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Looking Back at West Hollywood Institution The Abbey

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The venerable gay bar is the subject of an oral history by The Hollywood Reporter

Just in time for the LA PRIDE festival, the Hollywood Reporter has published an excellent oral history of venerable West Hollywood gay bar and coffeeshop The Abbey. Drawing on interviews with the establishment’s founder, David Cooley, and some of the many people who have worked and gathered there over the years, the article offers a colorful glimpse into The Abbey’s 25-year history.

As it turns out, the rowdy bar—now Bacardi’s largest U.S. account—began as a humble 1,100 square-foot coffeehouse catering to a gay clientele. To drum up business, Cooley would offer attractive men free coffee and cake as long as they stuck around for a while to enjoy it. He also apparently advertised the business at AA meetings down the street. After three years, Cooley moved his business across the street into a building previously occupied by a stone masonry business. Having bought several terra-cotta monk statues from the prior tenants, Cooley and his business partner gave the new business a quasi-religious atmosphere that included church pews and stained glass windows.

The coffeehouse quickly became one of the hottest nightclubs in town, with drag performances, go-go-boys, and notoriously potent drinks (the bar’s signature drink is the appletini, which was created there). Over the years, celebrities from Elton John to Elizabeth Taylor to Ian McKellen have come by to enjoy the atmosphere. As reality star Michelle Visage says, the bar "has a homey feeling where you can just sit outside and eat or go in and gyrate."

The article also touches on the history of political activism at The Abbey. After Proposition Eight passed in 2008, Cooley hired buses to transport protestors downtown. Soon after, he banned bachelorette parties at the bar until gay marriage was legalized. As a side effect of that action, penis hats are still prohibited.

As The Abbey’s popularity has grown, it’s clientele has grown a bit less, well, gay. The influx of straight customers is addressed by several of those interviewed by the Reporter. Some longtime patrons feel the bar, which will soon be the subject of an E! reality show, has a less community-oriented atmosphere these days. Others welcome the change. "What's great is that everybody congregates there," says television host Carson Kressley. "It mirrors our society — we're a lot more open. Even though go-go boys still hang from the ceiling, which I think is a very nice touch."