By Dan Smith
For 60-years-young Dennis Ashby, the thought of giving up the night life had never occurred to him. “According to the economy, I’m going to have to work until I drop,” he says. “I’d rather do what I do now than become a greeter at Meijer.”
Ashby, a native of Utica, has been around the block a few times, launching his career waiting at Eddy’s in Detroit in 1968. Since then, he’s bounced around from Morie’s, to Iron Hinge, to Conquest, to The Adobe, to The Edge in Hamtramck, returned to Detroit to work at Todd’s, and finally (deep breath) settled down at Club Gold Coast, where he’s been a bartender for the last 18 years.
Waiting and bartending aren’t the wisest career choices, he admits, but he has no regrets about either – and finds a perk in working while maintaining a social life. “I’ve always worked in gay bars, but it’s kept me in touch with the community,” Ashby says. “I’ve met so many people from all over, and it’s cool to be around people as yourself.”
Throughout the span of his 40-year career, he’s seen an evolution in gay culture, from changes in the bar scene, openness within the community and an overall greater acceptance of gays. “It was much more closeted 40 years ago, but it’s pretty open now,” he says. “There are more places for us to socialize now and a lot more publications for us to find just about anything we want to know.”
As the gay scene changed, so did Ashby – into “Rita Porter.” In 1973, Ashby participated in a drag show, and for a reason beyond his understanding, was given that pseudonym. It stuck, and Rita came back out about a dozen more times until 1987 in support of various AIDS benefits.
Though he hasn’t done a drag show for nearly 20 years, he still finds Rita’s legacy follows him around. “Sometimes people will still call ‘Rita!’ out to me in public. There’s a time and a place for it,” he says with a coy chuckle. “But at least that means they’re old school.”
Despite the occasional hazing from his younger co-workers at Gold Coast – most one-third his age – he’s still found to be as successful as the other bartenders, if not even more so. “The kids tease me and call me ‘Granny,’ but we still get along well,” he says, adding that the variety of liquor also has grown throughout his career as a bartender. “The younger guys make all the newer drinks, I make the drinks they’ve never heard of, and we just offer a bigger selection than most others – and I still make the best Long Island.”
When he’s not slinging beers and Cosmopolitans, he prefers to spend his off-days reading at his Utica home and going out to dinner with his friends, saying that excessive attention is actually pretty overwhelming to him.
“I spend five nights a week socializing. I enjoy my off-time, and I’m blessed to have so many close friends,” he says.
Everybody Ashby works with wonders how he’s lasted so long in the bartending game. In spite of what may come off as a hard-partying image, he leads a fairly clean and solitary lifestyle, as he is content with being single – and not consuming booze. “Avoiding drinking kind of adds to the endurance needed to keep up in this business,” he says. “And if I wanted to be picked up, I’d call Enterprise.”
Sure, working at a bar is often stressful, Ashby admits, but it fits him – even 40 years later. “I’ll keep working as long as I possibly can. It keeps me in touch with the community and keeps me in a younger frame of mind,” he says. “After all, it beats being a greeter at Meijer.”