Landmark Long Beach Gay Bar Celebrates 40th Anniversary
As the sun sets over Long Beach, whispers of "Tabatha" can be overheard at every table in Club Ripples. Everyone’s talking about the bar’s recent makeover by Bravo’s ball-busting Tabatha Coffey.
On the hit reality show "Tabatha Takes Over", longtime partners and bar owners John Garcia and Larry Hebert are given a reality check for their outdated business policies and a set of fresh decor to save the gay landmark and restore the popularity of its glory days.
Business has been great since the show aired, with throngs of visitors coming in for a taste of the new Ripples and its Tabatha-approved signature cocktail: the Pineapple Sunset martini.
But long before Ripples was welcomed into living rooms across the country, it was risky just to be seen there. Anti-gay stigma was so prevalent that the bar’s windows were boarded up until the 1980s. Since its beginnings as the first gay dance club in Long Beach, Ripples overcame years of adversity from homophobia, to violent attacks and the AIDS epidemic.
In fact, when Garcia first came to Ripples in 1974, the place had been firebombed. It took more than a year to reopen.
"We had a tough time in the beginning," he said, noting that the bar was a gay establishment as early as 1960. It changed owners, names and orientations a few times before becoming Ripples in 1972. "We had problems with either the police, the Arian Nation, the skinheads, neighbors..."
"They didn’t want a gay bar in this neighborhood, let alone gay people at all," added Hebert. "We got robbed, people got beat up-it was rough."
When the bar was shot at, bullet proof windows were installed.
"We stood our ground and fought back-not physically," said Garcia. "We couldn’t be afraid."
And unwelcome in the neighborhood as Ripples may have been, the bar was packed seven nights a week, rain or shine-a safe haven for gays whom mainstream society did not accept.
"It wasn’t accepted to be gay and if you were outed, it could ruin you," said Garcia.
By the late 1970s, attitudes were starting to change. Then AIDS hit.
"That was a whole other devastating thing," said Hebert. "We lost thousands of friends."
He and Garcia were attending two or three funerals a week. Ripples played an important role supporting the community during the epidemic, donating to hospices and caring for sick employees and patrons.
"We donated a lot to hospices to help our friends, employees and customers because they were dying right and left," said Hebert.
Over the years, societal attitudes toward gays and lesbians began to change. Ripples had won over the support of its neighbors. The fight for acceptance was over.
Fast forward to 2011, and the bar was still operating with the outdated policies of its heyday. Add increased competition and the down economy. Things were looking grim.
In the week after the show aired, Ripples’ website had some 50,000 hits. Garcia’s email inbox was flooded with 500 messages.
The bar is attracting new customers and bringing back old ones alike.
As part of the renovation, Tabatha’s team installed a plaque on the patio recognizing Ripples as the first gay dance club in Long Beach.
"It’s good to see the young kids come up and tell me, ’I didn’t know that, that’s great,’" said Hebert. "Thank God for Tabatha because she really helped us."
Ripples has remained active supporting the community; raising money for AIDS charities, local nonprofits and feeding Long Beach’s homeless. Garcia and Herbert have been recognized over the years for their philanthropy-they recently held a fundraiser for the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Center.
"We’re very appreciative," said Natalie Tjandra, operations manager at the Center. "They have a veteran type of status in the LGBT community."
This year will mark Ripples’ 40th anniversary.
"It’s been the ride of a lifetime," said Hebert. "I don’t care about a lot of money or notoriety. I want this for the kids and the neighborhood."
Now in their sixties, he and Garcia will retire sooner or later.
"Our dream is to find another couple who has a good sound relationship, who can stay together and take our places here," said Hebert. "I want this legacy to live on through the younger kids."