Tuesday, December 13, 2011

History at Lucky Cheng's

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.


EV Grieve said...

Excellent research, Jeremiah.

Anonymous said...

All things must pass.

Melanie said...

Great piece and background information. Thanks Jeremiah.

Anonymous said...

Maybe someone will find a way to make the space something amazing again. It seems to have a history of that.

Brendan said...

Cave Canem sounds like the 1980s version of exactly the kind of thing you hate.

Lucky Cheng's belongs in the tourist district, so the move makes sense.

Caleo said...

What will happen ?
The same that has happened to most every slice of dirty old New York... retreat into memories and photographs.

Ed said...

One thing that strikes me about this history is that each establishment in this building, though they all have their strong points, is less interesting than the last. So there is a clear trend here.

Though Lucky Cheng's is already pretty "Disneyfied". I think it belongs near Times Square.

marjorie said...

Such a great piece -- thank you for posting it.

I remember when I first moved to NYC -- I knew immediately I was not cool enough for Cave Canem (which, until I read this, I didn't remember was in the same spot as Lucky Cheng's).

It's always great to learn about what came before.

Mark said...

I had a student pass (under 21!) for the Club Baths.

$2.00 for a locker and a week night of fun!

thwany said...

thanks for this!

Marty Wombacher said...

Great post and documentation, Jeremiah! Too bad the place is destined to become a tourist trap in the Disneyland of Times Square.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Lucky Cheng's has an undercurrent, like a sub-audible wavelength that vibrates beneath the bachelorette din, and you can still get into that undercurrent. it's seedy, dirty, and queer. sometimes hard to see, but it's there.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Interesting history. I really hope that tile work can be saved or somehow preserved.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Thanks, Jeremiah. Great to see those Club Baths photographs.

mbess02 said...

Thank you Jeramiah. I loed it.

Being a newly expat from New Orleans in the 80s NYC, I found a kindred spirit in my favorite femme fatale also from NOLA, Hayne Suthon. I have fond, outrageous memories of Cave Canem;

Cave Caneem reminds me of the 80s version of exactly the kind of thing I loved.

Thanks Hayne.

Jeff said...

Extra trivia: I don't know when the Cave Canem mosaic landed on the front hall, but it was copied from mosaics in the front hall of "House of the Tragic Poet", One of the homes unearthed in Pompeii. "Cave Canem" means "beware of dog."

Fipper said...

Thank you for the article. I'll definitely be sure to revisit LC one last time now knowing the history behind it. LC will be missed.

glamma said...

i shudder to think what will replace this.
thank you for highlighting the extreme contrasts of what it was and what it will become, an unfortunately sad yet popular condition in NYC these days.

Anonymous said...

It's so sad that yet another iconic East Village building will be leveled for some glass-box, high-rise monstrosity.
I loved Cave Canem. And Lucky Cheng's was a lot of fun. I had forgotten that Cave Canem was in the same location. Thank you for all the research, love this stuff!
I hope Cheng's can make it in Times Square, but I'm afraid that it will completely lose it's "edge" once it moves. One good thing, maybe there won't be as many stupid white stretch limos around here. Yeah, right.

Anonymous said...

I remember Cave Canem, went there a lot and did not know it was cool... I could get in and had a great time (for the evenings I can remember...) Thanks for the time warp!

Hayne said...

Exactly right, it was replicated from the mosaic of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. Great research on this building!!!! It was the sign for the restaurant, a Cave Canem paintingc was at the entrance to Feast of Trimalchio as described in Petronius' Satyricon. However, no worries, the building is absolutely not for sale and my daughter, cats, dogs (no longer the big canems, now the smaller Italian greyhounds used for hunting and not as watchdogs), and me are keeping our apartment there. Looking for a great operator to create something truly fantastic, in keeping in the tradition of the building. God forbid someone upsets the resident ghosts.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks Hayne--glad you like the piece and that is good news about the building! i'm crossing my fingers for something good.

Garth V said...

Hayne, I'm so happy you're staying!
My personal history with the place started at the soft opening of Cave Canem, when I was just out of H.S. I was a photographer for DV8 magazine and came to photo the artsy illuminati who all had to walk on a wooden plank over the gutted front of the building into an art show and installation along the halls in the back. It was one of those most fabulous events you feel privileged to get to attend.
I later ended up working at Lucky Cheng's for 8 years and they are still my family. Just went by last weekend and it still hits the spot for all the things you miss at the typical overpopulated LES bars. Even in this end-of-days Hayne is still keeping the fabulousness alive!

Anonymous said...

Michael said...

Wow, great collection of pics & historical bg. I remember Cave Canem so well - loved that place and was there at least once a week. Its closure was one of those events - that we all have - that personally mark some kind of greater change or decline. Great bar, dancing downstairs, perfect location.

It will also remain in my mind forever as the place where I witnessed the fastest pickup *ever* - literally 4 minutes from a couple's meeting to out-the-door together. Heh.

susan brown said...

i made the mosaic , the CAVE CANEM dog piece at the entrance in the late 1980's.. I am a nyc artist, and reproduce subway mosaics for the nyc transit authority. www.serpentile.com

susan brown said...

Hi. I made the mosaic reproduction with my former partner in the late 80's. It is an exact reproduction of the Pompeiian mosaic. It was commissioned by Hayne and her partners for the restaurant, which had a really interesting decor and a delicious ancient Roman cuisine menu. The mosaic is still there in the entrance, sometimes under a red carpet. It was our first project. Susan (Serpentile Mosaics)