By Kira Kindley
846 E. Little Creek Road, Norfolk, Virginia.
The Nutcracker, a gay-focused bar owned by Mark and Loretta Gross, once stood at 846 E. Little Creek Road. Though Mark and Loretta themselves were not gay, they fashioned The Nutcracker into a congregation spot for gay men and lesbian women, though their primary focus was on catering to their gay male clientele through Disco, brunches, and a Mr. Nutcracker contest with three judging categories: Dress, Casual, and Bathing Suit (Our Own, November 1978, page 4). The bar opened in fall of 1978, and Mark and Loretta Gross regularly bought half-page advertisements for the Nutcracker in Our Own (Our Own, September 1979, page 4). The Nutcracker is listed among a slew of other gay bars and gay-friendly establishments as a distribution point for Our Own itself. In February of 1979, the Nutcracker hosted a meeting for representatives from gay owned/oriented businesses (Our Own, Februrary 1979, page 12).
Despite the prominence of The Nutcracker as a gay bar, it was sold unexpectedly in August of 1979. Patrons only discovered that the bar had been sold, rebranded, and re-named (becoming the Fox Trap) by arriving at 846 Little Creek and being turned away at the door for failing to adhere to the new dress code (Our Own, August 1979, page 3). When the gentleman reporting on the bar’s closing—who had indeed arrived at the former location of the Nutcracker in order to spend a Friday night—he was told by the former manager that “the bar had been sold because a lot of the gay community did not support the Nutcracker and Mark and Loretta Gross,” and one can see the threads of this lack of support in the early issues of Our Own (Our Own, August 1979, page 3). In November and December of 1978, the Letters to the Editor of Our Own contain notes about some sort of issue that occurred involving the Nutcracker and the Gross family—though unfortunately that story broke in the October issue of that year, which the Old Dominion University Library is sadly missing. In November, one Jayr Ellis writes that Our Own’s coverage of the October incident was fair to all parties, but “if Mr. Gross is not sensitive to the needs of gays; he would soon find himself out of business” (Our Own, November 1978, page 2). In December, Loretta Gross writes to implore readers to “Give us a chance. If something is not right make us aware. Come in and talk to us” (Our Own, December 1978, page 2). By November of the next year, the Nutcracker would be closed.
In March of 1979, Melanie Gerwig and Joyce Seylier write in to Our Own to say that they no longer feel welcome, as women, at the Nutcracker. The allege that Mr. Gross began discriminating against the lesbians who frequented the Nutcracker, saying that the waitstaff were exceedingly rude to them and that Mr. Gross wanted “the Nutcracker to be an all male bar due to the fact that males spend more money on the whole,” also saying that Mr. Gross was planning an “All Male” night later in March, where men would be admitted for free and women would pay a cover charge, in order to “encourage men to come and discourage women from coming to the Nutcracker” (Our Own, March 1979, page 2). Gerwig and Seylier encouraged gay folks and feminists to take their business elsewhere. Though one can clearly see the marketing towards gay men in the Nutcracker advertisements, these allegations were later thrown into question when J. Hill wrote to Our Own in April. Hill writes that the “All Male” night was followed by an all-female cruise night in April. Hill also asserts that the Nutcracker was the first gay bar in Norfolk to serve mixed drinks—a bold choice from the Gross family, considering at the time it was illegal to sell alcohol to gay individuals (for more information, see the post on The Oar House).
This apparent and alleged lack of support from the gay community, coupled with the ABC laws baring establishments from selling alcohol to gay patrons and imposing hefty fines on those that did, were likely what led to the demise of the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker was sold, and the new owners took such swift and immediate control of the property that Loretta and Mark could not even tell their regular customers that the sale had been made. In an effort to prevent “an embarrassing situation,” the night the bar reopened as the Fox Trap, Mark, Loretta, and the former manager stood outside and attempted to turn their former gay patrons away from the new bar, now a “straight black bar” where “gays would not be barred from entering,” so long as they adhered to the new dress code (Our Own, August 1979, pages 3 and 10). According to the former manager, The Fox Trap responded by calling the police. Mark Gross later denied this (Our Own, September 1979, page 4).
Mark and Loretta Gross characterized the sale of the Nutcracker as financially necessary, and claimed that the fast turn-around was the result of the new owners offering them a bonus if they could take immediate possession of the property, which Mark and Loretta agreed to (Our Own, September 1979, page 4). This quick turn around left the staff of the Nutcracker without the customary two-weeks notice, as the Fox Trap immediately fired all of the Nutcracker’s staff, but Mark and Loretta compensated their staff with two weeks salary and bonuses. Mark and Loretta planned to open a bigger, better discotheque somewhere else in Norfolk following the Nutcracker’s closing. Though Our Own assured readers they would report on the new bar, I can find no record of it in the paper.
The Nutcracker is unique not just because of the drama surrounding its short, one-year life, but because of the history of gentrification the Nutcracker falls into and, in some ways, subverts. Gentrification is when a district that was once frequented by a particular group of people is taken over by another group of people with slightly more capital and social power, pushing out the previous group through raised cost of living or outright hostility. When we ordinarily think of gentrification and the gay community in the same sentence, we think of the gay community as the community being pushed out—and certainly this happened in a big way in Norfolk. So many of the bars and restaurants that were once havens for the gay community are now parking garages or upscale rooms for rent (see The Boiler Room), the gay community having been pushed out by groups, usually straight, with deeper pockets. A case can even be made for this being the very thing that happened to the Nutcracker: once a haven for gay folks, the Nutcracker was forced to close down due to the financial pressure the city’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board put on Mark and Loretta Gross, and the space it once occupied was purchased in order to make room for another straight bar—and one with a dress code, at that.
However, this hardly tells the whole story. Those suffering from gentrification are, generally, also perpetuators of gentrification themselves. As the Virginian-Pilot reported in 1979, “gone are the droves of drug addicts, misfits, and lost souls who wandered aimlessly along Haight Street […] instead there are new groups of leather jacketed, short-haired, blue-jeaned men—mostly gay—walking the streets and wandering in and out of new, trendy shops” (Our Own, February 1979, page 12). Gay folks were not the first to inhabit the streets of Norfolk, and in taking up residence there they pushed out other groups of people. Though the excerpt from the Virginian-Pilot does not directly mention people of color as being among those who were pushed off of Haight Street to make room for the gay community, they undoubtedly were: though of course there were gay people of color in the 70s, and well before, in Norfolk one of the few groups that the vocal gay groups (who were primarily white) seemed to have more social capital than were individuals of color.
In the case of the Nutcracker then, the gentrification that took the Nutcracker away from the gay community in Norfolk gave the Fox Trap back to the African American community. The gentrified are often the gentrifiers for some other group, and history, as many of us learned through this project, is rarely so cut and dry and neat as we tend to make it out to be.