“It was a real eye-opener,” says Jason Trendell, of the moment that he first visited Waterworks Pub, one of Albany’s few gay bars, seven years ago. “I had just come out a month prior, and this was my first gay club. It was eye-opening because I realized that I could go to a space that was welcoming to gay people who were openly out and about. There was no judgment—it was refreshing.”
“In gay culture when you are 25 and older, you’re not considered young anymore,” he laughs. “Now when my friends and I are looking at new young group of guys, we reminisce and get nostalgic.”
Trendell says that he goes out of his way to make conversations with some of them. “I remember when I came here, the older guys were the guys I felt comfortable around, they weren’t quite mentors but there was just a friendly vibe. This is a safe haven for young gays, especially when they’re trying to figure things out when they’re first coming out.”
His story is not unique. Waterworks has a long history of being the first gay club for young people in the Capital Region; the company’s tagline is, “A great place to come out to.” This year will mark the 30th anniversary since Waterworks Pub opened its doors at 76 Central Ave., and although there were other gay bars at this location before, and many other area gay bars that have come and gone over the years, Waterworks is, as its website claims, “the original gay dance club” of the area. Manager Adam Patch explains, “We just carry the torch—we didn’t light it.”
Sprawling across two floors, the basic layout of the business hasn’t changed all that much. The pub is downstairs, and the club is upstairs. The pub has a neighborhood-bar vibe and the club screams sweaty, high-energy party space. Although both floors have been updated over the years, or as Patch puts it, have had a “facelift,” a walk through the interior doesn’t reveal anything too extraordinary in terms of bars or clubs. Nothing jumps out during a recent tour, just after opening hours, to shed light on why this particular establishment has hung around for so long, and continues to grow.
“It’s comfortable, which to me means a family—the co-workers and our customers are really tight,” says Patch, who has been a manager for about a year and a half, and an employee for four.
Scott Levine, another manger who has 10 years with the company, agrees. “If anyone comes in, they know who’s going to be here. It’s a family-type environment. There’s always someone telling a joke, or laughing. If you’re new, someone is going to say hi to you. There are no wallflowers here.”
Levine was recruited by owners Robert Savoca and Lew Cross and a former manager to help guide the club into its current state: expansive lighting and a laser system, an enlarged dance floor, and a sound system transported from New York City. Patch, on the other hand, was one of those “newbies” who discovered Waterworks as he was learning about his own sexuality.
“I had just come out and I was really nervous,” he says. “I was from a small town, and it was my first nightclub in general. When I left I felt like I had found a place where I could be me.” He stayed a regular customer for the next five years, and before he knew it, he too was recruited as staff.
The lines between staff and customers do seem to blur. On any visit here, jokes are traded across the bar, with the bartender dishing it out as much as he or she takes it. Customers are given a bottle of champagne to celebrate their birthdays, and staff members buy each other birthday cakes, although most of these celebrations end in good-natured food fights. “Our staff has been here an average of seven to eight years. We’re all friends and family, and everybody does their job and does it well,” says Levine. “This is a community organization. Being a part of the community is huge.”
The owners and staff of Waterworks are involved in numerous events that benefit area charities. “[Owners] Robert and Lew believe that if you support the community, it will support you back,” says Levine, as he points out a 2008 Times Union article in which Savoca estimated that at the time the club had already donated around $50,000 to various causes.
While there is a definite community that Waterworks has helped build, or a “loyal base clientele,” as Levine says, the business still works hard to find ways to attract new customers; especially since technology has changed how people connect.
“Before social media, the gay bar was the only place for gay people to meet other gay people,” Levine says. “The ’80s and ’90s were a completely different time. Now the point is to socialize with people that you already know.” Waterworks keeps it interesting by offering theme nights and regular events to keep people coming through the doors.
Trendell says, “I think more than other bars, where you just go there and drink, [Waterworks] works on bringing people in every week, so there’s a reason to go.” He especially liked this year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration where he says a group of his friends participated in a “Lucky Charm eating contest.” He adds, “It gave us something to talk about all day before we went out at night. They have a really good social media presence too.”
The Facebook page for the bar is a lively interchange between many of the almost 4,000 people who have “liked” it, and on certain special event nights, like glow-in-the-dark paint parties, the staff uploads pictures in real time. Comments like, “Had so much fun from early until late, my feet hurt but the drinks and music were great love this place,” and “Just want to thank all the WW staff for all the time and effort put forth this weekend! You’re truly dedicated to your work for your customers and visitors who came out; especially Saturday afternoon!” are common. One user succinctly described the place: “It is a Friendly Gayborhood bar.”
Reviews on Yelp indicate that Waterworks isn’t strictly a gay bar. Posts by people who claim to be straight read: “Everyone’s on the spectrum right? I’m definitely straight, but this is by far the best place in Albany to have a good time regardless of your- *ahem* ‘personal taste,’” and “This is probably one of the most diverse crowds you’ll find in Albany, which is kind of awesome. There are two different floors—one with thumping club music and another one that’ther one that’s a little more laid back. There are also at least two special areas for the smokers amongst us, so they won’t feel so marginalized.”
Trendell says that he often brings his straight friends to the club. “It’s very open to everybody. Sometimes my friends might be nervous, but they get there and have so much fun. They have left and said that the dance floor has the best music in Albany. You can really come together here no matter who you are and have a great time.”
Businesses, especially those in the bar and restaurant industry, come and go—and often in what seems like the blink of an eye. Waterworks Pub has held on for three decades and succeeded in changing with the times, without losing what makes it so special to the community that feeds it: the welcoming atmosphere and attitude of acceptance. As Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” gives way to another song on the jukebox, a customer recently transplanted from Los Angeles tries to explain why he spends an occasional happy hour at this bar in particular. “It’s homey and comfortable,” he explains. “I’ve lived in Portland and I kind of think it’s like that. You could be unusual but nobody flinches. These guys are the same way, they wouldn’t blink an eye.”