BY MICHAEL SHIREY | When Barracuda Bar, located at 275 West 22nd Street, first opened it’s doors in 1995, it was already something unique. At a time when gay bars depended more on cruising and drinking, the Chelsea establishment focused on creating a lounge bar featuring drag shows and regularly scheduled guest appearances — a concept that did not widely exist and has since been adopted by untold numbers of bars in New York and across the country.
But this nightlife entertainment idea dates back to before Barracuda. Business partners Bob Pontarelli and the late Stephen Heighton first tried out the idea at one of their former Lower East Side establishments, Crowbar, where many drag queens like Sherry Vine and Hedda Lettuce famously got their start. In fact, “every queen that you know got their start here,” Pontarelli proudly boasted about his businesses, which also include Industry Bar in Hell’s Kitchen.
Another concept pioneered by Pontarelli and Heighton was hiring celebrity talent to make appearances at the bar, also now such a common practice it seems strange to think that it essentially didn’t exist 20 years ago. Barracuda’s roster includes Eartha Kitt, Rue McClanahan, Johnny Knoxville, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Tonya Harding, among many others.
Chelsea bar celebrates two decades of entertaining
Hands down the most notorious of these celebrity visitors, at least according to Pontarelli, was Olympic figure skater Harding. Best known for her alleged involvement in the attack on her ice skating competitor Nancy Kerrigan during the 1994 Winter Olympics, Harding was booked with the understanding that no one would ask about the Kerrigan incident. That didn’t stop Michael Musto, who interviewed her that night and did not hesitate from doing just that, to which Harding famously responded, “Well, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”
As for the opening of Barracuda, Pontarelli said that the love of entertainment he shared with Heighton, especially drag entertainment, drove them to open an entertainment focused bar. The two felt sure that the business would thrive in Chelsea, following the success of clubs like Splash and Champs.
Pontarelli and Heighton’s investment in the talent they hired was always apparent — gigs at Barracuda tend to be long-running. In fact, “Star Search,” the longest running drag show in New York City originally hosted by Mona Foot, got started at Crowbar before moving to Barracuda and so has now been running for more than 20 years. You can still catch “Star Search,” now hosted by Tina Burner, every Thursday night.
Talking with Pontarelli days before the anniversary celebration, it was apparent that any nervous anticipation he has is overshadowed by sheer excitement about the big night. And for good reason; the event’s long line-up includes acts old and new –– including Candis Cayne, Sherry Vine, Jackie Beat, Hedda Lettuce, Tina Burner, Pixie Aventura, and Bob the Drag Queen. Again, to name just a few.
“I think it is amazing,” he said. “Everyone is coming back. Unbelievable to me. Incredibly cool.”
As for the next 20 years? Pontarelli doesn’t have worries about the future. He said that, regardless of the civil rights advances in recent years and the community’s mainstreaming, gay bars and clubs are still socially and culturally relevant and “are very, very important to our identity.” Barracuda, over the years, he said has adapted to the times, but never really had to change.
Pontarelli conceded that expectations about how to meet people have changed with technology –– think Grindr and Scruff, not to mention just the steady stream of texting check-ins –– but said gay men still go out to be entertained, and that won’t change anytime soon.
“Twenty years from now, Barracuda will probably feel the same and serve the same purpose it does now.”
Barracuda’s 20th Anniversary Celebration will take place on Sunday, October 18, 7 p.m. – midnight.