Windy City Media Group Frontpage News


home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-12-13



BOOKS Owen Keehnen takes readers to an 'oasis of pleasure' in 'Man's Country'
by Andrew Davis

This article shared 3742 times since Mon Nov 27, 2023
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

In the book Man's Country: More Than a Bathhouse, Chicago historian Owen Keehnen takes a literary microscope to the venue that the late local icon Chuck Renslow opened in 1973.

Over decades, until it was demolished in 2018, the Andersonville spot hosted tens of thousands of locals and celebrities (from ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev to Boy George to the Village People) who went there (or the adjoining dance club Bistro Too or the leather club Chicago Eagle) to entertain and/or be entertained in various ways.

In a talk with Windy City Times, Keehnen talked about Renslow, history and, of course, Man's Country.

Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Windy City Times: There are so many aspects of Chicago, including LGBTQ+ Chicago. You've written another book about Chuck Renslow, with [Windy City Times Owner and Co-founder] Tracy Baim. So why devote a separate book to Man's Country?

Owen Keehnen: I didn't plan it that way. I think what happened was that bathhouse culture had always interested me, and I felt that the narrative had been hijacked by AIDS. [The view was] that it was just a sex den, when [bathhouses] were much more complex than that.

When Chuck passed away in 2017, the building was torn down in 2018, and the intersection of Clark and Carmen had the Chuck Renslow Way street sign there, it seemed like it was time to tell the story. I had worked on Leatherman with Tracy, I had interviewed Chuck several times for the newspaper, and I knew him socially.

I wasn't sure I had enough material, but I went to an exhibit at the Leather Archives [in Chicago] and saw in the Man's Country exhibit that the front desk kept a journal—but it turned out that the journal had nothing I wanted to use. But by then I had started interviewing people—and it became so clear that Man's Country, and bathhouses in general, was a lot more complex than a lot of people had seen them. Bathhouses had been demonized, but the culture was [complicated]. When Man's Country opened in 1973, you could go there for entertainment; it was like a men's club where you could go for the weekend.

The role that bathhouses played actually changed over the 45 years Man's Country was open. After HIV/AIDS hit Chicago, part of Man's Country became the queer techno club Bistro Too; when that closed, another portion became the Chicago Eagle. So I wanted to write how this compound restructured itself to fit what the community needed. For a while, there was even a clinic there, as well as a store.

WCT: I think something that might surprise some readers is that there was a Man's Country in New York City as well.

Keehnen: Yes. Chuck wasn't looking to buy Man's Country but he was interested in the bathhouse business, and he had purchased half of the property of the Club Baths, in Chicago. When he opened Man's Country, he went to his original investors and they were going to open one here and one in New York.

Chuck wanted to model his Chicago Man's Country much more along the lines of The Continental, in New York—like a private club. But the Man's Country in New York was described as 10 floors of sex and the partners decided to part ways. As I understand it, Chuck took Chicago and the partners took New York.

WCT: You also write about celebrities being at Man's Country, which I found fascinating.

Keehnen: Yes. It shows how the place evolved over time. People took this main stage when the music hall was part of Man's Country—people like [singer/comedian] Rusty Warren,[puppeteer/puppet duo] Wayland Flowers and Madame, and Charles Pierce. It was an opportunity to showcase talent. The fact that it was a gay bathhouse wasn't that much different than if it were a gay nightclub.

Then, as Man's Country evolved, that same stage that had different people in the original bathhouse circuit later had celebrity acts like Divine, The Village People and Boy George. The stage at Man's Country had a long history—and so did the hallways. There were a lot of celebrities who walked along those—sometimes after they performed. [Laughs]

WCT: And I think a question should be devoted to Sally Rand alone.

Keehnen: [Laughs] Sally Rand was a dancer who had been in silent films with Cecil B. DeMille. She was arrested three times in one day at the [1933] Chicago World's Fair for public nudity, even though she was never actually nude. Her thing was "the Rand was quicker than the eye." Her fans and balloons covered her, so she was never exposed.

