As we mourn the violence amid Orlando nightlife, I remember the goodness of Uncle Lou’s.
In the wake of the horrid acts committed against a vibrant and beaming community celebrating Orlando nightlife, I must pay homage to what hateful acts aim to break down — unity amongst marginalized groups. I must mention a place that offers reprieve.
It was the moment that we set a table on fire and chopped it into pieces with a hammer that I knew I was in a place that supported me regardless of how insane a project idea was.
Typical floor scene at Lou’s. Photo courtesy of Andrea Knight.
We got away with having a whole audience take off their shoes so we could spray them with foaming shaving cream to crowd-surf over.
Boys dressed as ladies, ladies dressed as gorillas, people could be whatever they wanted to be that night.
At Uncle Lou’s Entertainment Hall in Orlando, the dive bar more commonly known as Uncle Lou’s, you don’t need to have a home; you aren’t recognized for your problems. You aren’t evaluated for your age, race or sex. You are a welcome resident of a place where you are considered valuable, interesting and deserving of pay (if you even feel the need to charge).
Secret Boyfriend and Scrap Metal. Photo courtesy of Andrea Knight.
There is no looking down at the audience from a stage. You’re eye-to-eye, lip-to-lip. Your stage is the slab of cement floor the size of grandma’s living room — open for interpretation. The walls started with paintings of flames in a forest but have since been adapted by the many artists who offered their free services to make a mark on such a special place.
It’s the only dive bar I know of that has poetry in its Yelp reviews.
That poetry is born out of an urge to express gratitude. It’s not easy to find the best way to say thank you to a person who let you use their space to have a filthy food fight and call it a set. Performers will find their ways…
A recent performance at Uncle Lou’s. Sean Snowreo on drums with Stocksmile. Photo courtesy of Chris Rotella via Facebook.
Uncle Lou’s is honest Orlando nightlife: it feels sweaty and raw. You won’t waste time on getting all dolled up at Lou’s — partially because you won’t care, partially because you won’t be able to see your reflection between permanent scribble in the mirrors. It’s a lawless safe space. There is no bill posting All Welcome Here, there are no rules enforcing a nondiscrimination policy. There is no need for laws in a place that simply has an open door and a reggae poster, a cheap drink and a creative playground: a big, beautiful sandbox where the adult vagrant comes to play. There is an understood unpredictability, though. Like any bar, there is the possibility for things to go awry. The way that awry often unfolds, though, is never violent or hateful. Maybe someone you didn’t know would come up to kiss your hands because they felt touched by what you just performed. Maybe someone who walked into Lou’s without knowing its secret power would shout in confusion. That person would always be told to respect: don’t dare violate this space.
They are part of the noise. Without them, the community falls short.
The regulars of Lou’s are not just there to bum a smoke, catch a lift or pour another. They are given brooms to sweep the floors; they are given rags to wipe the bar. They are part of a community based on taking care of a valuable space. At night, many regulars often help themselves to a microphone mid-set, offering a better refrain than the lead singer could have dreamt up. They are part of the noise. Without them, the community falls short.
Lou of Uncle Lou’s. Photo courtesy of Andrea Knight.
So then there’s Lou. The man, the legend. It would be tacky to go into his early life or his real name or his decision to open a bar. Does it really make any difference that the Dalai Lama was born on July 6? You don’t sit in front of a mystic and ask meaningless questions. It’s enough to look into their eyes, watch them pour you a premixed Long Island iced tea and bask in the glow. Yes, it’s really that kind of experience. I’ve tried to ask Lou about his personal life and I realized that Lou’s Entertainment Hall, an integral piece of Orlando nightlife, is his life. During ludicrous sets of sloppy drummers and spazzy spectators, he dons his headphones, keeping up on the latest Orlando sports. He’s hardly fazed by the shenanigans happening in his establishment and feels at ease that locals have a place for indulgent self-expression. That limitless possibility can bring newcomers to pause. They look around as if to make sure no one is in the corner wagging their finger in militant disapproval. Yes, it’s really okay.
I had a community of collaborators and a wholly accepting proprietor who took in sinners of all types, offering no need to repent.
I was part of the noise music scene that played Uncle Lou’s around 2007-2010. It was the only time in my life where I had a community of collaborators and a wholly accepting proprietor who took in sinners of all types, offering no need to repent. In the six years since, I’ve yet to find a venue with the whole package. This speaks to the strength of people who represent Orlando nightlife, if you want to call it that. It really just speaks to the people who are the life of Orlando.
Uncle Lou’s is an aorta in the heart of Florida — it’s the part that carries oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. It’s what many people would describe as their “life blood.” It’s important to highlight a lawless safe space like this one for people who haven’t found that yet.
Crowd during Chronic Spells. Photo courtesy of Andrea Knight.
There are towns like Orlando everywhere. Places that can feel aimless and bored. Growing up in Florida, I know what it’s like to have to create entertainment where there is none. For people who make off-the-cuff bullshit and need an arena to showcase that talent, it’s vital to have a place like Lou’s. Sharing yourself in a public environment without judgment or pretension means you’re part of the world. You enrich the world. There’s nothing saccharine about it. It makes sense to want to be a part of something. If a dive bar full of odd Orlando nightlife is that something, consider yourself lucky.
Uncle Lou’s is glue and glitter; it’s a homemade disco ball to dance under, smash to pieces with a horrible-sounding guitar and rebuild into something new. Everyone is aching; go find yourself at Lou’s for a place that welcomes you to come by and make some noise.