Listen

News 88.9 KNPR
Classical 89.7 KCNV

member station

A Glittering Anchor

dc_072220_blog_gipsy_photo_unlv_university_libraries.jpg

Photo courtesy UNLV University Libraries

Patrons pose for a photo at Gipsy in 1995.

It only took one day to demolish the Gipsy nightclub — by late afternoon of July 11, the jewel of Las Vegas’ gay clubs and the 40 years of Las Vegas queer history it represented was a pile of rubble. Owner Paul San Filipo has plans to develop a new and improved Gipsy on the site, but the demolition of the old Gipsy represents the end of a rich era of Las Vegas LGBTQ+ history.

Gipsy was opened on April 1, 1981 at 4605 Paradise Road by legendary bar owner/queer activist Marge Jacques and businesswoman/Democratic Party advocate Kerin Rodgers. Gipsy was flashy, glamorous, and upscale. Jacques’ years in the bar business and Rodgers’ political connections brought a parade of celebrities into the club, including Grace Slick, Bobbie Gentry, Joan Rivers, Siegfried and Roy, Debbie Reynolds, U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon, Cher, Rip Taylor, Nellis Air Force Commanding General Zack Taylor, former Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer, and Liberace and his lover, Scott Thorsen.

Despite its popularity as a queer club, Gipsy could not be so advertised because “homosexual activity” was still a felony punishable by hefty fines and prison. If a Las Vegas club catered openly to LGBTQ people, it could lose its licenses and be shut down. Under those circumstances, Gipsy’s queer patrons were safely euphemized as “show kids.” In a 1982 interview with the Las Vegas Sun, Rodgers’ and Jacques’ description of their club was a masterpiece of code: "Everybody has a place to hang out,” Rodgers said. “You reporters have a Press Club, steelworkers have their special bars, so that's why we started Gipsy for the show crowd.”

“There are many people in this town who have to work in the straight life during the day,” Jacques said, “and this place gives them a chance to be themselves at night.”

Over the next three decades, not only did Gipsy serve as the glittering anchor for the affectionately named Fruit Loop at Naples Drive and Paradise Road, it became the social center for Las Vegas’ growing queer community. Gipsy hosted benefits and organization meetings, helped sponsor the city's Gay Pride celebrations, and threw fabulous parties and concerts. The club was the venue for a pantheon of Las Vegas drag stars: Kenny Kerr, Frank Marino, Shannel, Jamie James, Vance Haliday, Crystal Woods, Larry Edwards, Howard Benway, “Big John” Huckaba, and many others.

Gipsy is where the community’s first AIDS benefit was held on November 1, 1983. Gipsy was also the largest employer of queer people in the state: 15 employees in the bar itself, and 30 to 40 part-time workers for shows. All these people were thrown out of work on August 8, 1988 when an arsonist torched the club during a packed show hosted by Boylesque star Kenny Kerr. It was Kerr’s cool-headedness on stage urging a quick and orderly evacuation that saved another Las Vegas star in the audience that night: Frank Marino of An Evening at La Cage.

Gipsy survived its fire and flourished into the next century through a series of owners, lawsuits, remodelings and grand re-openings. The queer community took it for granted that its favorite nightclub would be there for queer generations to come. But as Las Vegas’ queer community grew and assimilated — and as larger and glitzier clubs, such as Krave and Pure, opened — Gipsy’s glitter tarnished a bit. An unfortunate encounter with the Bar Rescue reality show in 2013 — a teaser for which is still extant on YouTube — didn’t help, and Gipsy closed a few years ago.

While Gipsy may today be only a vacant lot in the Fruit Loop, to paraphrase Gloria Gaynor: It will survive. Owner Paul San Filipo has grand plans to rebuild his club and to resurrect the dynamic glamor it once brought to Las Vegas’ queer scene.

Historian Dennis McBride is the author of Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State.  

Photo above right: The dance floor during Gipsy grand re-opening night, May 10, 1997. Photo by Dennis McBride

Support comes from