Looking back on a gay nightclub that almost wasn’t; looking forward after a massacre

By : Alma J. Hill
Comments: 2

The news coverage of Pulse is a 24-hour cycle of tragedy. Again and again, readers are forced to relive chaos and carnage. Images of the battered wall fill our news feeds, and the faces of the 49 float in and out of our consciousness on a regular basis. Bodies in corners, mothers crying in cars, candles in the rain; remembering Pulse has come to almost exclusively mean reliving the events of June 12th.

Rarely is the legacy of the club discussed. As an LGBTQ friendly space that had been operational for well over a decade, Pulse represented many firsts for Orlando. It was the first Orlando nightclub to feature a space even remotely similar to its famed futuristic white room (that changed colors). In 2013, it became one of the first gay clubs in Central Florida to give a Saturday night home to a Latin night. The club’s opulent interior garnered national attention, earning Pulse coverage in both Club and Mondo magazines.

Despite these accolades, many of these memories have been lost to the tragedy. Yet, the community that thrived within the walls of Pulse are determined not to let the good times, and the significance of the space, be forgotten.

You can’t wipe away a history, not even with an automatic weapon.

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Kate Maini was one of the first employees hired to bartend at Pulse. She was there on opening night in 2004. She loved the club and the atmosphere so much that she stayed on as a regular part of the staff, all the way up until her last shift, that fateful night last June 12. For more than 12 years, she and Bobby Mills manned the bar in the main room, making regular patrons their favorite drinks, and welcoming newcomers with a smile and a martini.

Riding the Wave: Timothy Vargas and friends at the 2012 WAVE Awards party. (Photo by Hazel Jandick)

“I hope that people start remembering what it was,” Maini says. “When I think of Pulse, I think of what it was, what it meant for me and for all the people who went there.”

In the nearly thirteen years that Pulse was operational, thousands of people visited. It was the kind of space that left an impression on every visitor— gay, straight or otherwise.

There are none who were so touched by the legacy of Pulse more than owners Barbara Poma and Ron Legler. The pair met through Poma’s husband, Rosario, and quickly became inseparable.

“I was her ‘gusband’ for years,” Legler says of their friendship. He became a frequent presence in their home as a result. Eventually, after many Sunday dinners and impromptu movie nights, the idea of opening up a new gay bar became a regular topic of discussion among the couple and their newfound friend. The original concept for Pulse was the brainchild of Legler. A New York transplant, he was acutely aware of the lack of upscale gay bars in Orlando.

“That was the time of Martini Bars and UltraLounges. I had lived in Manhattan and I got to Orlando and thought ‘Gosh, this place needs a bit of a fresher-upper,’” he says.

Legler approached the Pomas with the concept, and they agreed to offer their assistance in any way possible. Prior to Pulse, the couple had never considered opening a gay bar. After hearing Legler’s vision of the kind of space he wanted to create, they bought into the idea.

“It was a bunch of conversations with really great friends,” Barbara Poma says. “It was a dream that was born of great collaboration.”

Try the Coco: Celebrants at Platinum Friday on Gay Days Weekend 2013. (Photo by Stephanie Saylor)

The Pomas provided a large portion of the financial backing. (The family had long since established themselves as successful entrepreneurs with Wildside’s Bar and Grill and Panino’s Italian Restaurant.) The friends-turned-partners purchased not one but two separate buildings, right next to each other. They built a third space from the ground up to connect the two existing houses on South Orange Avenue.

When Pulse opened in the summer of 2004, it was unlike anything the city of Orlando had ever seen. The bar and nightclub featured three themed rooms, each more intriguing than the last. Guests entered through a main room called the Jewel Box, named for its opulent decor. An ornate chandelier hung from the ceiling, gaining a second life after being relocated from the famed Moulin Rouge. Inside was a framed glass wall that was accentuated by running water designed to create the illusion of an indoor waterfall.

A second room to the left was called the Adonis Room. The most sensual of the three, the Adonis Room exuded velveteen sexiness. Dimly lit, it incorporated exotic features which dancers used to enhance their very sensual choreography.

Then there was the famous white room. Constructed before LED lighting hit mainstream popularity, the White Room contributed in large part to the initial popularity of Pulse. Every inch of the space was stark white. The bar, the furniture and even the walls were a pristine pale. The ceiling was made of stretched latex which vibrated with the pulse of the music. Drink specials were advertised by changing the color of the lights, and thus the room.

The pride in their creation was evident. Rosario Poma was very hands on, especially during construction, and often referred to Pulse as their “baby.” Barbara Poma served as both accountant and mediator. Her passion led to the decision that was made to dedicate the space to her brother John, a gay man who had passed away years before from AIDS. Legler fretted over aesthetics, down to the logo he had scribbled on a napkin.

