By Rudy Arispe | San Antonio Current
Jesse Cazares has been frequenting the Bonham Exchange since he was 18. It’s been his club of choice for great music, dancing and throwing back a few cocktails in the main video bar or out on the patio.
He was drawn by storied gay nightclub’s openness and acceptance, not to mention the music. So, when he learned that the Bonham’s owner Kenneth Garrett died of a heart attack last month, the first thing he did was call the club’s general manager, Lee Haines, to ask if it would remain open.
“I was in shock because [Garrett’s] death was so unexpected,” said Cazares, who runs a lifestyle blog called Socialize San Antonio. “I think a lot of people were also wondering about the Bonham, because it has been a mainstay of the LGBT community, as well as an important part of San Antonio’s history.”
Haines, however, assured him — just as he has everyone else — that the Bonham has no plans to shut its doors. In fact, he maintains that he and Garrett laid out a plan for the club’s future before his death.
Still, for Cazares and countless of others, last month seemed like a close call. The Bonham Exchange is not just a cornerstone of the Alamo City’s LGBTQ nightlife but also a center of its culture and community.
“Historically, gay bars were our community center, our place for organizing and building the foundation of the movement we know today,” said Robert Salcido, president of the Pride Center of San Antonio. “Dance clubs like the Bonham have always served as a venue for entertainment and a place for LGBTQ folks to be authentic, but also as a vital space for community building and escaping society’s judgment and persecution. It was our safe haven.”
Indeed, the Bonham, also known as the BX, has been around for so long, it’s almost seemed ageless. After opening in July 1981, it instantly became the city’s hottest gay dance club, and nearly 40 years later, lines still snake down the sidewalk in front of its door every Saturday.
“It was the biggest gay bar I had ever been to, although I’m sure Studio 54 was bigger,” said Jim Smith, a 69-year-old color consultant who was hired to decorate the club before its opening. “It was this very elaborate, Victorian piece of architecture. You’d have to look at the state Capitol to find anything in a style like that — and it was a gay bar.”
Prior to the Bonham’s opening, the hottest ticket in town was the San Antonio Country, owned by real estate developer and River Walk restaurateur Arthur “Hap” Veltman. It was located downtown at North St. Mary’s Street at McCullough Avenue, but closed right after Fiesta in 1981 when Valero purchased the property for an office building.
But the Bonham’s sheer size, including three expansive levels, an outdoor patio and multiple bars wowed visitors the moment they stepped inside. Not to mention, disco and other high-energy dance music thumping through the sound system.
Local jazz singer Ken Slavin was a junior at St. Mary’s University when he began frequenting the Bonham during its opening year.
“It was the totally hot place to be,” Slavin said. “I can’t adequately describe how glamorous it seemed — especially by San Antonio’s gay bar standards at the time. I remember being quite overwhelmed and impressed by the experience. It was a very special place, and so many people of my generation formed lasting friendships there. It definitely has earned legendary status in our city’s history.”
And just like New York City’s fabled Studio 54, the Bonham has had its share of visits from Hollywood celebrities (Patrick Swayze and Sandra Bullock, among them), well-known sports figures (Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley) and gay icons (RuPaul and Jimmy James). Some of the biggest names in music, Tina Turner included, also lent star power.
Or the time that Prince made a surprise, late-night appearance in the early ’90s. Manager Haines, who starting mixing cocktails for the crowds in 1989, recalls working behind the bar when he heard that the pop icon was in the house.
“He was on the catwalk and they had it blocked off,” Haines said. “I was the head bartender. I stopped my bartending and wanted everybody to know I was going to go meet Prince. Oh no! That wasn’t happening. The owner and one other manager [were] the only ones who got to meet him and get anywhere near his vicinity.”
There was also the late Saturday night when Dirty Dancing’s Patrick Swayze was, well, dirty dancing on the dance floor, much to the amazement of everyone watching.
“He came in after 2 a.m. and was looking for a place to dance,” Haines said. “I left the bar to go see, and there’s a long line of boys and girls waiting their turn, and Patrick Swayze is in the middle of the dance floor, dancing with all of them.”
The sharp-dressed, bearded boys of ZZ Top even made appearances, sometimes strutting down the hall from the main entrance with a female escort.
“When I started working here, [they] used to come in almost every weekend with these beautiful women,” Haines said. “Billy Gibbons would be rocking the beard, and they looked just like you’d see them on MTV or on their album covers.”
