Looking for Plan C

by | Dec 19, 2018 | 0 comments

(A major update to this story broke in early January – read the news here)

Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.

Over the weekend of December 15, an incident at Plan B brought fully into public light long-simmering disputes and changes at the popular, queer-founded nightclub. Several drag queens who are regular and prominent performers at the club took to social media to voice their complaints, leading to the club issuing an apology several days later.

Comments on the apology were overwhelmingly negative, with several including serious accusations ranging from harassment and other improprieties by one of the club’s three co-owners as well as security staff, to intentionally serving underage patrons, and regular disrespectful treatment of staff and performers.

Club co-founder and current minority co-owner Corey Gresen told Our Lives in an interview that he was personally disappointed with the direction the business had taken in recent years, and intends to step away from it in the New Year. The club has one more three-year lease renewal option coming up in February, and Gresen says he plans to vote not to exercise it. He hopes the other two co-owners, Josh Scherer and Albert Borokhim, follow suit and find a way to close the club with some grace.

“Certain people have always just been not good LGBT club owners,” Gresen says. “And I’ve been trying to save Plan B for years now only to have it turn into something I didn’t want it to become. I want to remember it for all the good it did and what I started it for… but since it’s become this I’d rather just close its doors and support other establishments.”

Closing the door

It all came to a head when Bryanna Banx$ took to Facebook Live late on the night of December 15, as she prepared for her show that night in the upstairs dressing room. Banx$, the reigning Miss Gay Madison, said she’d shown up that night for a guest spot with the regular Honey B cast, only to be barred from entry by security staff. She says she was told by them and the bar manager on duty, Jon Hammons, that she was not allowed into the dressing room. Not only that, she said, they told her she couldn’t use the bathrooms, either, and would have to either show up prepared or get changed in her car.

After some back and forth, and an apology from Hammons, performers won the right to use the dressing room one final time. Banx$ and others who were present noted that there had been no forewarning about the sudden change of policy.

Incensed, Banx$ contacted fellow drag performer Regina Lynn Taylor, aka Michael Braatz, who also took to Facebook to voice his displeasure with what was viewed as disrespectful and unacceptable treatment of longtime performers. Braatz, currently Plan B’s “Queen B” titleholder as well as Miss Gay Wisconsin USofA Newcomer 2018, went on to state his intention to no longer perform at the venue, a sentiment that has been shared by many of the other regular Honey B cast members as well.

“Plan B played a very important part in my life,” Braatz said. “I remember coming down in high school to Madison with my brother to go…that was my safe place. I drove 5.5 hours on a Thursday night to see a RuPaul girl because it was a 18+ night and I could get in. It was an honor for me to win the title of Miss Queen B and represent a place that I thought stood for things that I stand for, and that’s just not the case anymore.”

By the next day, Braatz’s drag mother, Bianca Lynn Breeze (aka Brandon Rounds), reached out to co-owner Scherer to find out what exactly happened and why. According to Rounds, the initial conversation did not go well.

Scherer claimed that notice had been given in advance of the change, and that if it hadn’t happened, it was Gresen’s fault. He also said the policy was due to the upstairs dressing room not being up to fire code. He suggested that Rounds sit in on a conference call with someone from the City of Madison in order to negotiate a solution for a new space where performers could safely get ready. Rounds pushed back.

“Why is this on me?” he tells Our Lives. “First of all, I don’t get paid. I have been running these shows since February 2018 without an extra dime. Corey [Gresen] has personally paid me extra money out of his own pocket because he knows how much work it is. I schedule the cast every month, I find guest performers for the venue, and I create all of the show posters. So no, Josh. It’s your responsibility as the bar owner to figure out a space for us to change.”

They went on to argue about how many people and how much money the drag shows did or did not bring in to Plan B, with Scherer claiming that they didn’t need drag to “pack the dance floor,” according to Rounds. The conversation ended soon thereafter. Rounds took to Facebook to note his support for his fellow queens, and state his intention of stepping down as the show runner at Plan B. A follow-up conversation between the two happened in days following, with Scherer apologizing to Rounds.

