The rumor has been floating for a few years, but by now you've heard the official news that, after nearly two decades, Lucky Cheng's is leaving the East Village for Times Square. Rumor says the building at 24 First Avenue will be sold, and that means either demolition or renovation--either way, we're going to lose a significant piece of history, and you can bet that whatever comes next will fail to be anywhere near as interesting as the last half-century here.
Formerly a Lower East Side Russian baths, the Lucky Cheng's building was home to Club Baths, the first openly gay-owned bathhouse, from 1971 - 1983.
from Vintage Gay--more NSFW pics inside
Keith Haring was a regular and preferred the Monday and Friday Buddy Nights.
Former manager Bob Kohler recalls the scene, "We had these huge palm trees, real live trees. For the people coming, you pay your money, there’s going to be sex. Boom, boom. You walk in and there are birds singing. Here you are, you came to fuck. And suddenly you are sitting there and there is a jungle, there’s parrots, and palm trees and exotic flowers."
In 1975, lesbian author Rita Mae Brown snuck into the bathhouse disguised as a man in fake mustache and codpiece. She wrote about her adventure in the essay "Queen for a Day: A Stranger in Paradise."
In his book Make Love, Not War, David Allyn notes how Brown wondered if the "fuck palace" of the gay bathhouse meant total "erotic freedom" or "the ultimate conclusion of sexist logic." In the end, Brown decided that lesbians need bathhouses, too. She wrote: "I want the option of random sex with no emotional commitment when I need sheer physical relief... Our Xanadu would be less competitive than the gay man's baths."
from Back in the Gays
After Club Baths was shuttered during the AIDS crisis and ensuing municipal panic, Hayne Suthon and her family bought the building in 1986 for $2.9 million--money earned from their natural-gas wells in Louisiana, according to New York magazine.
Once a labyrinthine maze of small rooms filled with parrots, palm trees, and orgies, the interior was opened up with help from a crew of "neighborhood skinheads, models, and graffiti artists," wrote New York in 1988. "We found all these artifacts," said Suthon, "huge rubber dildos and everything--it would have made a great museum."
Suthon at Cave Canem, New York Mag., 1988
The New Yorker reported that Suthon "hired a Harvard food historian and converted" the bathhouse "into Cave Canem, a restaurant that served ancient Roman dishes. 'We had a lot of glamorous lesbians working here,' Hayne said."
Guests at Cave Canem sat in oxidized-metal chairs and ate lobster dumplings, but some bathhouse features remained, like the vaulted tile ceilings and a five-foot-deep empty jacuzzi surrounded by dog statuary. NY Songlines also reports a basement full of lesbian orgies--so maybe Rita Mae got her wish.
In the 80s, Cave Canem was called "a real hot spot for the chic-est of the yuppies" and "the place for downtown's hip art scene." (They threw a party for Bret Easton Ellis on opening night.) You could also take a dip by the dance floor. Said Suthon to TIME in 1989, "It's the only place you can go swimming in New York without cement shoes and garbage bags."
At Cave Canem, New York Mag., 1989
But Cave Canem didn't last. In 1993, Suthon turned it into Lucky Cheng's--named after a business partner and former busboy named Cheng who later went on to run the neighboring S/M-themed restaurant La Nouvelle Justine (Hayne took him to People's Court for stealing her chocolate shoe molds but they've since worked it out).
Prince Albert of Monaco dined at Cheng's in 1995 and the place became hugely popular. Still, it wasn't yet the "Bachelorette Party Capital of the Universe" we know today. In a 1994 New York profile of the place, the clientele consists of "nightcrawlers and voyeurs," some Wall Streeters, "waves of the aren't-we-trendy," and Yoko Ono.
New York Mag., 1994
Back then, all the drag queens at Lucky Cheng's were Asian. One described her style as very different from American drag queens--not Brady Bunch, but futuristic Asian sci-fi goddess.
New Yorker, 1994
The tide turned in 1998--Sex & the City premiered and used Lucky Cheng's as the location for their first ensemble scene in Episode 1: "another 30-something birthday with a group of unmarried female friends."
In the scene, the uber bachelorettes set the tone for the next decade in New York. (Says Miranda, "It's like that guy Jeremiah the poet? I mean, the sex was incredible, but then he wanted to read me his poetry and go out to dinner, and the whole chat bit and I'm like, let's not even go there." Not me, I swear.)
In the past decade, Lucky Cheng's has been taken over by screeching bachelorettes. I'll take the orgiastic, omnisexual art yuppies of the 80s over these gals any day. Limo'd in over the bridges and through the tunnels, they come like locusts for a night of suckling phallic lollipops, drinking to blackout, and puking in the streets. On their heads they wear giant penis balloons, complete with shooting semen (provided by John the erotic balloon man). It all seems like a pale parody of the erotic acrobatics that came before.
As blogger Tony Whitfield asked, "Do the straight girls know that they're celebrating impending nuptials among the ghosts of thousands of naked gay men? Do the trendy straight hipster boys fingering the Koi have any idea what else was once fingered in that pool?"
Once Cave Canem's "pit," and the Club Baths' Olympic-sized jacuzzi, and perhaps a cold plunge for the Russian Jews of the Lower East Side, the goldfish pond was drained some years ago. The customers at Cheng's kept throwing beer bottles into it and dumping in booze that harmed the fish.
The jacuzzi is now covered by a stage that hosts bands for avant-garde club Nublu. Overhead, you can still see the vaulted tile ceiling of the old bathhouse. Painted bright red, it's one of the last visible remnants of what used to be.
At the entrance to Cheng's, you can see the tile floor of the old baths and the guard dog of Cave Canem.
We will not miss the bachelorettes, but we will miss Lucky Cheng's. It won't be the same in Disneyland Times Square. It won't be scruffy and sagging, with worn carpets littered with years of glitter, and brick walls that could tell you stories. What will happen to the butch coat-check woman in her weary red blazer? What will happen to the foul-mouthed, big-breasted fortune-teller?
What will happen when the building is sold to someone with far less imagination and flair than Hayne Suthon? All that history--down the drain.