The south-side venue rechristened last week as Five Nightclub & Showbar, formerly Club 5, has a new dance floor, stage and sound system. That's not all: Totally dismantled is the Barracks, a backroom leather bar that for years played porn on six screens and served as a refuge for gay men behind boarded-up windows.
These changes are not merely cosmetic. Promos advertising the May 16 grand opening made a point of calling Five an "environment where everyone is welcome." The club's new tagline is "step up, and step out, Madison!"
"Society has changed," says Dave Eick, who co-owns the space at 5 Applegate Court with his business (and life) partner Matt Couper. "I don't want to say we de-gayed the club, but.…" He stops and picks his words carefully. "Twenty to 30 years ago, the gay bar as an institution was more needed. Now, everyone is more accepting."
The Barracks was a tough one to let go, he says, but necessary. On a practical level, it was a relic of a time when men needed bars to hook up. "Social networking has changed everything so dramatically. Now when they're out, they're out just to have a good time and be with friends. If they meet someone, fine."
Ten or so years ago, the Barracks provided the sense of privacy now readily available online. "The porn was a security fence for them because it kept other people out," Eick says.
In recent years, the clientele had whittled down to "five old guys drinking soda and watching porn."
Eick took over Club 5 in 2008 after founder Ed Grunewald died of pancreatic cancer. The nightclub was a decade old at that point and needed updating. "We needed to reinvest in the business," Eick says. "I was still struggling with trying to honor Ed, but also trying to move forward."
The dismantling of the Barracks was appropriately symbolic. Eick and his crew discovered a bank of windows surrounding the bar - behind metal sheeting, drywall and a thick layer of paint they "scraped very carefully and very painstakingly." Now the formerly dungeon-like room has the indoor-outdoor feel of a bar in a warmer climate. Five will be holding a contest to rename this room, and sending the winner to Las Vegas.
Outside of a few updates, Eick isn't tinkering too much with the club's reputation for hosting a variety of community events and entertainment, like the Luna Bonita Latin music night, drag shows, comedians and karaoke.
The crowd that turned out to Five's grand opening last week was predominantly male, gay and young. But there on the new dance floor was something you probably wouldn't have seen when feet first danced here in 1998: a trio of college guys in shower shoes and floppy basketball shorts bopping to Rihanna with their girlfriends.
The changes are more than cosmetic.