The Brook Bites The Dust

Once upon a time, Westport had both a gay bar and a strip club.

Right next to each other.

The gay bar was The Brook.  It sat on the Post Road near the Exit 18 connector — directly across from the state police barracks.

The strip club — Krazy Vin’s — was next door, directly across Cedar Road.

Today the state police barracks is Walgreens.  Krazy Vin’s is Starbucks.

The Brook — now called the Cedar Brook — is still there.  The gay bar outlasted them all.

But it won’t last much longer.  A closing party is set for June 26.

The building has been sold.  The new rent is out of bar owner Clem Bellairs’ reach.

I’m sure whoever owns it will tear it down.  It’s a ramshackle old building — scary, almost — and whatever is erected there will be much more profitable than a gay bar.  (I don’t pray often, but please God, don’t let it be a bank.)

Before it goes, let’s pay our respects to a bit of Westport lore — and, believe it or not, a nationally historic place.

At 71 years old, the Cedar Brook has been called the oldest continually operating gay bar in the United States.  (The former record holder, it’s said, was in New Orleans — and demolished by Katrina.)

For 7 decades, every gay boy growing up in Westport has told the same story.  Knowing there was a gay bar right down the street created both tremendous excitement (there are people like me!) and abject fear (what if someone sees me looking at it?). Wondering who — and what — lurked behind those ramshackle walls consumed gay teenagers.  (Straight kids wondered too.)

One summer in the 1970s, a college friend visited.  To show off my town, I decided to take her to every bar from the Norwalk line to Fairfield.

(Note to young readers:  Yes, Westport had many bars.  Still, don’t try this today.  The world was a different place then.)

By the time we made it to the Brook, it was 1 a.m.  The place was packed.  The music was loud; the dance floor looked amazing.  This was my chance to finally get inside!

A bouncer blocked the way.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “You’re fine” — he pointed at me — “but the lady can’t enter.”

What?

“The lady cannot come in,” he replied.  “This is a gay bar.”

So we went next door, to Krazy Vin’s.

The view from Starbucks.

Like an aging drag queen, the Cedar Brook is now past its prime.  Crowds are down; even the traditionally huge Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving party — when newly out college guys discovered with glee who else had recently come out — lost its luster in recent years.

The crowd became mixed — lesbians “integrated” the Cedar Brook in the ’80s, and a few straight people (drawn by the powerful sound system and large dance floor) followed.

But it was hard to sustain a gay club in suburban Fairfield County in the 2000s.

Times change.  Westport no longer has a police barracks — or a strip club.

Soon it will no longer have a gay bar, either.

The disco ball will spin for the last time.

The bartenders will put on their shirts.

And some other place, somewhere, will say with pride:  “We’re the oldest continually operating gay bar in America.”

26 responses to “The Brook Bites The Dust

  1. Richard Lawrence Stein

    Dan you might be able to put your worries or fears aside of your beloved Brook being razed. I have been surfing the Internet looking at possible businesses to buy and have come across it’s availability to rent. So it may not meet up with a wrecking ball, but live on….

  2. Outside Observer

    The Brook will be missed. I am not gay or a lesbian. I have danced enjoyed the company of many friends at Brook. The Halloween Parties were the best. Havimg a gay bar next to a strip joint was a wonderful representation of what makes Westport a great play to live. Walgreens and Starbucks, it is just not the same. I think a place to dance for everybody would be good. We need to a place to dance and have a good time in this town, and if someone wants to take off their clothes that is all right.
    Westport needs to get back to it funky roots.
    Thanks Dan for the memories.

  3. Dan, this makes me so sad fills me with nostalgia. As a teenager in Westport in the 70’s the Brook filled me with awe and fear; it was the forbidden fruit. Only after college was I able to cross the heady threshold and enter a world of adult Gay men. I can still smell the Paco Rabanne and Polo cologne! I had a lot of formative fun there. Even today when I visit my mom in Westport I drive by it, glad to see it is still there. But alas, no more. Thanks for writing this appropriately sentimental piece.

  4. Wow, The Brook is an icon and I’d hate to see it go as well. As a female, I WAS able to get in once in the early ’80s with a gay friend of mine so we could continue dancing, having closed the Appaloosa (remember that place?). He was an incredible jitterbugger and I just followed along. I remember thinking it was taboo for me to be there and got a few looks, but once we started dancing no one seemed to mind. It was a liberating experience for me to say the least!

