Western Exposure

One of Phoenix’s original cowboys recalls the early days of Charlie’s and AGRA

By KJ Philp, February 2016 Issue.

Things were shaking in Phoenix as early as 1982, when a small group traveled to the Reno rodeo and Tish Tanner won the title of Miss Reno National Gay Rodeo.

Arizona came to life in the fall of 1984 when John King (pictured) decided to open a second Charlie’s in Phoenix. King and Kenny Cunitz lived and breathed rodeo, and it was only a matter of weeks before the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association (AGRA) formed. (Read Echo‘s full rodeo coverage in “The Rodeo Rides into Town” here.)

By December 1984, the new group targeted January 1986 for their first rodeo. Arizona became the fifth state to host a gay rodeo and AGRA is one of the five founding members of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) and privileged to hold the Arizona heat for the International Rodeo league.

That’s how the story goes, according to agra-phx.com. And, ahead of the 31st annual Arizona Gay Rodeo, Echo caught up with King to find out what’s changed and what’s stayed the same since the early days.

Photo courtesy of gayrodeohistory.org.

John King. Photo courtesy
of gayrodeohistory.org.

Echo: What was the bar and gay scene like in Phoenix when you opened Charlie’s in 1982?

King: The Phoenix gay bar scene in the early ‘80s was dominated by a quiet, behind-the-scenes man named Dale Williams. While his institutions, the Connection and Taylors, were prospering, there was a gay area forming along East McDowell. These bars included Hot Bods, The Forum, Sammy’s, Solid Gold, with the anchor being Traxx. All these bars were pre-AIDS and they reflected the new freedoms that started developing in the ‘60s. The hustler bars were considered the 307, Cruising on Central, and the Ramrod. Farrah’s on East Thomas and Tommy and Clydes’ “Fat Fingers” were a bit more upscale.

The gay men’s and women’s scenes were operating side by side but still separate. I remember trying to enter the Incognito twice in 1983 and was denied both times. It was OK, I was just curious. Both Bronco’s on 16th Street and Cattlemen’s on Camelback drew a small Country & Western (C&W) crowd, but there was no dancing.

Echo: What did Charlie’s bring to this city that it didn’t have before?

King: Few people realize how important the early Reno Gay Rodeos were in empowering the formerly invisible C&W gay community. To have 20,000 gay “city folk” wildly applauding gay men and women riding horses in cowboy hats was a real game changer for this slice of our community. In the meantime, C&W singing artists had started recording on 64 tracks, which allowed their songs to be enhanced like never before. When you add lights, dancing and a sense of community, this created a new home that encouraged many of these C&W gay people to come out of the shadows … Although Phoenix was smaller than Denver when we opened, it was ringed by thousands of five-acre ranchettes. I just wanted to develop a new market, which accepted gay people without trying to change their values, priorities and the way they were dressed.

Echo: In your words, why is Charlie’s important for AGRA and vice versa?

King: We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were involved in organizing a gay sporting activity that was designed to be used on an interstate level. Its success and popularity has prompted numerous other sporting activities to become national. We take this for granted now, but gay rodeo was on the ground floor of this concept.

It takes the involvement of many to pull off a successful sporting event like a gay rodeo. Charlie’s customers were yearning for involvement in a gay event in which they felt comfortable. The objectives of both organizations were so closely paralleled that an association with each other has formed that has lasted more than 30 years.

Echo: What does rodeo mean to you today?

King: The market requires every organization to re-evaluate and make changes and, at times, I have been impatient with how slowly gay rodeo has adjusted to this new century. However, it is still providing a forum for men and women to visibly demonstrate their C&W lifestyle as well as show off their skills as athletes. Gay rodeo has morphed into a country fair atmosphere, which includes royalty, dancing, entertainment, food, booths and meeting old and new friends. Because of all the other well-organized sporting events that have come on to the scene, it is not as well attended as it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s but, it is still a great outdoors community party.

Echo: Men of Charlie’s was established shortly after AGRA; what prompted the origination of this group?

King: By 1985, I was watching gay men get sick, lose their job and apartment, become desperate and die. It only took months. The lack of government concern has been well documented, but many gay men refused to own the situation and many women considered it a gay man’s problem. After a few scattered fundraisers for affected individuals, the concept of the Men of Charlie’s was born in Denver and it was an immediate success. They adopted the motto “dying with dignity” and they were drawn completely into community involvement. All Charlie’s promised them was a white Charlie’s shirt and half price drinks for life during a Men of Charlie’s event … They have continued to raise thousands of dollars each year for local charities and they have remained scandal free (at least concerning their finances) for 30 years … It is hard to imagine how proud I am of them and all of their accomplishments.

Echo: If you could say one thing to our readers who have never checked out rodeo weekend, what would it be?

King: You can be sure the party will include you, too!


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