'It was pretty amazing': LGBTQ community recalls importance of Elk Grove bar
At a time when Chicago's Boystown neighborhood was developing into the cultural mecca for the city's gay community in the 1980s, there were few places for LGBTQ people to socialize in the suburbs. Most that did exist were small, hidden and lasted only a few years.
Mark Hunter, then a professional ballroom dance teacher and competitor for Fred Astaire Dance Studios, changed that when he quit his job and opened a bar that would cater to members of the suburban LGBTQ community who didn't want to go into the city.
"I thought the LGBT community needed a nice place to go," said Hunter, who grew up a self-described suburban kid.
In the shadow of the Northwest Tollway, he and his wife Marion found a shuttered Beef 'N' Barrel restaurant along a dusty strip of Higgins Road in unincorporated Elk Grove Township. They inked a lease for the building in October 1982 with the Hyatt Corp., which owned the neighboring motel.
For the next 31 years, Hunters nightclub at 1932 E. Higgins Road operated as the go-to social gathering spot for the suburban LGBTQ community. It continued as Phoenix Bar & Nightclub for another six years under two different owners until its abrupt closure last November.
Hunter, now 68 and living in Florida, grew nostalgic amid news that the old building that housed his first nightclub will face the wrecking ball -- perhaps as early as today -- to make way for future development.
Hunter, longtime patrons and former employees shared memories of love, love lost and lasting friendships at what became the most prominent gay bar in the suburbs.
"There's a lot of stories from customers that say they weren't really out," Hunter said. "They'd drive to Hunters, sit in their car, and were nervous. They didn't wanna go in because they were scared and so forth and so on. But they eventually made it in the bar and they were comforted and felt safe there. That was their coming out."
From the beginning, the bar's motto was "fun and friendly," welcoming the likes of police officers, drag queens and everyone in between, Hunter said.
Patrons say the nightclub was known for its lavish New Year's Eve parties, with a humongous buffet, champagne fountains and midnight balloon drop. Halloween and the day before Thanksgiving were also big nights, as were most Wednesdays in the early days, with a 25-cent draft beer special. Many of the parties were orchestrated by Marion Hunter, who died in 1995.
Mark Hunter said there were few problems over the years or any outward discrimination from the community. Backed by the Hyatt Corp. from the beginning, Hunter eventually bought the 1.5-acre property from the company. One of the hoteliers' big wigs even came in for a drink one time.
"Hunters Elk Grove was big and obvious, and it was notorious," Hunter said. "Everyone knew it was a gay bar."
It also became a second home for many patrons. Hunters hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for those who were alone or rejected by family.
"For him to have the belief that this (bar) could make it out in the suburbs -- and perhaps run into a lot of opposition -- gives a lot of credit to who Mark is," said a longtime Elk Grove Village patron who only identified herself as Lori. "Mark had more than a business going there. He had a vision. He knew there was a need. He knew that people needed a place to go just to be comfortable."
And like all families have a Grandma, so did Hunters. It's the nickname patrons affectionately gave to Emil Benak, one of the original and longtime bartenders, who became known for his sage advice.
"We can talk to our gay families about things we can't talk to our blood families about," Benak said.
Another regular, Gary Niemiec of Hoffman Estates, said when he started going to the bar in 1984, there were few other places in the suburbs where gay men could go and feel welcome.
"Many people spent their day hiding who they were, and to be able to be yourself was really important," he said.
Hunter sold the nightclub in 2013 when he moved to Florida and opened a club in Fort Lauderdale. He also operates a club in California.
The Elk Grove bar's last owner, Sam Cecola, the Barrington businessman who also owns the Admiral Theatre strip club in Chicago, sold the property to village officials for $1.35 million last June. The village annexed the property and hired a demolition company to knock down the building -- which they say is in disrepair -- and prepare the site for future commercial development.
Hunter said he isn't sad to see the building itself go -- he says it's been in bad shape for years -- but he suggested a marker be placed there to signify its importance in LGBTQ history.
"People were coming from Elgin, Cary, Wisconsin, everywhere to come to Hunters," he said. "It was pretty amazing."