HOTSEAT- Cooper's town: Last dance for Club 216 founder
Here's a surprise: the manager of Charlottesville's only after-hours club is... a morning person. Club 216's Clyde Cooper hasn't missed a day (or night) of work in five years, even when being "at work" means Fridays and Saturdays from 9pm to 6 or 6:30am. But that schedule is about to change abruptly.
Cooper is retiring– again– from the gay social club he helped found in 1990, and this time he thinks his retirement will stick. June 30 was his last night, so don't look for him hanging out at the club he's ruled for 17 years. "I won't come most nights," he says. "I'm not a party person."
He hardly could have predicted in 1954 when he joined the Navy at the age of 17 that his second career would be running a gay club. "I knew I was bisexual," he says, "but I thought the homosexuality was something I could turn on and off."
He was Gungho Charlie Bravo, a senior chief radioman who'd laugh at jokes about gays– "anything to keep the attention off me."
After more than 20 years in the Navy, he moved to the Charlottesville area with his wife and three daughters, and became depressed and suicidal. "No one knew because I was good at pretending," says Cooper. "That's why there are so many gays in the theater– they're good at acting."
A serious illness hospitalized him in Bethesda, where he spent a lot of time in isolation. "A year after that, I came out of the closet," he says. "How do you do that without hurting people?"
No one took the news well at first, and he and his oldest daughter were estranged for 11 years. But eventually, his wife became friends with his partner, Mike Fitzgerald, and she lived with them before she died two years ago.
Cooper and Fitzgerald opened the Silver Fox in 1985. "We didn't realize the name meant attractive older men," he says.
At that time, says Cooper, it was illegal for homosexuals to own, gather, or be served in a place with an ABC license. "They lumped us with the felons– " drug addicts, prostitutes, and pimps– and that language in the law didn't change until 1993. "I didn't understand the law, or I wouldn't have been stupid enough to open a bar," he says.
His best allies then were the police and local ABC agents, and that hasn't changed. At any hint of trouble, he calls the police, and there are usually off-duty officers working security at the club, which is the creation of– as well as the official gathering spot of– the Piedmont Triangle Society, the non-profit group advancing the interests of Central Virginia gays. Anyone wanting to join Club 216 must be sponsored by a member.
"If you fight here, you get thrown out," he declares. Also not tolerated: underage drinking and drugs.
And don't think Club 216 is one of those gay clubs where everyone is having sex in the bathrooms. "The biggest problem we have with sex in the bathroom is straight people," notes Cooper, and even that's pretty rare.
What is encouraged? Dancing and having fun. There's one misperception he likes to perpetuate. "We work hard to brag it's a gay club, but it's much more diverse," he says. Even straight men loosen up when they discover 216 is a good place to hang out, he says.
Cooper knows he's going to miss the companionship of both gays and straights.
"In 1985, people used to throw rocks and bottles at us," he observes. "Today they come and dance with us."
Why here? I moved here in September 1974 with my wife and three daughters because we liked the beauty of the area, and because we had purchased property at Lake Monticello.
What's worst about living here? Absolutely nothing
Favorite hangout? Club 216 and movie theaters
Most overrated virtue? Leadership
People would be surprised to know: How private I really am, that I'm dyslectic, and that I am legally 100 percent disabled.
What would you change about yourself? Patience and tolerance.
Proudest accomplishment? Being part of forming a "gay" dance club that attracts gays, straights, and all the liars in between– and how well everyone gets along
People find most annoying about you: What they perceive as arrogance
Whom do you admire? Gorbachev
Favorite book? I do not read a lot because I'm dyslectic, so I have no favorite books.
Subject that causes you to rant? The Iraq War and President Bush
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Nothing in the 21st century, but in the 20th century the fall of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin Wall
Biggest 21st-century creep out? The Iraq War
What do you drive? 2002 Buick LeSabre
In your car CD player right now: Aromatherapy / Music for Rejuvenation
Next journey? Europe
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I've never been in any legal trouble; however, I've had some serious medical problems in my life.
Regret: That I did not come out as a gay person until I was 45
Favorite comfort food: Gibbles Potato Chips
Always in your refrigerator: Eggs
Must-see TV: News!
Favorite cartoon: Road Runner
Describe a perfect day. A cool, clear day outing with Mike, my life-partner of 25 years
Walter Mitty fantasy: To be rich enough to be a small-time philanthropist
Who'd play you in the movie? Steve Carell
Most embarrassing moment? So private that I cannot say except to say it had to do with my disability. (I'm not trying to cop-out.)
Best advice you ever got? Pay your taxes
Favorite bumper sticker? "Gay Rights don't affect my Marriage"