Jan. 7 2009 12:00 AM

New Cat in town Lesbian bar opens in Rendezvous spot; all welcome (Gay friendliness required)


Casual patrons of Old Town’s Rendezvous on the Grand may feel like they’re walking into a different bar if they stop in for a drink this weekend. That’s because they will be.

After a whirlwind work session of painting, decorating and remodeling that started Tuesday morning, the owners of Lansing’s newest nightclub, The Chrome Cat, plan to open its doors at 226 E. Grand River Ave., at 4 p.m. Friday.

Owners Michelle Taylor and Lisa Whitehead finished the deal to buy the business from Rendezvous owner Pat McClure on Dec. 29. The two have been making plans to open their own spot since last summer when their regular hangout, Club 505— a longstanding lesbian bar in downtown Lansing — closed. While the bar is meant to help fill the gap left by 505, the owners say gay men and gay-friendly straight patrons are welcome.

“We really want everyone to come in,” Whitehead said. “We don’t want to be exclusive, but we do want a place where 505 patrons can come and dance with their partners, play games, watch the Super Bowl, things like that.”

The women plan to invest about $250,000 in the club, most of which will go into renovating the kitchen, decorating, painting, carpeting and updating computer systems. Inside the club on Tuesday morning, Taylor was preparing to rip out the stage with the help of Victor Vasquez, who is helping with renovations. Taylor said the stage is going to make more room for dancing, but quieter live acts will be booked for dinner hours. Taylor said she would like to give exposure to artists who don’t make the usual Lansing bar circuit.

The word “chrome” in the club’s name is a reference to the motorcycle club Taylor started in 2001, Great Lakes Sisterhood. Whitehead became friends with Taylor when Whitehead and her late partner, Nancy Fitzgerald, became members. Fitzgerald died of ovarian cancer last May, and Whitehead said the money from her life insurance policy allowed the women to get the project off of the ground. The new décor will have a chrome theme, including a diamond steel plate over the bar. Above the bar will hang a shadowbox in memory of Fitzgerald.

No schedule is set yet, but Taylor said the club would host theme nights, date nights, dance nights with instruction in different moves and networking events. The pool tables are staying, and Taylor has been in touch with Club 505’s pool league.

The kitchen will serve standard bar fare to get started, but once finished, the plan is to serve everything from fried foods to chicken Marsala and beef béarnaise. Simone Latuszek, Taylor’s life partner, will head the kitchen, and said the goal is to serve “good, tasty food that’s light,” for lunch and dinner, including at least one vegan soup and one vegetarian dish daily. “Everything is made from scratch, she said. “I don’t want any frozen crap.”

Latuszek is leaving her day job working for the secretary of state to follow in the footsteps of her father, who was a chef for 30 years.

The women are looking forward to being part of Old Town and working with the existing businesses there. Taylor said the idea isn’t to take away from other businesses, but add a new reason for people to come to the area.

The old bank building that houses the Chrome Cat is still owned by Tom Donell, owner of Spiral Video Dance Bar, another predominantly gay bar in Old Town, and Club Xcel in downtown Lansing, which features a gay crowd on Tuesdays when male strippers are featured.

Since Club 505 closed, Spiral has seen an increase in women patrons and begun hosting a ladies night on Wednesdays. Manager Darren Canejo said he expects to see a drop off at first, but he thinks having the two clubs in the same neighborhood will be good for both businesses, and the area, in the long run. “Now there’ll be kind of a lesbian party scene to go to,” he said. “I think of it being more like a big city, where girls will travel between the bars.”

Monique Goch, a leader of Suits and the City, a nonprofit organization that hosts networking events for gay professionals in Lansing, is looking forward to the Chrome Cat. “I think what it’s going to do is bring the boys and the girls together,” Goch said. “It’s another place to congregate.”

Goch said potential plans for a different lesbian establishment she is involved in were put on hold temporarily, partly for the holidays and partly to see what the Chrome Cat does.

Interest in the Chrome Cat is high, the owners say, among not only the lesbian community, but their former co-workers in state government and auto-parts supply businesses. The plan is to reach out to more of the downtown and LCC crowd to let them know the club isn’t exclusive to lesbians. “You have to be gay-friendly,” Taylor said. “I want people to feel comfortable. But at 8 p.m., if a few gals start dancing, don’t freak out.”

So do they expect to see any surprised faces walk through the door this weekend? “I think they’ll get an idea pretty quick,” Taylor said. “When 505 first opened, it used to be a biker bar. Every once in a while, some big burley biker would could come in, order a beer and realize since he had gotten out of jail, it wasn’t a biker bar anymore.”

(Neal McNamara contributed to this story)