Haines’ stories of celebrity sightings could go on and on. He was, after all, just 19 years old when he was hired as a barback in 1989, fresh from six months of bartending school. Those skills became highly valuable when the bar got packed with clubgoers ordering shots and shouting for drinks from all directions. Now 48, Haines has served as general manager for three years after spending 10 as assistant general manager.
“It’s just been such a good fit. It just feels so right,” he said. “This place took me in even though I’m straight working in a gay bar. They wanted someone who was willing to work hard.”
On a recent afternoon, Haines sat in his office — where a large, black-and-white photo of the late Veltman hangs on a wall — and reflected on the past, present and future of the Bonham. One of the key changes during his 30 years at the club was its evolving clientele.
“When I started, we were 95 percent gay. Today, 70 percent are straight,” he said. “But everyone who comes here knows what to expect. The Bonham has always been cool and totally accepting of everyone.”
The change happened when word began to spread that the Bonham was the place to be for great music, dancing and 50-cent well drinks certain evenings. Before long, those elements attracted a hetero crowd, mainly college kids, which led to the wildly popular, yet unofficial Wednesday “straight nights” in the late ’80s. For many straight folks, those Wednesdays provided a first exposure to a gay culture and club life.
“It wasn’t advertised,” Haines said. “You either knew about it or you didn’t. If you were privileged to know about it, you were in for a treat.” Although Haines admitted that the 50-cent wells that drew college crowds also made it hard for him to leave with much cash in his pocket.
“I used to ask myself, ‘How could I only be making $100 per night if it’s packed in here?’ On a Friday or Saturday night, you make a drink for the gay clientele, and you’re going to get a tip, just for making it. With the college crowd, they were young and didn’t know anything.”
To be sure, part of the club’s lasting appeal has been its willingness to switch things up. Haines said he’s always thinking of fresh and exciting ways to keep the crowds coming. An inside-and-out facelift for the 126-year-old building may be the next big one.
“I want to keep the girl up-to-date and nipped and tucked where she needs it,” he said. “Last year, I was able to [refurbish] three windows in the ballroom. I plan to do three or four more this year and get the ballroom back to what it used to be — big and grand.”
In the meantime, he’s brought back live music by introducing Sunday night jazz parties in the ballroom that start at 6 p.m. with dance lessons from the San Antonio Swing Dance Society.
Haines also wants the Bonham to deepen its involvement with the LGBTQ community through partnerships, even though it already provides donations to the San Antonio AIDS Foundation and other groups.
He’d like to generate more funds for the Happy Foundation, a nonprofit named for Veltman, to keep an official record of San Antonio’s gay history, by holding fundraisers in the club’s voluminous ballroom.
Just as the club has evolved, so has its downtown locale. Nearby parking lots have disappeared, replaced by hotels and new development. To ease guest parking and to support responsible drinking and driving, Haines waived the club’s $5 cover fee for anyone, 21 and older, who arrives by Uber or Lyft and can show a receipt.
Haines also laments the loss of the club’s former next-door neighbor, Fire Station No. 1, which vacated to a new location on Cherry Street.
“I could just walk over and knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, someone twisted their ankle,’ and I had instant help,” he said. “Now I have to make a phone call like everybody else. I was a little spoiled.”
Despite the death of Garrett, who died February 8 at age 68, and the rapid changes to the downtown landscape, Haines said the club is doing just fine. Admission numbers, he added, are on the upswing.
Even so, the club wouldn’t be the first San Antonio landmark to be relocated or closed as the city evolved. When asked whether he’d consider selling the property, Haines shook his head.
“Not even an option,” he said.
Beyond the continuous flow of clientele, the Bonham is home to the archives of San Antonio’s gay and lesbian history, Haines points out.
A walk through a large and dusty room just down his office reveals rows of shelves, filing cabinets and glass cases jammed with old news clippings, photos and publications such as the Village Voice and This Week in Texas, chronicling marches, murders, gay marriage, gays in the military, theater, arts and other milestones in the Alamo City’s gay history.
“It’s a 24/7 job, because it takes a lot of time to clip and file articles from newspapers,” said archive director Gene Elder, the activist who started the project shortly after the Bonham opened. “People used to send me articles, and I asked all the gay publications to put me on their complimentary mailing lists. I’m hoping someone else will think [the archives] are important, too.”
