Gigi’s, one of the most beloved and respected gay bars on the Michigan map, is celebrating a milestone few venues manage to reach — 50 years in the business. It’s a business that has changed dramatically over the past five decades, but the core that has kept patrons coming back remains intact.
Partly, Gigi’s retains its charm thanks to its family atmosphere. Folks who go to Gigi’s seem to come back again and again through the years. And key staff members and former title holders, dating back to the ’70s, still continue to come regularly. It’s a place where everybody knows your name – or at least your alias.
Though I don’t go out much these days, I still consider Gigi’s my home bar. I was 17 in 1989 when I made my first trip to Gigi’s just off Southfield on Warren Road. The bar had already been open for 16 years and the reigning Miss Gigi’s was Peaches LaFleur, long since deceased but remembered for terrific numbers such as Tina Turner’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” which she performed holding the spine of an umbrella with tattered pieces of tarp hanging from the end of the spokes.
Other former Miss Gigi’s, like Lady T Tempest, Renee Peters and Edie Franklin, were regular performers at the time. As was Rosalyn Delight, whose signature number was a Crystal Gayle parody called “Donuts Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” during which she actually threw donuts – day olds, I’m told, into the audience.
But Gigi’s fabled history began long before I first walked through its doors.
The bar’s gay roots date back to the very early 1970s. Who originally owned the bar and when it actually opened is unknown. It is believed to have begun operating in the early 1960s as a bowling alley called Parkland Recreation. Starting in 1968, the bar was owned by George Mugianis. During his tenure, Café Gigi’s, as it was then called, was a supper club for a time. The establishment featured female go-go dancers, many of whom were allegedly lesbian, and soon attracted a large female crowd.
In 1973, 35-year-old Tony Garneau, a former grocer, acquired the bar and turned it all the way gay. Quite the accomplishment for that time, just four years post Stonewall. The Woodward Bar & Grill in Midtown held the distinction of being Detroit’s oldest gay bar until its untimely demise by a three-alarm fire last year. But the Woodward was owned by William Karagas, a straight man and, later, his widow Elaine. That makes Gigi’s the oldest gay-owned gay bar still in operation in Detroit.
Gigi’s holds another distinction as well. The Woodward, for many years, was just a gentlemen’s bar. No women allowed. Gigi’s, by comparison, was one of the very first mixed clubs. Men and women, Black and white — everyone partied together thanks to Garneau’s open-door policy.
Franklin, Miss Gigi’s 1978, has history with the bar predating Garneau’s purchase. She first came to the bar in 1972 and began performing just a few years later. Back then, things were much different from today.
“The cops would come down every now and then,” she said. “They’d check and make sure you had on men’s underwear, because you couldn’t perform if you weren’t wearing a piece of men’s clothing.”
Performers also had to trek downtown to get a performer’s license before they could grace the stage. Back at the club, the police weren’t the only ones harassing Gigi’s and its patrons. Some nearby straight neighbors weren’t too happy to have a homo bar on the block.
“The straight people would start trouble out in the parking lot during the day,” recalled Tempest, Miss Gigi’s 1983. “Tony would say, ‘Grab a stick, girls. Out we go.’ We’d all go out there with pool sticks and fight them off.”
Though she didn’t take the crown until 1983, Tempest had been a regular at the ba and had performed there since 1976. After her reign was over, she handed the crown to Miss Gigi’s 1984, Renee Peters, whose memories of bar owner Garneau are fond.
“He was a real positive figure,” Peters said. “He was good to everybody.”
Franklin agreed. “He was like a father to all of us,” she said. “He was one of the greatest persons I’ve ever met, an amazing guy.”
Franklin, Stevens and Tempest were certified stars by the time I found my way into the bar, on the arm of a young man I was dating who did the lights for the drag shows downstairs inside Gigi’s Cabaret. Nickki Stevens would soon transform the cabaret room, struggling to turn the basement into something classy. She succeeded.
In 1992, Stevens would take home the Miss Gigi’s title and, after her reign, was kept on as the bar’s show director, a title she holds to this day. Stevens not only books the talent, but stars in the Saturday night shows herself and handles all the reservations, bar décor and almost every aspect of the Cabaret’s operations.
There’s more to Gigi’s than drag, though. Just ask DJ Chico, who started visiting the bar in 1979. He started spinning there in 1983 and still does. He is also in charge of the male dancers at the bar, appropriately known as Chico’s Boyz.
Chico recalled Garneau as a “very generous man who cared about gay kids and wanted them to have a place where they belonged.” Through the years, other bar owners would pass by the bar and try to poach him. But Chico said he never entertained the thought of leaving. “Tony would say, ‘I know what they’re doing.’ I would answer, ‘Dear, I am not going anywhere. I would work for you for free.’
“He was there for me when I was 18,” Chico continued. “He took care of me, and I was loyal to him. I loved him.”