“My challenge to him was to see less of Albert and more of him if he wants to be supportive of the LGBTQ+ Community,” Rounds wrote on his performer page. “Until changes are made, I will still not step foot in Plan B or have anything to do with it. This goes far beyond dressing rooms at this point. Change must happen.”

Displacement of blame

Hammons has since reached out to at least one former Plan B employee to claim that the version of events spread by the performers was not accurate. In a text shared with Our Lives, he claimed that it was supposed to have been Gresen’s responsibility to tell the queens “months ago” that they couldn’t be upstairs, but that Corey “neglected” to do that. “When asked what they were going to do he/Corey said ‘not my problem,’” Hammons wrote.

Gresen disputes that account, saying that he’d only just met with someone from the city in November to discuss the issue, so there was “no ball to drop.” He adds that they had long since told performers they technically weren’t allowed to use the upstairs due to fire code violations.

“But we’ve done it for a decade now,” he goes on. “[The majority of performers] don’t because the temperature is so extreme up there. Summers 100 degrees, and winter freezing. The issue isn’t the upstairs so much as the handling of it that night and Brandon’s conversation with Josh the day after.”

The Plan B Facebook page issued an official statement on December 18 that attempted to clarify the situation and offer some kind of apology to the performers impacted that night. They blamed miscommunication, and the issue with city fire codes, for the problems, citing that no owner had been present at the time, and that staff had then been instructed to offer free drinks and apologies.

“We are saddened to see a number of people upset with some of the directions Plan B has taken,” they wrote. “Although we continue to strive at the heart to be a LGBTQIA environment, we are a business with enormous expenses that require planning a multitude of events in our space…. When ownership shifted a few years, Plan B was on the verge of closing. All of our efforts since then have been to keep Plan B open, including diversifying our events to a broader community. However, we recognize that we have work to do to mend hurt feelings in our original community.”

Our Lives reached out directly to Scherer for comment but had not received a response by the time of article publication.

Mission creep

Corey Gresen co-founded the club with Rico Sabatini in 2009 with the explicit intent of serving Madison’s LGBTQ community. Drag shows were a regular feature from the beginning, along with a variety of other LGBTQ-focused events that came and went (indieQueer, She Said, karaoke, Drag Race performers, and the annual Fruit Fest). In 2014, Sabatini sold his share to Gresen to pursue a career in real estate. Two new co-owners were brought in to help keep the club running: Scherer and longtime Madison rug salesman Albert Borokhim.

The problems apparently began immediately. Rounds remarks that he had issues with Borokhim from the first show he directed at the club in 2018.

“The show was listed to start at 11, but drag time being what it is, we were running maybe 15 minutes late and just waiting for the DJ to switch over songs to begin,” he says. “Albert came over to me and yelled, ‘You’re late!’ That was my first real interaction with him. He’s never been supportive of drag at all or of our community in general.”

Plan B majority owner Albert Borokhim

Word of the December incident quickly spread across social media and throughout portions of Madison’s queer community. Feedback and complaints from a variety of former patrons and employees began in earnest, exploding in the comments under the Plan B statement.

Former Plan B bartender, show producer, and performer Ariel LeBron was perhaps the most forthright in their concerns. “There is much more to unpack from this and I feel like all of the people who have come forward about harassment and discrimination deserve more than this apology,” they wrote.

Our Lives spoke directly with LeBron about some of the allegations. They worked at the club during the transition of ownership, and says they noticed problematic changes almost immediately. It was particularly noticeable in terms of new co-owner Borokhim’s attitude toward female and female-presenting staff, and male performers.

“[Co-owner] Albert would just hang around a lot and make comments about the shows and the performers and the bartending staff,” LeBron told Our Lives. “Especially the women. How he’s ‘seriously paying to keep the club open for this?’ And really generally derogatory comments about the queens, and men dressing up in general.”

