Metro Weekly

Exclusive: Cobalt owner and employees on the sudden shutdown of DC gay club

Owner Eric Little also confirms Cobalt will not have a final farewell party.

D.C. lost yet another LGBTQ nightlife venue on Tuesday with the announcement that Cobalt had closed its doors for good. Owner Eric Little confirmed the news in a message posted to the club’s Facebook page.

“It’s no secret that the building that housed Cobalt and the adjacent property recently sold,” Little wrote. “With the combination of the sale of the buildings, the start of demolition, costly infrastructure repairs and upgrades that we would need to shoulder to remain open for the short remainder of our lease (without an opportunity to extend the lease) along with a slow decline in sales we decided it was the right time to close the business to focus on our other businesses and some personal family needs.”

Even prior to Little’s announcement, speculation about the club’s fate had swirled for weeks, and hit fever-pitch after a photo shared on Facebook showed the club’s main entrance door with a sign reading “CLOSED FOR WATER PROLBEMS” (sic) posted on the glass.

The official announcement caused shock and surprise on social media, with many expressing their dismay that Cobalt didn’t host a final closing party to let the community say goodbye — like Town Danceboutique did when it closed its doors last summer.

I’ve been in this industry for several years, and I learned from the founder of JR.’s that you just don’t mix closing parties and alcohol,” Little told Metro Weekly. “It’s just never a good idea. It’s not safe. There are people that do it, and they’re very successful. And there are billions of unsuccessful events like that. And I just did not want to take that risk.”

With regard to the club’s 18-year history since a fire in 2000 forced a rebuild of the property, Little — who had originally planned to open a private club when he took over the property — says he changed his concept during renovations, coming up with an idea for a restaurant on the ground floor, a cocktail lounge in the middle, and a dance club on the top floor, all connected by a grand central staircase.

“Keeping the ‘dance’ vibe of pre-fire Cobalt was important, but so was creating something more upscale and loungey with a better flow,” Little said. “When I launched in October 2001, Cobalt had embossed, poker-style drink chips and focused on martinis and cosmos. Our customers loved it.”

Over the next 18 years, the bar evolved to meet its customers’ desires and new trends, including the addition of theme nights — from Latin nights to drag nights, and even a night for LGBTQ video gamers. But Little notes that two factors were particularly influential in changing the nature of the gay bar industry and the need for LGBTQ-specific spaces: the rise of dating apps and greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community.

Photo: Ward Morrison

“The apps gave people a safe space to meet other people, but they also took away the need to go out in order to meet Mr. or Ms. Right or Right Now,” Little said. “The growing acceptance of LGBTQ people is obviously a huge step forward, but, again, it did change the need for gay-specific bars.”

Little says changes in the industry, as well as competition from other clubs, both gay and non-gay, led to a slow decline in sales. He points to the spread of the LGBTQ population beyond the Dupont Circle and 17th Street neighborhoods as a contributing factor.

“When we first opened, most of the gay community was congregated in a few key areas of the city, and so the clubs were in those areas as well. Now gay people live happily and safely all over the DMV [region], and that’s a great thing.”

Another factor in shuttering the club is that Cobalt, located on the corner of R and 17th Streets NW, was not able to extend its current lease beyond March 2021, meaning there was little sense in continually reinvesting in the space by spending large amounts of money to upgrade its facilities, lighting, HVAC system, and roof.

“Maintaining a facility is very expensive,” Little said via email. “Because we weren’t able to extend our lease, it didn’t make financial sense to keep investing that kind of money. It would be like renovating an apartment that you didn’t own when you knew you were moving in six months.”

According to Little, now that Cobalt has closed, the building that housed the club will be redeveloped by its current owners for residential use. Little, who also owns JR.’s (although not the actual building it’s housed in), will turn his focus to that bar, where he’s worked since it opened in August 1986, and to his family. He is currently figuring out which promotions from Cobalt can be offered at JR.’s moving forward, but hasn’t made any final decisions.

Photo: Ward Morrison

In the Facebook post announcing the club’s closure, Little thanked the customers and staff who contributed to the club during its two-decade run, saying he was proud of Cobalt’s legacy and the people he worked with. Jason Royce, who started as a DJ at the club in 2001 and eventually worked as promotions manager and general manager until he left in 2008, says he’ll miss the camaraderie of the staff.

Royce, who was a customer prior to being an employee, says the thing that attracted him to Cobalt was their Tuesday Retro Night, which tended to bring in a younger crowd. For Royce, who was 16 at the time and managed to get in without being carded (in the club’s pre-Little iteration), Cobalt offered a chance for him to explore the gay community and find his identity.

“That was the first club I ever went to when I was coming out,” he says. “My first circle of friends was made at Cobalt. I’d come down from Maryland, and drive two hours every single week. I’d come every week, whether I had the flu, a broken ankle, snow — nothing could stop me.”

Current General Manager Brian Blanchard, who has worked at the nightclub for the past decade, says staff began to sense the bar would eventually close after the building was sold last August. Nonetheless, Blanchard says that working at Cobalt has been “a blast.”

“It’s had its up and downs, but I’ve met so many amazing people — DJs, entertainers — and am still great friends with all of them. We’ve had amazing staff parties there as well,” he says. “It’s always been a fun time.”

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

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