Will C., a patron of Club Ripples since the ’90s and a bartender since 2001, found Long Beach’s longest-running gay bar a welcoming home to many in the LGBTQ+ community back when other venues were exclusionary.
And home is exactly what many of the community during that time needed. Now accepting of the queer community, Long Beach was once a place of contempt for homophobic community members who would vandalize the club and send police to harass patrons.
“In my younger years, going out to the gay bars as a younger gay person, it was my favorite thing,” he said. Will described gay bars as “welcoming, safe and friendly,” in a time when most people were hostile to LGBTQ+ people.
After 47 years of serving Long Beach, Club Ripples closed its doors for the final time Dec. 1.
Beyond acceptance, Will has found many meaningful connections at Ripples.
“All the good times, that is what I remember. I’ve met a lot of fun and nice people, some have become lifelong friends,” Will said.
Will remembers many times where working at the bar sparked conversations that led to more meaningful relationships. He views bars, especially gay bars, as some of the last places where this sort of spontaneous conversation is accepted and encouraged.
On Ocean Boulevard, facing the sea and flanked on all sides by upscale housing, the building stands apart. The two-story structure with an inviting robin’s-egg door under a dramatically sloped frame holds the club.
Ripples echoes its domestic exterior with its structure. It is, or was, laid out very differently from most bars. It feels more like the best house party you’ve ever been to than a traditional bar.
Rather than tables, black couches, chairs and ottomans line the walls and the outside patio; heat lamps and comfortable seating make the club feel even more like home.
Beyond Ripples, the space at 5101 E. Ocean Blvd. has been a bastion of LGBTQ+ rights and a safe space for the community since the 1950s.
The building was purchased by John Agar in the 1960s in an attempt to rid the space of its LGBTQ+ identity after Club Oceania, another gay bar, closed.
It was bought in 1972 by a group of gay men who converted it into the first gay dance club, called Ripples at the time, in the city.
Club Ripples has been open for 47 years, but changed ownership to couple John Garcia and Larry Hebert in 1974. By 1994, they owned the bar and the liquor store on site.
Although Ripples faced a declining customer base in recent years, its final night was a return to its heyday of crowded, lively nights.
Ripples used to be packed every night.
“We used to be busier than this for years, on certain nights we used to have a line out the door and down to the liquor store pretty often,” Will said. “We had one night called ‘Bear Bar’ where six to eight hundred people would come.”
Will mentioned that nights like “Bear Bar,” had the club overflowing, something that Ripples has lacked in the new millennium.
After the bar’s heyday in the ’90s, however, it became a struggle to fill the establishment. What once felt like a raucous house party was conspicuously empty. The bar used to see over 800 people inside at once, but in the new millennium saw abandoned dance floors and anemic bars.
Saturday, Club Ripples recaptured its former glory. The bar was packed for the first time in years.
Will said that the club being crowded on its final night was emblematic of the impact it had on the community.
“It says to me that even though people haven’t been here for many years, it tells me that they have good memories about what they experienced here, I’ve seen a lot of people here that I haven’t seen in years,” he said.
Gary Espinoza has been a patron since the ’90s, along with Will, and returned for the club’s final day.
“I can understand the owners are tired, this place has been open for 47 years. I just recently came back. I’ve known Will a long time, for like 25, 30 years. He and I used to come here back in the day,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza has seen many iconic gay bars disappear, and views Ripples as one of the major closures.
“Laguna Beach, Boom Boom Room, and Ozz in Buena Park were the other options and they closed,” he said. “This is the last bastion… All that’s left really is if you go up to LA.”
Espinoza discussed his long-time partner who recently passed away.
“I came out late; I came out when I was 39…my partner who I was with for 30 years died of a heart attack right in front of me,” he said.
Espinoza experienced a deep depression for months but experienced a reprieve when he came out to his son, who was accepting.
“The new generation, they don’t care anymore. They’re either gay or bi themselves or they know somebody,” he said.
Espinoza mentioned the recent influx of straight couples in gay bars, something many people deride, but he supports.
“Gay bars are the best bars,” he said. “They have the best music, they have the best light shows, they have the best bartenders. And they have the best damn drinks, bar none. I’ve been to almost every bar in the area…there’s just no comparison”
After years of serving the LGBTQ+ community in Long Beach, the place will be turned into a gastropub called the Burger and Beer Joint.
John Wick has been a regular customer for the last three years after moving to Long Beach and bemoaned the closing of the location.
“This is the only location in the whole strip of Belmont that’s on the beach that has a restaurant or a bar,” Wick said.
Although he was happy that the beachside would feature another bar and restaurant, saying that the location was perfect, Wick felt that Ripples would be difficult to replace.
“I’m kinda sad about [this],” he said. “There’s really no place like Ripples.”
Wick would miss Ripples’ more unique offerings.
“Once or twice a month they would do drag shows up there and it was awesome,” he said.
Wick wasn’t alone in his sentiments; first-time visitor Patrika Darbo was sad to see the closure of another inclusive establishment.
“If we can support one another—that’s the most important thing to me—we support one another,” she said. “Be gay be straight whatever. We support one another and that’s the most important thing in the world.”
Darbo emphasized the importance of places that prize inclusivity and kindness.
“Whether [or not] Ripples is closing at this moment, there are plenty of other places for us to go and you should go there,” she said. “Embrace each other. Enjoy one another.”
Hannah Getahun contributed to this article.