Hollywood’s (Very, Very Wild) “Gay Cheers” Turns 25: An Oral History of The Abbey
By Seth Abramovitch, Gary Baum, and Chris Gardner
6:45am PT | June 09, 2016
When it first opened, the place down the street said “Fagots — Stay Out!” AIDS raged and same-sex marriage was a pipe dream. Now, Bruce Vilanch, Kevin Huvane and Nene Leakes recall the colorful history of the coffeehouse/bar with the shirtless bartenders, go-go dancers and Elizabeth Taylor in the front row in her wheelchair, “just to get out and show people people she was alive and kicking.”
The iconic gay hotspot located near the corner of Robertson and Santa Monica boulevards in West Hollywood has hosted Oscar winners (Elizabeth Taylor watched from her wheelchair as trans star Candis Cayne high-kicked during her weekly one-woman show), pop superstars (Lady Gaga showed up in a bra and panties to give fans an exclusive listen to her third album, Artpop, before its official release) and gay glitterati (Elton John! Bryan Singer! CAA power agent Kevin Huvane!).
But the Abbey story is bigger than its big-name clientele. Owner David Cooley has seamlessly mixed nightlife innovations — the appletini was invented there; male and female go-go dancers perform side by side — with social activism during its 25-year run, a milestone toasted in May.
Opened in 1991 as a cozy coffee shop offering espresso and cakes, The Abbey, which was financed by Cooley on credit cards in order to serve an almost exclusively gay clientele (many of whom he handpicked from nearby Alcoholics Anonymous groups), quickly became a meeting place for local branches of AIDS advocacy groups like ACT UP. This marked the beginning of the Abbey’s branding as an unofficial headquarters for gay rights advocates that would continue through Prop 8 marches and subsequent celebrations in 2008, when same-sex marriage was legalized in California.
“It really is the U.N. of bars,” says Huvane (who also is Cooley’s agent).
“Elizabeth Taylor would go there now and again to just get out and show people she was alive and kicking.”
The Abbey: Inside Hollywood’s Iconic Gay Hotspot
Christina Aguilera Elton John, David Furnish and David Cooley Anna Nicole SmithBobby TrendyKim KardashianKris Jenner The Abbey PlaqueThe Abbey NapkinsIan McKellen and Martin JoyceKathy Griffin and Michelle TrachtenbergLance BassThe AbbeyThe Abbey’s Original Location
But it’s also still a white-hot destination, with an army of attractive staff and ever-stiff cocktails — a see-and-be-seen spot that never discriminates. “Part of the secret is from day one, I’ve always had the policy that everyone is welcome,” says Cooley, describing the Abbey’s embrace of gay, straight and in-between customers.
A new audience soon will get to see this living legend on the small screen when an Abbey-set reality show from E!, tentatively titled The Abbey Diaries, premieres (at a yet-unscheduled date). But for a more intimate perspective, THR asked Cooley, 56, and his cadre of Abbey worshippers to recount their favorite memories, discuss the bar’s cultural significance and look ahead to what the next chapter holds for the quintessential West Hollywood haunt.
DAVID COOLEY I grew up in Ohio and went to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and got a degree in hotel administration. Upon graduating, I moved to Southern California and saw how accepted the lifestyle was in West Hollywood. I was just experiencing that I was becoming gay. I became a banker at Wells Fargo in 1984, and I watched as one of my clients opened the first coffeehouse in Los Angeles called The Living Room. So I found 1,100 square feet from part of a laundry and dry cleaner and transformed it into the first coffeehouse in West Hollywood.
ALAN POUL, executive producer of HBO’s The Newsroom It was the beginning of the era of the coffeehouse. It was the first real “hang out and do work” coffee shop that was in WeHo and was gay. It was a great place to run into people. It was quiet and friendly and became my favorite place to hang out. I did most of my hanging out there in the early years before they expanded. Now there are a million coffee places, but when the Abbey opened, there weren’t so many. It became a kind of unique haven where you could hang out during the day that wasn’t a bar and wasn’t expressly made for cruising.
GARY JANETTI, creator of Vicious, EP of Family Guy I had never seen a cool coffee shop with cute guys in tank tops sitting outside all day. It felt like there was a casting for the people having coffee at the Abbey. The best-looking person in every small town in America is told to go to Hollywood, so they all come to Hollywood. This was the gay version of that. Everybody played a part — my part was “gay guy who goes to the gym but also reads Balzac.” I always felt like gay Lana Turner, that I’d be discovered there, with my book and my latte. But my ambition was to be a TV writer. How I thought someone would have gleaned that from me just sitting there reading a book with a cup of coffee is beyond me!
