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Brotherhood of the White Towel

Updated: Dec 9, 2018

Rudolph Nureyev ran naked down the hallways shouting, “Who wants to swing on a star?” Another memorable evening, Wayland Flowers and Paul Lynde arrived by limo; and later, Wayland roamed the halls wearing a towel; his puppet, Madame, was on his hand in curlers and a chenille robe. Specialty dancer and silent film star Sally Rand entranced her towel clad audience with her balloon dance on the stage. Divine performed here when it was Bistro Too, as did Boy George, and many others.

Countless men explored their erotic nature in the rooms along those labyrinthian corridors. Sexual awareness and abandon, devastation, and education all happened beneath the Man’s Country roof. Lifetime friendships were formed here as were romances of five minutes and five decades. Over 45 years of gay history took place within those walls. The social interaction, openness, and camaraderie which occurred here played a crucial role in building community during the early years of gay liberation.

In 1972, the late businessman and gay entrepreneur Chuck Renslow first toured the multi-unit structure at 5015-5017 North Clark. The $20,000 building was constructed in 1910 as Verdandy Lodge #3. Verdandy was a member of the fraternal organization, the Independent Order of Svithiod, which formed in Chicago in 1880 and was dedicated to preserving the heritage of the Scandinavian people in the United States.

At the time Renslow owned the enormously popular Gold Coast leather bar and several other Chicago businesses. Chuck had owned bathhouses before. In 1972, he was co-owner of the Club Baths which had locations in cities like Kansas City, Cleveland, and Phoenix, In Chicago, the Club Baths was located at 609 N. La Salle.

After touring the space at 5017 N. Clark Street, Renslow took a gamble and sold his share of the Club Baths as well as a building 902 W. Belmont to buy the structure. His partner in the purchase, as well as in life, was Dom Orejudos, also known as the erotic artist Etienne. Renslow had a vision about this new endeavor. Taking his initial inspiration from the Continental Baths in New York, Renslow began extensive renovations. His goal was to make Man’s Country something truly spectacular. Chuck wanted more than a bathhouse, he wanted an entertainment complex.

The renovation of the building came with some surprises. Renslow found evidence of on site gambling. One room behind a bolted steel door contained poker tables with a separate staircase for a hasty escape. Another room had brackets inscribed with Bally’s Manufacturing along one wall, a strong indication of mounted slot machines.

Another surprise in the conversion occurred when a skeleton was found beneath the stage. However, the discovery wasn’t as diabolical as it sounds. The skeleton was the sort used in university classrooms with numbered bones, reinforced joints, and a steel hinge on the jaw. The skeleton was nicknamed Henry and ended up residing in the pit of the Gold Coast, with a beer in one hand and a cigarette between his teeth.

Changes and improvements to the property took almost a year. When Man’s Country first opened on September 19, 1973, it was just one floor. Some of the groups and businesses which rented space in the building had time remaining on their leases, so renovation on those portions of the structure would have to wait.

At the time, baths in Chicago were licensed as “private membership clubs.” In order to be a member of a bathhouse and purchase a membership, a person had

to be invited by a member. Since Man’s Country was a new business, this means of acquiring members was a problem. Renslow’s solution was to advertise free admittance on opening night. Seven hundred horny and curious men showed up that first night, well above the club’s capacity. All the rooms were taken immediately. After an hour or two, patrons could barely move in the hallways. Those 700 sexual adventurers referred all the others. After that, Man’s Country charged a nominal registration fee which included a free lifetime membership. For every subsequent visit, members were charged a rental fee for a locker or room.

To manage Man’s Country, Chuck hired Gold Coast bartender and gay rights activist Gary Chichester. Chichester remained in the position for the first five years the bathhouse was in business. Eventually Gary left to manage another Renslow business venture, the disco Center Stage.

