The Other Side, Los Angeles' last gay piano bar, is history. The Silver Lake institution, which served as both a cabaret venue and a no-frills watering hole for generations of homosexuals and live-music lovers, closed for the final time shortly after 2 a.m. Monday. Before calling it a night, featured pianist Tommy Dodson led more than 100 diehards in singing one last song, “Oh Happy Day.”
A month ago, The Other Side's owner, Paul Hargis, announced that he was selling the bar and its conjoined restaurant, The Flying Leap, to Hyperion Public. The piano bar's staff and patrons have been bracing for the loss ever since. “I feel like I'm being kicked out of my home,” said Jim Whitrock, 71, as he stared into an empty glass on Saturday night. Whitrock has been a Saturday evening regular for at least the last decade.
Under one name or another, The Other Side's location has been the site of a gay piano bar for 44 years. A number of the regulars we talked to during its last few nights, Friday, Saturday and Sunday this past weekend, felt bereft. Three older gentlemen, who have been meeting for drinks at The Other Side since it was called the Toy Tiger more than 30 years ago, said they were “devastated” by the bar's closing. None of them wanted to give their full names, but Dale, 61, admitted he doesn't know where he'll go to meet his buddies in the future. “That's the problem,” he said.
“It's a shame,” said bartender Carl White, 46. “There's a real sense of history here. The older men had the best stories.” White credited The Other Side with having a unique charm. “It was a place where you could listen to Sondheim and watch sports on TV.”
White will miss the customers, the atmosphere and, of course, the steady paycheck. Like several of his coworkers, he doesn't have his next job lined up. Still, White seems upbeat. About the closing, he said, “It's been so emotional, but fun. Everyone's putting their best face on. It's like a mad Irish wake.”
The crowds that turned out to pay their respects during The Other Side's final days often did so in song. James Lent, 39, who has been the featured Friday night pianist at the bar for ten years, led boisterous group sing-alongs to “Que Sera Sera,” and “Those Were the Days.”
The solo singers who faced the open mic were no less passionate and often irreverent. Laura Hovermale, 40, a fixture at the bar for the past seven and a half years, gave a lively rendition of one of her “signature” show tunes, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three (Tits and Ass)” from A Chorus Line, also on Friday. She shimmied, she shook, and the crowd ate it up.
“It's always friendly here,” said Hovermale, an administrative coordinator at Hollywood United Methodist Church. She, too, is disheartened to see The Other Side go. “It's the end of an era, not just in gay history, but in the history of L.A.”
After Timothy Leyba, 26, finished singing “Over the Rainbow,” he expressed his shock that a bar so intertwined with gay culture could simply vanish. “When I heard the news,” Leyba said, “my immediate reaction was, 'Why? People love to sing here.'”
The Other Side did look as if it were thriving. At 9 p.m. on Friday, there was no place to sit. Soon there was hardly any place to stand. By 10:30 p.m., the bar reached capacity and had to stop admitting people. A line formed and stretched down the sidewalk.
Many of the patrons were past middle-age, but a healthy percentage of the crowd was younger — some of them not even gay. It made for a packed house, and a few regular patrons weren't pleased. “Everyone who's never been here before needs to get out of here,” said a gray-haired veteran.
Despite the light strain of discord, the influx appeared to make for good business. Bartenders were scrambling to fill drink orders.
So why is this the end for The Other Side? On break from behind the bar, White said, “I think the owner wants to retire. He wanted it to continue as a cabaret bar, but couldn't get a buyer to go for it.”
Early reports were that the new owner, Hyperion Public, simply planned to turn the site into a sports bar, but according to Lent, music is likely to be part of the equation. The pianist said he's been contacted by Hyperion Public about the possibility of hosting an occasional piano night. “They are more interested in live bands,” Lent explained, “but I'm optimistic.”
In the meantime, several Silver Lake venues will attempt to fill the void left by The Other Side. Lent plans to play piano at new open mic nights at MJ's and Akbar. Tommy Dodson, as well as Lori Donato, who was Tuesday night's feature pianist at The Other Side, have already booked dates to perform at The Lyric Hyperion Theatre Cafe. Sizing up the local piano bar scene, Lent said simply, “We're all going to disperse.”
Rasheed Newson is a television writer and the author of the crime novel Bring a Shovel and a Gun. Follow him on Twitter at @ra_sheed. For more arts news follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.