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Chumley’s Celebrates 40 Years as a Home Away from Home

This story originally appeared in the June 2024 edition of Town&Gown Magazine.

Located on the main intersection of downtown State College, Chumley’s Cocktail Bar wears its pride well, with a rainbow flag on its signage and many wonderful tributes to the bar’s past and the gay rights movement that were incorporated during its renovation back in 2021.

This year, Chumley’s is celebrating 40 years of being a home away from home for many in the LGBTQ+ community and beyond by looking back at its past. The fun begins this June during Pride Month and then will continue into the fall when students return to campus, with events and an archive of the bar’s history.

It was in 1984 that Chumley’s, 108 W. College Ave., was opened by husband and wife duo Liz Pierce and Joe Schrantz, serving soup, sandwiches and beer to a professional crowd right in the heart of a college town.

State College was a different place 40 years ago. Of course, I was not around to see it, but from what I can tell it was a lot less vertical, a lot less sprawled out, and a lot less recognized for inclusivity.

Then again, the whole world was a different place in 1984, and I am sure that in 2064 we’ll look back at this time and think about how much things have changed (hopefully for the better, and hopefully I am around to see it).

Right from the start, Chumley’s was unlike other small-town gay bars, with its prime and visible location next to The Corner Room, not hidden away in some back alley.

Still, back then, the windows were dark, and there are stories of customers who would walk up and down the street before ducking in with hopes that nobody would see them, according to longtime Chumley’s manager Ellen Braun. She has been looking back at Chumley’s history as part of the 40th anniversary archives project.

“Yeah, things are quite different, and doing the research is fascinating,” says Ellen. “There was a group called Homophiles of Penn State, or HOPS. That was the gay group and they really had a tough time. … When we’re doing the research of the history, we are finding a lot of people with very mixed experiences in the past. Some people felt like it was a very comfortable place to come out, some people felt like there was nothing here.”

Ellen says that, as public opinion has changed over the ensuing decades, so has the atmosphere in State College. She cites a big change following the COVID-19 pandemic.

She gives the example of a group of young college-aged men walking past the bar recently. They did not look like the typical Chumley’s clientele.

“They looked like they might cause trouble at Chumley’s,” says Ellen. “And as they walked by, the one kid goes, ‘Yo, dude, that’s the gay bar.’ And they all paused and said, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and they just wandered down the street.”

Chumley’s Manager Ellen Braun with barkeeps Colin (center) and Justin (Photo by Tyler Daniel Design LLC)

Another difference, according to Ellen, is a more diverse crowd.

“It is much more mixed and we see really different expressions of being gay,” says Ellen. “Relatives seem to be more welcomed. You know, we get a lot of families with gay kids. It’s a huge, huge difference. People talk about it openly. It used to be that even gay people or straight people who would come into Chumley’s who were comfortable would sort of talk quietly before they establish a relationship. Now, people come in and they are like, ‘It’s a gay bar, cool.’ You know, it’s just so much more relaxed and easy to talk about.”

The 2021 renovations, with the more open space and windows, artistic expressions and updated menu, have also provided an atmosphere that is inviting to today’s crowds.

“Well, we get a lot of comments that we remind people of a bar in a city,” says Ellen. “I don’t think it’s because we’re super modern. I think it’s just because we’re more diverse. It seems like anybody can go into Chumley’s by yourself and meet people, and I think people are finding that out.”

All that change in the community has been recognized, as Penn State continues to be named on Campus Pride’s “Best of the Best” LGBTQ-friendly Colleges and Universities list and State College for the past five years has earned a perfect 100/100 score in the Human Rights Campaign Municipality Equality Index, which measures the inclusivity of municipal laws, policies and services for the LGBTQ+ community.

Ellen herself was named 2024 Person of the Year by Centre LGBT+ in January for being “an ally actively pursuing a welcoming society for the benefit of the LGBT+ community.”

Ellen thanks the owners of the Hotel State College for always supporting Chumley’s and for all the community support the bar and its community has received. She is working to continue collaboration with resources on campus and with other community groups like 3 Dots Downtown, the Blue Brick Theatre, The State Theatre and more.

To celebrate Pride on June 8 and its 40 years, Chumley’s is going to take a look back at its history by playing music and television shows that were popular back when the fun all began in the 1980s. Ellen is hoping to paint the sidewalks outside the bar and surrounding the Hotel State College property with album covers from that time period.

“We are trying to get a bunch of old things, like an old payphone. We’re looking for one if you have any sources,” Ellen says with a laugh. “And we’re looking for old video games. Like an ’80s video game, all the stuff that we used to have.”

The fun will continue in the fall, when students are back in town. In the meantime, Ellen continues to work on creating an archive of Chumley’s history, while Chumley’s continues to wear its pride right in the heart of town. Cheers to that. T&G

Vincent Corso enjoys drinking local and meeting new people at central Pennsylvania’s many interesting establishments.