Saying Goodbye To Embers, A Landmark For Oregon's LGTBQ Communities

By John Notarianni (OPB)
Portland, Oregon Dec. 1, 2017 1:19 a.m.
Attendees sit outside Embers Avenue for the 2016 Portland Pride parade.

Attendees sit outside Embers Avenue for the 2016 Portland Pride parade.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB


Another landmark of old Portland is closing. The bar and dance club Embers Avenue opened almost half a century ago when the world was, to say the least, a very different place for gay men and lesbians.

This week, club managers announced on social media that owner Steve Suss had suffered a massive stroke and Embers must close, almost immediately. The owner of the building told The Oregonian/OregonLive that he hopes to find someone else to run a dance club that caters to the LGBTQ community, but it's unclear whether that can happen.

Kevin Cook, also known by his stage name of Poison Waters, is one of the club's "hall of fame" performers who was scheduled to take part in the downtown Portland club's final party Thursday night. He joined "All Things Considered" host John Notarianni to talk about the club and how Portland is changing. Use the audio player at the top of this story for the full interview. Here are some highlights:


A Nightclub, And More

Cook’s first trip to the club came before he was 21. He snuck in, underage, just to see “what all the hubbub was about.” He described the environment as reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s movie “Moulin Rouge!”

“Embers is a dance club, a performance venue, a gathering space,” Cook said. “One side is a big dance floor, I’ll even use the word 'discotheque,' with lights and smoke and mirrors. The other side there are drag shows many nights of the week.”

But Embers was also more than just a nightclub, Cook said.

“In the late '80s, early '90s, when I came about … Embers was such a welcoming space for folks who were figuring out who they are. HIV and AIDS hit about that time, and people were really lost for a lot of reasons,” he said. “As in many aspects of the community, the drag community was hit really hard. Embers was … a place for performers to just be there to support one another, and then when it came time to raise funds and support for friends who needed it, and a place to grieve and be together.”

Related: Darcelle XV

Cook performs across the Pacific Northwest and is a regular most Friday and Saturday nights at Darcelle XV, another landmark of old Portland. He said the audience has shifted as cultural attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity have changed.

“First folks came around out of curiosity, especially to Darcelle’s: ‘What’s going on in Old Town? What’s this dressing up situation I hear about?'’’ he said. “Then as drag just became more mainstream — I know some people don’t like that word — people were like, ‘Hey, we have our own slice of excitement in Portland. Let’s go check it out.”