By Jim Larkin
FLINT – It attracted people from Grand Rapids, Detroit and Saginaw with its curved mirrored entryway, 1,800 light bulb marquee, mock palm trees, artwork overlooking carpeted sitting areas and a sound system that belted out 1980s gay dance music.
And those who came of age during that decadent era recall The Copa — Flint’s largest and glitziest gay bar located smack dab in the middle of its downtown — as a place to be yourself, to dress up and strut your stuff, and to enjoy pulsating music in the pastel-colored cocoon that insulated you from the harsher realities outside the 10,000-square-foot sanctum.
“It was the Studio 54 of Flint,” notes Drew Fifield of Flint. “Everyone, it seems, has a fantastic Copa story to tell.”
Of course Fifield, at 23 years old, doesn’t remember any of it himself. He wasn’t even born when the first Copa opened in 1980 and was just 10 when its bigger and better replacement closed in 1995.
But Fifield and another University of Michigan-Flint senior theater major — Krista Starnes, 26, of Flint — are trying to bring it back to life with The Copa Project.
Taking a page from The Laramie Project, which chronicled the death of Matthew Shepard, Fifield and Starnes are currently interviewing as many people as they can about The Copa, with plans to produce a multi-media show on May 2-3 that includes a reading of their script showcasing those interviews, completed with music from that era.
A part of the Out ‘N About series in Flint, it will be shown at the Good Beans Cafe, 328 N. Grand Traverse in Flint, at 7:30 p.m. both days, with no entrance fee but donations going to the Redeemer Metropolitan Community Church for its teen night or youth outreach.
It was the lively Copa stories of Fifield’s uncle that led him to want to do the project, after UM-Flint Professor Lauren Friesen challenged his theater students to come up with a project that fit into the Out ‘N About theme of breaking the silence about GLBT issues in the Greater Flint community. He and Starnes began doing research this past summer and hope to wrap up interviews by the end of this month.
“We’re hoping to get a story on how it affected people’s lives,” Fifield said. “So far we’ve had some mixed stories — from the fantastic, free and liberating experiences to the darker side of drug use and other things.”
Other things like a story they are trying to track down about a girl committing suicide in the bathroom of the Copa, which catered to gays on Wednesday and Friday nights and to straights on Thursdays and Saturdays. That story could provide the climax of the retrospective look at the popular nightclub, Fifield said.
Other less glamorous stories shared by those who frequented the club include interrupting a sexual tryst in the stairway of the older Copa, and an outside search by police, who shined spotlights on the upper level only to catch a naked couple in a delicate position.
John Bissonnette of Flint, an accountant and friend of Copa owner Bill Kain, called the nightclub “very New Yorkish…bold and very bright. The kind of place you would expect to find in a major metropolis.”
Karla Dzurak, 47, of Flint, one of the people interviewed for the production, said there was nothing like The Copa before it opened and nothing like it since it closed. She noted that the nightclub — unlike many gay bars that cater mainly to either gay males or lesbians — had nearly a 50/50 split of men and women.
“You could go there and dance by yourself and no one looked at you funny. You would see people dancing alone, girls dancing with girls, guys dancing with guys, guys dancing with girls and no one cared,” Dzurak said. “People could find joy and entertainment there.”
And unlike other gay bars with either warehouse or minimalist decor, The Copa had glamour, she added, with artwork adorning seating areas, vases with flowers atop of tables, and a walkway above the dance floor where people could watch the “always packed” crowd below.
“Many of us were into vintage clothing so we’d go shopping for vintage clothing in the day and wear it to The Copa that night,” Dzurak said. “It was a place to dress up, be in your finest, and have a little eye candy on your arm. We used to have the prettiest lesbians in town!”
But the glitz and glamour didn’t last long. Kain died in 1991 and The Copa closed four years later. Still, it remains in the minds of many Flint area residents some 13 years after Kain’s sister closed its doors for good.
“It was a great place,” said Dzurak. “And when it closed it was sorely missed.”
The Copa Project
* When: 7:30 p.m. May 2-3
* Where: Good Beans Cafe, 328 N. Grand Traverse in downtown Flint
* Cost: There is no admission fee but donations will be accepted for youth programs at Redeemer Metropolitan Community Church.
* Have a Copa story to tell? Contact Drew Fifield at (810) 813-6536 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.