Our recipes and stories, delivered.

LA’s Last Great LGBT Piano Bar

The Other Side was a “best friend” to a generation of LGBT bar goers who were left wondering: Where will we go now?

Apart from passing through the overwhelming, smog-filled circular behemoth of LAX, I had never visited Los Angeles prior to the two-day job interview that led me to live in the city for over five years. During that interview, a company manager took me on an expedition to visit neighborhoods where my family and I might settle. Halfway through, I called my husband in tears. “All the schools look like Soviet-era prisons,” I said, thinking of my son who would need to attend elementary school somewhere in this sprawling city. “I just can’t imagine us here.”

Later in the day, after visiting the West Side and the Valley and a blur of other neighborhoods, we drove under the 101 Freeway and into Silver Lake. It wasn’t too flashy; there were hills; and it lacked the desolate stretch that characterizes much of LA on first look. In fact, it felt positively leafy set amid a city that seemed starkly un-green to me—especially coming from Atlanta, a city in a forest. It also had, in its people, a thread of old-school bohemia that made me feel instantly at home.

Two months later, my husband and son and I moved into a modest two-bedroom bungalow just off Rowena Avenue, and were welcomed by neighbors who had found their homes in Silver Lake many years earlier. There were a couple of single mothers raising teenagers, older gay couples, a Perry Farrell-like dude named Adam who created and tended to the neighborhood’s famous chandelier tree. It was a neighborhood of artists and outsiders, people who had left small towns to find a home more suited to their needs for freedom and creativity. Deeply engrained in that culture was a long-standing queer community. And at the center of that community was The Other Side.

The Other Side was not my bar in any way. It closed down about a month after I moved to LA, and I only went there once. But it represented something vital about Silver Lake—an older Silver Lake that was seeping away just as I arrived.

When the bar opened in 1968, it was one of many gay bars in the neighborhood, and one of quite a few piano bars in in the city. Over the years it went through many iterations and names, among them Patino’s and Toy Tiger. It became The Other Side in the late 1990s when it was bought by Paul Hargis, an intensely private man who has since moved to Florida. The changes in names and owners didn’t alter the bar’s basic makeup: the driveway that led under the building and to a back parking lot; the hidden staircase from the parking lot to the entrance; the piano at one end of the room where performers belted out old show tunes to a rapt audience; and the men—and a few women—who treated it like a second home.

Richard Little was a customer almost from day one, estimating that he likely first went to the bar in 1968, when it was Patino’s. “I grew up in that bar, I grew old in that bar,” said Little. “It was the last gentleman’s bar.” He remembers a time when Silver Lake was home to dozens of gay bars. “There was no place like it. West Hollywood did not have the kind of diversity you’d find in Silver Lake. We ranged in age from old to young; various ethnic groups were welcomed. West Hollywood was never like that.”

Longtime Silver Lake resident Jane Cantillon discovered The Other Side in the early 1990s, and eventually decided to make a film about it. The original cut of the film, “The Other Side: A Queer History’s Last Call,” was made in the early 2000s and included interviews with customers and performers and bartenders. Much of the film is dedicated to memories of LA’s gay nightlife history, when so-called gentleman’s bars were commonplace. But those fond memories also led to stories of police entrapment—of raids in which men could be thrown in jail for a conversation or a hand on another man’s shoulder. The Other Side was a common target of such raids.

Cantillon re-cut the movie in 2012 when the bar closed, capturing its last night in operation. The sadness of the interviewees is practically unbearable.

“It’s been my best friend,” said James Lent, a regular entertainer at The Other Side. Bette Bonaduce, a comedy writer who sang regularly at the bar and was in her late 70s when the film was made, said, “They’re shutting down the center of my life.”

Both Cantillon and a number of men interviewed in the film blame the death of the piano bar—and the vast gap between piano bars and modern gay bars—on the missing generation of men who were lost in the AIDS epidemic. “We have a younger generation, an older generation and nothing in between,” Little explained. This gave The Other Side the feel of a VA bar—a place that catered to men who had come through a common war together and lost many comrades along the way. Towards the end of Cantillon’s film, the question arises again and again: Where will we go now?

Little cited Akbar, the Sunset Boulevard spot that is comparatively young at 22 but is now considered Silver Lake’s last historic gay bar. “There’s an older guy clientele from 4 to 8 p.m. That’s when I go, when some of the old Other Side guys go,” he said. “After that it gets younger, and there are lots of women—not gay women—and straight men, too. It’s not the same.”

In the years after The Other Side closed, more and more families with young kids moved into Silver Lake. They were moneyed creatives attracted by the good elementary school and those verdant hills. When we lost our lease after four years, because the landlord decided to move back into the house, we couldn’t find anything in the area in our price range.

The Other Side, meanwhile, was replaced by a bar called Hyperion Public, opened by a group of neighborhood guys with young families—a place where dudes with beards could take their toddlers and drink craft beer. While tailor-made for Silverlake’s new demographic, it’s not even the most popular watering hole on Hyperion Avenue; that honor may well belong to the wine bar inside the Gelson’s, a high-end supermarket in a building that was once the original Disney Studios.

In the years The Other Side was open, very few neighborhoods in America, or the world, were quite so welcoming to queer folks as Silver Lake was. Neighborhoods change, and the narrative of that change is so common that it can feel a little cliched. But even so, we rarely acknowledge what it means when a whole community loses their last truly safe space. If I found the loss of our Silver Lake life hard (and I did), I can’t fathom what it must feel like to older residents, especially to those who found refuge in The Other Side. Imagine finding that respite, and then watching it slowly slip away.

“We were crushed,” Little told me. “Nothing has taken its place.”

This story is part of Dead Bars, a series dedicated to bygone institutions that had a lasting impact on communities, writers and regulars.

Related Articles