Nestled in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, just a hop, skip and jump away from some of Broadway’s most famous theatres, stands Therapy (Go Like them on Facebook right now here). As the stylish drag and dance lounge celebrates their anniversary this weekend, the star of their popular Sunday night show Slurp!, Paige Turner, got a chance to sit down with Therapy’s owner Tom Johnson and reflect back on fifteen years of Therapy!
Hi Tom! Fifteen years and still going strong as one of the most successful gay bars in NYC, that must feel pretty good? Congrats to you! So take me back to the start, because I have to admit I was here the first year you opened and I remember how exciting the energy was as I walked into Therapy! The split level venue and design was something that a lot of us hadn’t seen before. What was your original vision when opening Therapy?
When John Dempsey and I opened Barrage in 2000, we had no idea how badly Hell’s Kitchen was yearning for a gay lounge. I had been on the creative team that had opened both Food Bar and G Lounge in Chelsea, and after I helped open VYNL for John on 54th and 9th, I saw that there was a community here that needed a place to go out in their own neighborhood. With guys lining up on weekends to get into Barrage, we knew Hell’s Kitchen needed something bigger. Finding an affordable space is always NYC’s biggest challenge, and mid-block on 52nd Street in an recently abandoned whorehouse seemed perfect for us. Working with James Bartholomew, we designed the space to be “therapeutic” with air (the skylight), water (the fountain under the stairwell), fire (originally the fireplace on the stage was working), and earth (the wood and plants). Adding a full kitchen to a gay bar in NYC was unheard of at the time and we went all in with a menu of shareable plates. Having a dedicated cabaret space upstairs that needed programming, I teamed up with Scott Nevins to create some new shows and ideas. Add to that some clever cocktails and an awesome team of employees, Therapy was born.
Obviously so much has changed over the years in the neighborhood and that can always affect a business. What do you think has changed the most since you opened your doors and what do you think has remained true for Therapy, still to this day?
What happens in NYC’s neighborhoods, all of them, all of the time, is change. Rents rise, tastes change, competition comes and goes, populations age, trends evolve, on and on. Technology has eliminated the record store (we opened with 2 turntables in the DJ booth) as well as numerous other businesses. What I’ve always tried to instill into my team is that Therapy needs to be consistent and true to its brand’s image. We strive to be nice, serve a good drink with a smile, have talent that wows and be the bar that you would be proud to bring your Mom to. New York has enough LGBTQ venues that we can each target a segment of our community. I want YOU to feel comfortable coming to Therapy, that this is your bar and that your friends are here.
To call Therapy just a bar seems like shortchanging the experience. I always feel like Therapy is many things; fabulous cocktails. cute crowds, great food, amazing talents and a friendly staff! It’s definitely more of a gay complex. What do you want someone to take away from visiting Therapy for the first time?
Over the past fifteen years, I’ve probably said this 1,500 times, “If you walked in here for the first time and… (fill in the blank) …would you come back?” Our goal is to treat everybody as if it their first time at Therapy, and we want you to have a great time and come visit us again. We have regulars who come in five nights a week, they are very important, but the couple who lives in Madrid who comes in every two years when vacationing is equally valuable. We are their favorite bar in NYC – that matters. And reiterating what I answered above, being consistent to Therapy’s vision nightly means that when you return to Therapy after a day, week, year or decade, you won’t be surprised by walking into a leather event, NBA playoff game on TV or something else.
Therapy has always given back to the community and this past month raised $20,000 for AIDS WALK NYC, breaking their original goal of $15,000 to celebrate your 15 year anniversary. All the performers and staff pulled together to raise funds and help reach this goal. How did fundraising at the bar start and why is it still important that we continue this tradition and teach the children so to speak?
Therapy is a part of a community much larger than itself. We all are members of multiple communities. Communities have the need to take care of themselves for the betterment of all. Personally experiencing AIDS kill many of my friends and co-workers over the history of this awful disease has made finding a cure for it so dear and near to my heart. Over the years we have been a partner for Broadway Bares, Toys for Tots, the Imperial Court, GLAAD, Matthew Shepherd, Metropolitan Tennis Group and countless others. We volunteer our space for other community events as well, hosting political candidates, corporate LGBTQ events, and non-profit fundraisers. Because of the tireless activism in our community we have seen so much positive change in the past fifteen years (think gay marriage), let’s keep it up.
So many tourists I meet at my weekly show have told me they always come to Therapy when they’re in town because it’s known for always having a great lineup of talent every night. With so many drag performers, singers, comedians, and theater folk in Hell’s Kitchen, what do you think is the key ingredient for having a successful show in a bar venue in NYC and sustaining that?
Oh Paige, I wish I had all the answers. The talent that we always have wandering around NYC is extraordinary. Shows here are always a collaboration between the artists and Therapy which contributes to the success. Our audiences are fickle with a short attention span (I don’t mean that as a negative at all), one has to wow them and keep them entertained. When you have a weekly show, it has to always be fresh because much of the audience has seen you many times before. There are performers out there that can only strike a pose, say the two jokes in their repertoire, lip sync Beyoncé, or sing like Whitney Houston. To hold court over a weekly show at Therapy needs all of that and the improv skills on the microphone that can adapt to any audience. Our performers also need to have the ability to listen, sense our audience’s vibe, take a little criticism here and there, help promote both Therapy and themselves and embrace our community as their own. We’re all in this together.
This Sunday Therapy celebrates their anniversary with a fabulous party and show, which I’m thrilled to be hosting. What can our regulars, tourists and Therapy groupies expect for this fifteen year celebration?
It’s all going be a surprise to me. Hopefully a good surprise…
Thank you Tom for fifteen fabulous years and many more to come! I cannot wait to celebrate with you, the staff, all the regular patrons and for that matter, all of New York City this Sunday!
Known as the ultimate Barbie in the drag world, “Showbiz Spitfire” Paige Turner is a staple of nightlife and cabaret throughout NEW YORK CITY and beyond. This tawdry blonde bombshell is known for her outlandish mayhem and foolishness and always leaves her audiences wanting more!