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Robert’s Lafitte Bar Celebrates 50 Years in Galveston

Legendary club opened shortly after Stonewall.

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Robert Mainor (photo courtesy of PJ Raval)

Robert’s Lafitte bar in Galveston will celebrate their 50th year of operation during the month of August. “There will be lots of gold decorations,” says the club’s manager, Mark Kohr.

The club is the oldest Texas gay bar that has been continuously owned and run by the same person. An article in the August 1970 edition of Nuntius notes the club was purchased by Robert Mainor in May of that year. 

The legendary Galveston bar is known for its warm and familial atmosphere—a direct reflection of Mainor’s personality and values.

Leaving the World Behind

Located at 2501 Avenue Q, just a few blocks from Galveston’s beaches, the club looks nondescript from the outside. But walk through the doors, and you can easily leave the outside world behind.

Multi-colored mini lights are strung across the ceiling, adding to the glow of the video games and neon. A teardrop chandelier sparkles near a pool table. In front of the small stage is a near-life-size papier-mâché Betty Boop. That, and many items on the walls, were gifts from patrons.

Framed pictures of drag entertainers who have performed at the club are mounted on another wall. One of the photos is Mainor dressed in campy drag as Carol Channing in 1977.

Outside, shielded by a high fence, is a patio with a swimming pool. Bartender Lee Watts says that there is a two-drink minimum (alcoholic or otherwise) to gain access to the pool. Customers can lie in the sun on lounge chairs swim in the pool, or sit at the full-service Lagoon Bar on the patio.

Bartender Matthew Pope says this patio is the nicest of any Galveston bar, with its clusters of lush tropical plants and water splashing down from a fountain. A shaded picnic area features a table painted in rainbow colors.    

The clientele is generally an older crowd, many of whom live near the club. Watts points out that “you can drive by the club and see only a couple cars parked out front, but inside the club is busy—a lot of customers walk or take an Uber. Some of our regulars are straight—they just like the atmosphere here.” Drag shows are organized for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, as well as a Sunday matinee.

NEIGHBORHOOD REFUGE: The bar’s plain façade stands in contrast to the tropical poolside patio bar and the inviting glow inside (photo by Matthew Pope).

During the summer, people can walk in from the beach. “Shirts aren’t mandatory, but shoes are,” Watts says. There’s a definite uptick in business during Galveston’s Mardi Gras celebrations, especially when the parade moves past the front of the club.

Galveston Pride also increases business at the bar, although that parade does not come past the bar. This year, the club was one of the official Pride Galveston host bars.

Hurricane Ike put 18 inches of water into the bar in the fall of 2008. There was no electricity, so Mainor asked people who had thawing meat to bring it over to the patio, where he grilled all of it and served meals for those without food. 

From left: PJ Raval, Robert Mainor and Dixie  (photo courtesy of PJ Raval)

Robert Mainor, the Heart of the Bar

Mainor was born in Houston in 1938 and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he lived for ten years. He returned to the Houston area to take care of his ailing parents, and finally settled in Galveston. In 1974, Mainor met his future partner, Hal, in Houston, and the two were a couple for 35 years, running the bar together. Hal died in 2009 at the age of 65.

Over the years, Robert appeared regularly in Lafitte drag shows under the name Robert the Mouth. He created a puppet show in which volunteer entertainers wore jumpsuits with puppet-like bodies sewn on. They could then work the arms, legs, and a large puppet head. The puppet shows ran for 25 years and were a unique invention of Mainor’s. 

Typical of his sense of humor, Mainor loved to superglue a quarter to the bar floor and, along with the regulars, watch the new customers try to pick it up. 

By 2012, Mainor no longer had the stamina to appear in shows. He now lives in his fuchsia and teal-colored Victorian townhouse just four blocks from the bar. Mannequins sit on chairs on the balcony, and Mardi Gras decorations (complete with pink flamingos) abound.

Mainor is challenged by diabetes and advanced arthritis, but he still stops in the bar once every two weeks for a few hours. Three friends stay with him in the town-house, attending to his needs.

Before You Know It

In 2013, a documentary film about three LGBTQ elders from around the country was released. One elder was in New York City, a second in San Francisco, and the third was Robert Mainor. 

