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Ann Arbor 200

Keith & Martin/Martin & Keith: Elegy for the \aut\BAR

When: 2024

“From 1995 to 2020, Ann Arbor’s Aut/Bar was the mecca for the LGBTQ+ community. Its founders, Martin Contreras and Keith Orr, created a cultural and political hub that bridged the AIDS era with assimilation of the queer community and urban gentrification. This film is both tribute and elegy to a moment of significant hope when Ann Arbor lived up to its reputation for harboring a tolerant and liberal-minded population. It is dedicated to the two men who were at its heart and whose proud determination to make it happen was both fierce and tender.” - Peter Sparling


  • [00:01:21] Keith: I don't know where it really started, but we had talked about it quite a bit. We had, as they say, met at The Flame, but The Flame was owned by a straight man who was actually gay hostile. His view, as quoted by one of the bartenders, was "AIDS is depressing and it will be bad for business".
  • [00:01:47] Martin: The decision to open a gay bar, had a lot to do, I think, in my mind, with wanting a better place for the community. Something that celebrated us as gay men and women. Something that acknowledged and affirmed who we were as gay men and women. I've always had this belief that we become our environment and if you only know dark places down back alleys and seedy places, that forms your personality and it forms the vision of who you are and so it was a "we need something better. We deserve something better".
  • [00:02:45] Sandi Smith: What I remember is a first date, and Linda and I met over at La Casita. The upstairs was already blocked off and under construction. We sat downstairs in the front window and had, I don't know, tacos and Tequila or something like that.
  • [00:03:08] Linda Lombardini: We did have Tequila, I think that evening.
  • [00:03:11] Sandi Smith: We understood that they were transitioning to a gay bar, and we were pretty excited about that. Nothing really in town, there was The Flame, which is a different sort of a space. We got very excited about the fact that we were going to have something that was welcoming and it was very early on in our relationships. At that point, I think we met Martin and/or Keith and we talked to them about what was upstairs. They took us up behind the black curtains and we just stayed in touch from that point on.
  • [00:03:55] Linda Lombardini: They had been here for so long. It was Martin's mom's, so they had the area. We had high hopes that it worked well.
  • [00:04:08] Keith: It was interesting because this was a period when I think a lot of gay liberation was finally coalescing. A big part of it had to do with AIDS. One doesn't like to say, "that's the silver lining or something" because there is no real silver lining to AIDS, but you do have to look at it and realize that because of what was happening, a community was forming that maybe would never have formed otherwise. I got one call, and I said, hey, good news, we just found out today we can open so we're going to open at 4:00 today. That was it and somewhere around 3 o'clock we're like, pulling out the last ladders and paint cans far out the back door and into the car and dash home to clean up, put some clean clothes on, and go there for our "soft" opening. It was a little bit after four by the time we got back. Linda Smith, who had been with us in the La Casita days and then through quite a few years at the aut bar was at the front door and not letting anyone in. "No one's coming in till the boys get back" and so we parked and we're walking up that little alley and turning into Braun Court, thinking we're going to walk in and, "let's open the place up". You walk in and the courtyard is jammed with people waiting to be there for the opening. We're like, what the hell? How were we going to deal with this? It was very crazy. What's a picture that was for many years, it was hanging up there of us on opening day and Martin always joked, we're like this with other and he always joked that at the time, I was asking him, "how much do we charge for this?"
  • [00:06:20] Martin: We had a good 23 year run there. In total, it was 32 years running a restaurant, so physically, it was draining and it was all consuming and because we were had so many irons in the fire, it wasn't just, go in there, make food, make drinks, turn on the lights and open the door. It was all these other things that we were involved in that also took time and doing fundraisers and street parties we developed National Coming Out Day that eventually became Ann Arbor Pride. We did the wine tasting event for HARC, the HIV AIDS Resource Center that it ran for ten years, and I'm sure we raised over 250,000 for HARC. There was just all these projects we were always involved in and I was making costumes for local theaters and Keith was serving on a board. As Ann Arbor became more accepting of our gay community or queer community, people had more options, and they could go to other places. Anytime something, that really impacted our gay community, they would gravitate to Braun Court, whether it was the Pulse shooting in Florida, was a really special night where people felt like they had to be together. The passage of marriage equality in 2015, that was our busiest night in 23 years. It was crazy. We went through how many pounds of ice? Half a ton of ice. We were just, like, pulling beer, wine, and liquor from every part of the building just to take care of it.
  • [00:08:25] Sandi Smith: It was certainly started having a community with Common Language when it was over on Fourth, so that predated the Aut Bar. Remember except for the basement where the Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project started and had meetings down there, which ultimately became the Jim Toy Center. When Martin and Keith started buying these buildings up, the one right across from the out Bar became the first WRAP office. Then we started getting a lot of energy and events happening specific LGBT events. Probably at that point, they were L-and-G events. As we morphed and understood more and expanded our community and the flag got more colors, but that the WRAP was here, and then ultimately the Common Language came in and really started giving a lot of juice to the space. Jim Toy moved over there, and we had that was event space. It was an event space. You had all of that. It was so powerful that we were motivated to join. We wanted to be part of this area. There was so much happening in.
  • [00:10:01] Martin: It was time for us to find an exit strategy and an opportunity arose in fall of 2018. I think because we had been thinking about it for a good four or five years, we knew what had to happen cause options were becoming limited. We jumped on the opportunity to sell it.
  • [00:10:26] Keith: I have the Aut Bar sign ready for somebody who wants to take it home and I do get a wistful now whenever I listen to Camelot.
  • [00:10:41] Keith: I want you all to remember that once upon a time.
  • [00:10:44] Martin: I think there is still a need, truthfully, and it comes in those times when something happens on a big scale that affects the community. What was the shooting in Colorado? People are like, where are we going to go? How are we going to get together? You could see that as we were talking to other people and seeing how people were going to respond and there wasn't that, but sadly, I don't think it's going to be in Braun Court. I used to have these visions that we'd open up Aut Bars in different university towns. Boulder, Colorado, Madison, Wisconsin, it would be Aut Bar West, Aut Bar Madison, and so in my mind, recreating the space we have in Ann Arbor recreating at elsewhere. It never happened.
  • [00:11:40] Linda Lombardini: The thing that I still miss is the different groups of the LGBTQIA, all of the groups being here at the same time. There was no, well, you're not doing enough for me, you're doing too much for me, there was none of that for a period of years. Those period of years were so special, because we would have events out here or something would happen. The Supreme Court would do something or somebody would do something good or bad and this was where everybody ended up. It's a good 25 years. It was a good run for sure.
  • [00:12:29] Martin: What took place in Braun Court between the Jim Toy Community Center recognizing Jim Toy's legacy, Trillium real estate, the legacy of these two business women, lesbian couple that opened up a realtor company there and were a big part of Ann Arbor's gay community. The Aut Bar Keith and I, and so that people down the road and then years to come can look at that space and try and imagine what went on there for so many years. It's something good to remember. [MUSIC]
Graphic for audio posts



Length: 00:13:43

Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)

Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library


Aut Bar
LGBTQ+ Community
Braun Court
AIDS (Disease)
American Cultures
Ann Arbor
Food & Cooking
Local Business
Local History
Local Issues
Keith Orr
Martin Contreras
Sandi Smith
Linda Lombardini
Ann Arbor 200