On Saturday, March 23, LGBTQ bar and nightclub Backstreet, a staple in the Metro Detroit queer community with a history that dates back to 1979, held a soft opening despite still being under construction.
"We actually had a little surprise and we gave the liquor away," managing owner Doug Keller says of the soft opening. "It was our way of trying to give back to the community and say, 'Hey, we want you to have a fun time, enjoy yourself.'"
Keller, who says he "grew up as gay" at Backstreet, acquired the establishment when he was approached by former owner Dr. Thomas Moses. Moses knew the club held sentimental value to Keller and asked if he would like to buy it. Keller and his business partner, Stephan Richardson, agreed to buy Backstreet and officially acquired it earlier this year.
Currently under renovation, Keller and Richardson found a new space on Livernois Avenue for Backstreet's revival. Renovations are scheduled to be done by the end of April and it will officially open the second week of May under a new name: Backstreet at Large Multiplex.
Keller has big plans for the space, including a restaurant, a second bar rail, a dance floor, a stage for performances, drag queen brunches, LGBTQ fundraisers and more. More than anything, though, Keller just wants people to feel at home at Backstreet.
"I want to keep a part of the gay bars where you walked in the door and no matter how your day was or what front you had to put up in front of somebody … I want them to be able to walk in the door and be whoever they wanna be and be how they wanna be," he said.
After buying Escape Bar in 1979, original owners Carl Rippberger and Joel Yoder spent about $100,000 renovating the space that would become Backstreet, named so because, originally, the club was only accessible from the back of the building. Keller attributes this to the fact that being openly gay/queer wasn't widely accepted to the degree that it is today.
The bar/club was a quick success among Detroit's gay community and was even open seven nights a week at one point.
After buying Yoder out of the business, Rippberger continued as the sole owner of Backstreet. Influenced by the nightlife of New York City at the time, Rippberger sought to bring the popularity of disco to Backstreet. During the 1980s, Backstreet brought in disco artists, such as Sylvester, Lime, Patrick Cowley, Paul Parker, Miquel Brown and many more.
After more than a decade of owning and operating Backstreet, Rippberger passed away in the mid-'90s due to AIDS. Since then, the establishment has had multiple owners, but Keller says that the rise of gay dating websites and, today, phone apps has led to a downturn in club and bar attendance.
"I think the younger generation … they have Grindr and stuff and that's all they know," Keller said. "They don't understand, as older guys, when we went to a gay bar … that's how you met people or if you wanted to date somebody or if you wanted to hook up [laughs] or meet a friend … that's what you had to do.
However, Keller said that despite the overall decline in attendance, he's observed that the younger LGBTQ community in Metro Detroit has expressed interest in making use of spaces like Backstreet.
"I've talked to a lot of 25- to 35-year-old, even maybe 40-year-old, guys. They are on Grindr and everything else, but they said they would love to go to a bar, sit down and talk to a guy because talking on the internet and talking in person is a whole lot different," he said. "You get to see the person. You get to feel the vibe. You get to maybe laugh with each other and that's a connection you can't get over the internet at all."
Backstreet at Large Multiplex opens mid-May. Stay tuned to their Facebook page for updates.