In addition to the drag shows and the scantily clad male dancers, there have been male impersonation nights at the bar as well, along with great Super Bowl and New Year’s Eve parties. The bar has tried various nights and themes, such as Hollywood Squares night, and the crowd has fluctuated through the years. Other bars have come and gone. Some have managed to steal Gigi’s crowd away for a while, but the bar has always persevered, and the crowd always eventually came back.
I was absent from the bar for several years in the ’90s while I lived in Miami. But when I got back in town in 1997, the party was still in full swing. Garneau had passed away in 1991, leaving the bar to six longtime employees who tried to honor his traditions. The show went on and Miss Gigi’s became the crown all the girls wanted. Only the best would wear it, however. Performers such as April Summers (Miss Gigi’s 1980), Diva Cliché (Miss Gigi’s 1998) and DeAngela “Show” Shannon (Miss Gigi’s 2000), who still performs at the club regularly, all took the title home and continued to entertain the masses in Gigi’s Cabaret Room.
“Gigi’s has been there for me and I for them,” said Shannon in an earlier Pride Source story. “They groomed me and prepared me for my career the correct way, which allowed me to accomplish most of my goals in performing.”
Shannon has won a total of 73 titles, but Miss Gigi’s “was one of the most meaningful I ever won, to be sure,” she said. “It represented home to me.”
Miss Gigi’s pageants are elaborate productions, and each year comes with a new theme. There is also the Miss Amateur Gigi’s pageant and the Miss Gigi’s Classic pageant as well as the Mr. Gigi’s pageant. It may be the biggest title outfit in the state.
In my late ’30s and early ’40s, I was trying to get my groove back. I became a regular at Gigi’s once again. It still felt like home to me. I was thinner than I had been in years and, in hindsight, going through something of a premature mid-life crisis. (I always was ahead of my time.) My niece would accompany me to the bar for F*ck You Fridays with longtime hosts Shannon and Sabin. Sometimes we’d even make it on Monday nights, when Stevens hosted the party, as well.
Like all bars, Gigi’s was forced to shut down during the pandemic. It was during this period that Luis Mandujano and his husband Joshua were approached about purchasing the bar. Mandujano was retiring from the Army.
“I was going to have to take pension money that I had set aside for my golden years,” he recalled. But Mandujano, who has been a regular at the bar for years and had even worked for a time as one of Chico’s Boyz, saw the potential and took the challenge.
With the bar temporarily closed, they got busy cleaning up and updating the bar, including adding new point of sale systems, credit card machines, new plumbing, painting and more.
“Luis and Josh have done a lot to upgrade the bar,” said Stevens. “They did a lot to upgrade the bar, doing things I’ve always dreamed of but the old corporation never had the means to do, or the want to do, for years.
“I tried and tried,” Stevens went on. “But it was like putting lipstick on a pig with staple guns and duct tape and paint.” Slowly and surely though, things started improving.
Looking at the bar and its golden anniversary from a historical perspective, historian Tim Retzloff said Gigi’s “has certainly been an important mainstay in the community. It’s lasted 50 years at a time when LGBTQ+ bars are closing all over the country. It’s really an achievement.”
Retzloff, who teaches queer studies at Michigan State, has actually taken two classes to the bar on fieldtrips. “There’s nothing like it,” he said. “The space there and the atmosphere.”
But for all its family feel, don't get the false impression that Gigi’s is not a favorite among young queers. They flood the club, particularly on Friday and Monday nights, especially since Gigi’s is open to those 18 and up. Lex Hunter, 30, is one of them. He was Mr. Gigi’s 2020-2022.
“Gigi’s is home,” he said. “I know I can always come back there. We at Gigi’s want people to feel the same way when they walk through our doors. That they — anyone — are welcome anytime.”
Still, the bar’s history is not lost on Hunter.
“We owe it to everyone who in the past 50 years has put time, blood, sweat, tears and their all into keeping this bar open so that people feel they have a safe haven,” he said. “It’s a place to be yourself and enjoy the magic that Gigi’s has brought for the last 50 years. I’m thankful to be part of that legacy.”
And as for Garneau’s legacy? What would he think about Gigi’s still going strong today?
“He would be happy it’s still open,” said Chico. “Back then, being open as a trans or fem wasn’t an option. So he’d be happy that it’s in the open now. And he’d be thrilled the bar is definitely popular with the new kids. Tony would be dancing in heaven if he knew that.”
As for me, I still make my way into Gigi’s from time to time. Sometimes I can still feel the excitement the 17-year-old me felt when I first walked through the doors into the smoky darkness, my tribe all around me.
Even now, after one of the bar’s signature stiff drinks, I can make my way onto the dance floor, close my eyes and almost remember what it felt like to be young and free. Who says you can’t go home again?
The official Gigi’s 50th anniversary party is set for Tuesday, March 7. Gigi’s is located at 16920 W. Warren in Detroit, just three blocks off the Southfield Expressway. For more information, visit facebook.com/GigisDetroit.