by Brandon Brooks
TILT Nightclub and Ultralounge has closed its doors – permanently. Early August, 2018 presented the Rochester LGBT+ community with a very public, and very heated, dilemma. A fixture of the Rochester drag scene, TILT, was changing owners, and with this owner handoff came numerous, disagreeable alterations. These alterations ignited an onslaught of online venom that eventually resulted in the new custodians of this historic nightlife site dropping the torch altogether. Why did this happen? Who is to blame? How could this have been avoided? I was on the case to find out!
The first outcry came from Facebook. I saw postings on the TILT Facebook and Yelp pages saying horrible things – some directed at the former owner Bill Levy, but most directed at the business taking over this venue – Eskape Events & Nightlife. I read statements from staple performers and patrons noting that the news of Tilt’s impending closure was “very last minute”, and that “no one was given warning until the last week.” It was announced soon after that there would be no more drags shows at this venue, and that the venue would now be marketed “for everyone.”
I read of a supposed bathroom attendant installed in the men’s bathroom by Eskape during the so-called “Last Hurray” of TILT – this was a new addition that had never been seen in the now former gender-fluid bathroom policy of years passed. This bathroom attendant was reported to have directed a patron to “tone down the gay” when this patron was using the facilities. Time-honored PRIDE and LGBT+ community driven photo memories and albums were removed from TV screens, instead replaced with the new TILT logo under the direction of Eskape. Walls were painted over, furniture removed, and all upcoming events sponsored by Eskape were now marketed as “Ladies’ Nights” specifically for 18+ ladies and 21+ guys. It seemed, by all intents and purposes, that Eskape was preparing for TILT to become just another straight-oriented nightclub playing remixes of top-40 nonsense.
The Boltons had taken over Winterfell. Rage, anger, disbelief and sadness prevailed. The memes grew in number. This is when both Levy and Eskape began to feel the sting we as a community were all feeling.
When speaking to Levy on the 8th of August about the handover of TILT to Eskape, Levy noted that, “TILT has been around for 13 years…that’s a long while for any nightclub…” Indeed, especially a nightclub catering towards a community that is the minority – in this case the drag sector of the LGBT+ community. But it is no wonder that such a nightclub did, in fact, last so long in Rochester – we have a large and active LGBT+ population here, along with an exceptional drag scene.
Levy asserted, however, that “over the past few years…revenue from the drag shows on Thursday was dwindling.” Both Levy, and staple TILT drag performer DeeDee Dubois, noted that revenue from the drag shows was indeed not as stellar as it had been ten years ago. DeeDee, however, was sure to note in conversations that she and fellow performers had presented Levy with new show ideas, inspiration and numerous methods of increasing the revenue and marketability of the TILT drag shows – but these were never realized by Levy. Levy cited these reasons again in a final Facebook post announcing the official closing of TILT; that dwindling attendance to drag shows, and the fact that numerous other neighborhood institutions now included drag shows of their own, resulted in reduced revenue. I find this to be a feeble excuse – why should the presence of competition in the drag world result in throwing in the towel altogether? Were the performers at TILT not talented or original enough to simply out shine drag events at other Rochester venues? With Levy noting a downward trend in revenue “over the past years”, was this not enough time to practice damage control and improve the entertainment, or at the very least, find a buyer interested in preserving the integrity of this historic site? Why not get better, instead of getting bitter?
It seemed Levy did not feel up to completely reinventing TILT as a venue, and pressed on towards closure without warning. DeeDee notes that the news of the closing was a “complete shock” and that performers and employees, even Levy’s own daughter, were not told “until the last week.” The “Last Hurray” of TILT was in fact a result of the urgings from DeeDee, fellow performers and staff to keep TILT open “at least for PRIDE.”
When I asked Levy if he felt that a smoother transition may have been feasible, possibly if the news of the closing were announced much sooner, Levy responded that “I’m a month away from being 70 – I want to step aside.” I brought up the rather sore subject of the events that took place during the last weekend of TILT being open, namely the bathroom attendant, and the seemingly callous removal and painting out of over a decade of TILT memories. “…that was not an intentional slight by any means” noted Levy about the TVs with the new Logo. I mentioned how several patrons, staff member and performers felt that this was a heartless act, an attempt to straight-wash the history of this place. Levy stated, “That is good point…again it was not an intentional slight…I never even thought of that.”
Patron Ross Wolkenbroad was contacted regarding the bathroom attendant. Wolkenbroad used no uncertain terms in our conversation – “I was told to ‘tone down the gay’ when I was in the bathroom. He [the bathroom attendant] also told Jenna Vixen [local drag artist and performer] that she was using the wrong bathroom.” This was confirmed by DeeDee, who added that when security staff (who were part of the original Tilt family) were informed of these happenings, the bathroom attendant was “immediately escorted off of the property.”
At this point in my investigation, it seemed as though Levy had the best intentions when handing over TILT to Eskape, if not at a rushed pace with little to no warning. Levy was passing the torch to Eskape (who had participated in several successfully events with TILT in the past), and there was every possibility they would do as good a job as Levy at keeping this flame alive. Psyche!
The events of TILT’s last week proved otherwise in regard to Eskape’s intentions and overall approach. Yes, they are a business and can do whatever they please with the venue – Eskape owes nothing to the LGBT+ community. But, when taking over a business in an attempt to convert it into your own, I would imagine that a little respect and finesse goes a long way. The painting over of all LGBT+ memories, the removal of bar TV photo albums, the replacement of these photos with blatant self-promotion, the sudden need for unconcerned and belligerent bathroom attendants, and the preemptive promotion of “Ladies’ Night” events: all these factors denoted a clear disregard for the history, the population, and the traditions of this site by Eskape.
When I contacted Eskape Nightlife, I was given no response at all. I offered him and his business the chance to “set the record straight” (no pun intended) and an opportunity to have their side of the story, their perspective, officially published IN PRINT. Still no response.
To be honest, in the beginning of this investigation I felt that the LGBT+ community was overreacting to the closing of a venue to another business. A business that had every right to re-open as whatever they wanted. However, the deeper I went into this story and the more people with whom I spoke, the clearer it became to me that Eskape was, in fact, at fault for the way in which they handled (or did NOT handle) this changeover to promote a respectful and successful business venture. It was clear that they had no intention of revamping TILT into a new and improved LGBT+, drag-oriented, nightclub, and that despite “everyone being welcome”, the sentiment towards LGBT+ patrons was anything but welcoming. In short, the decisions made by Eskape, and the means by which these decisions were made, were in bad form and in bad taste.
The war cry from the LGBT+ community was heard, however, and effected immediate change. Eskape has decided NOT to re-open Tilt in any capacity. Levy noted in conversations that, “…there has been so much anger, hate, outright lies, hostility and threats on all of our social media…we can’t go on given this climate and animosity.” Again, I am not prompting violence or the threat of violence (certainly not at Levy), but our voice has been heard. I would recommend, perhaps, a finer focus of blame on the actual perpetrating parties, as it appears now that Levy had no part in the insults hurled at the LGBT+ community during TILT’s last weekend.
Let this be a lesson to the LGBT+ community that we DO have the power to enact change. Let this be a lesson to those who would oppose or overlook us. Social media can be utilized as a vehicle of change in the realest sense – it’s not all whiney petitions and “thoughts and prayers.” Do not suppose that you may enter into our house and brandish your bullshit at us thus.
I want to see this outrage grow into something new, something more creative. DeeDee and other drag legends of the area are already masterminding new drag shows at other venues. Perhaps a new drag-specific nightclub is in order. The question is – who is going to pick up this torch first?
Questions, comment, or critique?
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