Metro Weekly

Exclusive: The Internal Fighting that Brought Down the Baltimore Eagle

Manager Chuck King and owner Ian Parrish give their sides in an argument that broke Baltimore's leather bar

Baltimore Eagle – Photo by Todd Franson.

When the Baltimore Eagle abruptly closed on Wednesday, July 25, the mood was “doom and gloom,” according to General Manager Chuck King. “It was just like the end of everything,” he says. “And then we woke up [Thursday] to hundreds of messages of love and support.”

In a statement posted on the website baltimoreleatherbar.com, King, his co-partner and husband Greg King, and Bob Gasser — the forces behind management company 4 Crazy Guys, LLC — said the Eagle had closed in part because of an ongoing dispute with the Parrish family, who owns the building where the Eagle is situated, and partially to a rogue lender who took them to court to demand his his share of the money back, forcing the one-year-old bar to take a significant financial hit when they had to pay legal and court fees to defend themselves.

The final straw, following a significant slowdown in business after Baltimore Pride ended in June, was a power outage caused by torrential downpours. The reason for the outage was later determined to be a failure, ostensibly by the electrician who installed the main electrical panel on the outside of the building, to properly weatherproof it. That outage forced the bar to close and lose three days’ worth of business.

We’re probably $80,000 in the hole, with legal fees and bills and everything else,” says King. “[The outage] just put the nail in our coffin. We just had to finally say, ‘We can’t do it.'”

The managers made a few calls to local leather, fetish, and motorcycle clubs to let them know they would be closing, and many came to take down their colors, banners, and other property they had lent to the bar for its display cases. For clubs that were further away, fellow leather clubs contacted their leaders and asked if they could take their property down from the display cases and hold it until a representative could come down to Baltimore to reclaim it.

The managers also allowed employees to take some leftover unopened liquor or merchandise, equivalent to what they were owed in pay for the past two weeks, because they simply did not have enough money to pay them in cash or write a check. The managers filed for personal bankruptcy because 4 Crazy Guys didn’t even have enough money to file its own bankruptcy, says King.

From the perspective of the managers, the biggest problem 4 Crazy Guys faced was interference by the Parrish family, who own both the building and the Baltimore Eagle brand. King  says the Parrishes saw the managers as employees, even though the contract they signed gave them a significant amount of freedom and discretion over day-to-day operations and marketing.

Baltimore Eagle – File Photo: Todd Franson

“The original agreement basically said that they had to rehab the outside of the place into something called a ‘warm, black box,’ where basically it’s just down to walls and they would stub the electricity to the building, and they would stub the plumbing to the building,” says King. “From there, we would do everything else. [The plumbing,] the drywall, we would put in all the electrical, the lighting, the outlets, everything.”

King says they had to do “everything on the inside of the building, too” including “buying equipment and stuff…. We had to buy furniture and get lighting, fixtures, and everything.” The total cost, says King, was almost $700,000.

“The [licensing] agreement was that we would operate, we licensed the brand name, and there were very few rules governing that,” King says. In addition, they signed a 5-year continuous lease that gave 4 Crazy Guys the first right of refusal to purchase the building. King says the licensing agreement included a style guide, but it is “very simple, it has a couple of examples of how they would like to see the logo and how they would like to see the address put on across the bottom of the marketing…. There were no other rules.”

But, King alleges, despite the apparent freedom of their licensing agreement, the Parrish family began trying to insert themselves in various decisions.

“In the beginning, it seemed like it was going to be a good relationship,” he says. “But we had some bumps in the road…. I remember specifically there was a moment where, before we opened, we got into a big fight with the Parrishes. I honestly can’t remember what it was over. It was over something insignificant, but it was something that it was enough for us to actually think, ‘What are we doing? Should we walk away from this?’ We didn’t listen to our guts and that was our mistake.

“If we had probably done more research, we probably would have found enough evidence of other unhappy tenants and people dealing with them. After we went into business with them, I can’t tell you how many people have come to us with such negative opinions of the Parrishes. We thought, ‘That doesn’t seem right,’ but very quickly we learned that they didn’t want us to run the bar. They wanted us to be their employees and do as we were told.”

