“The Green Lantern has always been a neighborhood hangout where people were comfortable,” says Howard Hicks, the manager of the downtown D.C. gay bar that former employees once dubbed “The Gay Cheers.”
“It’s a friendly place to come,” he continues. “It’s kind of casual, people are warm. They come in to hang out and meet their friends, or they make friends while they’re here.
“I think we’ve always been viewed as more of a casual kind of jeans, T-shirt bar, sort of leather-light. We weren’t as leather-orientated as The Eagle, but we were similar. Over the past 20 years, we’ve kept that atmosphere, being that casual place where you feel comfortable popping in if you’ve been running errands or out jogging. You just kind of come in and hang out and can be comfortable in whatever you’re wearing.”
The bar, situated in what used to be a carriage house in an alleyway located off 14th between Massachusetts and L Streets NW, first debuted under the Green Lantern moniker in the early 1990s, when it was owned by brothers Joel and Steve Weinstein. That bar closed a few years later, as the Weinsteins’ focus shifted toward opening and operating other gay bars in D.C. and Pennsylvania.
In 2001, Greg Zehnacker and business partner John Colameco purchased the property where the Weinstein-owned bar once stood. They kept the Green Lantern name, with the upstairs portion christened The Tool Shed.
Over the next two decades, the Green Lantern would weather economic downturns, the gentrification of the 14th Street corridor, the loss of longtime core staff, a shifting gay bar culture affected by the proliferation of online apps, a global pandemic, and even the sudden and tragic death of Zehnacker in 2014.
Today, the bar, celebrating its 20th anniversary, is a staple of the D.C. LGBTQ nightlife scene, particularly its Thursday night “Shirtless Men Drink Free” Happy Hour, which continues to pack in large crowds every week from 10 to 11 p.m. and then again from 12-12:30 a.m., when free drinks are offered to patrons in their underwear while DJs BacK2bACk play the latest pop music mixes.
Other popular events include: the bar’s weekly Sunday through Wednesday karaoke nights; its First Friday Underwear Party; its Rewind: Request Line throwback dance party, where DJ Darryl Strickland plays the hits of the ’80s and ’90s on the first Saturday of each month; its “Rough House” “lights off” party, with DJ Lemz on the turntables, on the third Friday of each month; “The Bear Cave,” a dance party hosted by DJ Popperz, held on the third Saturday of each month; and its JOX underwear/jockstrap party on the fourth Saturday of the month, featuring music by DJ David Merrill.
The bar has had long-lasting relationships with motorcycle clubs, particularly Centaur MC, and the leather community more generally. When Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend was held at the nearby Washington Plaza hotel, it was common for attendees to scurry over to the Green Lantern for a quick drink or a dance party. The bar continues to hold kink demonstrations or specially-tailored theme nights with groups like ONYX, the leather fraternity for gay and bisexual men of color.
The DC Center for the LGBT Community used to hold regular Wednesday “packing parties” where they put together “safe-sex kits” that were made available not only in the Green Lantern’s bathrooms, but in other bars throughout the D.C. metro area. In later years, the upstairs dance floor served as a space for “Bear Yoga” classes, which have recently resumed after a long pandemic break.
Currently, the Green Lantern has a monthly party geared towards those interested in puppy play. The bar is also one of the top sponsors of Stonewall Kickball, the LGBTQ kickball league, and hosts several teams for a mixer following the league’s Sunday afternoon games. Its Sunday karaoke night has long served as a communal space where members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington can belt out ballads ranging from show tunes to pop music after they wrap up their Sunday night rehearsals.
Patrons like Dan Stover, 46, are certainly comfortable calling the Green Lantern their “home bar.”
“Green Lantern has been a home to the gay community, the bear community, the kink community, and nearly all other facets of the LGBTQ+ family,” Stover says. “It has helped build and support our community while providing a space for fun parties and fundraisers. Above all, the staff work hard to make sure everyone is respected and has a great time. I’m thankful to call most of them friends over the years.”
“I don’t even know if there’s anything specific that makes it special,” says Steven Shortell, 50, a regular patron for the past 15 years. “It’s just the feeling of the establishment and the staff there, as far as being low-key, very inclusive, and welcoming. I’ve met every type of person, and a lot of different people, and I enjoy that type of environment.
“With all the changes that have happened in D.C. over the last five years with a lot of the major bars and venues closing, Green Lantern has always been kind of a mainstay. It’s been kind of a haven for a lot of the different groups in the D.C. community to fill a void while other venues have kind of fallen to the side.”
The Green Lantern’s welcoming atmosphere and broad appeal were something carefully cultivated over the years by the owners, who sought to establish the establishment’s reputation as more than just a “dive bar.”
