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    This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Article by Wesley Bacon

     

    “I don’t know about y’all, but my jeans is tight!” shouts Gary of Karaoke Bad Boys. A thickening crowd surrounds Gary’s spiral notebook, scribbling names to secure a moment in his spotlight. Gary’s partner, Tim, sheepishly orbits the scene with a FlipCam, capturing the beaming talent of Teddy Bears (1148 Garvin Place) in Old Louisville.

    “Now let’s hear it for Jelly Bean!” Gary calls to the crowd.

    A lanky man topped with white curls skips onstage. The crowd of 30 roars. Jelly Bean clutches the microphone in both hands and allows a sparkling intro to unravel his nerves. He sways in tune with a song I do not recognize, incorporating a shoulder shimmy followed by a hop with a wrist flick. Drinkers abandon their posts at the bar to get a closer look at Jelly Bean’s performance. They link arms and engage in a spontaneous can-can.

    Teddy Bears stands between two towering trees on Garvin Place. A tattered awning sags above a doorman with a friendly smile. Clusters of smokers welcome guests and help chase away known troublemakers. The interior is a wood-paneled, black-painted cozy cave. The floor is a series of rolling hills covered by paper-thin, hardware-store carpet. The karaoke stage is the highest peak. Various rainbow-colored shapes fly proudly above neon-kissed shadows. Bear himself tends the bar, accepting cash only from a middle-aged LGBT crowd in exchange for his generous pours.

    Teddy Bears is a dive, but I am embarrassingly underdressed. Bula takes the stage in a sequined top that casts silvery disco specs across the wall. Romantic Raymond soothes us with his version of “What a Wonderful World,” dressed in a three-piece pastel suit and matching fedora. Shirtless Chauncey sings country classics, accenting his bronze chest with gold jewelry. But these fashion icons fail to upstage Gary’s black leather chaps over light-wash Levi’s. His braided handle-bar mustache cascades down the front of his leather vest, framing the colorful swirl of dancing bears on his T-shirt. One singer announces he is collecting money for AIDS research in honor of his partner, whom he has loved for more than 30 years. Wallets open without hesitation, and the man gives a warm embrace as a thank-you for each donation.

    “Let’s bring Miss Sherri onstage — the first lady of Teddy Bears,” Gary says. A graceful goddess, draped in black sequins, erupts from the shadows and floats to the stage. She casually takes her place and scans her adoring audience. A buzz from the vending machine packed with cigarettes pierces the silent anticipation.

    “I want to welcome the newbies to our Wednesday tradition,” she says. “I hope you’ll visit us again.” Her eyes fall upon our table, and she gives us an approving nod. The Teddy Bears crowd applauds, and I realize we are no longer strangers. Their family absorbs us. One by one, we take the stage, receiving full support from the crowd after the first lady’s blessing. Justin performs “Welcome to the Jungle” with child-like energy, and my rendition of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” inspires flying motions not seen since Angels in the Outfield.

    From the stage, a flickering neon sign invites anyone and everyone to “Be Yourself.”

     

    Article by Wesley Bacon

    This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

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