Two sides of the Phoenix cabaret in 2012 via Google Streetview, wreath visible above main door, R.
For 5 years after it closed in 2011, a wreath adorned what used to be The Phoenix Cabaret and Embers Disco in Birmingham, Alabama. Don’t ask why I was looking up closed gay bars in a city I’ve never visited–I’m obsessed with holiday celebrations in gay bars (see Christmas in Gay Bars, Gay Bar Holiday Jukebox Playlist). The cabaret’s sign, visible above in a 2012 screenshot from Google Streetview, looked like this when it was new:
The bar is around the corner from the New Pentecostal True Holiness Church and right across from the Norfolk-Southern rail line and the CMC steel mill. This is fitting because Birmingham was built where two rail lines crossed at the only site on earth where coal, limestone, and iron could be mined. The city acquired the nicknames “Steel City,” “Pittsburgh of the South,” and “Magic City” to describe the explosive growth of an industrial powerhouse.
The building was built as a Venetian Blind showroom in the 1940s and was later a drive-in restaurant before becoming the Tool Box, a gay bar that closed in 2001. The Phoenix got its liquor and dance establishment licenses in 2002, and underwent renovations in 2007 after its 5-year anniversary. In that year, the bar held a gala Christmas party to raise money collect goods for Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO):
In 2008 the bar held a grand re-opening on October 17th, with a celebration suggesting that the Bethel Metropolitan Community Church (MCCs) had been meeting in the club. The LGBT-affirming MCCs often got their starts in gay bars; Bethel moved in with the Woodlawn United Methodist Church (short-lived because their shared building was destroyed by fire in May of 2009. The congregation survived the fire but not, it seems, the 2011 retirement of longtime MCC minister Marge Ragona). The major renovation was described by local entertainer Libertee Belle, “It’s like walking into a whole new establishment. Downright pretty, very original, very unique:”
By 2009, the Phoenix Cabaret described itself thus: “In the folds of Time, the Sacred Water of Life and Peace were sprinkled on the Eternal Fire of Desire – the result was new and exciting! Birmingham’s Newest and Hottest Bar! Downstairs… only at the Phoenix! The Party Just Got Bigger!!!! Just When You Think It Couldn’t Get Any Hotter…It Did!”Its MySpace page hosts 1,163 photos of nights out, drag shows, gay pride floats, birthday celebrations, a Halloween haunted house, and a wedding before same-sex marriage was legal in Alabama:
The unidentified grooms of what the Phoenix MySpace page describes as the “Wedding of the Century.”
In 2009, The Phoenix was voted the 3rd best gay bar in Birmingham… out of three contestants. I could find no information about its closing, and local reportage suggests various dates. I can’t help but wonder whether its segregated patronage contributed to its decline: for a city that was 63% African American in 2000, and 73% in 2010, there are precious few Black patrons pictured on the club’s MySpace photostream.
The bar closed in 2011, sometime around the holidays, as that wreath suggests. On October 28th of 2016, the bar caught fire and burned to the ground, the wreath still visible.
There are still four gay bars in Birmingham, including the longtime Al’s on Seventh and Our Place. In 2016 they were joined by Spike’s Leather Club, the first leather bar since the Tool Box closed. It received adorable coverage from the local news affiliate (“What Is a Leather Bar?”), and the comments section was refreshingly positive. Since The Phoenix closed the only gay disco in central Alabama is The Quest Club, notable as perhaps the country’s only gay bar open 24/7/365. Which means that Alabamians without other family to be with on Christmas, there’s always one place to hang your wreath.