This weekend, a long-standing gap in our city’s nightlife is finally going to be filled. And before you get too lost in pondering a possible double meaning of that sentence, let’s make it clear that the Playhouse will open in the West Village on the final site of Boots & Saddle Drag Lounge, a pioneering and historical venue that began as a Christopher Street neighborhood dive and ended as a drag institution. The ex-Boots lease is now owned by Eric Einstein and Justin Buchanan, who run the successful nearby Pieces Bar and its younger Hell’s Kitchen sister Hardware—and while the Playhouse is decidedly a part of their specific brand, it retains its West Village charm and some of that old school Boots energy that the former bar’s family of patrons have long been missing.
I’ve had a long history with Boots. The original tiny hovel on Christopher is where I made my cruisy debut (ah, what fond memories of that bathroom trough, which is now inexplicably a décor staple of The Eagle NYC in Chelsea). When longtime Boots bartender Robert Ziegler became a managing owner, he built the first of many rickety stages there and introduced drag to the small space, having read the writing on the wall predicting the upcoming drag boom. I didn’t really understand or appreciate the genre at first (RuPaul’s Drag Race had premiered earlier that year or maybe the year before, but I wasn’t watching it yet), but soon I was charmed by early hostesses like Victoria Chase, Yuhua Hamasaki, Holly Dae and Roxy Brooks. These gals and their sisters were fiercely, funny, irreverent, glamorous, brave, and most importantly welcoming to clueless schmucks like me. Eventually, as was part of a strange tradition regarding regular customers there, I got on the payroll as a barback.
Shit soon got wild. The tiny space packed them in nearly every night… you could barely move once you were inside. But you were never too far from the stage or the bar, so queens and bartenders went home with piles of cash tips every night. It shouldn’t have worked, but it most definitely did… and for a time, everyone wanted to work there.
Then the rent tripled, as Manhattan rents are prone to do. It was a shocking event when Ziegler moved operations to the much larger nearby basement space that once housed the Playhouse Theatre, original home of Naked Boys Singing. He did what he could with the new space, now officially a “Drag Lounge”: there were some fun murals on the walls and a general sense of kitsch all around, a great lineup of queens carried over from the old space with many new girls on the roster (and back-to-back shows all day, every day), and even a small menu of bar food cooked on hot plates in the back. But for some unexplained reason, the original magic was gone and crowds grew slimmer. After about a year and a half the venue abruptly closed, leaving the remaining Boots bar family shattered and scattered. Enter Justin, Eric, a tried-and-true gay bar brand and a two million dollar renovation.
Well over a year after the closing of Boots & Saddle Drag Lounge, I found myself climbing down that infamous staircase once again as I readied for an exclusive sneak peak of the new Playhouse. But children, I could not have prepared myself for what I saw. The Playhouse is absolutely gorgeous: deep purple walls, a hardwood floor, cast iron stools, a vibrant graffiti backdrop behind the bar, and a neon arc of a stage that’s clearly already the best performing space for drag in the West Village. And it seems twice as large as the second Boots, which would seem an impossible thing… but oh yeah, that $2 million renovation. I gagged, and you will gag.
The lineup of performers and bar staffers is continuing to be added to and refined as you read this, but so far includes drag queens that make Pieces and Hardware so popular: Shequida, Brita Filter, Izzy Uncut, Pixie Aventura, Bootsie LeFaris, Ruby Roo, Pissi Myles, Jasmine Rice, etc. And while some old school Boots fans balked a bit at the lack of original Boots Girls in the lineup, I think it’s reasonable to assume we’ll see many of them pop up soon enough. Boots favorite Brenda Dharling will certainly be back on a weekly basis, along with essential Boots DJ T-Boy. Plus, we’ll have shows from queens new to the franchise: Horrorchata, Rify Royalty, Jacklynn Hyde, Selma Nilla, Kiki Ball-Change and Vix, to name a few. We’re also looking at the return of Look Queen there, the famous drag competition which originated at Monster courtesy of Bob the Drag Queen and Mitch Ferrino as early as this Sunday with a new unannounced host. And the Playhouse’s diverse barstaff includes some all-stars from across the city, like David from DWorld and the legendary Lailah Lancing.
For now, it will be a joy for us to see everything fall into place, and to wait and see who from the original Boots bar family will return to the fold… and what newbies will join the mix. The Playhouse opens to the public on Saturday, December 28th, Look Queen premieres Sunday the 29th, and I’ll be part of the hosting committee for Frankie Sharp’s New Year’s Eve party there which will feature performances from Bita Filter, Sherry Pie and Dahlia Sin. Come through, bitches… you know you’ve been wanting this.