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Gays losing a gathering place, performance space.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

The Neighbors Bar and Bistro is going out of business with a Shebang.

That's the name of the local drag troupe that has performed for six years at Eugene's pre-eminent gay bar, located east of the University of Oregon in a former McDonald's restaurant on Villard Street.

The troupe's last show - the theme is Cher-Palooza - will be Friday.

The show will be upbeat, but the underlying mood is one of sadness for the bar's loyal patrons and for proprietor Cindy Hill, who recently received a 30-day notice to vacate the premises. Her last day of business is Saturday.

Hill said she isn't sure what's next for her or her five employees, nor for the members of Shebang and other customers. A desperate search to find a new, large-enough locale has fizzled, and Hill suspects that her days in the bar business are numbered.

"It really hurts me to have to close these doors," she said.

Not that the building itself will sit idle for long. Bob Jensen of Big Green Events and Wild Duck Catering says he's negotiating a new lease with the building's owner, Steve Romania, amid plans to reopen the place in mid-April as "an English-style pub with Northwest twist."

Jensen said he's excited about opening the Villard Street Pub, as the business will be named, in a part of town that could benefit from a UO expansion, including the eventual construction of a new basketball arena. He said he hopes to attract nearby residents and Hayward Field track fans.

"We want to be vested in that neighborhood," he said.

But the planned makeover provides little solace to such people as Bill Sullivan, a 46-year-old accountant who takes the stage as "Daphne" when performing as a member of Shebang.

"We call this our neighborhood bar - it's our home," Sullivan said. "I can walk in and they have my drink ready before I even get to the bar."

Aside from great service, Sullivan said the bar is special as a haven where gay people can feel safe in a public setting. "We claim to be the only hate-free zone around," he said. "If you have hate, you don't come in."

Anthony Barber, a 38-year-old waiter who goes by the stage name "Diva," said that he is philosophic about the closure.

"We're going to suffer, but we're used to bars closing," he said. "We are survivors."

Potential losers from the bar's closure include a number of nonprofit groups - HIV Alliance, Womenspace, CentroLatino Americano and others - that have benefited from Shebang's many charity fundraisers, according to Sullivan and others. The bar also served as home base for the Imperial Court, a nonprofit gay group that stages debutant balls and other fundraisers.

Neighbors is not the only bar in Eugene regarded as gay-friendly, but until recently it was the only one considered gay-oriented - and, especially, large enough to accommodate a dance floor and big crowd.

Snafu, a new gay bar, recently opened downtown but has no stage and limited space for about 60, owner Josh Keim said.

Another gay bar, Sam's Place in west Eugene, also has limited space.

Neighbors already was operating as a gay bar when Hill and her brother, Matthew Wooley, acquired the business in 2000. The business emerged as Eugene's best-known gathering place for gays and lesbians after Perry's, later called Club Arena, closed on Pearl Street in 1999.

Hill said she had very little contact with gay people - other than her brother, who later left the business and moved to Minnesota - before acquiring Neighbors. Many customers were immediately accepting of her heterosexuality, while "it took a long time for some others to get used to me as a straight girl," Hill said.

Now, just days from closing, Hill said what she's going to miss the most are her customers.

The business "has opened the door to a lot of new friends," she said. "My eyes have been opened a lot."

CAPTION(S):

Cindy Hill, owner of Neighbors Bar, must close the doors on her business and performers such as "Diva" (left) and "Daphne."
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Title Annotation:Entertainment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 16, 2006
Words:681
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