Seattle queer culture took a hard punch to the gut this week with the announcement that The Palace, Sylvia O’Stayformore’s magical art and performance bar, will close for good. Opened just over a year ago, the Georgetown hangout was a new home for shows that pushed boundaries, and a place where seasoned nightlife veterans mentored up-and-coming producers.
It’s a crushing loss, not just for those who loved the space but for Seattle's queer culture in general. Of course, queer people are tough and new venues will eventually spring up elsewhere. But its loss means an end to what was, for just a brief time, one of the city’s most fertile sources to discover and hone new talent.
Before Sylvia came along, it was the Conservatory — an art space that gradually grew into a coffee shop. Two or three years ago, Sylvia was hunting around for new home for her show Bacon Strip.
“We were looking for a place to do our show at a decent time,” she says, “for a woman of my age.”
Bacon Strip flourished at the Conservatory, and then one of the owners approached her about their plans to sell. “He came to me and said, ‘We’re having a hard time keeping going, I’ve gotta sell the space,’ and I asked him, ‘How much?’”
Like so many small business pioneers, she shifted some finances and sold some possessions and found a way to buy the bar. One of the first orders of business was shifting it from a coffee joint to serving full liquor, a process that took six months. During that time, they were operating off of savings.
Finally, in October of 2018, they were ready to fully open as The Palace — the original name of the building, dating back decades to when it was part of a hotel.
"I said, 'I’ll fill this up with as much interesting stuff as I can,’” Sylvia recalls.
Soon, Donna Tella Howe started hosting Art Attack, the house drag show; Kara Sutra hosted a vintage drag show called Paper Moon; Larry Knapp came in for piano jazz and sing along nights; the Seattle Playwrights Guild hosted readings of new shows by local writers.
“It was a magical space,” Sylvia says. “Seattle Opera would come in and do their Opera on Tap shows. Tickets were under ten dollars.”
Sylvia found that she could even use the venue to mentor queer newcomers who wanted to start their own shows. “Drag queens who hadn’t done shows before, and were like, ‘I wanna try this.’ I could coach them… We were a collaborative team of different artists and we were using the theater as a performance space.”
By October of 2019, the bar had reached its one-year anniversary and Sylvia could see that it was just on the cusp of being profitable. “We were like, ‘Okay, it’s either going to sink farther or it’s going to swim,’” she says. “It was breaking even.”
In January, the place suddenly turned a corner, with several weeks of solid profit and programming that brought down the house every night.
“Then COVID hit," she says. "And everything just came to a screaming halt.”
At first, the plan was to wait out the quarantine. But that waiting stretched from weeks to months and it gradually became clear that there was no way to remain in a holding pattern.
“Everybody got hit by a tidal wave,” says Sylvia. In her other day job, she’s a healthcare worker and she’s all too aware of the risks involved with opening prematurely. “I just knew that I couldn’t really open up with good conscience… One person coming in without a mask jeopardizes the whole room. And I love my gays, but there’s a lot of real stupid ones.”
In looking at their finances, it became clear what it would take to keep the place going: They’d have to find at least $100,000, or possibly even $150,000. “I just don’t have that kind of money sitting around,” she said, especially with all of her other drag gigs gone too.
The business couldn’t get a grant because its credit history was too short; banks wouldn’t loan them any money because they’d only barely started to turn a profit. And so, just like that, a promising epicenter of new queer culture was gone.
For now, Sylvia’s keeping safe and staying connected with her audience by hosting live hangouts on Facebook. It’s not the same as a live show, of course, in part because her streams keep getting muted by algorithms that detect copyrighted music. She also maintains a mailing list where she'll announce her next move, as soon as there's a move to announce.
And although the physical space will close, Sylvia still owns the liquor license and the business assets. Once the pandemic is under control in a year — or however long it takes — she plans to look for another theater space where Bacon Strip can live.
“We’ll find our way back and get a foothold,” she promises. “Until then I still got my Friday night hangouts on Facebook. Until they throw me off.”