“Before, gay bars were in little dark quiet corners. Here we were, out in the open in a beautiful place that was jaw dropping when you walked in,” Legler says.

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Despite their excitement, not everyone was so accepting of the new club on the block. Before long, a church on South Orange Avenue caught wind of the new gay bar slated to open near their place of worship. Their reaction was nothing short of hostile.

Construction on Pulse was completed at the beginning of summer 2004. The opening weekend was supposed to be the official kick-off for the 2004 Gay Days. Boy George had already been booked and was being advertised widely as the headliner. The party was highly anticipated, and several news publications advertised the festivities, ramping up the collective sense of excitement.

Suddenly, the Pomas and Legler received word from the city to halt operation. Offended by the establishment, the neighboring church filed a last minute petition with the city, intent on stopping the club from opening. The municipal courts ruled that until all complaints were heard, Pulse did not have the legal right to be operational.

Time of your life: Converge/VisitOrlando.com promotional photo. (Photo by Chris Stephenson)

The blow was devastating. The pending Gay Days festivities were left in disarray. The reputation of the club was tarnished before they had even had a chance to open their doors.

The frustration and abject discrimination brought forth a few very surprising advocates. Legler relayed the story of Rosario Poma who stormed into the courts and blatantly accused the city of LGBTQ discrimination. It was the Poma’s first business venture aimed specifically at the LGBTQ community of Orlando, and, consequently, their first time dealing with the challenges that came with that connotation.

“I was so proud of them. A straight Italian family that didn’t really have too much experience with the gay lifestyle. They put everything on the line,” Legler says. He noted that watching Rosario Poma become an advocate for gay rights before his very eyes was one of the most memorable moments in the entire process. “It was probably one of my favorite things that happened. Watching and knowing that Rosario understood that just because you’re gay, things aren’t as easy, and there’s no reason for it.”

The then-newly elected mayor, Buddy Dyer, also caught wind of the plight of the club and offered a helping hand. On the surface, the reputation of the club was indeed in jeopardy but there were deeper underlying consequences of the church’s discriminatory petition. With their opening date being pushed back indefinitely, their opening weekend for Gay Days, the largest, longest LGBTQ celebration in Central Florida, was suddenly very unstable. Dyer swiftly headed off the potential catastrophe and gave the club permission to relocate the party to a very unexpected venue.

“They opened the rotunda to City Hall and let this gay event happen,” Legler says. “Mayor Dyer came and spoke. They allowed us to serve liquor. Rosario got food from Wildside’s, and we threw this amazing kick-off party at City Hall. It was a beautiful thing. You could probably never do that in any other city. It showed that our city not only cared, they understood.”

The church was relentless in their efforts, even pulling local politicians into the conflict. The petition caused Pulse to miss their originally scheduled opening date of June 4, 2004, by nearly a month. Finally, on July 2, 2004, Pulse officially opened for business.

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“It was very popular, from the very beginning,” Mills says.

The community response was overwhelming. Mills recalls the line wrapping around the building the first night. He remembers well the unique atmosphere of Pulse. The space itself was breathtaking. It was a very polished and clean club that served all interests, no matter who you were. On Tuesdays, the bar served two-dollar martinis, a steal in Orlando. Mills would often embellish the glasses of his chocolate martinis with some X-rated artistry. Their costume parties were unrivaled.

Barbara Poma, who was motivated in large part to open the club to honor the memory of her gay brother, helped Pulse collaborate with hundreds of charity events over the years. Many people agree that the thing that stood out the most about Pulse was the range of diversity in their customer base.

Which color, though: Blue strikes a pose in the Ultra Lounge 2008. (Photo by Nathan Schifflet)

Neema Bahrami, a promoter who joined the staff in 2013, talks about how rare it was to for a gay club to foster an environment that was not only extremely diverse, but equally as accepting. From the day he walked in, he notes that he had never been in a club like Pulse before, nor had he ever felt so at home inside one.

“Any gay club can make you feel like it’s a sanctuary,” he says. “When I walked into Pulse I got that, but I also got a sense of love, as if they were my own family.”

From day one, Barbara Poma and Legler made a deliberate decision to create a safe space with their bar. They wanted Pulse to be an open and inclusive space for all of their guests.

“It found its way to include everyone, which is what it set out to do,” Barbara Poma says. “No matter where you stood in the LGBTQ community, whether you were young and questioning, or you were trans or if you had been out for years – It didn’t matter. You had a night that you fit there.”