PJ Raval, associate professor in the UT-Austin Department of Radio-Television-Film, produced that film entitled Before You Know It. “When I was developing my documentary, I wanted to highlight the important role that bar/nightlife spaces have played in creating the first LGBTQ+ communities,” Raval explains. “At this point in time, we’ve all heard the stories of Stonewall, but I wanted to emphasize that these spaces existed everywhere around the country, and perhaps in places where their presence was even more crucial to forming a community, even today. So when I discovered Robert’s Lafitte, I was immediately struck by the bar’s inclusiveness and family feel. Robert’s Lafitte is more than just a bar, it’s a home to many [of the regulars]. They can be surrounded and supported by their loved ones and chosen families. And all of this is thanks to the amazing warmth of Robert Mainor, who understood the need for this space. What he and his partner, Hal, created surely saved many lives, and I wanted to highlight their story and honor the space they’ve created.”

Although Mainor was unavailable to be interviewed for this article, his comments in the documentary reveal a lot about the man. “Galveston is everybody doing their own thing—just don’t cause any waves. And we usually take care of our own problems ourselves. I’ve got an opinion about everything. I don’t care if it’s wrong, but I still got an opinion about it.”

Mainor continues: “Everybody is welcome, as long as you’re a lady or a gentleman. I don’t care if you’re gay or you’re straight, or if you’re bisexual, as long as you have fun.”

Mainor’s father was a deacon in a Southern Baptist church in Houston. Mainor says he used to attend services there until he decided the church was self-righteous and not Christian. “I’m 73 and still going strong. I keep telling everybody: Evil, evil, evil. Evil lives forever. That’s why I’m still here,” he jokes. “I haven’t terrorized enough people yet.” 

Mainor’s sense of humor can sometimes take an X-rated turn. One of his drag personas featured a phallic nose, and after finishing his performance on stage, Mainor would walk through the bar dipping the “nose” in customers’ drinks and letting the liquid drip off.

On Thanksgiving, a Lafitte potluck feast is open to everyone. In a scene from the film shot on Thanksgiving Day, Mainor hams it up by chasing a friend dressed as a giant turkey down the street with a rubber axe.    

In one of the documentary’s most touching scenes, Mainor sits on a porch swing looking at an old photo album. He tears up while showing a picture of his late partner, Hal. “When someone dies, you are left with a great big hole in your life.” 

In a final scene, the Galveston Mardi Gras parade moves past Mainor’s home as he watches from his porch swing. “I wish I had more energy to do things. But that’s life. And before you know it, you’re dead and gone. Enjoy every day—after it’s over, you can’t relive it,” he reflects.   

Near the bar’s front door,  a framed movie poster for Before You Know It is surrounded by movie marquee lights. 

The patio at Robert’s Lafitte (photo by Chachie Pedraza).

A Galveston Institution

A Galveston club directory in the August 1965 edition of The Albatross contains the earliest known listing for Lafitte’s Bar in Galveston. A phone directory from that time lists the address as 305 25th Street. An October 1965 article identifies the bar owner as Cal LeBlanc. 

By summer of 1968, Lafitte’s had moved to 411 25th Street. In 1970, Mainor bought the club and renamed it Robert’s Lafitte. In 1975, he moved the club to 409 25th Street. After a fire in the summer of 1977, the club reopened at 213 22nd Street in the former location of the Red Witch and Paradise bars. By 1985, the club was located at its current address, 2501 Avenue Q.

The club was always fairly close to the Seawall, but the final move placed it just a couple of blocks from the beach. The location was also close to other gay clubs over the years—Crazy Horse, Kon Tiki, Opus I, Fruit Jar, Mary’s II, and the Dolphin Room.

It remains a mystery whether Mainor took over the club in 1969 or 1970, but the current management considers 1969 as the founding year. The traditional anniversary month is August, the same month as Mainor’s birthday.

Special appreciation to www.houstonlgbthistory.org, which was a rich resource for historical information.  360-degree photos of the club can be viewed at: www.houstonlgbthistory.org/misc-lafittes360interior.html.

This article appears in the July 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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