The Backlot Bar: A queer space in peril

An LGBTQ+ community centre: The Backlot Bar in Calgary on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. It has been open on 10th Avenue since 1996, and is one of three queer spaces in Calgary. (Photo by Marcus Ogden/The Press)

The Backlot, a bar which has served as one of Calgary’s only queer spaces since 1976, may be shut down upon the bar’s lease expiring this coming November.

Standing at 209 10th Avenue S.W., the humble 116-year-old wood frame building that The Backlot has called home for 27 years is adorned with a pride flag which hangs over the sidewalk, and the bar’s iconic neon sign; it is at risk of being torn down with an 18-storey multi-residential building with three commercial spaces to be built in its place.

The Backlot is described by many as a staple of Calgary’s LGBTQ+ community. “It was the first gay bar I personally went to. It is where I feel most comfortable on a night out and, beyond that, it’s where the community feels comfortable” says Michael Connolly, the former NDP MLA for Calgary Hawkwood. Only two other gay bars exist in Calgary: Twisted Element and The Texas Lounge. Other venues, notably Dicken’s Pub, are known to host many queer-centred events but are not explicitly queer spaces.

For Connolly, The Backlot holds an essential and specific place in the local scene; “a lot of older people don’t feel comfortable going to Twisted, some younger people don’t feel comfortable going to the Texas Lounge. I find The Backlot is that happy medium where you can have drag shows and you can have fundraisers; you can do all these things in a very calm, nurturing friendly place.”

The bar itself resides in a building originally built by Thomas Underwood, a former Calgary mayor who spearheaded many building projects, to house a workshop for the Calgary Gas Company in 1907. As stated on the Calgary Inventory of Evaluated Historic Resources, the building’s wood construction is considered a rare example of its kind contemporarily and it is one of the oldest relics of Alberta’s oil and gas industry.

According to the Calgary Gay History Project, The Backlot originally existed as an extension of another gay bar called Myrts, which opened on 9th Avenue S.W. in 1976 and operated until New Year’s Eve of 1982. The Backlot then was a small theatre which served as a stage for Myrts, hosting a range of events for up-and-coming performers and the queer community.

Vintage neon: The Backlot Bar’s signature sign in Calgary on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. The sign is a holdover from when the bar existed as a stage for Myrts and was stolen from the original location sometime after its closure before finding its way to 10th Avenue. (Photo by Marcus Ogden/The Press)

The Backlot’s 10th Avenue iteration was opened in 1996. The bar is currently owned by Mark Campbell, who purchased and took over the bar in 2010 after working there since around 2002. Campbell describes The Backlot as the community’s ‘Cheers;’ “If there’s another event going on somewhere else, people will be here for drinks and then carry on to the other place.” Campbell is also proud to say that The Backlot has helped the Imperial Sovereign Court of The Chinook Arch, Calgary’s oldest gay non-profit organization, raise $600,000 for multiple charities over the past eight years.

While Campbell says the pandemic was “brutal” for The Backlot, he took the opportunity to invest the relief money offered by the government into renovations for the bar; “We totally ripped everything out. New foundation, new toilets, new POS system, new light fixtures, new speakers, new stage; you name it, I did it.” These renovations also included extensive re-workings of the bar’s interior and patio spaces. Campbell received word of the lease termination in November. “I was pretty devastated,” says Campbell.

An application is in place to redevelop the block upon The Backlot’s lease termination. A proposal put forward by Truman Homes, describes the development as an 18-storey mixed-use multi-residential building with 120 suites, a three-level underground parkade, and three retail spaces at the base. The proposal mentions that the development will “commemorate existing heritage buildings,” possibly alluding to The Backlot.

Morgan Huber, Senior Planner with the Greater Downtown Team, says “We’ve completed our initial review of the application and are currently waiting on the applicant’s response to The City’s comments.” Details about the application, as well as the portal to leave one’s comments, can be found on the Calgary Development Map website. Interested members of the public are also able to watch The Calgary Planning Commission live on the City of Calgary website.

David Khan, a former politician and lawyer, has taken up the cause of saving The Backlot through a social media campaign; “It’s such an important space for our community. It’s a space that we need.” Khan goes on to describe the good that The Backlot and Campbell have done for Calgary’s queer community; “[They’ve] allowed us a place to go gather and celebrate, and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for community events, initiatives, groups, sports teams, and things like that.”

A central point for Khan is that The Backlot’s potential closure would come when Calgary’s LGBTQ+ community is especially vulnerable and experiencing an influx of harassment. “The fact that we’re experiencing threats of violence and demonstrations against drag shows, of all things, in the middle of the city and Olympic Plaza is evidence that we continue to need these spaces,” says Khan, referencing a protest which occurred in Olympic Plaza in response to an all-ages drag skating event that was to be put on by the Chinook Blast on Feb. 10 before organizers decided to postpone it due to safety concerns.

Campbell reassures that, even if the redevelopment is approved, “The Backlot is not going away.” Campbell and Khan have both mentioned participating in negotiations with the property’s landlords and with Truman Homes; “they’ve been pretty, pretty cool, and I’m keeping it positive,” says Campbell. A possible alternate solution includes The Backlot taking over one of the commercial spaces included in the development; “the only problem with that is that that’s three-to-five years down the road by the time that gets built,” says Campbell. Should the development be approved, the other route that could be taken would be moving to another location as The Backlot has done in the past. “We really want to be focused on ensuring the city and the developers know how important it is to us and how critical it is to be saved, and then come to the table and solve this co-operatively,” says Khan.

Those interested in sharing their concerns about the redevelopment are encouraged to contact the review team through the commenting function of the development map website and, as Khan says, “Make sure you get 10 of your friends to do the same.” Specific instructions on the process can be found on the Save The Backlot Bar website, which lists the steps one needs to take and provides a letter one can include with their submission. Indicating an extension from the original Feb. 17 deadline, Huber says “The Development Applications Review Team is happy to receive comments on the application until Feb. 28.”

Carrying on a legacy: Mark Campbell, the owner of The Backlot, stood at the bar in Calgary on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.
Campbell acquired the bar after working for the previous owner and co-founder, Ken Schultz, for eight years. Schultz asked Campbell if he was interested in buying the bar in 2008, desiring to retire. (Photo by Marcus Ogden/The Press)
About Marcus Ogden 4 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Marcus Ogden is working as a writer for The Press in 2023.