Redding’s Only Gay Bar Closes; Rumors Swirl as Perplexed Customers Express Sadness, Anger, Disappointment

501 artwork by Marv Ellis.

The 501 Club was located on the corner of Division and Center streets in Redding, a place so small that it was easy to miss unless you knew what to look for. It was a safe haven for LGBTQ people of all ages, but it was also an accepting, non-judgmental place for straight people, too. The tiny bar sold famously strong drinks. It offered music and a small dance floor.

That 501 Club in that location will be forever referred to in the past tense, by many names: Club 501, the 501 Club, The 5, and the 501. By any name, on June 2, an administrator of the Club 501 Facebook page announced the bar’s closure.

The message was sudden, unexpected and offered no explanation.

The news traveled quickly on social media about the demise of Redding’s only gar bar. Reactions were swift and unambiguous.

Messages piled up quickly on Facebook, especially on the the Club 501 page. Initially, the social media posts were mostly sad and nostalgic.

I just love the vibe of the 5. No other bar in Redding feels as comfortable and laid back.

• “The 5 was the first bar I ever felt comfortable in. I have so many great memories there. I hope they can bring it back to what it was.”

• “The 5 was definitely the best place in Redding to dance, hang out, etc., without judgement, and I’m so sad it’s gone.”

• “So many amazing memories at this place. This was one of the only gay bars from Sacramento to Oregon and the bar staff was some of the most genuine people.”

• “The first bar I was kicked out of for being under age. Lol. Had an AMAZING birthday party there too. Great place to catch a drink before you catch the bus. A safe haven for a lot of us. A lot of groovy memories. If it weren’t for Club 501 I don’t think I would have survived living up there!”

Moving beyond shock and sadness

After expressions of sadness, came messages of anger.

“It is sad that Redding no longer has a progressive bar that like-minded people can go to. I wish I was rich as I would have bought it. I suppose Bethel got their grubby hands on the property??”

• “This is crappy for the 501 family. Especially during pride month!”

• “It’s sad they couldn’t just keep it open ONE MORE MONTH…

• “These places are important to this community and to shut it down during pride month is just a slap to the face to those that NEED this kind of place.”

• “The new owners murdered the bar. Practically a hate crime.”

• “You could have let folks know — disheartening you did it this way.”

• “It’s not that I can’t accept that it’s over. It’s that I didn’t get to say goodbye. We didn’t get to say goodbye. That’s not fair. Goodbye 501.”

• “Time to move away? All that’s left is Bethel and the fires…”

For a brief time, commenters posted words of optimism and hope.

• “Hopefully someone can open another bar that our community can start new memories at and feel truly safe while they build community.”

Some commenters pitched save-the-501 fundraiser ideas. Others discussed gathering a group of investors to buy the 501 Club. But one of the most hopeful messages came from Mitchell Johnson, who owns The Tropics Bar on Market Street in Redding. Johnson’s query was met with 501 fans’ relief, celebration, excitement and gratitude that Johnson was stepping up to save their precious 501, just in the nick of time.

Hopes were soon dashed when a comment — the first from the Club 501’s Facebook administrator — appeared below Mitchell’s offer.

“Thank you however we already have other plans,” wrote the 501’s Facebook administrator.

“Ok thank you,” replied Johnson.

A News Cafe reached out for comment multiple times to Rhonda Darling, the 501 Club’s owner. A News Cafe also sought a comment from Jamie Lynn, the building’s owner.

Neither Darling or Lynn responded to A News Cafe’s requests for comment. Likewise, with the exception of two comments, the Club 501 Facebook page administrator ignored nearly 150 comments, many of which were loyal 501 fans’ repeated questions about why their beloved bar closed, and what would happen to that space.

“Why?” was the most frequent question. Silence was the answer.

The second reply posted by the Club 501 Facebook administrator was a reaction to a personal accusation:

“You got what you wanted Rhonda!!” wrote the Facebook commenter. “I hope you’re happy with what your mother and Dallas worked so hard for!!

To that, the 501 Club author responded: “You don’t know me and you have no idea what I wanted or didn’t want. I guess your mother didn’t teach you what my mother did –if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.”

And that was the last anyone heard from Darling, who, apparently, had nothing nice to say.

Rumors flourish without facts

In the absence of an explanation and information about the 501’s speedy closure, a recurring rumor persisted that the site of the former 501 Club would soon contain a Bethel mega-church-affiliated business. Logic fueled that rumor, since Lynn’s building also contains Theory Coffee Shop, which is owned by Bethel Church-affiliated business owners.

