Family Portraits: Ronni Rodriguez

Back in the day, there weren’t a lot of outlets for gay people to meet and mingle.

Nightclubs were the core of social life and, at the center of that core, keeping things running smoothly was Ronni Rodriguez. She kicked off things in 1964, bartending at one of Philadelphia’s first gay bars — Hideaway — and spent the next several decades connected to the pulse of the LGBT community. She still thinks of the many people who worked for her, including myself, as her kids, but these days, she’s raising three children of her own in the quiet town of Waxhaw, N.C.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. RR: Well, I was born in Puerto Rico but we came to Philadelphia in 1953 when I was 7 years old. My parents both worked. My father did construction and wallpapering and that kind of stuff. My mother was a factory worker; she used to make sweaters in a factory down on Second and Allegheny.

PGN: Any siblings? RR: I have two younger brothers.

PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? RR: Believe it or not, I really liked to play outside. Skating, bicycling, chasing boys— I was a real tomboy.

PGN: Did you play any organized sports? RR: Never. I don’t know why; I was never into sports at all. I still have no interest. I was more into reading.

PGN: What kind of books did you like? RR: Light stuff, funny stuff. I actually have a book in my hand right now that I got for my kids but I’ve been reading it! It’s a copy of the original “Pinocchio” that a teacher friend of mine gave me. It’s definitely not the Disney version: The originals of stories like “Pinocchio” and “Alice in Wonderland” are much darker and more adult.

PGN: And where did you go to school? RR: Kensington High School for Girls. I think it’s mixed now, but back then it was all girls. I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then it was a good school.

PGN: When did you come out? RR: I guess it was when I was about 14. I fell in love with a girl at my school. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew what I felt.

PGN: So was it a good thing or a bad thing being a budding lesbian at an all-girls’ school? RR: I think it was a good thing. That’s where I met a lot of my good friends who I still am friends with today. We all still keep in touch.

PGN: And when did you come out to the family? RR: I actually never have come out to them. They always knew, but there was never an official announcement. It wasn’t like now, where people come out, “Hey Mom, guess what? I’m gay!” It was a different time. I wasn’t sure my family would understand, but over the years, they’ve accepted all my girlfriends as family, though I never actually had to say anything. They just knew.

PGN: Tell me about some early jobs. RR: As a youngster, I worked for Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania, which I believe is now Verizon. But I started tending bar when I was 18 years old when I wasn’t even supposed to be in a bar, and I have been primarily in that business ever since.

PGN: Where was it? RR: It was at 13th and Locust, a little bar called the Hideaway.

PGN: Was Hideaway a women’s bar? RR: It was a mixed bar, men and women. In those days it wasn’t so much separate men and women’s bars. It was just a gay bar that everyone went to, we all just hung out together. Except for Rusty’s, which was a women’s bar.

PGN: What are some of the differences between then and now? RR: Well, in those days, pretty much everyone was closeted, except for a few. The police were always barging in and raiding the place, dragging the kids out whenever they wanted. I remember as a woman, you had to make sure you had at least three articles of women’s clothing with you. Especially the women who dressed like men, I wasn’t one of them, but I was always told that no matter what, they needed to have those three pieces of women’s clothing in case there was a raid. I don’t know what they would do if you didn’t have them, or how they checked women in men’s suits to make sure they had on women’s underwear or something, but it was pretty scary. We were constantly harassed for living our lifestyle.

PGN: That must have been hard. RR: Yes, it wasn’t like it is today, with the bars advertising in mainstream media. Back then, the bars were dingy and dark and usually unmarked. You had to know someone to find out where they were, and there were only a handful. I remember one women’s bar and the woman who ran it was big and scary. [Laughs.] I’m sure she had to travel with three articles of women’s clothing. There was no “lesbian chic” back then. The place was small with a few tables covered with checkered tablecloths and a tiny bar. It wasn’t like it is today. Those were the only places you could go if you wanted to meet people like you — if you wanted to be around your own kind. Now, you have huge, beautiful clubs that list in the city guide, you have ladies’ parties all over the place, you have dances for young kids — it’s amazing. I’m glad that I got to see it all, from then to now.

PGN: The only thing I hear, listening to some older folks, is that the camaraderie that was forged by the earlier challenges is not there anymore. RR: That’s true. The last time I was in a club, I was watching the kids on the dance floor, and I thought, “Wow, I’m here with friends that I’ve known since back in the day when all we had was each other.” We all went through those times together and we bonded because of what was going on. To this day, we still all call each other, we go out and do things together. I wonder if any of these kids will still be close to the people they’re on the dance floor with 40 years from now.

PGN: So you started at Hideaway, but I met you when you were the manager of the 2-4 Club, when they opened a women’s bar downstairs. It was one of the first “chic” women’s bars in Philly that I recall. RR: Yeah, at that time I was managing a few clubs, mainly down at the shore and then I got into the DCA. I managed the whole place, not just the women’s bar. But there actually had been a very nice women’s bar upstairs at the DCA Club before that one, where I bartended for a bit.

PGN: So what’s a crazy bar incident? RR: Hard to think. There was always something happening, which is what I like about the bar business; there’s always something new. OK. There used to be a men-only club at the top of the DCA called the Cellblock. I don’t know if you remember Wayland Flowers but he used to have an act with a puppet named Madame. They were on all the talk shows and “Hollywood Squares,” etc. Anyway, he came into the club and had Madame with him. He wanted to go upstairs to the Cellblock and they refused to let Madame in because it was an all-men’s club. He ended up having to put her in the coat check!

PGN: Who was a disaster employee? RR: I had one person whom I had to fire. He was a good friend of mine and I loved him as a person, but I had to let him go. He would argue with the guests and bring his personal problems to work. [Laughs.] One day, I caught him kicking a guest and that was the final straw. I had to fire him on the spot. It broke my heart because he was a friend, but we still remain friends, so I guess he understood that business was business.

PGN: You worked in the bar business at the height of the AIDS crisis; what was that like? RR: It was terrible. I lost a lot of employees and I lost a lot of friends. It was a very scary time for me. I think that’s when I started to think about getting out of the business. Not because I was afraid of AIDS: I was afraid of the pain of losing so many people. It just ripped your heart out each time. You’d see these nice boys, young men who would come in one day and have a good time and you’d hear the next week that they’d died. It was too much emotionally. I was getting old and I just couldn’t see it anymore, it was too much. I had to get away.

PGN: What did you do after that? RR: I left Philadelphia and moved down the shore. I started doing work at the casinos in Atlantic City. I spent 10 years doing that, and recently I decided to retire and start a family.

PGN: That’s an interesting way to do it! RR: Well, I always wanted a family. My employees were always like my children and I guess I missed that mothering thing. I decided to retire and adopt a child. “A” child, mind you — I was only planning on adopting one, but God sent me three! They’re siblings: I got them at 2-1/2, 1-1/2 and 3-1/2 months; they’re now 6, 5 and 4. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done and the happiest I’ve ever been.

PGN: What prompted you to move down South? RR: I’d heard that the South was a great place to raise kids. I’d especially heard good things about North Carolina. I’d never been there or anywhere South, but I called my brother in Puerto Rico and he flew in and checked it out with me. We found a great little town with antique stores and a wooden bridge and a train that runs right down the middle of the town. I didn’t know anyone here, not a soul, but I loved the people and the school system and the open air and thought it would be a proper place for the children. It turned out to be a wonderful place for me as well.

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