King says that the Parrishes took issue with how the bar was being marketed, objecting to the inclusion of female-oriented pictures on the Eagle’s website and promotional materials.

“We have so many emails that show how they would, in my opinion, lose their minds over a woman’s dress in a poster. They would get upset because there was a guy on there who was overweight and they didn’t like his body type, or he was, in their words and in their opinion, ‘too ugly to be on the poster,'” King says. “We did a photo shoot when we first opened with all people from the region, mostly from Baltimore, some from D.C., and they didn’t like the photo shoot because we had real people in it. We had every different color of human being in there in the photo shoot. It was very diverse, and different ethnic backgrounds. But everything that they did, they fought us on everything, especially marketing. They tried to control our marketing like we were a franchise, and we are not a franchise. They don’t have franchise licensing.”

When the Parrishes objected to a managerial decision, particularly around marketing, King says they, and Ian Parrish in particular, would threaten to take away access to the bar’s website, thebaltimoreeagle.com.

“They actually shut off our website the Friday of our grand opening weekend, and I called [Ian’s] father, Charles Parrish, and said, ‘What is going on? This is our grand opening weekend. We have tickets for sale on our website. They’re making us lose business because your son is having a fit about a piece of marketing,'” King recalls. “So, they turned it back on, but it was down for quite a few hours that night, and people were calling us trying to figure out what was going on because they couldn’t see our website.”

He then says that the Parrishes demanded that 4 Crazy Guys sign a new license agreement, and when they refused to, the Parrishes allegedly shut down access to the Baltimore Eagle website and Facebook page, prompting the managers to start their own website, baltimoreleatherbar.com, and corresponding Facebook page.

Throughout the dispute, King says 4 Crazy Guys continued to pay $8,000 a month in rent, plus a 4% commission of the gross from all proceeds in the building, which included the bar, the restaurant, the package goods store, and the leather store on the second floor. In total, that meant paying around $12,000 to $13,000 a month.

Ian Parrish objects to King’s characterization of the relationship, saying that it was the management team who didn’t live up to its end of the contract. He also says that his father, Charles Parrish, went to the Eagle as it was closing and found chaos.

“Our former tenants haven’t honored their financial obligations under the lease without cause for some time,” he says. “This isn’t a matter of the landlord didn’t fix the roof or something like that. This is a matter of checks being bounced and promises not being honored. And during that time, they became increasingly hostile.”

Parrish accuses the Eagle staff of clogging two of the drains by emptying out the open bottles of liquor and leaving smashed glass and empty bottles all over the floor. He takes issue with the way the bar was closed down and the state in which it was left when they vacated the building. Parrish also was surprised by the removal of some of the various leather clubs’ colors or banners from the display cases. While he acknowledges the items belong to the various clubs, they were in the custodianship of the Eagle.

“Under our agreement, when the tenants leave, they are to leave those items in the location here,” he says. “Now, if those clubs want them back, those clubs are free to contact us. But it is not the rightful property of the tenants. If any club wants their colors back, then fine. They can have them back. Yeah, the clubs are fine to take that back, but we’re here now cleaning up the mess.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to the community,” he says. “We’ve lived here, worked here, my family, in this neighborhood for literally generations,” he says, pointing out his family’s longstanding ties to Baltimore City and the Charles North neighborhood where the Eagle is located.  “As for the tenants, I think their actions speak for themselves. I think the fact that they left the community so suddenly says more than I ever could. I support some of the great new ideas that they [brought to] the table and I’m sorry they weren’t able to make them work.”

Parrish notes that his family was instrumental in fighting off NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), who didn’t want a gay bar to open in their neighborhood, as well as fighting successfully to get back the old Baltimore Eagle’s liquor license despite pushback from the Baltimore City Liquor Board, and pushing to have the liquor board approve the transfer of the recently closed Club Hippo’s liquor license to the Eagle, while the earlier liquor license controversy was being litigated.

Parrish says that as owners of the Eagle brand, the building, and the liquor license — though King insists his name is on the liquor license — his family has always tried to prioritize safety, a sanitary environment, and making the Eagle a safe place for anyone to be themselves.

Baltimore Eagle interior – Photo by Todd Franson

However, Parrish he says he encountered pushback from the managers, who objected to efforts to install security cameras, ensure they were complying with ServSafe standards for food service, and requests around marketing and the way that the Eagle brand name was used.