Many long-time patrons fondly recall their interactions with the late Zehnacker, who would frequently be seen perched on the corner of the bar, puffing a cigarette while reading the paper. He’d easily converse with patrons filtering in during daily happy hours, chat up delivery men carting pallets and crates laden with beer and alcohol, and keep a watchful eye on bartenders and barbacks filling up sinks with ice, cutting fruit for garnishes, and cleaning and stocking the freezers in advance of an upcoming shift. Every so often, he’d offer up the occasional joke or sarcastic comment, displaying a quick-witted, wry sense of humor, which would immediately put those seated nearby into fits of laughter.
“Greg was one of the funniest men I’ve ever worked for, period,” says Derrick Jones, who currently runs the Green Lantern’s social media and marketing operations. “It was just that disarming charm he had. Greg was in that bar almost every single day, and usually down on the floor, chatting with patrons. It was one of those ‘Welcome to my living room’ situations. He wanted to be around people and wanted to watch them having fun.”
Recalling Zehnacker’s drag persona “Tokyo Rose,” Jones says that the employee turnabout show, where staffers dressed in drag and performed numbers during Halloween, was part of his legacy.
“The entire idea that there was going to be a benefit on his favorite holiday to support an organization in the community and give back — again, that was his attitude,” says Jones. “We weren’t just there to serve drinks and make money — We were there to be a community place and give back. And I think in our own way, that still happens. We don’t have the employee drag show anymore, but sponsoring the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington and the Stonewall League to the extent that we do, there’s still that philosophy of giving back and supporting the community that honors and is true to what Greg wanted to do.”
Hicks, who, by Memorial Day Weekend, will have worked in gay bars for nearly 40 years, says the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for queer spaces, which had been steadily declining in number in the decade leading up to the pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions imposed on nightlife spaces.
“I started at the Lost and Found on Memorial Day of 1982,” he says. “Many years ago, the gay bars really provided a space where people felt comfortable and felt they could be themselves, and were able to make a connection. For a lot of people, 20, 30, 40 years ago, the gay bar was the first place that they were comfortable really being themselves. They weren’t out to their friends, they weren’t out to coworkers.
“I think a big shift that we’ve seen is that as people became more tolerant and accepting of gay people, and especially with the arrival of the Internet and dating apps, there was less focus on bars as a place where you could open up to people and be your authentic self,” he says. “But one of the things the pandemic has really exposed is that those ‘safe spaces’ are still needed. I think being separated for a year and not being able to go out and socialize, people realized that those spaces were important, that they are still integral to the gay experience or to gay life.
“What we’re finding now is that people are saying, ‘Oh, I need a space where I have a connection, where I’m able to meet people for drinks and be able to flirt.’
“We’re in an environment in Washington D.C., where you can pretty much go anywhere and be gay. You can go to any restaurant and you can have a romantic dinner and hold hands and no one’s going to bat an eye. But there’s still a desire for your own space, where you can go out and be truly who you want to be, truly who you are.
“So we’ve come a little bit of full circle on that. There’s still dating apps. There’s still social groups, and sports leagues, and the Chorus, and whatever space it is where you are making connections with other gay people. But I think the pandemic reinforced the idea that the gay bar is one of those spaces that is needed.”
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Green Lantern will hold a special party on Sunday, March 6 at 7 p.m., featuring live entertainment, music by various DJs, and drink specials to show appreciation for the patrons that have supported the establishment over the years.
Hicks adds that among those who need to be thanked are the members of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F, who have helped the Green Lantern navigate the difficulties associated with pandemic-era restrictions over the past two years, ensuring it was able to remain open by creating outdoor seating at times when congregating in indoor spaces was all but impossible.
“We want our anniversary party to be a fun night where we thank the people that have been here during the pandemic, who have really weathered a lot of stuff that we had to do,” he says. “So this is an opportunity to say thank you.”
Regarding future plans for the bar, Hicks says the Green Lantern is always ready to host new theme nights or hold special events. The door is always open to new ideas.
“I think the Green Lantern has survived because it’s not just geared toward one group,” says Hicks. “So whether it’s someone who is more into the leather scene, or someone who’s on the more casual side, just jeans and T-shirt, or even someone who might want to dress extravagantly, or be more creative with what they wear, they all can feel just as comfortable here. That’s one of the benefits of having a big net. You can come here on any night, and it’s going to be a variety of people who find the aesthetics friendly and inviting.
“I think that’s one of the lasting impressions, or the lasting footprint, that Greg [Zehnacker] and John [Colameco] have had,” adds Hicks. “They wanted to have an environment that was friendly and inclusive. We don’t want to just serve a drink. We want to create an environment where people feel they belong, where they feel that this is their home.”
The Green Lantern’s anniversary party kicks off at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 6. For more information, visit www.greenlanterndc.com.
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