It got worse from there, LeBron says. Borokhim would regularly accuse them and other female-presenting staff of stealing, frequently standing behind the bar and looking over their shoulders, and finding excuses to stand in their way when they were trying to walk by. LeBron says they witnessed, and has video that was shared with Sherer, at least once specific incident of Borokhim inappropriately touching female patrons.

“I’ve caught Albert in the kitchen with underage girls, exchanging numbers and drinks for favors,” LeBron alleges. “Josh and Albert knowingly, purposefully let underage women in the bar so that they can get their money. A lot of Albert’s issues with me were because I refused to serve them. I could get arrested! I don’t want to be arrested, thank you.”

LeBron produced an event called the Burlesque Ball for two years in a row at the club and had problems both times. LeBron says Borokhim was incensed that they included male burlesque performers in the show, and walked out, “visibly angry,” when they took to the stage. For the second year of the show, LeBron says Scherer and Borokhim were insistent that they take half of the door revenue despite the event being a fundraiser where no one was being paid for their time.

The situation reached a boiling point for LeBron after an incident where, they say, Borokhim loudly threatened their job and degraded them in front of patrons after LeBron informed him that he shouldn’t use a glass to scoop ice. “We don’t want broken glass in the ice bin,” LeBron told him.

“The fact that Josh can’t acknowledge this and has in fact excused Albert’s behavior is no longer excusable,” LeBron says. “The treatment that security gives its patrons, especially its women and trans patrons, and patrons of color… they need to get their shit together, because they treat everybody like absolute garbage.”

A rocky history

The December dust-up with its drag queens certainly isn’t the first controversy to rock the club. In January 2018, the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition reported on an alleged incident of racially motivated violence by a white security staff member toward a black patron.

Brutus (not his real name) told Our Lives during an interview in late January 2018 that he had been at the club to see a hip hop show, and made it through the night without problems. When he was standing in line to get his jacket from the coat check, however, a member of security with whom he’d had past negative interactions outside of the club began demanding that he leave immediately.

“As soon as I showed the dude my [coat check] number on my wristband–up to this point I hadn’t said anything loud or crazy, but dude in my ear is loud–I yelled my number, and he hit me three or four times,” Brutus explained. “I was out. Next thing I know I woke up outside on the ground, face down. Some guy walks up and says, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you.’ I asked him, ‘What happened? What did you see happen?’ He told me he saw them throw me out on my face and the white guy said ‘fucking n—-r.’”

Brutus said he sought treatment at a hospital in the days that followed for a concussion, a hyperextended knee, and whiplash. He reached out to talk to someone at the club about what happened and to try to access security camera footage to find out for sure if the witness account was accurate or not. His goal, he said, was to help the owners identify a bad actor on their security team if there was one, and not to seek legal damages.

“I talked to Josh, and he was super defensive. He said, ‘I don’t know where you want to take this, our guys say you were fighting them, so if you call the police we’ll be happy to file charges. You’re welcome to come in with police to view footage and we’ll file charges.’” Brutus said. “I just wanted to come in and talk, go over footage and see what happened, and see who should be held accountable. But Josh told me I didn’t have the right to their footage. I guess I don’t have a ‘right,’ but I assumed he’d at least have interest in investing in a safe space.”

When Our Lives contacted Brutus in December for follow-up, he said that he’d still been unsuccessful in finding any legal recourse, and that the medical issues were still causing him financial problems.

Steps forwards, steps back

Plan B came in for intense public scrutiny starting in 2011 when noise complaints from neighbors lead to police and then city investigations. Then co-owners Gresen and Sabatini undertook various projects to dampen the bass sounds that were causing the issues for homeowners on a nearby ridge. Still, the club had its liquor license separated from regular renewal with the Alcohol License Review Committee in 2014 and underwent further debate.