They do. On occasion, students from area universities and from as far away as Dallas or Houston drop in to do research in the repository, Elder said.
“I think it’s significant for being a public establishment the community can be proud of,” he said. “Even the straight community enjoyed going to the Bonham because it was a liberal, progressive idea. Of course, people love to dance.”
But for most clubgoers, the Bonham’s appeal was the music.
The dance hits pounding over the speakers tucked into every corner of the night spot have been its main attraction, drawing a diverse crowd and helping break down perceived barriers.
Former News 4 anchor Debora Daniels Albrecht loved hitting the club’s dance floor during the early and mid-’90s. The TV station used to be located on North St. Mary’s Street, not far from the Bonham, so she occasionally went there after work and on weekends
“The Bonham provided an almost magical space where cultures could effortlessly intersect,” she said. “It was a place where you could mingle and interact with people you might not do day-to-day life with … people who were different from you. But when the music started, everyone danced to the same rhythm, loved the same songs, shouted the same lyrics together. I think the dance floor was more effective at bringing people together than the UN! I will always remember the Bonham as a place of effervescent humanity.”
Cornyation’s 2016 King Anchovy Michael Bobo remembers discovering the dance club shortly after he arrived in San Antonio from his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, a year after the Bonham opened.
“San Antonio was a bigger city, and the Bonham Exchange was big, fancy and glamorous. At the time, everything was state-of-the-art,” said Bobo, owner of W.D. Deli. “MTV was really popular, so the upstairs video bar was a big deal. Whenever you heard a hit song, everyone would race downstairs to go dance.”
A few years ago, Bobo began organizing and hosting Sunday tea dances for a Sunday Funday at the Bonham while also spinning records as club DJ. He still does every now and then.
“It’s a lot of fun, and I try to create some of that old-school Bonham Exchange vibe by playing music from that era.”
While DJs may have driven the show for the past couple of decades, live music was also a major attraction at the Bonham.
That began when Joe Pugliese, a local musician who once served as stage manager for a Dolly Parton tour, approached Veltman in the early ’80s about hosting live music acts on the club’s slow Tuesday nights. He dubbed the event College Alternative Nights and booked local punk and new wave bands like the Blast, the Smart Dads and the Mystery Dates, a band fronted by his brother Frank, who now sings for San Antonio’s long-running Sons of Hercules.
“Then I booked Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack,” Pugliese remembers. “Carrack was the former vocalist for Squeeze who had the hit song, ‘Tempted.’ He left Squeeze and put out a solo album. We had about 600 people. So, then I went to Hap and said, ‘Let’s move this upstairs to the ballroom and do national acts.’”
They did, and more followed. The Bangles came through while touring behind their megahit “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and punk godfather Iggy Pop even writhed around on the club’s stage.
“I made my brother Frank be Iggy’s bodyguard, so I have this burning picture in my head of Frank, who is 6 foot 6, leading Iggy, who was about 5 foot 1, out of the dressing room through the crowd to the stage, and they were holding hands,” Pugliese said.
Pugliese, though, will never forget the time that superstar Tina Turner, hot legs and all, hit the Bonham stage.
“It was about six weeks before the release of Private Dancer,” he said. “She was still an oldies act. She had the three girls in the shimmy dresses doing ‘Proud Mary.’ All I did was introduce myself and said hello before she took the stage. There were three drag queens dressed just like Tina Turner with these big-ass wigs, low-cut dresses and doing these crazy dance moves right down in front of her.”
Joan Duckworth met Hap Veltman and Kenneth Garrett when she was a 17-year-old senior at Lee High School.
She was doing the Hustle with a group of friends at the Royal Street Crossing on the River Walk when an older stranger and his friend approached her. He remarked that it looked like they were having a good time. Veltman introduced himself and his boyfriend, Kenneth Garrett.
Little did she know, she and Veltman would remain close friends until the day he died.
“He had a great sense of humor,” she said. “He was also a genius. I remember he used to tell me to drive on the streets and not on the highways. Because when you drove on the streets, you could get to know neighborhoods and see where improvements needed to be made and were being made.”
It was on a downtown drive with Veltman that he told her about his plans to purchase the building that became the Bonham.
“We kept driving around the block. I didn’t know what we were doing exactly,” she said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Joanie, I want to buy that building and turn it into a big gay bar.’”