In fact, Theory’s initial move to that location was highly controversial throughout the community, but especially so within the North State’s LGBTQ community, who spoke out against a Bethel-affiliated business in such close proximity to Redding’s only gay bar. The two ventures were not just close; Theory’s back patio was adjacent to the 501 Club’s front door. Theory’s owners painted a colorful mural on the 501 Club’s exterior wall.

The gray-and-orange 501 Club’s front door is next door to the Bethel-church affiliated Theory Coffee’s patio. A Theory mural is on the 501’s exterior south wall.

What also made Theory’s nearness to the 501 Club especially egregious was when, as reported here on A News Cafe, some Bethel members targeted 501 Club as part of their literal mission. Bait-and-switch confusions ensued when 501 Club patrons mistook Bethel students for LGBTQ-friendly people.

Here’s an excerpt from the April 18, 2018 story, “Bethel’s Non-Response; Meanwhile, Why Are Gay Clubs Popular Bethel Hangouts?”

“…Another gay man, who was at the 501 Club on two occasions when Bethel evangelists showed up, said he resented that Bethel members felt it necessary to single out the gays inside a place the students knew was a bar created by gay people, for gay people.”

‘I feel very uncomfortable with their anti-gay agenda. You know, because of who we are, and how we’ve been treated historically, we can be a fearful group, and with good reason. I have come to fear Bethel Church, and its power. It’s like they believe they have power on their side and money on their side and God on their side. I don’t go to Bethel Church or Bethel-owned businesses and preach to them, or try to convince them to be gay. Why can’t they just leave us alone?’

He said that Bethel’s infiltration into Redding places where gays used to feel safe has left him rattled.

‘It’s a mind trip. A gay club is the one place where you can walk up to a cute guy and say, ‘Hi’ and feel safe. Now, I don’t know.’ “

Another reason why Shasta County’s LGBTQ community members had yet more reasons to distrust Bethel Church is that its leaders have participated in “conversion therapy” to “pray the gay away” to turn gay people into straight Christians. Bethel leader Kris Vallotton even boasted of their “once gay team” and the message they deliver from Redding California to Washington, D.C.

After reading Darling’s response to Johnson about “other plans” for the 501 Club, Redding satirist Nathan Pinkney summed up on his Facebook page many 501 Club fans’ fears and frustrations about the little bar’s closure:

Satirist Nathan Pinkney attended the 501’s Last Dance Friday night. Many 501 fans related to Pinkney’s Facebook post about the demise of the 5.

“There you have it. The owners have the opportunity to make money AND keep the 5 alive. Theory moved in literally NEXT DOOR to the 5 and I thought that was extremely aggressive at the time.

I’m calling it — that the conservative owners of the 501, who’ve been profiting off of the LGBTQ community for years while at the same time supporting the side that fears the same people who they are profiting off of — are selling the 501 to Bethel.

If I’m wrong, I challenge Jeff and Rhonda Darling to explain to the community what happened. Give us your side of the story, tell us why you took our home away in the canopy of the night, in the shade, in the shadows.”

Pinkney’s friend, Marv Ellis, wrote a eulogy of sorts about the 501 on his Facebook page:

“Sadly, I hear the 501 has closed its doors for the last time. It wasn’t only a destination, or just a dive bar. It was a family. It was a lifelong friend. It was a safe place. It was comfort in a glass, and a table for any stranger or traveler to pull up a chair and be welcomed like they’ve been coming forever. It was an ear to listen, kind words of wisdom, and a shoulder to cry upon. Many of us are truly connected for life thru this little red door that we entered and felt comfortable enough to reveal our true selves to the company we were surrounded with. As much as I was no longer a fan of the business, I’m sad to see the legendary place that Dallas and Sunny built get pissed away like it was nothing. But no matter what my friends, we still have the memories… Cheers to that.”

After that post, Ellis got busy and organized a Last Dance party for the 501 Club Friday evening, outside the closed bar.

Participants showed up with rainbow flags and rainbow attire for their final 501 farewell. There was dancing and music and laughter. The party continued in the rain, as people sought shelter under an awning across the street.

Pride in Pride Month

As news has registered in the last few weeks about the end of The 5, what’s added insult to the injury of loss is the fact that the 501 owners killed off Shasta County’s only gay bar during Pride Month.

What makes that sadder still is that here in Redding, open recognition of Pride Month is rare. One exception is found in my neighborhood, where a grand house’s front yard displays a rainbow flag that flies high with an American flag. But other that, and some people wearing rainbow buttons, that’s just about it.

This is a contrast to last year, when Pride Month was in its glory when downtown Redding’s corridor was adorned with rainbow umbrellas above, and a massive rainbow flag painted on the concrete below. What’s equally memorable and depressing is that by the day’s end of the rainbow painting, it had been smeared by vandals.

