19 Bar: Still gay after 61 years

MICHAEL RIETMULDER , Vita.mn | Updated 6/27/2013

The 19 Bar has been a darts-and-jukebox gay bar since the 1950s.

Patrons enjoy drinks at 19 Bar.

In the fickle bar business, longevity is never a given. But for 61 years an unassuming hole-in-the-wall has quietly (and not so quietly) been a beer-swilling sanctuary for the Twin Cities’ gay community.

Loring Park’s inconspicuous 19 Bar, opened in 1952, predates disco and even the Eisenhower administration. To this day, it’s a frill-free neighborhood haven where a mixed-age crowd commingles.

“All of these people, a lot of these connections have remained throughout the decades,” said manager Casey Rusco, who as a University of Minnesota student in 2009 wrote his senior thesis on the 19’s history as a hub for a marginalized group. “It’s especially interesting because it was before the [gay rights] movement, before [the] Stonewall [riots]. It was just a safe space with no windows to chat and have a beer and actually be yourself. Fifty years later, they’re still doing that.”

Much of the 19’s current constituency is too young to remember the Bee Gees, let alone the Vietnam War. But Glen Will, 83, has been a regular since the day the place came under new ownership and officially became a gay bar in 1957. Back then there were only a few other gay bars in town, Will said, including the Happy Hour, which was absorbed by the Gay 90s in 1975. “We had a piano at one point and a guy by the name of Bob would play and we’d gather around and sing,” recalled Will, who plans on ducking into the 19 during this weekend’s Twin Cities Pride Festival.

The windowless watering hole resembles a typical Anytown, USA tavern. Time-toughened pool tables fill the left side of the dark room, an old jukebox sits in one corner, and the walls are decked out in beer swag. If it wasn’t for a dude-dominated clientele — and an overt sign above the bar — you wouldn’t distinguish it from any other lovable dive.

“When I first bought it,” said owner Gary Hallberg, “I had the neon [sign] made that says ‘gay bar’ because we’d have so many people come in and not know it was a gay bar at all and then all of a sudden be offended if they saw two guys kissing, [like] ‘Hey, what the hell!’ Now, don’t tell me you didn’t know it [laughs].”

The innocuous 19 is a low-key alternative to the rowdier club Saloon or the trendier Jet Set. But Hallberg said prior to his ownership the bar had a stigma as a “hustler bar,” where pickups and male prostitution were common.

Until 1990, the bar saw Sunday-night surges from midnight to 1 a.m., as a since-repealed blue law permitted the former 3.2 bar to stay open an hour later than bars with full liquor licenses. Then a patron, Hallberg said 400 to 500 weekend extenders would slam the small pub for an extra hour of imbibing.

“I only got trapped in here one night,” he said, chuckling. “I was shooting pool and I should’ve got out of here before when I had a chance. It was so crowded I could hardly make it through the front door.”

Merely blocks from the Pride festivities in Loring Park, the 19 is likely to be bustling this weekend. While less discreet than it was 30 years ago when the bar used Cat’s Meow as a phone-book alias to thwart would-be bomb threats, Rusco said the 4,000-square-foot nook is still viewed as an under-the-radar establishment.

“Everybody seems to think it’s kind of their little secret,” he said.

19 Bar

Where: 19 W. 15th St., Mpls.

Info: 612-871-5553 or www.19bar.itgo.com.