Saturday, May 15, 2021

A Tradition of Inclusivity: Chumley’s reopens with a new look and a nod to the past

By Vincent Corso

A week before the bar at 108 West College Avenue reopened on April 14, longtime manager Ellen Braun and bartender Justin Griffin took time from their preparations to let me take it all in. The bar is known for its craft cocktails, but Justin was nice enough to pour me a Firestone Walker Union Jack, a West Coast-style IPA. It hit the spot while we chatted. Ellen and Justin were excited to be soon welcoming back all their old customers and show them the new digs, and I could see why.

Gone is the old bottle shop that used to stand next to the entrance to Chumley’s. In its place is an open new front entrance area, which provides more space and visibility. Outside, a rainbow painted on the overhead sign is still there to highlight the bar’s inclusivity.

Inside, a mural on the side wall at the entrance, painted by Natalie Hope McDonald, showcases LGBTQ history and local imagery, such as a reference to central Pennsylvania native author Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and the Stonewall riots in New York.

In front of the remodeled bar back, the bar top itself features Scrabble pieces that spell out words that have meaning to Chumley’s, including a spot that is a memorial to the bar’s founder, Liz Pierce, who recently passed away.

It was in 1984 that Liz and her husband, Joe Schrantz, opened the little bar in the space that was a longtime newsstand. Before opening the bar, Liz had worked in the nightclub called Mr. C’s in the space that is now The Basement Nightspot, just below Chumley’s.

“They had a gay night on Monday night, and she worked that night, so she had a million gay friends, which I think she always had,” Ellen says. “So, when they opened the bar, they didn’t open it as a gay bar, but immediately all of Liz’s gay friends said, ‘Can this be a gay bar?’ And it was a very natural thing.”

Ellen started bartending at Chumley’s in 1992, coming over from a larger local establishment, The Rathskeller. She wasn’t expecting anything but a new job. At first, she was unsure about working in a gay bar, because she didn’t want to intrude on an atmosphere that wasn’t hers. But, she says, she immediately felt comfortable and in the end found a kind of home, making some great friends along the way.

Over the years, she says, the bar has been a home away from home for many.

“At the time, it was really becoming a tradition for a whole community of people. I really like that about State College as a whole, the way that it is a small enough town where you can sort of start a tradition, and if it is a good enough tradition, it will continue,” Ellen says.

When she first started working at Chumley’s, HIV was still a big concern in the gay community, and Chumley’s served as a place of refuge during a difficult time, bringing the community closer, she says.

“The trauma of that was really part of the community, because of people really supporting each other in a troubled time,” Ellen says.

Evolving with the community

Later on, it was that sense of community that brought Justin into the mix as a bartender after nearly 10 years as a customer.

In large cities, gay bars are not as prominent as they used to be, he says. “When I travel, I am not looking for a gay bar, I am looking for a good bar.”

But in a smaller community like State College, a gay bar still can serve a purpose, as a place that LGBTQ people, from Penn State students to those from surrounding communities, know is inclusive and diverse.

The bar has become even more diverse over the years, offering live music, a carefully curated cocktail menu, and a food menu with an international flair, bringing in a broader crowd. Social media helps patrons stay connected.

Chumley’s continues to evolve right along with the community, which has changed a lot over the decades, Ellen says.

“There are rainbows now painted on the crosswalk on Allen; April is Pride Month at Penn State, so things have changed,” she says.

And while Chumley’s never was hidden in a back ally, like some other gay bars, the new renovations definitely make the bar feel like it has “arrived,” Ellen says.

That feeling started a few years back when a window in front that was previously frosted over was replaced with a clear pane of glass.

“It wasn’t frosted for any privacy reasons; it was frosted just because that is what they picked way back in the ’80s. Our previous owners said it seems like people should be able to see in and they took the frosting out. I think that was a really important first step,” she says.

“That was the beginning. All of a sudden there was more light,” says Justin. Now, the bar takes up two storefronts along College Avenue.

“This is another feeling of arrival, with more visibility,” Ellen says.

While there have been many changes, some traditions continue, such as the nightly Jeopardy! tune-in on the one TV in the bar.

“It is a tradition; if I can think of anything that has been consistent for almost 30 years, it is Jeopardy! every day. … It sort of sets the tone, a little bit, for the night,” says Ellen.

Another tradition still stands near the entrance: A painting of Chumley himself, a walrus in a tuxedo named after a bulldog who belonged to one of the founders’ friends. Now, after a most difficult year, Justin and Ellen are happy to see their friends again at Chumley’s.

“People are excited, and I think for a good reason. This hasn’t been an easy time for anyone,” Justin says. “I think this is a return to form, back-to-normal thing that is really going to be good for anyone involved.”

For more information, visit drinkatchumleys.com.