  5. I, too, went to The Brook in the late 1970s with my best friend from high school. Although we were both females and neither was gay, we were allowed to enter the hallowed grounds and have a drink without being carded. I will admit that I was a bit jealous was some nice man asked her to dance, leaving me alone at the bar. (sigh!) The place wasn’t as creepy or strange as I had imagined.

  6. Innocent Bystander

    I wish in today’s world that we wouldn’t have to make such distinctions on whether a bar is gay or lesbian, black or white, redneck or Wall Street, etc.,etc. I would just like a place in this dang high flaluting county, where you can dance!!!!!!!!!!!! And The Brook was such a place.

    • Richard Lawrence Stein

      Honestly Bystander minus the dancing The Black Duck is that place… No one cares about your make up or pedigree… Grab a stool if you can and be careful walking to the bathroom those floors are a bit uneven

      • Innocent Bystander

        Went to school with Pete but my drinking days are over. Dancing is about the most excitement I can muster, “Richard.” Sorry couldn’t resist the nonsense of xs.

        • Richard Lawrence Stein

          Thanks… All of the chat is funny sometimes…. And sad and disturbing others

  7. I love the sign on the wall by the back door– “parking for queens only” — when I first moved to Westport and parked beside the Cedarbrook Inn to go to Starbucks, I saw the sign and laughed — and felt that I had not left NYC so far behind, after all.

  8. I took some of my gay cousins to The Brook a decade or so ago and had a jello shooter. First and only one I ever had. (What was I thinking?) The place will be missed. Lord, please, no more banks!

  9. I have dibs on their “wild horses” sign- no really, I want it!

    seems strange that a bar: gay or straight would discriminate against anyone coming in and spending money

    Mary Ann West

  10. Wendy Crowther

    Here’s a little more history according to a Westport News article written by Bill Bittar in April 1999.

    The building was originally known as the “Kitchen” when Westporters Millie and Edward Bowe bought it in 1939. The couple changed the name to the Cedar Brook Inn. The Bowes were tolerant of their gay patrons during a time when homosexuality was illegal. Though they didn’t plan it, “The Brook” soon evolved into a gay bar. The opening of I-95 in the late 1950s attracted more patrons because of the Brook’s convenient location near Exit 18. Millie Bowe sold the property to Paul Kish in 1973. The business went through changes over the years, effected by the tragedy of the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s, and by Kish’s plans to tear down the building in 1998 and 1999. In 1999 Clem Bellairs talked Kish into leasing the property to him. Bellairs injected new energy into the Brook, and a nephew of the Bowe’s volunteered to help with renovations for free. It’s been going ever since.

    In 1999 when Bellairs thought the party might be over, he mentioned in the above news article that he’d look for another place in Westport to move the Brook. It doesn’t look like Bellairs is saying that now. But maybe he should think about it (although who can afford Westport’s rents these days). Based on the comments posted thus far, it seems Westporters would still love to have Bellairs and his dance floor, and his good music, and the diversity that the Brook has always stood for, do just that.

    I’ll be sad to see that great, old, crazy, leaning this-way-and-that, building disappear from our otherwise manicured landscape. It is so much a part of Westport’s colorful past and I’m proud that we let it live here and thrive for so long.

  11. So sorry to see this go and, in years past, many other former eclectic type of Westport businesses (Remarkable, Kleins, Selective Eye, etc).

    A former classmate of mine was in town two weeks ago (we missed seeing each other) and emailed me when she got back saying that town down was so commercialized, it was being at the mall. No charm like it used to have.

    Maybe we are all getting old and nostaglic about the former places, but no, I don’t think so. We remember the unique places that made Westport unique, and charming.

  12. The Dude Abides

    It is called Corporate America, Amy. The unique Mom and Pop stores are being swallowed up by the giant corporations. To their credit and the supervision of the town, downtown looks pretty good. I dare say that Bill’s Smoke Shop and a gas station on Main in the 60’s was hardly charming. Downtown Darien has done a good job of remaining in the past. Their downtown is the dump it was 30 years ago. But that is how they want it. They don’t want strangers romping around on their streets. Westport has welcomed commercialism and to many, sold out.

  13. Vincent Mavilia – yes, Krazy Vin – is still in business: 19 miles away from Cedar Rd is Krazy Vin’s latest location (Shelter Rock Rd in Danbury). The building next door to Krazy Vin’s is currently available if Mr. Bellairs wants to reunite The Brook with his former neighbor.