Mills and Maini who were hired at ages 21 and 23 remember how Pulse was more than a bar for them. “We grew up there,” Maini says. Mills agrees. “We were a family. It was home,” he says.

Regular patrons remember how Pulse created the safe space they needed in order to be comfortable enough to truly express themselves. Nikole Parker was a frequent visitor to Pulse and is a transgender woman.

“Without Pulse, I don’t think I would have been able to transition as quickly,” Parker says. “I didn’t really have a safe space out in public or at home. Pulse provided that for me.”

Legler laughs as he remembers the performers who used Pulse as a place to help them develop their craft. A shy, young Michael Feliciano got his start in drag at Pulse.

“This young boy came in, and I could see the evolution,” Legler recalls. “He would watch the drag queens and try to see what they were doing. Then he started coming in with makeup on. Then slowly he would come in with more makeup on. It was like a slow metamorphosis. One day I asked ‘Do you want to go up and do a soft spot?’ She was like ‘Really?’ Eventually, we ended up giving her a regular spot, and she was so excited.”

Today, Michael is known as Roxxxy Andrews. Her talents in drag earned her a top spot on RuPaul’s Drag Race not once but twice.

Mills remembers a deeply personal connection with the everyday patrons, who would come to him for advice in addition to their regular drinks.

“I knew a bunch of people that became so comfortable with me that they would tell me when they became positive. Or when they came out to their parents.” he says. He would follow up with all of them, not because he was required to do so, but because he cared.

All of these stories support the point that Pulse was more than just a nightclub. It delved deeper than your average safe space. For dozens of people, Pulse was a second home. This feeling of acceptance, of community, of family was vital to everyone who found life within those four walls. When the deranged gunman invaded the space, his hatred affected more than 49 lives. His bullets ripped through the air, dismantling an essential institution. He fractured the bond of a community forever.

Spin that wheel: Miss Sammy and Carol Lee host Watermark‘s 2008 Love Sex Marriage party 2008. (Photo by Nathan Schifflet)

“I knew where every light switch was. Every socket,” Legler says, fighting back tears. “The wallpaper color, the pictures. I knew everything in the whole building. What happened was someone came into my living room and shot my family.”

Today, those who considered themselves members of the Pulse family are scattered throughout Orlando. Mills and Maini have both moved on to other professions to survive. They still bartend occasionally but agree that it’s not the same. “Every time I drive by, I still get chill bumps,” Mills said.

Bahrami, who hosted Latin Nights at Pulse for four years, has since relocated the event to The Abbey. Even though he has rebranded the event to pay homage to the legacy of Pulse, he struggles to recreate the energy that Latin Nights at Pulse had perfected.

“I ran into one of my regulars the other day,” he says “I asked him, ‘Where have you been?’ and he said, ‘Where have YOU been?’ It’s just hard. People don’t know.”

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As the one-year mark of June 12 approaches, it’s evident that in order to properly heal and progress, we cannot continue reviving the sorrow. It’s been a year, and the time has come to remember all of the good that came out of Pulse. It’s time to honor the cherished memories that were made in the 12 years the club was operational, and celebrate the healing that has already begun, former members of the staff agree.

“I don’t want people to forget that we’re still pushing forward,” Bahrami says. He finds comfort in watching those directly affected by the shooting making significant strides towards healing. “To see some of them standing up again, dancing, walking. That’s my biggest joy right now.”

Mills and Maini echo these sentiments. They are determined to help the community heal, and would like to return to Pulse one day. They’re eager to help Barbara Poma with her plans to recreate the space at a separate location.

“We were matchmakers, we were therapists, we were friends,” Maini says. “We still are. We’re still here.”

Although Barbara Poma has talked about opening up a second Pulse at some point in the future, the details haven’t been fleshed out publicly yet. She’s still processing, and dealing with the media frenzy surrounding the events, even a year later. Still, she has very high hopes for the second rendition of Pulse.

“I think what we built worked,” she says. “Many people loved it and grew up in there. I would want to replicate it as closely to the old building as possible. The format, and the days of the week, and what we stood for. That worked. That’s who we were.”

She’s optimistic about the future.

Legler, who lives in Baltimore and runs a performing arts center, hopes that the community he still considers home can take the right lessons from the tragedy and learn to embrace the growth that comes with the healing process.

“The hard part is going to be making people remember that those people’s lives mattered,” he says.“We have to strive to do better. It’s going to be in our lives every day for the rest of our lives. We have to remind people that we can’t let that kind of hate happen.Love has to come first.”

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  • For in that moment, most our nation, became part of Orlando.

  • Margot Haliday Knight

    What a beautifully crafted story of history, grief, future and hope. Kudos to All involved.