Severe Australian hair salon interventionist Tabatha Coffey is back for another season on Bravo, and this year Tabatha Takes Over isn’t just turning around hair salons, she’s taking on a range of retail businesses. And in episode two, she took on the turnaround of a business that meant a lot to me twenty years ago: Club Ripples, the gay club on the shore in Long Beach, California.
In 1993, I probably spent eight or ten Sunday afternoons at Ripples, driving down from LA with my boyfriend and meeting up with my Orange County friends. It was a convenient halfway point between us — in those days, I was living in West Hollywood and working in Costa Mesa, driving 50 miles each way in the carpool lane, passing Long Beach about midway — and it was nice to get out of the gay ghetto I lived in and experience another gay-friendly but not-quite-ghettoized community. And there were new people to look at and talk to, and Long Beach (population “only” 400,000) had a friendlier vibe than LA, and it was sunny and quiet and you could hear the seagulls. For a short time, we even considered buying a house in Belmont Shore, a gay-friendly neighborhood even then and much more affordable than LA, and moving.
Back then, Ripples on a Sunday was packed — it was a local hangout for gay people from Long Beach, a fun day trip from LA, and a magnet for gay people from Orange County. I was never really a bar person, and whenever I went to a gay club I felt like everyone else was prettier and more vivacious than me, not to mention in on something that nobody had bothered to let me in on. But Ripples felt incrementally warmer and more welcoming. People talked to you, and being by the beach made people a little less uptight. From LA it was a schlep, but I enjoyed it anyway.
Now it’s 20 years later, and Ripples has been suffering. It’s obvious from Tabatha’s show that some of its wounds were self-inflicted, and she did what she could to help with that (and through the happily-ever-after lens of a reality show, she appears to have succeeded). But it’s also true that the club scene has changed. One of the Ripples owners said this to Tabatha and she waved it away, but I think it’s true.
Even in 1993, which isn’t that long ago, there were many fewer ways to meet people than there are today. The modern coffeehouse scene was very new (no Starbucks, or almost none). There was no Internet as we know it now; nobody had a cellphone, let alone a smartphone; AOL charged by the minute. If you wanted to have a social experience with other gay people, you pretty much had to go to a bar and stand around until you saw someone you wanted to talk to. And so that’s what we did, even those of us who didn’t really like to drink and didn’t feel comfortable in those surroundings.
“Kids today” still go out and stand around, of course they do. The difference is that they don’t have to in order to be sociable; they have other choices. And so businesses have to be competitive, which is where I think Tabatha is right on. I hope her changes to Ripples stick, because the place meant a lot to me once — and it was open and serving gay people with a smile when I was six years old, which is a long history indeed.