Pride Month 2021 in downtown Redding. Photo by Matt Grigsby.

But perhaps the most noteworthy event to happen last year in recognition of Pride Month was June 8, 2021, when the Shasta County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to accept its first “June is Pride Month” resolution. Supervisors Mary Rickert, Leonard Moty and Joe Chimenti voted yes, demonstrating their support of LGBTQ rights and equality.

Supervisors Patrick Jones and Les Baugh voted against the resolution. Their actions delighted their ultra-conservative extra-right constituents, while it greatly displeased progressive citizens, one of whom wrote a letter to the editor about it.

During last year’s meeting, in reference to LGBTQ people and their lifestyles, Baugh said people must answer to God for what they do. He then quoted a common anti-gay “clobber scripture” — Isaiah 5:20 — that had been recited at the meeting’s morning invocation by Pastor David Nicholas of the Shasta Bible College. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Nicholas was also the alienating pastor who opened last week’s supervisors meeting with an invocation that stretched into a full-on hell-fire-and brimstone mini-sermon.

Nicholas spoke of moral decay, a confused society, and how God’s holy word provided principles for “life, behavior, sexuality, marriage, criminal justice, interpersonal relations, and educational priorities.”

As he continued last week, his words were met with shouts of “No!” and “Stop!” from some American Association of University Women in the audience, there to present an award to Supervisor Mary Rickert. In response to the women’s outburst, chairman Baugh shouted, “Don’t interrupt!” and slammed the gavel three times to silence the audience so Nicholas could proceed.

Baugh allowed Nicholas’ invocation, despite the fact that the pastor’s words were not just inappropriate and polarizing, but possibly in violation of federal and state guidelines about bigotry, discrimination and harassment.

As Nicholas continued, he cited his 2022 “clobber” scripture that’s used as condemnation against LGBTQ people.

“As Proverbs 14:12 points out, there’s a way that seems right to man, but it’s end is the way of death,” Nicholas said.

“Father, we’re concerned primarily and seriously about the advocacy of gender choice among grade school children as one example of how God’s genetic biological design is being usurped and euphemistically redesigned. We remind ourselves of God’s definition of sin given to us in John 3:4 which says sin is the transgression of the law of God.”

Shasta Bible College pastor David Nicholas is known for reciting anti-gay “clobber” scriptures during invocations.

Meanwhile, so far, with the loss of the 501 a few weeks ago, Shasta County’s LGBTQ residents are having a pretty depressing Pride Month.

Things could improve today. The Shasta County Board of Supervisors will again have a chance to show its acceptance of all Shasta County citizens by voting “YES” on the “June is Pride Month” resolution.

LGBTQ people lost their place

Umbrella Alley by Matt Grigsby

Matt Grigsby of Redding explained how deeply saddened he was to learn of the 501 closure, and why, as a gay man, the end of the 501 was a giant step backward for LGBTQ people, and those who love and support them:

The first time I went to the 501, I had just started coming out to friends and living my life more open and honestly. A friend of mine kept asking me to go with her to the 501, but it didn’t really sound like my kind of scene, so I turned her down. She finally wore me down and insisted I would have a good time, so I reluctantly agreed to go. We got there around 8:00 on a Friday night and it was totally empty. Not a soul there except the bartender.

I later learned nothing really started happening at the 5 until at least 10 p.m., and usually later. But my friend was right; I did have a good time. The music was always fun, the drinks were strong and usually served with a wink and a smile, and lots of people danced.

Every single time I went to the 501 it was a different crowd. Literally every time. Sometimes it was older gay people, sometimes all gay women, sometimes all men, sometimes all straight couples, sometimes bachelorette parties. You never knew what people you’d find. But I could always count on feeling like I could really be myself there, and no one cared who I talked to or flirted with or danced with. My female friends felt safe there and could dance with a guy and not worry about getting groped.

With the closing of the 501, Redding loses the only bar LGBTQ+ folks could call their own, the only place in town two people of the same gender could hold hands or kiss without worrying about scowls or dirty looks or snotty comments. It was small and cramped and noisy and hot and sometimes people had too many of the really strong drinks but it was a place where everyone was truly welcomed. It’s the end of an era and it breaks my heart that young gay people won’t get to experience the 501 for themselves.

Today, we say goodbye to the 501. What a happy Pride Month it will be if Shasta County Supervisors choose equality for all — with special recognition for the North State’s LGBTQ citizens — and pass Shasta County’s second annual Pride Month resolution.

If you appreciate journalist Doni Chamberlain’s reporting and commentary, please consider contributing to A News Cafe. Thank you!

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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