  14. Ebony Cunningham

    I grew up here simply put. I started at the Cedar Brook June of 2001. The things I experienced in life will never ever compare to the lessons I have learned at the Brook. Growing up as a little black girl in the Brewster Projects (lol bridgeport ct) There really weren’t many places I could go and call my HOME not even my own HOME. The Brook was that place. When I had nothing else in the world I had the Brook. Mind you I have been from gay bar to gay bar throughout Connecticut, you don’t find what you find at the Brook. IT’S A FAMILY, we are an ARMY, WE ACTUALLY LOVE EACH OTHER. The best sign outside is “Where people meet and remain friends forever.” Its almost magical cause the second I read that sign I met the best people and I will remain friends with them for life. The brook catered to ALL WALKS OF LIFE. We were the flavor of the tri state community, and we always say the best mix is the music and the people. There will never be another place with the same spirit and love and non pretentious drive for success as the Brook to say it will be missed is an understatement. Clem Bellairs is hands down one of the most interesting people I have ever had the pleasure and displeasure of meeting. He will make you crazy, only because he wants you to step out of your own head for a second let go of the ego, and think about the bigger F**cK*nG picture. He has never tried to be a father figure he never wanted kids lol, but always treated Syreeta Ron myself, and anyone else who needed a chance to be heard and supported and respected with said respect! and mostly as EQUALS. Growing up thats all we ever want, Clem is the one to do it. It has been my privilege and my honor to be apart of the powerhouse that is the brook. Even when we bickered amongst each other I wouldnt have changed it for the world I became a PERSON there I MATTERED and I can take those lessons and bring them into my new career and my new life after the brook, I love you sons of bitches, We unleashed hell and opened up heaven, it was in every sense of the word a roller coaster ride lol but Clem told me a long time ago to strap my seat belt on lol. hope to see you all at the FINAL GALA!!!! lol Jun 26 2010

  15. Rafael Cardona

    My gay life-style began in the early 80’s along with the Arena’s (former owners) and the “Brook” was like a second home to most of us. I will be there for the closing moments; the amount of friends I made at the Brook and the fun memories will be worth the trip from Lauderdale.

  16. Bradley Jones

    A bit after the fact here, but with your poignant article about The Brooks closing, a memory came to mind I wanted to share. My dear friend Christopher Seppe and I, at unmentionable ages, would spend many weekend evenings at The Brook during the early 1970’s. It was our oasis from the constrictions we felt from our family’s implicit disapproval and from being teased relentlessly about being too effeminate in High School. Chris and I were talented, and he and I loved to sing and dance. And on a number of occasions, especially at Tea Dance on Sundays after the beach, the owner of The Brook would open up the jukebox and play Bette’s “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” Chris and I would don our tap shoes, and we would madly dance to everyone’s amazement. We weren’t very good, but we were “in synch,” and although our routine was a repetition of the same counts of eight over and over, the Tea Dance crowd went absolutely wild! In the wake of The Brooks closing, I am so appreciative for the chance to reflect a bit on the fact that Chris and I had this wonderful opportunity to show off a bit at this very famous watering hole. Chris is now gone, and I am so happy to take this moment to tell the tale of two young boys who found absolute “heaven” at The Brook in our home town because we urgently needed a place to go to feel as if we belonged, and as stated by Ebony above, as if we “mattered.” Thanks Dan, for posting this important and rather sad article.

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  21. The Brook was in my family for years. Paul Kish, who bought it in 1973, was my great uncle. I have known his partner Jerry, who survives him, since I was born. The Brook was an amazing place. My mother talks about going dancing there when she was a teenager, and I remember dancing there when I was a teenager after I came out of the closet. It will be forever missed.

  22. I first started going there in the late 70’s. I never had so much sex until I started going there. So many 1 night stands. The guys back then were so handsome and longer hair was the style then, not crewcuts and shaved heads like today. It was lke going to a andy store to pick your one night stand. the best time I ever had was the 1980 New Year’s party. You paid $20 at the door and it was an Open Bar all night with huge drinks, and a free buffet at midnight. New Year’s Eve parties just wasn’t the same after that year. Sadly everyone I partied with died from the AIDS Epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s. The memories will forever live on with me.

  23. I played the “Brook” disco back in the early 80s, The band showed up not knowing it was a gay club. we were booked in by our agent. While all of us were straight, we decided lets just play the gig. The people were friendly, and it was one of the nicest places to play. Back in those days, the gay men were in the front of the bar, while the lesbians were in the back, Everyone was allowed to watch the band and dance. I still tell the story of my first “gay” gig. As I was carrying my guitar into the club, I noticed two men in the old phone booth, they were kissing. I turned to my drummer, and said,” I don’t think were in Kansas anymore” All in all, it was a great place, and will be missed.