on Piedmont Road with glass everywhere and shrapnel. I’ll never forget that, as long as I live,” Beverly said.

She’d arrived at the bar not long after. Beverly and Dana were the first two suspects, and though they were eliminated, it wasn’t until Rudolph was captured years later that they felt they didn’t have investigators monitoring their movements.

Authorities send a robot in to detonate the second device at Otherside Lounge. (Screenshot via NBC)

Kellyann recalls her uncle picking her up that night with no explanation, and coming home to the FBI in the house. She and her brother don’t have direct memories of the bombing; only how it affected the rest of their lives.

“From my earliest memories it’s always been something that’s been part of our family life,” Justin said. “I don’t remember fully comprehending what it all meant and why it all happened until I was in late elementary school.”

But Atlanta remembers. Hayward said having one of these bars, treated like shrines by the LGBT community, attacked is one of his greatest fears.

“It’s horrible when anything like that happens, but especially to a really good place that had class and style and was really open to the community,” Hayward said. “It was terrifying. It was really chilling. I remember really vividly the Olympic Park bombing and how shocking that was … you all of a sudden break down in tears. It really just comes over you. That’s how I felt both times when the bombing happened.”

In the aftermath

Otherside Lounge’s former owner Beverly McMahon (l) and Dana Ford at a press conference the day after the bombing. (Photo from Georgia State University Digital Collections via Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

No one died when Rudolph bombed the Otherside, but he killed a dream. Now that people knew the Otherside was a bar open to the LGBT community and owned by a lesbian, some felt it was OK to send death threats to the partners. Dana remembers one that threatened to rape the women, to “make sure you like a man.” These letters they put in plastic bags for the FBI, who also came to the house to record threatening voicemails left on the answering machine.

“We were afraid they were going to kill our kids. We talked about sending the kids to Florida with their aunt,” Beverly said.

But they didn’t. They refused to give in. At the time, they wanted the community to fight back the same way they were determined to, and were less than pleased with the response.

“What I remember about the bombing was that that was the tail end of the Lesbian Avengers,” said Sara Look, co-owner at Charis Books. “We didn’t call it a protest, but a bunch of us gathered on Piedmont with signs to protest homophobia.”

She vividly remembers a reporter trying to get her to say she was afraid, but she wasn’t, though others were.

The Otherside reopened after renovations and Beverly hung on until 1999, but it was never quite the same. L’Hoste was one of the regulars who embraced the reopened doors, but it wasn’t enough.

“I remember going back once they redid it and I remember people being like, happy it’s back and excited to be there,” L’Hoste said. “I remember being sad it closed.”

Between the loss of cashflow, equity and paying for renovations, the bombing cost Beverly about $5.8 million.

“[The insurance] process was sort of lingering. In the meantime, we are funding the business that people are afraid to come back to. We were disheartened, but I don’t blame them,” Dana said.

The Otherside also faced about 20 lawsuits, mostly from customers who felt Beverly should have suspected there was a bomb or other attack coming. They won each of them, but still had to go to court.

“After a while that really got old, and I really think that was one of the major decisions of mine, saying this has taken too much out of the family,” Beverly said. “I’ll never forget when I took the keys in.”

It’s a decision part of her regrets.

‘The effect this man had on my family’

The bombing changed Dana and Beverly. They tried to hide it as best they could from their two children, but this past Christmas as Justin and Kellyann perused home videos, they had a jarring realization.

“You could hear the difference in the way that my moms spoke, or their body language was different, and that’s when it became really real for me, the effect this man had on my family. That’s when it got personal,” Kellyann said.

There is still much speculation about why Rudolph selected the Otherside. Beverly suspects that her late brother, who performed late-term abortions as a gynecologist, could be a connection.

Eric Rudolph

“To this day, Eric Rudolph has never told me why he did that. He has refused. He has talked to the Olympic Park people, to the abortion clinic people,” Beverly said. “I still want to go to the prison and talk to Eric Rudolph. I will always wonder what really was behind it.”

In his 2015 memoir, written behind the bars of the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado he’s stuck in for life, Rudolph gives some hints. After he bombed Northside Family Planning in Sandy Springs, abortion clinics were on high alert.

“I would have to shift my sights elsewhere,” Rudolph writes in “Between the Lines of Drift.” “In Washington, there was talk of bringing the federal ‘hate crimes’ bill back to the floor of Congress. The law would include special protections for Sodomites, elevating them into the aristocracy of official victims … I wanted to weigh in on the debate.”

According to the book, Rudolph believes the LGBT community is bent on destroying marriage and family, and like those who are pro-choice, are “radical egalitarians.” He looked through an Atlanta phone book and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and found the Otherside.

“The Otherside Lounge was listed in the ‘lifestyles’ section as a ‘Gay/Lesbian Club.’ One of several Sodomite organizations in Atlanta, the Otherside was located in Midtown, which was a red-light district. Tactically, it was in a good location: heavily traveled and close to the freeway,” Rudolph writes.

He placed the first bomb around noon on Feb. 21, 1997, hiding it behind bushes. It was set to detonate around 11 p.m. A second bomb, which would detonate first, was carried onto the Otherside grounds near the patio.

“Glancing at my watch, I saw I had four minutes left on the timer. … Level with the Otherside’s rear parking lot, I ducked behind the cars and headed for the screen of small trees that concealed the patio. The Otherside’s valets stood less than 20 feet away chatting,” he wrote. “I slipped past them and zeroed in on the patio, where I set the bomb down.”

The bomb went off as Rudolph was making his escape. He fell, disoriented, but got away. It would be years before Rudolph would be caught and arrested while dumpster-diving behind a store in Murphy, North Carolina.

“All things considered, the attacks were successful,” he wrote. “Both Northside Family Planning and the Otherside Lounge went out of business.”

Beyond the bar

From left, Justin Ford, Beverly McMahon, Kellyann McMahon and Dana Ford. Twenty years after their bar was bombed, they say family is what got them through it. (Photo courtesy Beverly McMahon)

Both Beverly, who works part-time from Florida, and Dana, now part of a nonprofit, say they’ve come out on the other side.

“I hope we made the impact with the community to empower and strengthen and be part of the fabric of the gay community. It was equally sad we couldn’t keep the business going,” Dana said. “If you want to go pencil to paper and do the finances of it, yes it was our savings; yes it was our retirement. But we’ve had two kids, we had a great life and we have a great community around us.”

Beverly said they still receive letters from people who remember the Otherside in its heyday. Some say thanks, some tell stories of meeting their life partners at the bar. They are all cherished, even 20 years later.

Both Kellyann and Justin are proud of their moms.

“I probably don’t say it enough. Their response to it and the way they’ve kept their heads up through adversity, whether it be the bombing or previous run-ins before the bombing for being who they are, I find that incredibly inspiring. I think it’s something so admirable,” Justin said.

His sister echoed his sentiments, commenting on the “tremendous strength” Dana and Beverly exhibited since that February night, 20 years ago.

“Safe space is so important, especially now in this political climate,” Kellyann said. “I hope to follow in their footsteps in that way.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell and Memrie Wells-Creswell, who was injured in the bombing, were unable to be reached as of press time.