Club 200, Winnipeg’s most eclectic gay bar, turns 25
On the weekend of Apr. 25-28, Winnipeg’s oldest remaining gay bar, Club 200, will celebrate its 25th anniversary in a series of events, from a special jackpot karaoke to a big dance party. Glamourous drag queens, including the world-famous Miss Conception and Viktoria Vanity, will mingle with the guests, spreading an air of promise and sophistication. And throughout it all, Winnipeggers will be reminded that gay bars are more than just shining lights and gyrating bodies; they’re the place where fantasies come to life.
In the months leading up to Pride, a lot of the news of the local LGBT community seemed grim. The closing of Gio’s, the homophobic bashing of a couple in Morris and of several people in Winnipeg and the debates around Bill 18 gave the impression that we live in a time of turmoil. But there are a lot of good things happening in Manitoba. Winnipeg Pride has never been bigger; Brandon is holding its fourth Pride festival; Adonis Spa just turned 41; and Club 200 is marking its 25th anniversary. There is much to celebrate in this prairie province.
When Club 200 was formed in April 1988, gay bars were a thing to hide from the public. The three gay bars at existence in Winnipeg – Gio’s, Happenings and Miss Purdy’s – were owned and managed by a collective, and most had a membership list.
“Some of those clubs were literally just a door,” said Allen Morrison, Club 200’s co-owner and manager. “That was the only way to run those clubs in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Yet when Club 200’s four original owners opened its doors and installed a rainbow sign, they had a vision for a privately owned and successful piano bar and cabaret, with a penchant for drag queens. Tinéa was a performer from Minneapolis who sang live, and who began the club’s female impersonators tradition.
“Drag’s always been a big part of Club 200,” said Morrison. “That’s what differentiated us… Here, we’ve kind of just accepted everybody. You’re going to see everything from 18 to 80-year-olds, gay, straight, trans and two-spirited.”
“If you come here and leave your baggage at the door, you’ll have a good time.”
As we sit and chat at 7 p.m. on a weeknight, a dapper older man comes and greets Morrison, saying his day “couldn’t be more beautiful.” A middle-aged, straight-laced-looking guy eyes me up and down, glancing at my chest secretively. A teenager with black kohl-smudged eyes inquires about a bartender spot, looking puzzled when he is asked for a resumé. The place really does attract a hodge-podge of individuals, all of whom seem to feel at home.
Club 200 has certainly undergone its share of changes. Of the four original 1988 owners, only Harold Dewar stuck around until 2001. Joel Sarbit, the club’s current co-owner with Morrison, took over in 1992. Morrison came to the club at the age of 18 as a bus-boy, but became a co-owner in 2001. Bartenders came and went, and the club began incorporating Saturday dance parties and karaoke nights on Thursdays. But overall, a lot of the old staff remained, and the focus of the club did not waver.
“I think one of the reasons we’ve lasted so long is because we stuck to the same plan. We evolved with the times, but we’ve always been comfortable with who we are,” Morrison said.
Since 1999, the club’s signature drag queen has been Anita Stallion, who hosts the dance nights and karaoke. Morrison describes her as “the queen mother of Club 200, a really good friend and business partner.” The club also elects a new Miss Club 200 each year, celebrating the talent of Manitoba’s female impersonators. This year’s Miss Club 200 is Viktoria Vanity.
“The drag community has always supported us, and we’ve supported them, even as trends come and go,” said Morrison.
A lot of good is in the works for the place. In recent years, Club 200 has gotten involved in charity work, hosting fundraisers for both gay and straight non-profit organizations. They have also recently opened Big Deal catering and event planning, and the orders are pouring in. The future looks rosy.
“There’s a lot of positive,” Morrison said. “I think we’re heading towards a good place.”
– Ksenia Prints is the editor-in-chief of OutWords magazine.