“I’m sorry they didn’t like the lease that they wrote cooperatively, but they refused to install the approved security system that was required under that lease,” Parrish says. “And we believe that was reckless. In light of the incidents that we’ve experienced around the building, you have to have security. You have to protect your patrons. We also used the interior security system to monitor cash registers and to monitor cover charges, to prevent stealing. I think this really gets at the heart of the matter with their problem with the security system, because on multiple occasions, our security [consultants] discovered that those cameras that monitor the registers and cover charges were unplugged.

As far as sanitary, the tenants brought up our request regarding uniforms. We never actually asked them to create uniforms. Never. One of our advisors, who represents the largest restaurant consulting firm in the nation, had concerns that the tenant may not be in compliance with ServSafe standards,” he adds. “So we asked the tenant that they create a set of standards so that everybody behind the bar is in compliance with the health code. Because when it comes to food safety, that’s a reasonable request.

“You know, the Eagle is an edgy place. It’s okay to show some skin and get wild. It’s not adult entertainment, but there’s a degree. However, when you’re showing the wrong parts of skin and it’s near somebody’s food, or the ice that they put in their drink, there is a line. So we just said, ‘Can you consider this?’ Unfortunately, the tenants refused and eventually, one of the insurers on the building canceled the insurance. The insurance was canceled for ‘poor housekeeping’ and ‘inadequate risk control.'”

Parrish contests the claim that he denied the managers access to the Eagle’s website over advertising disputes, though his family did object to some of the marketing gimmicks and had to “step in” to “prevent the Eagle brand from being associated with inappropriate content and intolerance.” As an example, he points to a “Sexy Jesus” contest ad.

That ad showed a person dressed as Jesus bending over exposing his anus. That’s unacceptable,” says Parrish. “We pushed back on that and apparently we’re paying a price for it now. There was another ad promoting a night of ‘kinky fuckery,’ to benefit a battered women’s shelter. That resulted in several complaints, too…. It was very, very poor taste and it upset people. The last thing somebody who’s staying at a battered women’s shelter wants to think about is ‘kinky fuckery.’ There’s a way to promote that. That was not it. And it wasn’t malicious, but it was distasteful and unfortunately, it wasn’t handled in a productive way.

I stand by every decision that I’ve made,” he adds. “I’m not ashamed. I’m happy to walk down the street and I don’t know anybody who’s upset with what we’ve done except the individuals that issued those statements,” he said, referring to 4 Crazy Guys’ statement on baltimoreleatherbar.com.

King takes issue with several of Parrish’s claims. For instance, he agrees that the “kinky fuckery” poster was in poor taste, but was made by a women’s group for their own event, and the management was not involved with the creation of the poster. He even referred one of the women who complained to the event organizers, who, after speaking with her, changed their artwork.

He objects to the characterization that the bar was left in disrepair or that drains were clogged, and that none of the fixtures or furniture purchased by 4 Crazy Guys was damaged or removed. He acknowledges that the unopened bottles of liquor from the bar or the package store were given to employees as a form of payment, but also says that the Parrishes are conflating the handful of employees with a number of customers who came to the package store and purchased liquor at discounted prices.

The open bottles of liquor that were emptied were deliberately poured down the drain to prevent the Parrishes, or any future tenant, from attempting to sell outdated liquor or consolidate it with newer stock at any point in the future, King says.

His husband and business partner, Greg King, adds: “His whole idea that he somehow owns the liquor or has some right to say what we do with our liquor just speaks to the fact that he thinks he has control of our business. It’s just yet another example of how he doesn’t understand his position as the landlord and licenser of the brand. It’s the same kind of thing we’ve always dealt with.” 

Both Kings bristle at any implication that the security cameras monitoring the cash registers or other points of sale were deliberately turned off, claiming that even the Baltimore Police Department had remarked at how good the bar’s security camera system was, and how easy it was to access and check on anything happening in the building at any time. He says the dispute around security cameras involved an entirely different issue.