Overhaul of the Man’s Country complex continued and by April, 1974, the bathhouse had expanded to include locker facilities, a lower level and steam room, a whirlpool bath, an orgy room, a TV viewing area, and a small lounge with a juice bar which served snacks and sandwiches. Man’s Country now had 26 rooms, three of which were double occupancy. Specialty features included eight black rooms with harnesses and other BDSM paraphernalia such as slings and wall shackles. Options included double rooms, a room with a round bed, another with bunk beads, orgy rooms, glory hole room, etc. Even at this early stage in the renovation process, Man’s Country was still several notches above the typical 24/7 bathhouses of the era which offered rooms or lockers, a white towel, and a key and (sometimes) a lockbox.

The crowning achievement in the overhaul of the building was the completion of the Music Hall. Its grand opening, on New Year’s Eve 1974, was a “black towel optional” affair. The gay megaplex could now accommodate a crowd of 1,500 people and the club was ready to bring in entertainers. Most great performers of the ‘K-Y Circuit,’ as the bathhouse and gay club venues were called, performed at the Music Hall. As mentioned, Sally Rand did her balloon dance on that stage and ventriloquist Wayland Flowers entertained there, with his beloved puppet, Madame, on his wrist. Bette Davis and Mae West may not have played the Music Hall, but they were there in spirit thanks to campy impersonator Charles Pierce. Musical groups like the gay trio Gotham, and the R&B group, Sweet Inspirations, were there. The Music Hall brought in singers such as Betty Rhodes, Judith Cohen, Franne Golde, and Jade and Sasparilla. Comics like Bruce Vilanch, Rusty “Knockers Up” Warren, Judy Tenuta, Michael Greer, and insult comic Pudgy brought their distinctive brands of humor to the stage. Over the years, the Music Hall hosted magicians, dancers, hypnotists, and more. Playing to a half naked crowd was just part of the gig and if some frisky business was going on during the show, the entertainer had to just roll with it. Most members of the K-Y Circuit grew accustomed to such things pretty quickly.

The resident drag queen at Man’s Country was the late Wanda Lust. In addition to entertaining, being the emcee and DJ, and all but living at the bathhouse, Lust became the face of STD testing in Chicago during the dawn of gay men’s health awareness. Wanda would often appear in RN drag as Nurse Lust. She adorned posters reminiscent of the Uncle Sam posters which read, “I Want You, To Get Tested” and even took her “get tested” agenda to the streets with the VD Van. During that period, Man’s Country became a site for VD and STD testing with a small but complete clinic located upstairs.

At Man’s Country, services and amenities were offered in other areas as well. Given Chuck and Dom/Etienne’s strong ties and deep appreciation for gay art, Man’s Country also served as a functional gallery for photos and drawings celebrating the beauty and eroticism of the male form. Several of the large on site murals were done by Etienne. However, the walls were also adorned with the artwork of Tom of Finland, Rex, Bill Ward, and many others. Also displayed was an array of classic male physique photos by Kris Studios, which Chuck Renslow began with Orejudos in the 1950s. Interspersed with the erotica were signed posters from some of the noted performers who had entertained there.

As a result of the enhanced atmosphere and services, Man’s Country became a retreat from the everyday world, a place to go when a man didn’t want to be at home. Some patrons even arrived with luggage, ready for the weekend. In addition to sexual accruement, members brought beads to hang from the door frames, throw rugs, colored lights, candles, incense, and anything else to make their cubicle, with the chicken wire mesh ceiling, their own.

For many Man’s Country was a haven, a Shangri-La of sexual expression and experimentation, a place to practice sex and explore desire without concerns about emotional attachment. However, some of the fondest memories that patrons have of Man’s Country were of the socializing and the friendships. Many men recall sitting in the snack shop, or in the TV lounge, and chatting or sharing stories of life and love, conquests, crushes, and the trick that got away.

Man’s Country offered a free and relaxed environment for many gay men who less than a decade before were terrified of social interaction with their peers and becoming “known.” Previously Chicago bathhouse patrons had run the risk of ruined careers and devastated lives in the aftermath of police raids which, in addition to arrest, often resulted in having a person’s name, home address, and sometimes occupation printed in the newspapers.

