One of the most notorious and fun gay after-hours nightspots in New York City of the 1970s and 1980s was THE ANVIL located at 500 W. 14th Street.
Built-in 1908 by the Conner Brothers, this building was originally known as “The Strand Hotel.” The three-story hotel catered to sailors and was located on a patch of land known as Dalamater Square.
“It is a three-story structure, on the ground floor of which is a saloon and the upper part of which contains 28 rooms,” stated a court document from 1914.
“[The Strand] accepts only men as roomers,” the document added, and caters “to the class of trade that has business at the riverfront.” Ehmmmmm.
Opened in the fall of 1974 The Anvil, a split-level “after-hours nightclub” opened on the north-facing side of the building which was now the infamous hot-sheet, pay-by-the-hour Liberty Inn. The statements “accepts only men” and “the class of trade that has business at the riverfront.” really hadn’t changed all that much.
The bouncers were as brutal and as wonderfully sleazy as The Anvil itself. And they always took care to notice the number of people that were in the club at one time to not break fire regulations and give the city an excuse to raid them. With lines that sometimes formed around the block on a busy Friday or Saturday night unless you were known or a fellow bar employee, you could wait hours to get in. While (some) drag queens were welcome, women were not. Although a few did make it in mostly due to trickery or their celebrity status The Anvil was one of the hottest, sleaziest, and most glorious places to be for gay men of that period.
The main floor contained a dance floor, a rectangular bar, and a performance area all painted black where everything would go on at once.
The after-hours atmosphere of the Anvil was wound up and kinetic from the amount of alcohol and drugs its patrons had already consumed and would consume by the end of the night.
Male dancers would perform in the bar as bartenders poured drinks around them. On the smallish stage on the dance-floor drag performers such as Candy Stevens would perform bizarre acts with a five-foot snake while fire-eating. Other drag performers were “The Famous Yuba” who was one of the first performers there and who stayed until the end. Loretta Fox, Dana Terrell, “The Long-Legged Lady of The Night…” Arien West, Diana del Rio, The Amazing Electrifying Grace, and Brandon Forte
Between drag shows the disco music pumped away at an earsplitting volume as shirtless and sweaty men danced to the beat packed together side by side. Poppers were passed freely from man to man and from time to time you could feel the floor bounce and shake beneath your feet to the beat of the music.
Downstairs was the coat check run by the ever-jovial Patrick. There was another small bar downstairs and a large screen on which gay male porn of the period was played. Behind the screen was a cavernous back room where it was pitch black and never boring. Shouts of “Gentlemen watch your wallets.” would echo through the basement as Patrick called out the warning every 15 – 20 minutes against pickpockets. (Rumor also had it that there were tunnels beneath The Anvil that ran directly to the piers. But it has never actually been proven.)
Patrons would emerge (I included) sopped with sweat and wearing sunglasses after a long Saturday night in the dawn’s early light only to pass people from bordering neighborhoods going to early Sunday morning Mass.
Because of the era involved, there are no interior photographs of the Anvil available to publish. But it was nothing spectacular. You see it was not the inside of The Anvil that made it what it was. It was the patrons, gay men many of whom are gone now which is why it is important to remember these scared gay spaces of yesterday.
The Anvil was closed in 1986 another victim of the AIDS epidemic and the clean-up of “sex establishments” in NYC. And while The Anvil is long gone, the Liberty Inn lives on as NYC’s highest-rated romantic couples short-stay hotel.
It’s nice to know some things never change.
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