This was all big news in the 1920s and into the early '30s. So, 40 years later, when Sally was going to be the headliner at Man's Country, she was in her 70s. If there was any apprehension about having a gay bathhouse in the neighborhood, Chuck told me that the older people would say, "You can't be all bad if Sally Rand's playing there." And Chuck loved Sally; she also came back to perform for "Cruising the Nile" and she was a huge ally.

My favorite quote from Sally was when someone asked her what it was like to perform at a club of gay men. I'm paraphrasing but she said, "I haven't seen you guys in action. All I know is that there's a room of half-clothed men and they're paying attention to me." I think, for stories like that, I want the audience to feel the good nature and "almost-innocence" of bathhouses. It was as much good, clean fun as you could have in a bathhouse.

WCT: I actually never visited Man's Country so almost all of the information here was new to me.

Keehnen: Well, part of the reason I wrote this was so I could almost make it like time travel. I collected these anecdotes, personal stories, news clippings and other things so that people would almost feel like they were there—not just people who had been there but people who never had the opportunity to visit. Again, the scene was more complex than people thought.

WCT: If Man's Country were around today, especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic, how do you think it would be?

Keehnen: Truthfully, I can't imagine it surviving any longer than it did without being revamped. After Chuck passed away, it's so hard for me to imagine that story continuing. That's where Chuck's office was; Man's Country was his home base.

WCT: I read that, when he was 87, he was still going in three times a week.

Keehnen: Oh, yeah. Man's Country was such a big part of what Chuck wanted to give the community—which was just this gathering place that wasn't about sex, although it could be about sex. It could be anything you wanted it to be. He originally called it "an oasis of pleasure." Chuck wanted people to experience pleasure in whatever form that meant to them. That's what Man's Country was about—a place to deepen your sense of community in whatever way you wanted.

WCT: What does this book say about you?

Keehnen: I think this book says that I want to expand the way we think of gay history to include the way I remember gay history.

When I talk about wanting to make this time travel, it's selfish, too. I want to time-travel, too. I think if I see places disappearing, my focus has been more on re-creating the places. Like with Dugan's Bistro, with the downtown disco scene; the Belmont Rocks; and Man's Country, I want to show the importance of the community physically coming together.

I don't feel that the fabric of community is quite as tight [these days] because of social media. I also think that, with all the threats out there, it's going to be put to the test in the future. There are so many malignant forces out there. I worry that the bonds we have right now are not strong enough.

I also like to write about people having fun, having sex and hanging out together. I want to write about things that younger people may have an easier time connecting to.

WCT: Yes and, speaking of social media, I think a lot of bar owners started to worry when it became popular. It can take away that physical connection.

Keehnen: Our whole movement—our rights and community—happened because we came together and told our stories. We did things together—physically together. Maybe I'll be surprised.

WCT: But social media can bring people together—like with rallies—so there is hope.

Keehnen: Oh, yes. It can certainly be used to bring people together—not as a substitute for being together. That's when the problem happens. And if we don't tell the stories, the stories are going to be told for us. If somebody tells your story … well, we know how that narrative works out. It's never a good scenario.

WCT: So what do you think you'll cover next?

Keehnen: I have a couple ideas. I want to do something on the importance of different sex spaces other than bathhouses, like the Lincoln Park bushes or Montrose Harbor or the Back 40 at [the shuttered gay club] Manhandler. I want to write from the perspective of the change of surveillance culture.

Man's Country: More Than a Bathhouse is available on online retailers such as Amazon as well as brick-and-mortar spots like Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway.

This article shared 3742 times since Mon Nov 27, 2023
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Out and Aging
Presented By


Gay News

Theater Review: Billy Elliot, The Musical
Book and Lyrics: Lee Hall; Music: Elton John. At: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora Tickets: 630-896-6666 or; $28-$79. Runs through March 24 Billy Elliot: The Musical may nearly be two decades old, but ...

