Rawhide celebrates three decades in Chelsea
In the autumn of 1978, former San Francisco supervisor Dan White assassinated Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office. Closer to home, gay men and their friends were twirling the night away to Donna Summer’s "MacArthur Park" at Studio 54. Nancy Spungen’s bloody murder at the Chelsea Hotel allegedly at the hands of boyfriend Sid Vicious rocked the rock world. And the city had recently granted Chelsea landmark status.
At the same time, another landmark of sorts was born: Rawhide on Eighth Avenue at 21st Street. To walk from the sidewalk through its black leather curtains to the dimly-lit, black wooded-interior, you may think things haven’t changed much in 30 years. And you would be absolutely right.
"We try to keep the interior true to its original design," manager Jason Gudgeon, who has worked at Rawhide for eight years but confessed himself as a long-time fan, explained. "Back then, it wasn’t that original. Most gay bars were dark and hidden, but we’ve tried to maintain that. It’s more unique now than it was then."
Gudgeon, a muscular man in a black tank top with a crew-cut, congers up the image of what the manager of Rawhide would probably look like. He was quick to point out; however, the bar attracts a diverse crowd.
"You can sit next to anybody here, its very neighborhood friendly," Gudgeon said.
At the time Rawhide opened, Barbary Coast at Seventh Avenue and 14th Street was the only other gay bar in the historically working class and largely Latino neighborhood. The high-end restaurants and upscale condos and rentals had yet to arrive.
"The area was much grittier and rougher," long-time Chelsea resident and Rawhide regular Bernard, who wore a leather jacket and wristband, said. "Gays were just starting to come in and it was dangerous, there were a lot of gay bashings."
Rawhide has managed to survive the luxury real estate book that continues to transform Eighth Avenue.
"There’s an old saying," Bernard told EDGE. "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Cliff, a hunky young bartender originally from the Dominican Republic, has been on the job for a only a year. He welcomed the chance to work in what he refers to as "an institution." And Cliff echoed Bernard’s assessment of Rawhide as an affable local watering hole.
"With all the fancy restaurants that come and go, you can always come here for a cheap drink, see go-go boys and meet with your friends," he said.
Besides the pinball machines and other video games to the left of the entrance, the box for the dancer, the ever-busy pool table in the back with a motorcycle hanging above it, and the famous bar that runs full-length along the right side of the rather small, rectangular room, Rawhide is famous, oddly enough, for its Christmas decorations that includes snow, garland, a sled, Santa Claus and even a very well-endowed Nutcracker figure during the holidays.
"I get calls from all over the place starting in November, asking if they are up yet," Gudgeon said.
He explained the original bartenders had a workshop in the basement, complete with a power saw and tools. They, like Santa’s elves, made holiday decorations. Many of the original ones remain part of the annual display.
Gudgeon also recalled the line of people who would wait outside on the sidewalk for Rawhide to open at 8 a.m. Many of these, including a number of A-listers he declined to name, would frequent the bar after the after-hours clubs closed.
"I can’t give you names, but believe me there were ball players, celebrities of all kinds," Gudgeon said. "Everybody knew about this place."
Rawhide remains on gay New Yorkers’ radar and continues to do a brisk business in spite of Gym Bar, Barracuda, G Lounge, View Bar and other bars opening in the immediate area in recent year. The bar may look dark and forbidding from the bright lights of Chelsea’s gentrified Eighth Avenue, but many regulars who keep coming back maintain Rawhide offers the comforts of an old friend.
"When I’m barhopping in Chelsea, this is where I begin my night and where I end my night," happy customer Al said. "Other bars may come and go, but this one is home."
Rawhide is located at 212 Eighth Ave. It opens at noon and has go-go boys every night starting at 8 p.m. An upcoming gala anniversary party will take place in November, but call (212) 242-9332 for more information.