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By Jim Larkin
FLINT — The Copa and Bill Kain. Bill Kain and The Copa. When you say one name, say those who knew the sometimes tough, sometimes charming nightclub owner, you automatically think of the other.
Kain often referred to The Copa as his “million dollar baby,” having relocated it in 1986 when Flint was trying to resurrect itself as an entertainment center for Genesee County. In the middle of that attempted resurrection, often times leading the way, was Kain, who took a boarded up former retail clothing store and turned it into a glitzy nightclub that at its height was packed Wednesday through Saturday nights, with its patrons then flooding local restaurants.
Jim Weiker, who was a Flint Journal columnist at the time, referred to Kain’s “brains, enthusiasm and talent for knowing what sells,” in one of his columns.
“His clubs,” Weiker noted, “have accomplished something few other downtown entities can claim: they have brought suburbanites to downtown Flint.”
And he did it with glitz, glamour and panache. Grace Jones was among the performers at the original Copa. At the grand opening of the relocated Copa in 1986, tuxedoed doormen guided customers through the curved mirrored entryway into the palm-tree laden interior, where champagne and hors d’oeurves were served. VIP cards were handed out to some.
John Bissonnette, a Flint accountant and friend of Kain’s, said the nightclub owner visited other bars across the country for ideas and was consumed by the business.
“He always had a project going on with the bar and trying to make it the latest and greatest,” Bissonnette said. “He wanted to build a showcase where everyone wanted to go.”
And go they did. Bissonnette noted that long lines of people waiting to get in snaked around the nightclub.
Kain, a Flint native and former school teacher, owned and operated nightclubs in downtown Flint from 1968, when he was just 25 years old, until his death in 1991. And during that time he was sometimes at odds with city officials.
When special events were shifted from downtown Flint to the ill-fated AutoWorld in 1990, the Center City Association and Genesee County Historical Society member led the charge of those complaining that it was hurting downtown. When heavy Saturday night cruising downtown led to his customers staying away, he threatened to close his popular nightclub every Saturday night until police and city officials took action.
That he dared to open a gay bar in downtown Flint in the first place shook up some people. Alan N. MacLeese, a Flint Journal columnist at the time, referred to “determinedly macho Flint, the shot-and-beer town where a drink with foliage in it might well provoke a manly shot to the chops” and contrasted it to his following description of the view inside a Kain co-owned bar: “frenetic male-male, female-female, male-female boogiers who buck and strut between flashing lights, creating an other-worldly effect in an unchartered dimension. Men in drag, even, wheeling, touching, gliding.”
But his guts didn’t surprise close friend Doreen Schreiber, now of Venice, Fla., who owned Billy’s Pub, a downtown Flint bar. She said Kain’s bars were always open to gays and straights alike and that his enthusiasm was contagious to others trying to build downtown Flint.
“He was a driving force to downtown,” Schreiber said, while noting that Kain held numerous fundraisers for politicians in his bars. “It didn’t matter that he was gay to politicians because he had great ideas and was articulate. People listened to him.”
To his friends he was extremely generous but he was not someone you wanted as an enemy, Schreiber said.
“He was generous with his time and energy and really comfortable to be with if he was your friend,” she said. “But if he wasn’t your friend, he was very blunt.”
And even though his “in your face” style may have upset some, he was beloved by many who found sanctuary, fun and an ability to be themselves inside his establishments.
“Bill was a great guy,” said Karla Dzurak, 47, of Flint, who often frequented The Copa in the 1980s. “He didn’t look down his nose at anyone. Everyone was welcome no matter who it was.”
Dzurak said after Kain died in 1991, she started noticing special touches that made The Copa special — vases with dried flowers, artwork on the wall — missing piece by piece. Gone too was the free-for-all atmosphere under Kain.
“Every time I went in there after he died there was less and less stuff. And it wasn’t as much fun,” Dzurak said.
When Kain died, his sister Sharon Jones of White Lake Township inherited the nightclub and when she closed it in 1995, her attorney told The Flint Journal it had “been a pain in the neck and a headache for her” throughout those four, final years.
Some say without Kain, it wasn’t the same Copa.
“After Bill died, I only remember going in there four times,” Dzurak said. “I don’t know why but it just didn’t seem the same place without him.”
“He created it (The Copa) from the bottom up,” added Schreiber. “I mean from the music to the way it looked to the finer details. He was The Copa.”
* Feb. 1978: The Downtowners Club, owned by Bill Kain, Bernard J. Gellis and Gordon and Laurie Suber, opens at 510 S. Saginaw St., in downtown Flint.
* October 1979: The Downtowners Club closes when Gordon Suber files for reorganization in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
* May 1980: Bill Kain reopens the nightclub as The Copa.
* June 1986: The Copa closes, with Kain announcing plans to relocate down the street.
* Sept. 15, 1986: The Copa relocates and opens at 565 S. Saginaw St., at the corner of Second and S. Saginaw streets, with more than 50 percent more floor space as the previous location.
* Jan., 1988: Kain announces plan to add about 4,800 square feet, with plans to use the space for a restaurant, pool room, stage and dance floor.
* Oct. 1988, Workers install a balcony in The Copa, running through the middle of the nightclub, overlooking the stage. Also added are a bar and a small poolroom.
* June 1989: Kain lists The Copa for sale for $1.2 million after he said he had some inquiries into the property.
* Feb. 28, 1991: Kain dies at his home at age 47. His sister, Sharon Jones of White Lake Township, inherits The Copa.
* Dec. 16, 1995: Jones closes The Copa.
Source: The Flint Journal files