Gay News

SHOWBIZ Raven-Symone, women's sports, Wayne Brady, Jinkx Monsoon, British Vogue
In celebration of Black History Month, the LA LGBT Center announced that lesbian entertainer Raven-Symone will be presented with the Center's Bayard Rustin Award at its new event, Highly Favored, per a press release. She joins ...

Gay News

On 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Mayor Brandon Johnson reaffirms commitment to reproductive rights
--From a press release - CHICAGO — Today marks the 51st anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which preserved the constitutional right to choose. Chicago has a long history of advocating for women's rights and is considered ...

Gay News

Chicago Red Stars sign Mallory Swanson to historic contract
CHICAGO (January 16, 2024) — The Chicago Red Stars have signed Mallory Swanson to a historic long-term contract, making it the most lucrative agreement in the history of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) and seeing ...

Gay News

USA Boxing adds policy regarding trans competitors
Boxing's highest national governing body, USA Boxing, added a transgender athlete policy to its rulebook that requires genital-reassignment surgery and strict hormone testing for adults before competition, NBC News noted. ...

Gay News

Gay political trailblazer Ken Sherrill passes away at age 81
Kenneth Sherrill—a pioneering political scientist who was also the first out gay elected official in New York history—died in early December at age 81 from surgical complications, Gay City News reported. He is survived by his ...

Gay News

NATIONAL Women's college, banned books, military initiative, Oregon
After backlash regarding a decision to update its anti-discrimination policy and open enrollment to some transgender applicants, a Catholic women's college in Indiana will return to its previous admission policy, per The National Catholic Reporter. In ...

Gay News

NATIONAL School items, Miami attack, Elliot Page, Fire Island
In Virginia, new and returning members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and Fairfax County School Board were inaugurated—with some school board members opting to use banned books on the topics of slavery and LGBTQ+ ...

Gay News

SHOWBIZ Alex Newell, Joe Locke, 'Bad Together,' Raven-Symone, Limelight club
Alex Newell—who made history as one of the first two out nonbinary Tony Award winners—was named Time's Breakthrough of the Year for 2023, The Advocate reported. Newell won the Tony this year as Best Featured Actor ...

Gay News

Bradley Cooper conducts a symphony of queer history in Maestro
Composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein was one of the most important musicians of his time, receiving many accolades—the Kennedy Center Honor among them, in 1981—before passing away in 1990. Behind the scenes ...

Gay News

Chicago author's new guide leads lesbian fiction authors toward inspiration and publication
From a press release: Award-winning and bestselling lesbian fiction author Elizabeth Andre—the pen name for a Chicago-based interracial lesbian couple—has published her latest book, titled Self-Publishing Lesbian Fiction, Write Your ...

Gay News

Santos voted out of Congress
Now-former U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-New York) was voted out of Congress on Dec. 1. Santos is the sixth House member in U.S. history to be booted from Congress, and the third since the Civil War, ...

Gay News

NATIONAL Tenn. law, banned books, rainbow complex, journalists quit
Under pressure from a lawsuit over an anti-LGBTQ+ city ordinance, officials in Murfreesboro, Tennessee removed language that banned homosexuality in public, MSNBC noted. Passed in June, Murfreesboro's "public decency" ordinance ...

Gay News

BOOKS Lucas Hilderbrand reflects on gay history in 'The Bars Are Ours'
In The Bars Are Ours (via Duke University Press), Lucas Hilderbrand, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California-Irvine, takes readers on a historical journey of gay bars, showing how the venues ...

Gay News

Disney exhibition chronicles a century of entertainment history
Disney100, a large-scale traveling exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the Walt Disney Company, has opened at the Exhibition Hub Art Center, 2367 W. Logan Blvd., in Bucktown. Hundreds of props and artifacts from the company's ...


Copyright © 2024 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.

All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.






About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam     
Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.