An initial report recommended adding exterior soundproofing to the roof of the old commercial building, but it would have cost in the range of $12,000. Gresen and Sabatini underwent significant and renovations to the interior, which seemed to finally satisfy the city and their neighbors. They also added $10,000 worth of vinyl sound dampening to the exterior roof as well.

Issues of safety within the club have also come to the fore over the last few years. Former Honey B showrunner Gretta Grimm-DeVille bowed out of being part of the cast entirely earlier this year, citing not feeling comfortable at Plan B. Another cast member left shortly thereafter, following Gretta to where she now performs regularly at FIVE Nightclub.

Gresen and others also expressed frustration and disappointment over the lack of any LGBTQ-identified acts booked for the 2018 edition of Fruit Fest. The day-long, free community festival operates out of the parking lot of Plan B and is technically Gresen’s property, though Scherer seems to have played the strongest hand in setting up performances this year.

Since the controversy erupted in December, various community organizations and other promoters who planned to hold events at the club have begun either reconsidering or distancing themselves from Plan B entirely.

Leather & Lace owner/promoters Apollo Marquez, Mike Carlson, and Josh Lenius issued a statement in the aftermath about their work to determine if the popular fetish night would continue to be hosted at the club:

“For all  21 years of our existence, Leather & Lace has been focused on creating a culture of safety, inclusivity, freedom, and fun… When we initially moved to Plan B after Inferno Nightclub closed, our two cultures and philosophies appeared to be in alignment. Recently, complaints from our patrons and performers about the venue, and accusations against its staff and management, have become extremely troubling.

“That said, we’re actively working on solutions that we sincerely believe will solve our patrons’ and performers’ concerns, and we look forward to another 21+ years of Leather  & Lace!”

Frequent Leather & Lace performer and longtime Madison promoter Lili Luxe made her own personal statement to Our Lives about the issues at Plan B. She noted that, through her years as manager of two different venues, and attending dozens of events at the club, “Plan B has failed to be a safe space for queers. I say that not from the hundreds of complaints I have heard in-person and online, but from my own personal experience as well. While no venue can control how patrons behave and interact, you can have standards and policies, accountability, and make genuine efforts to address any and all issues. Management, staff, and security have failed to be proactive and, in many cases of complaints, it hasn’t even been appropriately reactive.

“You cannot promise perfection,” Luxe goes on, “but you can promise to listen, learn, and love those who enter your doors. I hope they take all that happened in the last week to realize that they need to ‘B Better.’  How you treat your staff and patrons is a reflection of who you are, and the lack of empathy and the ongoing acceptance of a horrific status quo through the years is unacceptable. This conversation may have come about through some misunderstandings and bad communication this weekend, but the consensus from many in our community is that you have failed us for a long time.  Until the countless concerns have been addressed, I don’t see how to move forward.”

Letting go

To a person that spoke with Our Lives and in many comments online, performers, patrons, and former staff members made a point to praise Gresen for his work over the years to support them and try to continue to foster the space’s LGBTQ focus and safety.

“Corey has done a lot for our community,” Rounds said, “as much as Dave at FIVE or Bob at Shamrock.”

For Gresen, this latest incident is just another nail in the casket for his time with the club. He cites his interest in starting a new chapter of his own life, and the recent run of disagreements with his co-owners, in his decision to begin stepping back from Plan B entirely.

He also noted that the landlord who owns the Plan B building and much of the property on that block of Williamson Street has openly discussed wanting to redevelop the site. Said landlord is Chuck Chvala, the former state senator who is perhaps most well-known for being convicted of two felonies in the infamous “Caucus Scandal” that rocked the state Democratic Party in 2001.

“I loved watching everyone grow as people and performers and couples and into their own through Plan B,” he added. “But after a decade I think it’s had its time. I will always love it as my own but it’s time to let it go.”

Plan B founders Corey Gresen & Rico Sabatini inside the club during the build-out, April 2009. Photo by Paul Baker Prindle

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