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GUEST COLUMN Last Call at Irene's Cabaret
by Owen Keehnen
2017-01-11

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My heart broke a little when I read in Windy City Times that Irene's Cabaret in Quincy, Illinois, had closed late in 2016 after 36 years in business. I was a regular there, planted on a bar stool until closing probably 2-3 nights a week for a few years.

"Last call for alcohol. Ladies, fix your make-up."

The first time I walked to the address at 124 5th Street there was nothing but a black boarded storefront with a small sign affixed to the wood, Enter in Rear. The same phrase was printed on the bar's matchbooks—twice. The second time I went to Irene's the bartender explained the witticism to me. I was young and naive and gay and living in Quincy along the Mississippi River. I desperately needed a place like Irene's Cabaret.

As I read news of the bar's closing I was surprised that Irene's had opened in 1980. I went there in the first years it was in business, but even then the place looked as though it had been around for decades. The decor had a lived-in look. I remember the etched tin ceilings, the dim red lighting, red-flocked wallpaper, a David statue adorned with a boa, a disco ball, and mirrored walls. Overall, a sort of river boat brothel chic.

Beat-up tables and chairs surrounded the dance floor and to one side, a glowing diva-heavy jukebox—Della Reese, Dottie West, Blondie, Irene Cara, Patsy Cline, even Pia Zadora. On quiet nights at the bar Willie ( aka Irene ) would often hand me a few quarters, "Hon, go play something on that thing to make me smile."

The article on the bar's closing also mentioned that Willie/Irene had died in 2015.

The Cabaret ( or the "Ca-bar" as we called it ) was where I fell in love with Kevin, my first "real" boyfriend. Kevin and I spent countless nights there playing pinball and pool, drinking, arguing art ( ugh ), and falling in love. Irene's was where I decided to become a writer and where I honed the drinking skills I thought that occupation required.

Irene's was a focal point for queer activity in the tri-state area. People would drive there from Keokuk and Springfield and Palmyra on the weekends. Irene's was a true melting pot of drag queens, leathermen, hustlers, lesbian farmers, bi-curious spouses, etc. Every combination of LGBT was represented at Irene's almost every night of the week. In the bar's crimson light we became comrades and friends and had a lot of fun.

I didn't discover I was gay there. I had realized that long before. However, at Irene's I discovered that being gay could be about more than having gay sex. Irene's was where I realized that being gay could also mean being part of a community. After feeling like an outcast for so long, I loved that sense of belonging.

Sometimes I used to wonder what any of us in the tri-state area would do without Irene's Cabaret. News of the bar's closing made me stop to consider that question again. Sadly, I didn't have an answer.


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