COOLEY I would market it by going down to the Log Cabin [Alcoholics Anonymous] down the street and, you know, “Come up for coffee!” I would also just get a lot of good-looking guys to hang out there and buy them coffee and cake for the night. And people started noticing that it was a really attractive crowd in there. It had a good three-year run. Then I had the opportunity to move to where we are now, across the street, to this terra-cotta statuary business.
BRUCE VILANCH, head writer for the Oscars You’d watch the stone masons go to work across the street. They did a brisk business selling headstones and tombstones. We used to joke, “Well, if you find out you’re sick [from AIDS], you can go over there and spend hours picking out your headstone!”
HAL SPARKS, Queer as Folk star, Talk Soup host It was pivotally on the opposite side of West Hollywood from Barney’s Beanery, with its infamous sign [“Fagots (sic) — Stay Out”]. It was a safe zone across that Strip. It was a counterpoint to the hostility that was Barney’s.
COOLEY There were a few bars and clubs in the area: Studio One, The Mother Lode. They were all, you know, not seen by the street — behind curtains and black glass.
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VILANCH When it moved across the street, it was a much bigger deal. It was very atmospheric. The mood of the place changed as the day went on. It was a coffeehouse, and all of a sudden, they’d be lighting candles — a wall of candles would be behind you. It was brilliantly designed. The mood would change. People were reading, then the music would start and the lights would all change, and it became a dance place.
POUL It became much more actively social, and then suddenly it was a scene. It was a sea change.
CARSON KRESSLEY, TV host, judge of RuPaul’s Drag Race Coming from New York, it definitely feels very L.A. It has this Spanish kind of feeling, with all of these religious symbols. There are these open-air courtyards. There are topiaries, beautiful lighting. It’s very theatrical. There’s this woman who goes around selling “ro-sas.”
MARIA ESTELLE RIMALACHIN LA ROSA, West Hollywood merchant I’ve been selling roses for 21 years. Back in the day, I was selling about 80 roses a day, sometimes even 90 roses a day. Now, I only sell about a dozen because people are less romantic. It’s all about the apps and things today. The lesbians and gays were so romantic then; they would buy roses and start kissing. Now they buy roses and hit each other.
SPARKS Frankly, it’s got a lot of nooks and crannies. It can be a place where you covertly or overtly start a relationship.
COOLEY I had a business partner for my first three years. We were deciding how we should name the place. He had some old church stained-glass windows in his garage. We said, “Let’s go with that theme.” We got some church pews. The monk statuaries are some of the items I bought when the [terra-cotta shop] was finally closing. So we’re trying to think of the name. This is how tight we were on money: “The Abbey” had the fewest letters.
The famous patio in the Abbey’s current location is adorned with statues from the stonemasonry business that previously occupied the space. The bar presently has a total of 16,000 square feet indoors and out, with a renovation underway to add another 5,000 square feet.
ROSS MATHEWS, TV host When I first started on TV, back in 2000, I’d save up all week for a $12 appletini. It was so important to come here.
INGENUE, drag queen I had heard about these wonderful apple martinis, and I wasn’t much of a drinker. I was 23. I had just moved down here from Bakersfield. I didn’t realize how much alcohol was in one until I stood up. I went, “Oh, good lord!” That room went spinning. The green apple martinis are lethal but worth every penny.
JAI RODRIGUEZ, host and former star, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy In general, the Abbey pour is something you have to warn people about, especially if they’re from out of town or they’re straight. Sometimes people say they are going to go somewhere else to get a cheap drink, and I tell them to pay a little extra — you will be thankful after about three sips.
COOLEY I thought of the apple martini (pictured right). It was a 10-ounce martini with a big slice of green apple on it. That became the brand, the drink of the Abbey. We went through cases of sliced apples every night.
ARMANDO CONWAY, bartender for 10 years and resident mixologist for three I was here from 2003. It was 35 pounds ago. I personally sold like $4 million to $5 million in alcohol in 13 years. It’s the No. 1-selling bar on the West Coast.
KRESSLEY My memories of the Abbey are a little foggy because I used to be a little overserved there.
COOLEY Mojitos is a fun story. I went from about six bottles a week when we started with them to now being the largest account for Bacardi in the country.
