R Place has been around for 35 years, but since 1996 the club has lived at the heart of Capitol Hill in a tall, teal building full of big-ass windows. The four-story behemoth featured three floors of clubbing, a bar on every floor, and an upstairs dressing room that made you feel like you were in the movie Showgirls—if you’d had enough to drink. Go-go boys danced in raised boxes on the third floor, their silhouettes strobing against the glass. If you sat across the street and ate a pizza outside Hot Mama's on a warm evening, you would see the shape of men twerking above you. That was the spirit of the gayborhood. No club was ever quite like it.
Stranger writer Matt Baume has a great post up today that includes members of the Seattle drag scene reflecting on R Place's closing. The owners are hunting for a new space—so don't call the place dead—but the loss of the location is hard to overstate. As a sort of addendum to Matt's post, which gathers the thoughts of performers who'd called the venue home for decades, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on the physical R Place space and why it was so special.
I started to go to R Place regularly pretty late in the game, around 2018, when the venue revamped its So You Think You Can Drag competition. The show, a play on RuPaul's Drag Race that pit local queens against each other for a cash prize, was an unexpected hit. The first time they tried it, a decade or so ago, not as many people showed up. But RuPaul's Drag Race changed the game.
"The show format appeals to people who are maybe really into Drag Race but haven't really dived into the local scene, and it appeals to the folks who support the locals on the regular," the show's host, Cookie Couture, told me during the show's second "season" in 2019. "Plus, you wave $5K around, and people really try to make their performances stand out as something special."
The show attracted a gigantic crowd that year. "We've been at club capacity every week this season," Cookie told me at its mid-way point. While pressed against the venue's back walls, tipsy guests would chuck crumpled tips at performers, sometimes in the form of $20 bills. The show's producers held the finale during Pride week that summer, and they knew the place would be full, but they had no idea how full. I'd never seen a line for a drag show like the one I saw for that So You Think You Can Drag finale in 2019.
The line started at R Place's top floor, snaked down to its first floor, and then ran right out the door. Then it continued down and around the block. Let me walk you through this line and then up to R Place's stage to give you a sense of what it's like to be in this venue on its busiest nights.
Reaching R Place's stage is always a very gay adventure, and that was especially the case on the night of this finale.
At first you were met with the club's security, who were known for being stern but friendly. In my experience, the security was treated like family, and they, in turn, treated regulars like family.
As you made your way inside, you initially noticed that the first floor looked like a normal club. There were two entrances—one on Pine and one on Boylston—with a small grouping of seats and a bar. R Place started as a sports tavern with pool tables, and if any floor had retained that original spirit, it was this one.
But then you got to the stairs. R Place's winding stairs made you aware that you were being seen. As you walked up to the second floor—which was more like a balcony overlooking the first floor—rows of people and their wandering eyes overlooked the crowd beneath them, and overlooked you as you passed by. For many, getting cruised while walking up a wide staircase was a welcomed and gay moment. This second floor's layout felt designed for cruising, with booths scattered throughout that looked in on one another.
At the back of the second floor you came to the final set of public stairs, which climbed up to the big performance space and dance floor. On the night of the So You Think You Can Drag finale, this last flight of stairs felt like a boss battle, with security carefully counting how many people were allowed up to the top space.
As I made my way up to the top, it was becoming clear that most people would not be let in. My straight roommate and his girlfriend were somewhere on the bottom level. They were goners. I swear to God, someone said it felt like the Titanic lifeboats—that's how badly people wanted to see this show.
I was panicking because I was supposed to help my friend with her performance and needed to get to my reserved seat. At the last moment, I noticed the venue's manager and DJ, Floyd Lovelady, who let me follow him to the dressing room.
Getting to the dressing room involved walking back down the crowded steps, past the cruising eyeballs, and outside onto Pine. Then back inside through another entrance, and then up a slow-moving elevator.
The elevator was infamous. Queens always warned it would trap you if you didn't hit the right buttons or have the right key. Getting stuck in an elevator while hearing your track play onstage was a unique kind of anxiety.
Back in 2014, on the bar's 30th anniversary, Floyd told Capitol Hill Seattle Blog that R Place had "become an institution." The building was once a Ford Model T showroom, so it was built to encourage looking and gawking. In that interview with CHS, Floyd boasted about the venue's long relationships with its staff. It's not uncommon for employees to stick with the place for over a decade. "Hopefully [R Place] sticks around for 30 more years," Floyd added.
When I got up to the dressing room that night of the finale, it was clear why R Place was a place of community. Drag queens stood in every corner, helping one another get ready even though it was a competition. The dressing room was one of the best in town—it took up the whole top floor, and it included spots for every one of the venue's drag cast members. Big bulbs lined the mirrors, and performers would leave their wigs and dresses on hangers and shelves, which gave the place a dazzling workroom feeling. The space had large windows, which could open—a necessity, as the top floor could get deadly hot during the summer.
Cookie Couture told Matt Baume that while she'd wanted to perform at R Place for a long time, she was mostly just "really stoked" about getting into that dressing room. "I’d come clomping up those stairs and be met with smiles and energy. It was such a family environment." There were often guests in that dressing room, sometimes touring Ru girls, and they'd lounge and chat with the local queens while getting ready.
To get onto the stage, the girls would have to take the elevator, which went down to the backstage area and dropped them off in the stage's wings, right behind a plush, red, velvety curtain that hid an "R Place" sign. Getting to work with a chunky curtain is a performer's dream. This is especially true for drag performers, as the reveal potentials are terrific.
The curtain opened to the stage, a long and raised wooden thrust that really allowed you to be seen. Thrust stages are the best—they're classical!—and at R Place, go-go boxes flanked the stage. That's where the boys would twerk. As a performer, the boxes presented a stage to leap from—something drag performers would do, some much more successfully than others. There was also usually a large fan in the corner, which you could whip your wig in front of, or throw your dollar bills at, or just sit in front of and catch a break.
This stage then opened into a two-sided seating area with an aisle down the middle, where performers would walk. This was ideal for accepting tips.
This set-up—the thick curtain, the go-go boxes, the thrust stage, the aisle into the audience—was arguably the best theater for a drag queen in Seattle. Touring queens loved it, too. The third floor's tall, old windows could crack open and look down at the street, making the space feel witnessed, or beheld like a jewel box.
Clara Pluton, a comedian in Seattle, described R Place as having "playpen energy," which is exactly right. Rowan Ruthless, a drag performer in town (and one of my drag sisters), tweeted at me that "it felt sexy and exhilarating having to seriously wonder if too many people on the 3rd floor was structurally safe." It never collapsed. But it felt like it might.
it’s tall!!!!!!!! it was so confident in its outdatedness that it was just a museum to itself. Nowhere in Seattle had that sort of tacky, children’s playpen energy. R Place knew exactly who it was 💜
— machine gun clara (@clarapluton) February 2, 2021
I don't remember many details from the actual performance part of the So You Think You Can Drag finale—except that Miss Texas 1988 won—because the sweat and booze helped me forget what happened, like so many nights at the venue. But I remember how everyone seemed to know each other, or had at least slept with the same people.
Of course, R Place isn't dead; it's just looking for a new space. As Ladie Chablis, who has performed at R Place for nearly twenty years, reminded Matt today: "It’s going to continue like it has been, the only difference is there’s no building... We’re going to do something bigger and better. We’re not giving up on R Place.”
I think this will happen, but it's important to remember how much magic the physical space held. That tall, teal box flooded the streets with charm. Ru girls would walk up from performing at the Paramount to meet the R Place cast after their shows. Kremwerk queens would stop at the venue on their way to Pony. It was a meeting point, and it will be missed.