The ladies paraded out onto the elevated stage, hair teased to oversized bouffants, gaudy jewelry adorning every ear and wrist. The crowd cheered as the lights lowered and the familiar strains of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” came through the speakers, announcing the start of the evening’s performances. Glamour personified traipsed across the stage, lip-syncing and dancing. Even though there was lots of hooting and hollering, the true measure of success was the dollar bills a few audience members were tucking into the performer’s cleavages.
Welcome to Sunday nights at the Wildcat Lounge.
Although the Kitty is widely understood as the best club for dancing any night of the week, a Sunday night at the Wildcat currently is the only place that comes close to resembling gay nightlife in Santa Barbara. And while there are many players who have come together to make this a reality, Robert Mendez is the prime mover behind Red Room, the now six-year-old weekly gay night.
Whether he’s hosting benefits-like the previously described Ms. Marvelous’s Drag Review, which donated money to the Children’s Miracle Network-or coordinating drink specials with a themed night, Mendez is fully aware that his Red Room is responsible for cultivating some modicum of a gay scene in Santa Barbara. Since the closure in 2004 of Montecito Street’s Hades, our fair city has been lacking a gay bar and therefore a reliably safe space to meet and hang out with other gays and lesbians. Santa Barbara, without question, is an accepting and gay-friendly town, so the concern isn’t about two guys holding hands being kicked out of a bar. It’s the idea that a gay club fosters community and offers a consistent gathering place.
The lack of a gay bar means it’s Mendez’s job to create this scene and get gays out of the house and onto the dance floor (at least once a week). Calling Sunday night’s Red Room his “baby,” the Carpinteria native explained that the secret to his success is keeping things fresh and exciting. “A lot of gay bars started really well. But you can’t open a gay bar and charge $5 at the door seven days a week and offer people nothing,” Mendez said over a Red Bull on the Kitty’s back patio on a recent afternoon. “There was nothing special about it.”
After moving to Santa Barbara at 18 and coming out to a very supportive family at 21, Mendez learned what worked and what didn’t firsthand, bouncing around from gay bar to gay bar-there were several in S.B. at the time-as a bartender and security guard in the early ‘90s. He initially worked at The Pub on Helena Avenue, and ultimately ended up at Fathom (the current location of Velvet Jones on lower State Street), where the higher-ups noticed Mendez’s knack for drawing a crowd. During his three years there, Mendez worked closely with his manager to promote Friday and Saturday nights, invaluable on-the-job training that helped him a few years down the road at Club 634, where he had his first nongay-bar promo gig. “I learned that you can’t have a successful gay night at just any straight bar,” Mendez said of his Wednesday-night events at Club 634. “You have to make sure that the owners are in it for the right reason, and not just in it for the gay dollar, and that all the staff who work there are gay-friendly.”
Eventually, Mendez took his Wednesday-nights to Q’s Sushi a-Go-Go, which he described as a wonderful experience with very welcoming and open-minded people. Around this time, Hades-Santa Barbara’s last gay bar-started its decline, and people’s focus shifted to Mendez as the area’s last hope for gay nightlife. “That’s when I realized this town was relying on me to create some parties,” Mendez said of his burgeoning status as the “gay promoter” in Santa Barbara.
Enter the Wildcat. After what he described as “the most intimidating interview of my life” with owner Bob Stout, Mendez took over Sunday’s gay night at the Kitty, which he dubbed Red Room, and he hasn’t looked back. From the bouncers to the bartenders to the deejays, the Wildcat exudes the welcoming atmosphere Mendez had been looking for. “Wildcat is a straight bar and it has a very popular gay night on Sundays, but it’s also gay-friendly every day of the week,” he said. “I think there’s something about the energy, there’s something about coming into a place where you can just be yourself. I think people feel it when they walk in the doors.”
Although Mendez claims the old standby to measuring success-“If people leave here with a smile on their face, then it’s successful to me,” he said-the reality is that Red Room’s longevity and popularity, not to mention the recent influx of new faces from L.A. and San Luis Obispo, suggest that the 39-year-old promoter is doing something right. Also an active participant in the well-attended Pride Festival (happening this year in July) and the creative force behind a new cocktail hour on Friday evenings at Epiphany Restaurant, Mendez has a few new tricks up his sleeve for the summer, including a fashion show/comedy performance to benefit Jesusita Fire victims (Sun., June 28) and a still-in-the-planning-stages event, Dress Your Straight Friend in Drag (Sun., July 5).
Red Room’s popularity, as well as the success of and buzz surrounding his other events, isn’t just a morale boost-it’s how Mendez knows that Santa Barbara is ready for a gay bar of its own. “People don’t understand how hard it is for a gay person not to be able to go out on a given Tuesday or Thursday and not have their own place to call their home, to be completely comfortable,” Mendez said.
Those loud pleas for a gay bar reportedly are being answered. According to Mendez, the old site of The Pub on Helena is being revamped into a gay bar and restaurant after the new owner bought the now-defunct Club Couchez’s liquor license. Mendez has long contended that the main hurdles to getting a club here are funding and the logistics of obtaining dance and liquor permits, so with those obstacles seemingly taken care of, Santa Barbara looks to be on its way to having its very own gay bar.
No matter what may come of that new club, Mendez will continue to work diligently to create the absolute best party anyone could ask for. “I have to admit-I have a pretty awesome job,” Mendez said, after describing his daily routine of sleeping in and working from home to organize parties. “But there’s a lot of work and a lot of stress that goes into promoting. : I have an owner who relies on me to bring people into the club. I have the community that relies on me to make sure that they have someplace to go and have a good time and feel safe. : And I’m constantly thinking about what I can do next. You’ve got to keep it fresh.”