ISAIAH MUSTAFA, actor and Old Spice spokesman I actually had two classmates from acting class who worked there, and they made their rent and class tuition in one weekend and they were gloating about it one day. And I’m like, “Where the f— do you guys work?” And they said the Abbey, so I asked if I could get a job there. I had no clue then that the tips were amazing at the Abbey, until I worked there. A friend of mine told Jethro, the manager there at the time, that I would be a good bartender, and he hired me with two shifts. I was there for three years. The nicer you are to your customers, the more gracious they will be with their tips. I could never put a number to how many drinks I made.
JANETTI It always felt like a neighborhood bar but a really good one. You’d see a person who you always saw at the gym that you never spoke to. But after a few drinks, “I saw you at the gym!” The Abbey was the best place to say that. It was always like, “Oh shit, there’s that guy from the gym!” That’s the sentence that’s most uttered.
COOLEY I remember early on that I had a group of guys come in called ACT UP. That was the first outspoken, in-your-face group that said the government is not doing enough about the word “AIDS.” It was not even spoken. Reagan never said anything about it. We’d meet at the Abbey. They would do marches. That was the first organization to use the Abbey as a political cause.
SPARKS We used it as the staging point for AIDS Walk countless times. It will always be entrenched in memory as the place where the advocates gathered as the movement gained ground. You could see who was there year after year. You could see the demographic shift.
KEVIN HUVANE, CAA partner David has become very political, and when Prop 8 was passed, he hired buses to go downtown to march. He got four or five gigantic buses and had people meet at the Abbey, and that’s all done out of his pocket. That’s what I admire about him so much. He’s not just a guy who comes in and opens a bar. He really is a member of the community. And a leader of the community.
COOLEY I banned bachelorette parties after Prop 8 passed but before it was overturned. It got a lot of attention. My reasoning was, I was seeing a lot of bachelorette parties coming in with their boas and tiaras and penis guns and penis lollipops, really having a great time and enjoying my dancers. But as gays, we couldn’t have that same fun. We weren’t equal. So I decided that until we could get married and have bachelor parties, let’s not do that. We’ve since reversed the policy. But I still don’t allow the boas and the penis hats in.
POUL One of the reasons I don’t go as often is there has been a giant infusion of people from the straight community who like to go there and hang out. That is always both mysterious and less interesting to me — when the straights start invading.
VILANCH I guess [Cooley] became partners with Sam Nazarian’s SBE [in 2006]. I never understood the deal. It was at the forefront of turning the nightlife in West Hollywood into bigger business, and that entailed bringing straight people in. But that also was a social change that was happening at the time, where younger generations were easier mingling with each other.
RICH GROSSI, West Hollywood nightclub entrepreneur The SBE deal worked for Dave financially but probably did not give him exactly what he wanted. SBE was basically going to finance an expansion of the brand. The Abbey was supposed to become a brand like SBE brands such as Hyde, where it would be in different cities. That didn’t happen. But SBE is very professional in how they do business. They had a good back-office staff to handle everything from HR to ordering to operations. The Abbey was run much better and had a better profit margin than before. [Cooley bought out SBE in 2015.]
Cayne, who performed a one-woman show at the bar every Monday night for two years, posed with owner Cooley on New Year’s Eve in 2009.
RODRIGUEZ Sometimes people bitch and moan about there being too many straight people. David did a good job of making this a safe space for our community. Now our community has expanded to allies.
CANDIS CAYNE, transgender actress To me, a good club is a mixed club. A successful club has always involved anyone.
NENE LEAKES, actress and reality TV star Anybody could come in there — I felt comfortable bringing my husband. But it’s really turnt up.
HUVANE The bar was being criticized because it wasn’t gay enough. And David’s answer was exactly what it should be: “We fought for years to be included, why would we be exclusive now?”
KRESSLEY It’s been our town hall even though it’s probably decorated like Cher’s bathroom. What’s great is that everybody congregates there. 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.
SPARKS The Abbey is a monument to changing attitudes and the bridges that are being built.
BOBBY TRENDY, interior designer, former reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith loved coming here. She celebrated many Gay Prides here in the cabanas in the back. Joan Rivers loved coming here. And Elizabeth Taylor came here frequently.
COOLEY It goes back to the early days. Elizabeth Montgomery was one of our first customers. Sam Smith comes in to celebrate every time he wins an award. We’ve had Sandra Bullock here. She was enjoying herself because this was when she was going through that horrible divorce. It was like her first time to come out and have fun.
MUSTAFA One night I saw Dennis Rodman. He was a gracious tipper.
CAYNE Zachary Quinto would come and watch my show. Queen Latifah came one night. I was like, “Work!”