“The Parrishes wanted us to give them external access to our internal camera systems,” Chuck King says. “Now, that would have put our guests at risk. You know how guys are in gay bars. They’re going to do things that they probably shouldn’t do in public, and somebody’s pants may drop for a second — and as soon as we see it, we stop it. But that’s why they wanted the access, because if they wanted to get us out of the building by claiming we weren’t following the law, they hoped to have something on camera.

“We refused to give them external access, and then told them, ‘You can come in and view any footage on any camera any time you want, as long as you make an appointment.’ They only took us up on that offer one time, maybe three months ago. They downloaded eight hours of footage, and they found absolutely nothing wrong,” he alleges.

King says that concerns about an unsanitary environment were fiction, as people who served food were required to wear shirts and appropriate attire. Some bartenders who only served drinks might take their shirts off for some events, but there were never any health code violations.

King also says that 4 Crazy Guys tried to make an offer to purchase the building from the Parrish family after they were preliminarily approved for a loan of $1.1 million, which also would have helped reduce the amount they would have to pay each month. But he says the Parrishes would not return their calls, so no offer was ever made.

For his part, Ian Parrish claims there was an offer made, but only of $200,000 or $300,000, which the Parrish family didn’t consider a serious offer because it was exactly what they had paid to renovate the “warm, black box.”

However, King believes that the Parrishes have been trying to push out 4 Crazy Guys from the space, and believes the family had a constant parade of bankers come through the club to try and obtain money to borrow against the property.

“It is our belief that bankers kept turning them down because they were trying to get a loan on everything in the building and on the building, but half of that was ours,” says King. “The lease was very clear and specific about what we put into the building versus what they put into the building. “Well, now the tenants are gone. They’ve, in their minds, defaulted, or whatever you want to say, however you want to call it, just walked away from it. Now they own everything. Now they own this beautiful building, just clean and free, and now they can probably get and borrow a bunch of money against the property, because it is a beautiful property, and we believe that that’s always been their endgame.”

Parrish says he has no intention of selling the property to “some unknown person or entity” and that the Eagle will open again.

This is bigger than me, it’s bigger than my dad, bigger than the real estate investment and it’s bigger than the building,” he says. “This is not just a gay bar. It’s not just a bar. This is a landmark leather bar. One of the few in the country that is still fighting to survive and to thrive.”

Parrish says that ever since taking on the project to renovate the building, he’s become keenly aware of how important the bar is to people in the LGBTQ community and the Charles North neighborhood, and doesn’t want to abandon those communities.

“I will promise this, to you and to the community, the Eagle is coming back,” says Parrish. “The Eagle is not going anywhere. I have a 100% track record of finishing every project I’ve ever started and finishing it successfully. And I’m sure as hell not going to give up on this one. This is going to be better than before and you’ll see.”

King says the whole experience has been extremely frustrating, but also worthwhile, and he learned a lot of lessons that will serve him well if he ever chooses to open another bar.

“I would like do another leather bar, but I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t even try and speculate what that could possibly be at this time.”

He continues to be impressed by the outpouring of support from the community. Texts, calls, and Facebook messages abound from former patrons and well-wishers. One patron, Alexey Lazar, has launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for former employees of the Baltimore Eagle. Another individual, whose name he declines to share, even offered to sell him a liquor license in Baltimore so he can mount another project in Charm City.

“I am going to take some time off and look at the options and look at what the possibilities are,” he says. “There’s a list of other places that we have always wanted to move and maybe it’s time to move on. I don’t know. But I love Baltimore and so does my husband. We thought it was gonna be really difficult to live here in the shadow of what occurred, but I think today is a new day and we realize that there’s not really anything to be ashamed of. That we didn’t fail because of what we did. We failed because of very extraordinary circumstances.”

He also doesn’t regret opening the bar, despite the sour ending for his stint with the Eagle. And he refuses to write off the experience as a completely negative one.

The last thing I want to do is caution anybody, especially an LGBT individual who wants to open up an LGBT establishment, to not do it,” he says. “Because even though we went through hell the last year and a half, it was still the most enjoyable job of my life. I don’t know how I can say that because we really did go through hell. But every day when I would go to work and I would see our employees enjoying their lives and taking care of our customers and our customers with smiles on their faces and they’re enjoying entertainment, that’s what I live for. That’s my purpose on earth.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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