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May 15, 2012

Pop-Up Pride and Memories of 135 Pearl

135-pearlLast week, when President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, Vermonters didn't flock to gay bars to celebrate — there aren't any here. The state's best-known LGBTQ bar, 135 Pearl, closed six years ago next month. So far, no one has been able, or willing, to replace it.

Not permanently, anyway — several temporary queer social spaces have popped up recently around the state. Seven Days food writer Corin Hirsch took a break from the farm and restaurant beat to check them out. Here's a link to her story, "Pop-Up Pride," which appears in this week's paper.

Coincidentally, a new audio documentary about 135 Pearl, "Pearl's", debuted online today. Sarah Ward, the 22-year-old Burlington College documentary studies student who produced the piece, never actually visited the bar; it closed a few months before she arrived from Massachusetts to start her studies.

Ward was looking for a local place to profile for an academic project and came across this Seven Days story I wrote about Pearl's closing. It intrigued her. "I really like stories about places," she says, "and how people interact, how people get tied to spaces."

She put out a call for stories about the bar through the RU12? Community Center. "I got 30 to 35 emails right away," she says. "That was the first indication that Pearl's was really important to a lot of people."

Ward says she collected 10 to 11 hours of tape, which she whittled down to a 15-minute audio feature. "Pearl's" contains interviews with 135 Pearl owner Robert Toms, as well as several patrons. They wax nostalgic about the bygone gay bar and describe some memorable moments in its history, including its final night, June 3, 2006.

"Through the haze of alcohol and cigarettes, everyone remembers the last night at Pearl's," Ward intones, "especially the line to get in. It stretched about three city blocks."

Jen Berger elaborates: "It was packed. The line to get in was like a trip down memory lane. The music was amazing, yeah, everybody was there. I stayed to the very, very bitter end, until, like, there were just a handful of people left."

Lluvia Mulvaney-Stanak, aka DJ Llu, was DJing that night. "People were dancing on the bars," she remembers. "People were dancing on tables, you couldn't move in that place... People were just so eager to be there for the last night... it was a historic kind of moment."

Toms remembers it as "highly, highly, highly emotional. Everybody was moving. Everybody was leaving home. It was the nest."

Mulvaney-Stanak also recalls the initial reaction to the announcement that 135 Pearl was closing. "I think, initially, people were like, 'Oh, yeah, whatever,'" she tells Ward. "And then within a year, people were like, 'Oh my god.'" Mulvaney-Stanak is now one of the organizers of the Burlington-area Queer Pop-Up Dance Parties.

The doc ends with three Pearl's fans calling for a new, permanent queer-friendly space to open in the Burlington area.

If one does appear, Ward won't be here to see it. Now that she has released her audio doc, she's leaving town. Ward graduates from Burlington College on Saturday and is moving into her new digs in Boston on Sunday. On Monday, she starts a new job as a line producer on a documentary film about male sex workers in Providence, Rhode Island.

Ward says she's working with RU12? to help distribute the documentary and to preserve the interviews she's collected. She hopes her project will have a life of its own. "I'm just astonished at how much people are interested in this project," she says.

Illustration by Susan Norton.

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