He ended up a controversial figure but was popular and beloved at his peak. Tom Giuseppe, former owner of the nightclubs Backstreet in Detroit and Cobalt in Ferndale, died June 12, Pride Source has just learned.
Giuseppe had suffered from several health ailments in recent years and died peacefully in his sleep at the Gladwin assisted living facility he had called home since late last year. He was 79.
Giuseppe was born on July 22, 1942 and grew up in Royal Oak. After graduating from Royal Oak High School, he worked initially as an orderly for Beaumont Hospital before going on to work for IBM and Xerox, from which he would eventually retire.
Giuseppe lived in Atlanta for a while, where he owned his first gay bar. Back in Detroit, he managed bars like the Interchange and Tiffany’s before helping out at Backstreet. He became a big player on the metro Detroit LGBTQ+ bar scene when the original owner of Backstreet, Carl Rippberger, died of AIDS in 1994 and left the bar, then arguably the city’s most popular, to Giuseppe, his close friend.
Rippberger had opened Backstreet, formerly the Escape Lounge, on the west side of Detroit at Joy and Greenfield Roads in 1979 with business partner Joel Yoder. Through the years, the club hosted entertainment acts like Sylvester, Miquel Brown and many others. The club billed itself as “Light years ahead of the rest” and “Detroit’s party bar.” Following Rippberger’s death, Giuseppe donated $100,000 to the Affirmations LGBTQ+ community center, which was then fledgling,
in Ferndale as Rippberger had instructed. That’s when former Between The Lines (BTL) co-publisher Jan Stevenson, then the center’s executive director, first met Giuseppe.
“Carl and I were really close,” said Stevenson. “I never knew Tom before I got the call from the lawyer after Carl died and Tom had instructions from Carl to get to know me and get involved with the community.”
Giuseppe continued Rippberger’s philanthropy, donating not only to Affirmations but to the Hope Fund, on whose board he sat for a time, the Triangle Foundation, the Wellness Network and others. He was also a member of the Greater Detroit Bartender’s Guild, serving for a time as its president.
“We were friends, and we would have dinner periodically,” Stevenson said. “He was a colorful character, and he was fun.”
Stevenson grew so close to Giuseppe that when she and personal and professional partner Susan Horowitz decided to take BTL weekly in 1999, they approached Giuseppe about becoming a minority shareholder in the paper. “We needed a cash infusion in order to do that and Tom invested in us and maintained a minority share for quite a while. We couldn’t have gone weekly without him. When I talked to Tom about it, he was quick to say yes, which I appreciated.”
Just a year later, as Ferndale began developing a reputation as a gayborhood, Giuseppe began to believe that the Detroit LGBTQ+ club scene was moving to the suburbs and opened Cobalt nightclub in the location formerly occupied by Doug’s Body Shop on Woodward Avenue. This would be the beginning of Giuseppe’s downfall.
By 2000, Backstreet was not as popular as it had once been. According to an article in Out Post, Guiseppe entered into an agreement to sell Backstreet to chiropractor Dr. Tom Moses for $175,000. Giuseppe allegedly received a $50,000 down payment and retained ownership of the bar’s liquor license in the deal. Qut Post went on to say that, just a few weeks later, Giuseppe attempted to renege on the agreement and had the bar’s liquor license placed in escrow, forcing the club to close down.
In the meantime, things at Cobalt quickly turned sour. A dispute with his partners and an investigation into drugs being sold in the bar by the Michigan Liquor Control Commission caused Giuseppe to lose much of his investment. The club ultimately closed for good.
While this was going on, Giuseppe became embroiled in a lawsuit with Moses and tried to reopen Backstreet on his own. Giuseppe lost the case and in 2003 was ordered to pay Moses a total of $725,000, including $500,000 from the Backstreet corporation and the $225,000 owed by Giuseppe personally. In the end, Giuseppe lost everything and was left financially ruined. He was forced to sell his Detroit home and relocated to Gladwin, where his parents had a home.
“My brother was a good guy,” said Giuseppe’s oldest and only sibling. “He had his faults, too. But he was generous with his family.”
Ken Lamparski was the co-owner of Metra magazine and knew Giuseppe well.
“He was a fun person to be around, always the joker,” Lamparski said. “I’ll remember him as a pretty good manager and just an overall good person. He had his little quirks. He seemed to piss people off. But that’s the way it is.”Memorial donations may be made in Giuseppe’s memory to Affirmations LGBTQ+ community center.