A nod to Wink’s

By Buddy Early, July 2019 Issue.


celebrate Echo’s 30th birthday, this year I will be catching up with

some of Arizona’s LGBT personalities from past and present to revisit the

people, places and events that helped shape our community.

When I was younger — much younger — I

could hold my liquor like I held my secrets. (I held onto a pretty big one for

24 years.) Let’s just say I enjoyed a beer or 12, and the place you were most

likely to find me twenty-plus years ago was a cabaret bar on North Seventh

Street. As someone who was still finding his place in the community, it was

where I felt extremely welcomed and comfortable, where everybody knew my name.

I think a lot of people back then had that

experience with Wink’s. There certainly were bars around before it, bars that

have been around long after it, and bars that were around before and

after it. But Wink’s held such a special place in many hearts that they still

celebrate the Starbucks-sized show bar 15 years after it closed. Recently

another Wink’s Reunion was held at Stacy’s at Melrose, gathering former

employees and patrons for another last call.

Clayton McKee, former Wink’s deejay and

current black V-neck wearer, organized the reunions until 2013, which was the

last one until this year. For both Clayton and me, Wink’s was the portal of

entry into Phoenix’s gay social scene. 

He had moved here in 1993, and during his first visit to the bar a

longtime employee shouted, “I knew you were gay!”  (The employee had seen Clayton on an episode

of The Maury Povich Show, on which he appeared as a George Michael

impersonator.) It wasn’t long before Clayton was behind the bar deejaying for


“We always said that Wink’s was the place

you could take your mom,” Clayton told me over brunch, where we reminisced

about days gone by like the two old farts on The Muppet Show. “It was a

quaint little neighborhood bar, a place you could go where everybody knew your

name.” (See? I told you.)

It was the gathering place for community

big shots. If you threw a dart at the Wink’s monthly calendar you were likely

to hit a fundraiser for an HIV/AIDS organization; if not, it was for the

Arizona Human Rights Fund, or Pride, or the Community Center, or a gay softball

team, or a drag queen who fell down a well. 

But it’s also where the movers and shakers met — purposefully or by

chance — to plan, deal, and celebrate community successes.

The family atmosphere is why Clayton

started hosting reunions after the bar’s abrupt closure in 2004. Staff and

regulars did not have an opportunity to say a proper farewell, so Clayton

gathered them all a year later at Plazma, and then every year for nine years.

“There were rumblings for a few weeks, but

everybody got the news (of the closing) that Sunday morning,” said Clayton. “We

were doing whatever we could to let everyone know it was the last day.”

It was before smartphones and social media, so people texted, paged,

called and dispatched barflies like carrier pigeons to deliver the news to the

regulars and semi-regulars. A notice to drag queens went out, a notice that

anyone who wanted to perform was welcome.

Clayton was the deejay one last time to a

packed bar, although that’s about all he remembers since “I was so drunk I ran

the entire show and don’t remember it.“ Still, he holds on to hundreds of

memories from his 10 years at Wink’s — not to mention the physical memories he

took after one last last-call: chairs, glasses, candles, ashtrays, a bottle

opener, the ice scoop, dressing tent, stage lights, the awning sign. Other

memorabilia are floating around town, in the possession of employees and


Clayton and I

shared some our fondest memories: performers falling on their asses; employees

taking all the liquor from the bar for a White Party road trip; Barbra Seville

in high glamour riding through the crowd on a bicycle someone had left outside

the door; the scandals that occurred in the restrooms … but neither of us is

delusional. We know it was just a bar to most people. People made bad decisions

there. They got drunk, high, and got hit by cars trying to cross the street.

(Some people will tell you Wink’s was a place for drug trafficking. But so was

my high school, and I still have fond recall of that place, too.)

A number of

establishments have filled the voids left by Wink’s closure. Perhaps some

twentysomething will write a column like this when he or she is 48, extolling

the memories of their favorite place. In fact, I hope they do.

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