Friday, June 8, 2018

Que Sera

Que Sera



Ellen Ward, (left) the first openly gay woman
to be elected to the Signal Hill City Council,
stands behind the bar at The Que Sera
with the establishment's current owner Ilse Benz.
Ward used to own the lesbian bar
and live-entertainment venue,
known as the place where Melissa Etheridge got her start.
However, she turned it over to Benz,
her former manager, in the mid-1990s.

Photo by Sean Belk/Signal Tribune (2013)
Location: 1923 E. 7th Street, Long Beach, California, USA

Opened: 1975

Closed: Sold in 1996 or 1999 (both dates are reported). When it ceased to be a lesbian bar is not clear, though it was still open as of 2015.

According to the Historical Society of Long Beach, Que Sera was founded by Ellen Ward, a lesbian who moved to Long Beach for college, and eventually ended up working in local government and the city recreational departments:

In 1975, Ward bought a bar called the Monarch Room, which she renamed Que Sera. Que Sera is still standing, though Ward sold the bar in 1999 to her longtime bartender and friend Benz. It is a dark bar with no windows located on Seventh Street and Cherry (just three blocks north of the present location of the LGBTQ Center of Long Beach). The lack of windows is a signal for those that were historic gay bars. Windows meant people could see what was going on from the outside, and patrons of gay bars were often afraid of their anonymity being broached. While many people placed the Gay Ghetto neighborhood on a map that marked Fourth Street as the north border of the neighborhood, a few pushed that boundary to Seventh Street simply because of Que Sera. The bar was Ward’s fall-back plan in case her employment opportunities in the field of recreation dried up. She wanted to make Que Sera a nice bar for lesbians, something she felt was lacking in Long Beach in the 1970s. Though it’s a darkened dive bar now, in its heyday it was, according to Ward, the nicest lesbian bar around. It had couches and a fireplace and attracted a lot of professional women. Melissa Etheridge credits the bar with helping to launch her career, something Ward remembers fondly. Etheridge lived in Long Beach from 1982 to “about 1985” and played Que Sera every Wednesday and Friday for several years. Etheridge explained, “I played at Que Sera year after year, and finally Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) came to see me play, and the rest is history.” Etheridge has written several songs about her time spent living and playing in Long Beach, including “Cherry Avenue” and “Breakdown.” In “Cherry Avenue,” she sings,
And so you meet me

Down at the bar

7th and Cherry

That’s where we are
And I promise not to take you down too far
Beetle takes a dollar
Benz will make a drink
Two will see you holler
No one wants to think
And it’s que sera sera in black and pink.


There is also this from a 2013 article in the Signal Tribune:

To the LGBT community, however, Ward was more known as the former owner of the Que Sera, a longtime lesbian bar she opened in 1975 that today is celebrated for helping launch the career of Grammy- and Oscar-winning musician and singer Melissa Etheridge in the 1980s. One of the first items collected for display was one of Etheridge’s gold records that the singer gave to the Que Sera.
Ilse Benz, who took over the black- and pink-colored bar located at 1923 E. 7th St., after first working as the manager, said it was at the venue where Chris Blackwell of Island Records discovered the now famous musician.

Although Etheridge first started by playing cover songs, she later snuck in her originals that became popular among both straight and gay crowds, Benz said, adding that Etheridge’s song “Cherry Avenue” was written about the Que Sera and her time living in Long Beach.

“Music brings people together to where you don’t care about whether you stand next to a lesbian and that a woman maybe has her arm around another woman,” Benz said. “They listen to the music, and it makes them happy, and we all have that in common so that sexual orientation thing went by the wayside.”

Que Sera also got a mention in the Los Angeles Times back in 1996:

Que Sera (as the sign out front abbreviates it) can lay claim to the title of "grandmama" of the Long Beach alternative music scene, having outlasted Bogart's, Fender's Ballroom and a myriad of smaller venues. Ever since a then-unknown Melissa Etheridge trod the small stage more than a decade ago (Que Sera is one of the longest-running predominately lesbian bars in the Southland), the club has booked live music two to three nights a week.

But as Club Planet documents, while the music lasted, the lesbians did not:

Que Sera - Melissa Etheridge got her start at Que Sera, playing acoustic sets to enthusiastic fans back in the '80s. Times have changed for this joint as this bar no longer specifically caters to the lesbian crowd--all people are welcome. DJ's spin techno, house, and even '80s tracks on the wheels of steel, and rock bands sometimes take the stage. The legend of Melissa still lives on here

Ellen Ward passed away in August 2015 at the age of 78. From her obituary:

Part of her impact in the gay community is the fact that Ward opened Que Sera bar in 1975, a business she owned and operated for 23 years. The establishment is also known as the place where musician Melissa Etheridge got her start.

However, Ward’s scope of influence surpassed simply being the owner of a gay bar before homosexuality was as acceptable as it is today, according to Ilse Benz, who now owns the bar and met Ward there in the late 1970s when Benz was a patron. Benz, who is from Stuttgart, Germany, said they bonded because Europeans like herself are very politically minded, and so was Ward.

As Benz described her relationship with Ward to the Signal Tribune, her voice cracked when she referred to Ward as the woman who helped her make a new home in the United States.

“I’m heartbroken to lose my mentor, my rock,” Benz said. “She had also created a home away from home for me, and I’m just so saddened by her leaving.”

Benz said Ward would keep Que Sera open on holidays to offer it as a safe haven for gay people who were not welcome to join their families.

“We could never be closed on holidays at the Que Sera,” Benz said. “People got put out by their families and would not be invited on Thanksgiving. So she wanted to make sure everybody knew there was a place they could come to and get a turkey dinner or, you know, a hot dog for Fourth of July— to prevent suicides. During the holidays, I had to work for 30-some-odd years, every holiday— never had a holiday off— because I truly believe that she is right. That it would maybe make a difference, even if it’s just one person. A door is open that they can walk in.”

Benz ended up serving as manager for 20 years before purchasing the bar from Ward in 1996.

Notice there is no explanation in any of these selections as to why Que Sera "no longer specifically caters to the lesbian crowd" or the process by which this happened.