In his 1980 travelogue of gay America, States of Desire, award-winning writer Edmund White captured Man’s Country during its heyday: “On the ground floor are the showers, a steam room and a hot tub, all fitted into a stone grotto. On the second floor are rooms, lockers, the TV room and the orgy room—TV viewing and orgy viewing seemed comparatively tranquil. Upstairs I found the disco. Lying on mats along the wall were sleeping bodies. A twirling mirrored ball cast scintillas of light over these dreamers. At one end of the room was a spotlit stage, bracketed by art deco caryatids framing a set: a painted skyline of skinny skyscrapers in black and white, stylized to look hundreds of stories tall. The polished dance floor was empty until a black man in red-striped, calf-length athletic socks, a jock strap, a red T-shirt and a baseball cap began to dance by himself. He was joined by an outrageous white fatty, who performed something ‘interpretive’—of what, I couldn’t be sure. Coiled metal stairs led me up to the roof garden, where, under a cool, blowy sky, I watched two couples fucking.”

In June 1981 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced that five men in Los Angeles had been diagnosed with a rare pneumonia. The “gay cancer,” or gay-related immune deficiency (GRID, as AIDS was initially called), had dire effects on Man’s Country and bathhouses nationwide. The epidemic took a while to hit Chicago. In the early days of the epidemic, Renslow closed the orgy room and glory holes. The bathhouse did not distribute condoms until the means of HIV transmission was known. Once it was discovered condoms were distributed along with a towel at check-in and were readily available throughout the facility.

Renslow maintained that it was his cooperation with the Chicago Department of Health on previous issues, such as gay men’s health awareness and on-site STD testing, that kept Man’s Country open when bathhouses were closing in San Francisco and New York. As a result Man’s Country not only remained open, but became a venue for education with periodic safe-sex demonstrations as well as having signage and literature available throughout the complex.

Despite this, attendance at Man’s Country during the AIDS era plummeted. To compensate for the shrinking number of patrons and occupied rooms, in 1987 Renslow opened the high energy club, Bistro Too, on the ground and second floor in the rear portion of the structure. The popular nightspot offered live performances

and events as well as state of the art sound and lighting technology to Chicago LGBT club goers for five years with acts like the Village People, Linda Clifford, Thelma Houston, Pamala Stanley, and Boy George bringing in the crowds. Divine gave his last live performance there to a room of 1,300 fans, dying in Hollywood two weeks later. The gay adult film industry honors, The Grabby Awards, were first held here in 1991.

When Bistro Too eventually closed in 1992, Renslow opened the leather bar, the Chicago Eagle, on the lower level and main floor of the back portion of the building. During this restructuring, Chuck reopened the Music Hall as a part of Man’s Country. The revamped Music Hall became a popular destination for gay porn stars to dance and entertain. The venue was also home for the resident gay dance group, the Chicago Meat Packers. With the eventual closing of the Chicago Eagle in 2006, Man’s Country once again converted the square footage into more rooms and a “specialty section” with several fetish areas.

Over the years Man’s Country was routinely redesigned, converted, and reconfigured. The structure was shifted, built upon, covered, demolished, torn out, and everything in between. The sun deck Edmund White wrote about, with the plants and fountains, was eventually closed as part of the Bistro Too conversion. The Man’s Country internal complex also changed over the years to include stores such as the Erogenous Zone which sold bath-related items -- caftans, jocks, lounge pants, ‘aromas,’ magazines, and lubes. At different points in the evolution of the megaplex there was a country store, a leather store, and even a gym with weight equipment and machines. When discussing the structure Renslow joked that someday, when the building was torn down, the demolition crew would be amazed by the things they’ll find; walls built in front of mirrors and murals, sealed rooms, hidden staircases, etc.

For over 45 years Man’s Country was an symbol for the growth andevolution of several generations of gay men. The business and the building was more than just a bathhouse, or a club; Man’s Country was a piece of gay history and a sign of our sexual liberation. Many of the men who roamed these halls have been forgotten, many memories have been lost to time, but the impact of this place, and all that it meant to our community, have left an indelible mark. Chuck Renslow always said he wanted Man’s Country to be more than simply a bathhouse, and it was...much more.


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