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Last Holiday

Pittsburgh's oldest gay bar closing its doors

Last Holiday
Chuck Tierney, left, and Chuck Honse have owned the city's oldest gay bar, The Holiday, since 1977. The establishment will be shuttered April 29
David Byrd graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with his art degree more than 40 years ago, but he still remembers the day he traded his artistic talents to the Holiday bar on Forbes Avenue for a day-long party.

"When I first came to [CMU]" in the early '60s, says Byrd, the bar near Craig Street "was like a beatnik coffeehouse." By 1966, he says, "it became this gay campus bar. You didn't have to be gay to go there, but everybody ended up there who was going to go home together.

"The Holiday was where gay guys could pick up guys from the fraternities who weren't really out" -- as opposed to the frat hangout across the street.

But the Holiday -- Pittsburgh's oldest gay bar still operating under the same name, owners and location -- is due to close on April 29. CMU has purchased the unobtrusive structure, as well as neighboring buildings, to give the school "flexibility" for undetermined building plans, says spokesperson Kenneth Walters. The purchase will also, however, bring an end to a legacy that dates back to when the college was Carnegie Tech.

"I think the space was always on the edge," says Chuck Honse, of Friendship, who along with Chuck Tierney, of Squirrel Hill, has owned the Holiday since 1977. Together, they've seen their clientele through political and AIDS activism, as well as more celebratory times.

"This business goes back to a time when gay bars hid in plain sight," Honse says, sitting with Tierney in the bar's back porch, which has been enclosed since 1984. "They were here -- this was right on a main street -- but you had to know where to find it. There were no flashing lights and no sign hanging out over the sidewalk. That's what you had to do in those days."

The place is still barely noticeable, save for the sidewalk board advertising beer specials. A cross-hatch of bricks remains across the front glass. "They were put there to keep bricks from being fired through the window," says Honse. "We had issues with that" into the 1980s, when the windows finally had to be covered temporarily.

"[P]eople would sit out front and walk up and down until they'd see no one in the street and then duck into the bar," Tierney says.

Once inside, patrons found a uniquely welcoming space.

The Holiday's then-owner, whose name David Byrd can't fully recall, "said that, if I would paint a mural from the front of the bar all the way to the back window on [one] wall, he would give me the bar for the day." The mural featured bar regulars as well as the year's celebrities, from the Supremes and Beatles to Andy Warhol, whose CMU cubicle Byrd then occupied.

"That day I painted it, we ate and drank everything in the bar -- two hams and a turkey and every bottle of liquor and five kegs of beer," Byrd recalls. "I invited everyone I knew, which was hundreds of people. It was truly a debauch. But this fabulous mural got painted."

When Byrd, now in Los Angeles, returned to the Holiday last year for his 40th class reunion, he found that the mural had survived, standing partly revealed beneath several renovations like some archaeological find. Patrons guessed that it was a Warhol self-portrait.

"Oh, I love that," Byrd says. "No no no. It was an homage." Warhol, of course, has his museum now, and Byrd has had his own success, from Fillmore East concert posters to the original Broadway art for Godspell and far beyond.

In the meantime, the Holiday's owners say, the bar couldn't help but be touched by the turmoil of the outside world.

The year the pair purchased Holiday, with a third partner, Florida orange-juice spokesperson Anita Bryant's anti-gay pronouncements caused the gay community and its sympathizers to start an OJ boycott -- and to find new strength in organizing.

"There were great celebrations when she lost her job," Honse says. "Once that happened," adds Tierney, "some of the local politicians saw the power of the local gay people, and all of a sudden there was communication with Grant Street."

"And that was so helpful during HIV and AIDS," Honse says. The Holiday offered a free drink to those who signed up for Pitt's Men's Study, a large, federally funded investigation into the epidemic that began in 1983. There was even AIDS blood-testing in the bar's basement.

The atmosphere eased for the local gay community in 1989, when Pittsburgh City Council passed a gay and lesbian human-rights ordinance covering discrimination in housing, employment and other situations, for which Honse had helped to push.

So why sell a place that has meant so much to them over the years?

"It's that time of our lives to move on to other things," says Honse.

More recently, the pair has bought and sold three other local gay bars: The salvaged mural now resides at the Eagle, yet another local institution on the city's North Side. They hope the Holiday is recalled just as fondly for its upside-down Christmas tree and its parties.

"I think I'd like to be remembered as Pittsburgh's gay Cheers bar," Honse says. "People would go, 'What are you doing on my stool?' You don't get that in big dance bars, and you never will."

During the annual CMU alumni week, says Tierney, "These older people will come in and say, 'I just want to show my daughter where I used to loaf.' I bet you half the crowd out there [today] is CMU and Pitt, and half of them are not gay."

Indeed, Derek Owen, of Oakmont, his girlfriend, Cara Hayden, of Squirrel Hill, and Hayden's Pitt co-worker Bo Schwerin, of Shadyside, have come to the Holiday on this rainy spring day just for the atmosphere -- and the cheap drinks.

"It's actually my first time. I wouldn't miss it for the world," says Owen; the other two have been frequent visitors for a few months.

"We just came here for the 75-cent drinks and found it is a great place to hang at," says Schwerin. "It has the right vibe. The bartender takes care of you. It's really all you can ask for in a bar."

There are others, like Jon McIntire of Shadyside, who have been coming here for years. He even had a wedding ceremony here with his partner, Brandon Hovgson.

"Our wedding song was 'Vogue,' and it was karaoke night," McIntire says.

"The minister just happened to be playing a punk-rock show here," Hovgson says. The same MC, The Undeniable, is performing on the Holiday's final night. "We got various party favors from the bar" -- and wedding accoutrements from the bar's suppliers.

Remembers McIntire: "Our wedding certificate was in a fish-sticks [company] folder, for God's sake."

The 6 p.m. "Last Call" event on April 29 will end with the bar shuttered for good.

After Pittsburgh gained its gay-rights ordinance in 1989, Honse says, "I remember a man saying to us in Philadelphia that if you fight for the right for gay people to go anywhere, they will, and there will be no need for gay bars."

There still is such a need, he maintains. "Just not as much."

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