COOLEY I’m running around, and my staff says, “Queen Latifah’s here. She wants to sit at your table.” I’m like, “Listen, everyone’s a queen, OK?” They’re like, “No, it’s Queen Latifah!” “Oh, bring her down!”
INGENUE I was once asked to get a bunch of girls together for one of the anniversary parties or Dave Cooley’s birthday. We all dressed up like famous Hollywood women. We had a Marilyn, a Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, and all of a sudden, I hear that “Xtina” is coming. I’m like, “A drag queen named Xtina? Why would she be here?” And then, all of a sudden, Christina Aguilera walks in. It was her with a bunch of us drag queens.
KRESSLEY You see everybody at the Abbey. “I just met a hot guy from the Middle East” or “Mindy Cohn from The Facts of Life.”
MATHEWS You can meet someone from Tennessee who is visiting. You can meet people who have driven in from Riverside. You can meet an Oscar winner.
MICHELLE VISAGE, TV personality and RuPaul’s Drag Race judge I think what separates the Abbey from everyone else is it’s like the gay Cheers — everyone knows your name. It has a homey feeling where you can just sit outside and eat or go in and gyrate.
HEATHER MCDONALD, actress and comedian I used to do stand-up at this place called Luna Park down the street, and we’d come here after. I love that it’s still here. When I got to be a little known — the gays love to come up to you. Whether you’re a stand-up like me or one of the Real Housewives, when you need a pat on the back, go to the Abbey, girl! If you’re on Bravo or E!, just go to the Abbey.
LEAKES They go crazy. The DJ announced “NeNe’s in the house!” and I said, “Why did you do that?” I went in once with Kyle Richards. To me, it’s like a club and strip club all mixed in one. It’s a super-fun place. You can really go in and let your hair down and stand up and scream.
CAYNE My most memorable night was getting a call saying that Elizabeth Taylor is coming. And I laughed, like, “I will believe it when I see it.” I was just starting my show, and they wheeled her in to the front row. She was with her little dog, and she watched the whole show. Halfway through, I took a break and called my parents to tell them that Elizabeth Taylor was at my show. It was such a dream come true.
VILANCH Elizabeth Taylor would go there now and again to just get out and show people that she was alive and kicking; she wasn’t doing much, just sitting around the house and selling her jewelry. They have this portrait of her at the Abbey, which I always felt looked a little like Eydie Gorme. She’d show up with a posse and sit under her portrait and receive. It was fun to watch her hold court, sitting there like a pasha in an elaborate caftan with a dog on her lap. She had service animals before there were service animals.
JANETTI Not long ago, I took Ian McKellen there. It was a Saturday night and going with Ian McKellen is like bringing the queen. The seas parted. It was so fabulous. We were cordoned off with a rope around us, the go-go boys dancing over us.
JACK MORRISSEY, producer (and Bill Condon’s partner) Ian was here doing work on Mr. Holmes. He has dinner at Craig’s with Elton John. He wants to meet at the Abbey. We set him up with the booth and bottle and all that shit. The go-go boys and shirtless bartenders are fully deployed — all of whom look like Ryan Phillippe in 54. I get there early to make sure everything’s cool. At one point I look over, and he’s looking up at one of these dancers, with his hands on his face, Home Alone-style.
LEAKES We never plan to go to the Abbey. It just kind of happens. Like we’re out doing something, and we’re like, “Wanna go to the Abbey?” Next thing you know, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and they’re putting your ass out on the street.
LAUREN MEISTER, mayor of West Hollywood It’s known worldwide now. People come to West Hollywood and they ask, “Where is the Abbey?” It’s not just for gay, it’s not just for straight — it’s for everyone.
MATHEWS It’s about to get a lot more “Hollywood” because of the reality show being filmed here. But I’m confident the bar won’t change. I can’t wait for the rest of the world — all the people who have not had the chance to come here with a friend — to get to know the Abbey.
HUVANE It’s going to be about the life of the bar, its inner workings, the people who work there. Some of it will be about David. In the reality space, it will be an interesting show because it will show that the Abbey, with both its clientele and employees, is incredibly mixed.
POUL David created that space when there was nothing like it. He saw an opportunity and capitalized on it. The place managed to become an institution and a name, and he took that name and kept adapting it so that it could not only expand and enlarge but also stay at pace with the times.
GILLES MARINI, actor, Sex and the City This is an iconic place that made a lot of things happen for the community in Los Angeles but also around the world. I went to Cannes last year, and someone asked me, “Hey, you’re from L.A. Have you been to the Abbey?”
COOLEY The love is overwhelming. If I had hair on my arms, it would be standing up.