Ten years ago this New Year’s Eve, one of the most notable nightlife landmarks in Atlanta did something unprecedented: Backstreet held a last call. That was the night where new legislation forced the formerly 24/7 nightclub to either stop serving alcohol or close at the newly-established 3 a.m. closing time.
As Jungle prepares to host a Backstreet reunion on Saturday, Dec. 28, with many of the patrons and entertainers who made Backstreet an Atlanta institution making appearances, it may help those who never experienced Backstreet – whether they were too young or not living in Atlanta at the time – understand how vital Backstreet was to the emergence of Midtown Atlanta as a gay Mecca in the South.
Since they opened their doors at the corner of Peachtree and 6th – even though patrons remember it being Juniper – Backstreet changed the face of Midtown Atlanta forever. Residents, seeing it as a good way to draw people in and make Midtown become more attractive and desirable, supported the club. And it worked. The 47,000 square-foot gem had people moving to Midtown in droves; new buildings went up and more businesses moved in.
Fifteen years after Backstreet’s birth, their booked entertainment took a sharp turn towards stardom. In 1990, the club introduced Charlie Brown’s Cabaret, featuring the already locally famed Mr. Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown remembers the time well. “It was 1990. I was doing a show up in Buckhead; there used to be a girls’ club up there. It used to be Tallulah. Well, it was more like a dinner theatre, so we tried doing shows there. There was an early dinner and a late show. Well, the night that I got notice was the night the manager from Backstreet walked in and said, ‘I’ve got the third floor of Backstreet open. Come in tomorrow. We’ll talk.’
“I was thrilled to death! It was a 24-hour club, well established, and I got the floor that was never packed until 5 in the morning! They built us a small stage, a booth and set us up. It built from there. It was slow taking off at first, but it grew. I always try to surround myself with the best entertainers, because if they were the best, I had to be my best.”
The rest isn’t just history – it’s legendary. People took notice. Films produced by HBO, the Travel Channel, VH1 and TBS were made. Charlie Brown became America’s Ultimate Bitch. The performers from Backstreet’s third floor had fans the world over.
Heather Daniels, who joined the show in 1993, credits the never-closing club as the main reason cast members became names.
“Backstreet was the big show bar in Atlanta. Everyone eventually ended up there because of it being 24 hours, and the only place open after the other bars and clubs closed. So every cross-section of Atlanta came to the show: Buckhead, OTP, convention groups, show casts from whatever the Fox was billing, bachelorettes, and the just curious. So that made the girls on cast mainstream.”
As history showed, though, Backstreet’s success in bringing people to Midtown ultimately proved fatal to the club itself.
As time passed, tension grew between the club and the now well-established neighborhood association. They felt the 24-hour party was bringing in a rough crowd, drugs and crime. Midtown had become affluent; it wasn’t 1975 anymore. Legislation passed in 2000 required private clubs selling alcohol to be non-profit, but Backstreet was originally considered safe thanks to a “grandfather clause.” In 2001, though, the Atlanta City Council withdrew the clause, and Backstreet spent two years appealing the decision. When the appeal was denied in late November 2003, Backstreet had to start complying in conjunction with a new law that forced all clubs in Atlanta to close at 3 a.m.
Co-owners Henry and Vicki Vara put up a good fight, by first giving up the bar’s liquor license in favor of being 24/7. Later, the bar attempted to switch positions, giving up its all-night status in favor of serving alcohol. It just didn’t work. Backstreet closed their doors forever in 2004; the building was demolished and a high-rise went up in its place.
Ten years later, the legacy of Backstreet lives on in Atlanta. Many of the performers associated with the club still work in Atlanta at various clubs and other establishments. Recently, Charlie Brown has joined the recently opened Lips Atlanta as an entertainer on Friday and Saturday nights. Another long-time performer, Heather Daniels, continues to make appearances in the metro Atlanta area at Marietta’s LeBuzz.
As for the all-night dancing – while it may not last quite all night these days, thanks to the still-in-effect 3 a.m. closing law, clubs like Jungle and Heretic bring in high-profile DJs from all over the world, along with other entertainers. Jungle even serves as a memorial of sorts to Backstreet; Jungle includes a giant disco ball saved from the club in the recently renovated space. In a community that sometimes has trouble remembering its history, it’s a memorable way to remember a club that helped pave the way for Atlanta’s thriving LGBT community.
Additional reporting by Dylan S. Goldman
The Backstreet Reunion happens Saturday, Dec. 28 at Jungle. Announced entertainment includes DJs Rob Reum, Bill Berdeaux and Bobby Copeland, plus appearances from Lily White, Shawnna Brooks, Lena Lust, Heather Daniels, Monica VanPelt, Lauren LaMasters, and more. Doors open at 8:30 p.m., with the show starting at 9 p.m. Cover is $5 before 11 p.m., and $10 after. For more information, visit jungleatl.com.