Love Letters to a Wildrose
Seattle's Only Lesbian Bar Turns 25 This Week
photos by kelly o and the wildrose
Exactly 25 years ago, the lesbian bar at the corner of Pike Street and 11th Avenue called the Wildrose threw open her doors for the very first time and beckoned, "Come! Come ye chilly, wandering, winter-bitten lesbians of Seattle! Warm thy dykey selves in my cheerful, beery bosom!" And so they did. And kept doing. And a quarter of a century and a handful of owners later, the Wildrose is the longest-lived and sole-surviving lesbian bar in all of gay Seattle. The history of the Wildrose begins with women who love women, sizzles with colorful characters, climaxes with a terrible explosion, and stumbles joyfully into the future. It is the story of a place that's part bar, part community center, part cult.
"I've met so many people and made some of the best friends of my life there," says Emily Harper, currently of Rhode Island. "The Rose is more than just a bar. It's history and family and the place where so many of us discovered what it means to be a part of something. I'll always be grateful to call it home." Harper is moving back to Seattle partly due to the call of the Rose: "I'm not moving back only because of the bar, but it did play a part in the decision!"
The Wildrose began with a mysterious woman called Bryher Herrick, who started the bar with a collective of five equally mysterious women in 1985. They took over an old spot on Pike Street where a place called the Sundowner used to live, tossed in some pinball machines and pool tables, populated the all grrrrl staff with cute professionals and the menu with a damn fine turkey burger, and voilà! The Wildrose was born. In the early 1990s, the place was bought by a certain Joann Panayoutou, and in September 2000, the current owners liberated it from her and still own it today. Their names are Martha Manning and Shelley Brothers.
"It can be a struggle sometimes," says Manning. She moved to Seattle 15 years ago from Narragansett, Rhode Island, and started working for the Rose's then-owner, Panayoutou, back in 1997. "It can be difficult, being the only lesbian bar, trying to be everything for everyone in the lesbian community," she explains. "The older folks comment on how young the crowd is, the younger say it's too old..."
Brothers, who has lived in Seattle for 17 years, agrees: "Our biggest challenge is trying to be everything for everyone. We try to have events that will appeal to the diversity of our community, but it's hard to keep everyone happy all the time. But we try!"
Being the only gay-girl bar in town, the Wildrose by default and by necessity has become all things to all lesbians... or at least as many things to as many lesbians as possible. And it's done an outstanding job, with a full calendar of club nights, mixers, benefits, readings, and other events. Weekend nights are packed.
There were other lesbian bars around when the Rose was born, of course—the Easy, Tugs, some others. But one by one they died, these bars, and when the old Easy finally went tits up in 1998, the Rose was the last Seattle lesbian bar left standing. In the ensuing decade, nary a single bar or club has risen to challenge her title—and it hardly seems necessary that one should. The affection for the place among Seattle's lesbians is bleary-eyed and borderline manic. A fond first-time remembrance from a longtime Rose-lover, Jozette Bell:
"Before me was a collection of the most gorgeous women I'd ever seen: tattoos and piercings, Mohawks and leather pants, these wild creatures were captivating. I remember standing in the corner, the new girl in town, fighting to keep back the tears. I was seeing something that night that I knew I had to be a part of."
Similar sentiment-drenched sentiments abound—in numbers and with a pulsing sincerity of feeling that might seem bizarre for, well, a gay bar. But when I put the call out for Wildrose stories, dozens of lesbians from all over the country instantly emerged, eager to share their fond memories and love of the Rose.
"I discovered the Wildrose, and I immediately felt like I was home."
"The Wildrose isn't just a bar, it's a home for people who have nowhere else to go."
"The Rose has put on benefits to pay for patrons' medical expenses. They've been there for their patrons—not just with a cold beer, but with their hearts and souls."
And so forth. And it seems that for the women of the Rose, these sentiments are more than empty hyperbole. According to Wendy Manning of Third Place Books, who is owner Martha Manning's ex- girlfriend, "The fact that they've survived this long is a testament to the love and community that we all find there. I feel the story that best illustrates their value in the community is when Martha was in that gas-station explosion last summer."
On September 3, 2008, a runaway car came crashing into a pump at a gas station on Broadway. Martha Manning was caught in the resultant explosion and badly injured. She spent three agonizing weeks in Harborview's burn unit and received painful skin grafts. "The way the people from the bar rallied around me," Manning says, her voice trailing off. "This accident and the resulting response from the community has made me realize how lucky I am to have even a small role in the history of the Wildrose. It has given me a family and community that I love."
"When we were still together, in rocky moments, I'd get frustrated and speak poorly about the bar," says Wendy Manning. "I ate my words when I saw how many people came to visit Martha. I witnessed an absolute OUTPOURING of affection and concern from the lesbian community. A benefit was thrown to help with bills, she had 10 to 20 visitors a day, and people came together afterward during her healing process to make sure she was taken care of. It showed me the strength of the community that Martha has built up through her position at the Rose."
The Wildrose invites you to celebrate its 25th birthday with a bash on Wednesday, December 30. Come and raise a toast to the good old Rose—the only gay-girl bar Seattle may ever need.