And so he did.
Today, Duckworth, 61, is the club’s office manager and makes sure the place stays in working order.
The structure itself was built in 1891 by Swiss-American architect James Wahrenberger as a German social club and gym known as Turner Hall. During World War II, it became a USO, where, coincidentally, her grandmother worked, helping feed soldiers. Later, it was used as a post office to sort mail.
In yet another coincidence, her parents met upstairs at a dance in the Bonham ballroom.
“He was a photographer in the Army, and my mom and her sister were South Side girls who would come dance with the soldiers,” she said. “So, I feel like I’m supposed to be the ‘mother’ of the building and take care of it.”
During her time at the Bonham, Duckworth has witnessed San Antonio’s slow steps toward acceptance of the gay and lesbian community. She likes to point out that the Bonham’s proximity — two blocks, to be exact — to San Antonio’s most famous landmark helped play a role.
“When the Bonham opened, it was the new kid on the block, gay and proud, and in your face right behind the Alamo,” she said.
The Bonham also helped usher an LGBTQ presence into another San Antonio fixture: Fiesta. The club played host to the 1980s-era rebirth of Cornyation, now an official Fiesta event that regularly sells out the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.
“It outgrew us,” Duckworth said. “There wasn’t enough space. The fire marshal said we had too many people.”
The Bonham’s influence over Fiesta only continues to build. The club hosts the official afterparty for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation’s Fiesta WEBB Party on April 20, and its Fiesta Chili Queens Chili Cook-Off takes place April 28.
Over nearly four decades, the club represented an opportunity for self-expression, patrons point out. Especially in a time when there were few mainstream outlets for LGBTQ culture.
Local artist David Zamora Casas was a regular of its night party scene, standing in outrageous outfits that included a red bolero jacket, hat, billowing skirt and cowboy boots. The club hosted one of his first solo shows.
“The Bonham gave me encouragement,” he said, pointing out that queer culture hadn’t yet found its way onto TV sets. “It was the first time I felt supported in a queer space with queer art surrounded by queer people.”
In the early ’90s, Casas lived just around the corner from the club in a building called the Anti-Oppression Church of Hardcore Folk Art — since demolished. Because his space to store paintings was limited, the Bonham allowed him to hang one of his larger pieces at its entrance.
“I got it back and it’s now in the permanent collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, so it had a lot of gay energy — and a lot of smoke,” he said.
As much as Casas experienced incredible times on the dance floor, the Bonham also brings back memories of friends who died of AIDS.
“It was also a sad place for me because many HIV-AIDS fundraisers were held there,” he said. “[Art teacher] Terry Ybañez, [artist] Lisa Mellinger and I did a HIV awareness performance one time. It wasn’t just a dancing place, but it was also a place where we went to mourn the loss of friends sometimes after a funeral.”
Outside the club, just after 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday, a long line of clubgoers has stretched from the front door to Avenue E. As expected, the crowd is mostly young. Some have arrived by Lyft while one young man in his 20s arrives by e-scooter and then ditches it by the side of the building.
It’s evidence that a new generation is creating its own memories at the nightspot.
A trio of friends — Ashley Martinez, Louis Rubio and Chloe Mendoza — waited in line to show their IDs and hit the bar. They’ve been patrons of the BX since they were 18, and it’s more than just the music and the drinks that keeps them coming back.
“The environment is different, and it’s a lot more fun than going to a regular straight bar,” said Martinez, 21, a medical assistant.
“There’s all types of people who come here – gay, bi, straight,” Mendoza, a 23-year-old nursing student added. “Plus, we love the gays.”
Just after midnight, the main dance floor reels with energy as the crowd busts moves to Pitbull, while other patrons head to an upstairs video bar for a dose of disco and pop.
“I play all kinds of music and whatever the crowd wants — hip-hop, reggaetón, cumbias — but, of course, I still love playing ’70s and ’80s disco,” said DJ Angel, who’s been spinning at the Bonham for 15 years. “The people love it too.”
And on this packed night, it’s clear that they do. After all these years, the Bonham is still about acceptance, about letting your hair down and soaking in the vibes of a pivotal place in Alamo City LGBTQ history.
It remains an invitation to drink, dance and have a gay old time.
The San Antonio Current, San Antonio's award-winning alternative media company, has served as the city's premiere multimedia source of alternative news, events and culture since 1986.