Catching Up With 'Starlite' Director Kate Kunath
By Adam Rathe
The Starlite wasn’t your average gay bar, and Starlite, a film about the Crown Heights watering hole by Kate Kunath and Sasha Wortzel, isn’t just another nostalgic film.
The movie, which will be screening in New York tonight at the LGBT Community Center, is more than just a look at a gay landmark older than Stonewall that was sent packing by a ruthless developer. According to the directors, it’s a call to action. (It's also almost at its fundraising goal—you can help.)
“We’re committed to using the film for not just entertainment,” Kunath told Out. “It’s a tool for social justice and community organizing. That’s the goal, is to reestablish.”
Indeed, this Saturday, the first Starlite reunion and benefit will take place, giving habitués of the bar a chance to get together and raising funds for the Starlite, which was known to be a haven for gay people in Crown Heights, to reopen.
Out spoke with Kunath:
How was it that you decided to make a movie about this little gay bar in Brooklyn?
I came across The Starlite as a new person to the neighborhood. I was looking for an apartment and the person who showed me the apartment pointed it out and said that it was the neighborhood gay bar, so I couldn’t resist.
When you walk in, there are all these old timers there who you feel like have been there since the ’60s. And Mama Dot, who has been there since the ’60s and whose uncle was one of the owners in the beginning, works behind the bar. She came out and say hey, who are, what’s going on. She showed me around and told me they had recently received an eviction notice and had a petition going in the bar for people to sign but that was the extent of their outreach.
Having fallen instantly in love with the place and working in film, I thought it would be a good place to revisit. I thought I could maybe make a short, so we started doing that a few weeks after thinking they would close and they stuck around, they battled with the new owner of the building, and it lasted for eight or nine months so we filmed that whole time, thinking they would ultimately win or because we were making a document of this really important space for the LGBT community, especially for LGBT people of color.
How was it an important space?
It was oldest black-owned gay bar and oldest non-discriminating bar in the area. The nomenclature changed over the years because you wouldn’t just open a bar and say it’s a gay bar in 1959. Over time people have adapted language to describe what the Starlite was, but that’s how it started and really what they wanted it to stay: a family bar, a neighborhood bar, not just a gay bar but also someplace all-inclusive.
Opening a gay bar at all in 1959 seems really gutsy. How did Starlite come to be?
We hear different stories about how it was established, but before Mackie Harris, who was the first openly gay owner of the Starlite and was working as a bookkeeper for these two Irish guys who owned the bar, he bought them out. He was living in Crown Heights in a gay, black community so he really created it so they could have a place to go. Also at this time, we’re told, the area was a white neighborhood. I don’t know specifically what the demographics were, but Atlantic Avenue was a color line in a way, so the Crown Heights neighborhood was mostly white and you didn’t have black business owners. That’s one of the bar’s points of pride is that on Nostrand Avenue, it was one of the first black-owned businesses, but we’re told he really created it for his gay community.
What was it other than age then that made this place beloved?
That’s a question I think is answered differently by everyone. It meant a lot to a lot of people. It’s legendary because of the music scene that was established there—that old school house and disco mix, the DJs were world-class in that genre—and the fact that it persevered for 50 years. By the time it closed, it was the only establishment from the day where Nostrand was lined with all kinds of clubs and was real happening. There were even a few other gay bars on Nostrand, so this was the last of that kind.
The bar was open for 50 years? If other, not-so-old establishments were shut down, there would be a huge uproar. Why isn’t this more of a cause?
The Stonewall survived because it’s mostly a white, middle-class gay bar. You had a lot of working-class oriented gay bars in the city before they were shutting down these places. [Starlite] probably tried to stay pretty quiet and since they were in Crown Heights, they were out of the way. I don’t know that they were being targeted in the same way, but it’s been harder to keep their place alive.
They’ve had a lot of people who stepped in and helped them out with money and promotions and things like that because it’s harder for a gay black bar to stick around. Institutionalized racism and homophobia is a lot different in a working class community of color.
What exactly is happening this weekend?
A reunion and a benefit. We’re co-hosting and producing this event for the Starlite using the film, the film’s audience who hasn’t already heard about the Starlite and merging those communities together. All of the proceeds will go to their effort to reestablish in Crown Heights and to keep a safe space in that community. That’s the goal to have the first of what is hopefully a series of benefits and it’s going to be in a location that’s sort of an underground speakeasy cabaret called The Red Lotus Room.
Even if the bar can be reopened, will it make enough money to stay in business?
They weren’t making as much money as they could have been making, but really the landlord wanted them out and money wasn’t going to change that. Ultimately he wanted to get them out under the guise of fixing the building and then rent to somebody else, but there was never an offer to move them out temporarily while he fixed the building. So he kicked them out and then chopped up the building, which is a now a 99-cent store and a Metro PCS store and some other crappy store.