Six years ago this month, the gay bar known as 135 Pearl closed its doors in Burlington. It's now a Papa John's pizzeria. But for more than 10 years it was a mainstay in the gay community. Sarah Ward is a recent graduate of the Documentary Studies program at Burlington College. She never went to Pearl's, but was fascinated by the hole created when the bar closed. She produced this audio postcard.
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“On the top of Pearl Street sat this white building, and I would pass it every day and not quite understand what was going on inside there. And then I saw two women come out and kiss, and I went ‘Oh my god, I think it’s a gay bar,’” remembers a local resident.
In 1983, four business partners purchased a building in downtown Burlington, Vermont. The building was a two-story house and was surrounded by concrete and parking lots. It was poorly lit and the inside could be described as cozy. Kelly worked as door security for the club and said, “I don’t even know if I can remember my first time at Pearl’s. It must have been with rugby girls and it probably involved karaoke.”
Bob Hooker, a former patron, said, “I tried to look like I wasn’t nervous, and of course that always makes me look like I’m nervous, trying not to be nervous. I just kind of sat there. Every time someone went by, I had these feelings like, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to know I’m gay’ and then I thought, ‘Well, I’m at a gay bar, they’re probably gay too.’”
Lou was a regular DJ at Pearl’s, and she said, “I wanted to meet people, I wanted to have fun, I wanted to be in queer space. None of those things could really happen in pretty much most places in Vermont, particularly for the queer community because in a real state it’s just so spread out. And no matter how much people kind of complain that it was sometimes like a seedy bar or like it was less than kind of the amazing clubs that you could go to in Montreal or Newark, it’s all that we had. And so it’s what you made of it.”
Robert Toms had recently moved to the area from New York City and was working at a Red Lobster when he saw an ad in the local paper; Pearl’s was looking for new bartenders. “I don’t know, I just thought I should wear a shirt and tie and go in for the interview,” said Toms. “And I show up for the interview, and Jim had a beefeater and tonic, Nancy had a drink, and Eddy had a beer in his hand and I’m sitting there in my suit. And they’re just looking at me like, ‘What the heck just walked in the door here?’”
Toms got the job and worked his way up the ranks at the club. He was involved in most aspects of the club and quickly became a beloved member of the community. When the previous group of owners decided to sell, they approached Robert with a deal, and in 1995, he became the new owner and general manager of Pearl’s Nightclub. He entered into a 50/50 partnership with the club’s long-time DJ, Craig Mitchell. Toms said, “I wasn’t buying an establishment. It was something that existed beyond me.”
Under Toms’ guidance, Pearl’s began to grow into the club that patrons loved and remember. One of the first things he did was draft a mission statement, which he placed in the front entryway. Reading from the statement, Toms said, “Our mission is to create a place where people of every race, gender and orientation can come together in an environment that is free from discrimination, segregation and separatism to celebrate and become part of a collective consciousness, a safe space, a place we all can call home.”
Jen Berger, a patron of the club after Toms took ownership, said, “What am I going to wear tonight? You know, who’s going to be there? Almost like that high school experience when you go to something and like, you don’t know what to expect but everybody’s going to be there.”
The club was a central location for socializing and drew people from all over the county. Toms introduced regular events into the Pearl’s weekly rotation. These included “First Fridays,” weekly women’s night, and “Leather Night.” The theater on the first level of the building hosted regular plays and performances, and there were dance parties for every occasion. Pearl’s also had Karaoke. The atmosphere at Pearl’s was goofy, and patrons never quite knew what to expect.
“One night, I forget the situation, there was clearly some altercation. I don’t think it had anything to do with Pearl’s, I think there was just some drunken situation happening in the street, and the cops were there to arrest somebody,” said Lou. “I was watching this whole Days of Our Lives episode unfold right on the street below, and I thought, you know, the windows are open, it’s a summer night, I’m totally going to play ‘Bad Boys,’ the cops’ theme song.”
After playing the song, Lou saw Mitchell approach her. When she asked him if the club had gotten in trouble he told her that cops had loved it. “He was like, ‘In fact, they came over to me as I was smoking a cigarette and they were just like, this is amazing,’ So I thought that was pretty cool,” said Lou. “That for me, creating those moments for people at Pearl’s, through the music as a DJ, was really what it was about.”
In 2006, Toms announced that he was going to sell the space, and patrons of the club were heartbroken at the news. Toms said, “I went in under-capitalized, I was green, I was 24 years old; it was all new to me. You know, we re-financed our house twice to help keep it alive. And then all the laws changed.” One of these stated that not only would any person caught selling drugs within a liquor-licensed establishment go to jail, but also the owner of the license would be liable as well. “So when it started coming into my personal life, the liability, you just kind of say, ‘How can I do this anymore?’” said Toms.
Lou was one of the first people Toms told about the bar’s closing. She says that she was shocked when she heard the news. “People realized that this was a huge, huge change for the queer community,” said Lou.
“To this day, I still have not let go entirely,” said Toms. “It’s getting easier, because I felt like I had blood on my hands, because I’m the one who said yes to sell it and that was tough.” June 3, 2006 was a clear, breezy spring evening and most college students had already left for the summer. It was the club’s last open night.
“It was highly, highly emotional. It was just, everybody was moving. Everybody was leaving home. It was the nest,” said Toms. “That night, it was everybody shined, and that’s what that night was. That celebration was everybody got their chance to say goodbye, their way: if it was a guitar in their hand or DJing, or on the dance floor, or whatever it was. And it was pretty amazing.” DJs who had left the club years before came back to celebrate.
Lou began the night as the DJ downstairs and said, “People were dancing on bars, people were dancing on tables. You couldn’t move in that place. I mean, it was someone with claustophobia’s worst nightmare kind of night. People were just so eager to be there for the last night; people knew it was a historic kind of moment. And certainly it was just sad.”
“DJ Little Martin who, to me, just understood dance floor and the mission more than anybody, I don’t know how he did it, but he came, and he got up there and he started talking. And that’s when I broke and the tears just purged,” said Toms. “And that was my letting go.”
Lou says she can’t remember what her last song was, but that it was probably “Last Dance” by Gloria Gaynor or Donna Summer. “For a place that had a queer space, it was a physical queer space where we could gather, it was really momentous,” said Lou.
Though other clubs opened after the Pearl, all of them closed within a year. While other community and advocacy centers exist, there is still not a nightclub space explicitly for the queer community. Kelly and Meg Sue say that they would support a club if it were to open. Kelly said, “I want people to have more spaces like that. I know there are not a lot of spaces I’ve ever been in that you can truly feel like, ‘I can walk in, do just about anything respectful, and I’m probably going to get some accolades for it.’”
“I wouldn’t mind, honestly. I do think it’s needed. I do think it’s sorely needed. The ideal to me would be a community center space that was larger,” said Sue, who said that a drop-in space that is easy to wander into would be preferable. “Because I think there will always be people who are just coming out who want to just kind of walk by something and accidentally walk in. And we just need that kind of space."