Some of the world’s most innovative drag queens – many of whom became superstars on the Barracuda stage - are scheduled to perform. Among them, Sherry Vine, Jackie Beat, Shasta Cola, Shequida, and Tina Burner. The evening will also pay special tribute to two iconic drag stars, gone too soon: Sweetie who passed away in March 2017 after a lengthy battle with cancer (she was 51) and Mona Foot, who died in March 2020 from the coronavirus, age 50.
Best friends Bob Pontarelli and Stephen Heighton opened Barracuda in October, 1995. The duo had already made their mark in Manhattan nightlife in other areas of the city with Crowbar on Avenue B and Leshko’s in the East Village. They established Barracuda in the burgeoning Chelsea section of New York City, helping to launch the area as an internationally recognized gayborhood.
Barracuda was a bar of “firsts.” Prior to Barracuda, gay bars were, for the most part, somewhat serious affairs meant for cruising and drinking. The bar shattered that mold by introducing avant-grade couch-style lounging and sweeping nightly entertainment.
“When I performed at Barracuda it was before the internet had taken over everything, and before Drag Race,” says Jackie Beat. “If you wanted to see a drag queen you had to actually put on some pants and leave your apartment!”
“Back then, New York City drag queens were required to be able to do an hour show on stage by yourself,” actress Candis Cayne explains. “It was a lot of work, but it was really fulfilling. There is something to be said for having to make a name for yourself by word of mouth.”
Sherry Vine, who worked at Barracuda for twenty years, fondly recalls the drag scene being more spontaneous than it is today. “On a very humid, sweaty night in August, pre-air conditioning, I was performing on stage and some guy kept trying to get my attention,” she remembers. “I’m like, ‘um, I’m doing a show.’ But he was persistent. He said, ‘Betty Buckley is here and wants to sing.’ ‘Really?’ I asked, sure he was fucking with me. But there she was! Ms. Buckley came on stage in the sweltering heat and sang ‘Memories’ a cappella. Literally tore the roof off Barracuda! It was amazing."
Below Jackie Beat shares a favorite memory from that time period:
The queens laugh about all the drama they brought to Barracuda. “I was onstage and just not feeling it,” recounts Beat. “The crowd was drunk and not responding properly - in my egotistical, delusional opinion - to whatever ‘genius’ thing I was doing at the moment. And I just kind of snapped. I said, ‘Get my money ready, I quit!’ and I dropped the mic, stomped off stage, through the packed crowd, grabbed the wad of cash from the hand of the bartender’s outstretched arm, walked right out the front door, hailed a cab, and went home!”
“One time I was performing Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ and I grabbed the tip bucket and the mic at the same time and I got electrocuted,” says Cayne. “I passed out on the ground and the whole audience started laughing and standing up and applauding and I got up in a daze saying, ‘no, that really happened’ and everyone kept laughing. In hindsight, it’s funny.”
Along with nightly drag events, Barracuda introduced a new trend of entertainment to gay bars around the world: outrageous celebrity bookings!
“We had some of the best,” observes Pontarelli. “From Tammy Faye Baker to Johnny Knoxville, Charo, and Jennifer Coolidge. A million ’train wreck’ moments. It would be impossible to pick the highlight. Although the Tonya Harding booking is up there!”
Barracuda remains an iconic city destination today but it’s a different bar today. “The community is more dispersed geographically and, in many ways, our culture has become more assimilated — for better and worse,” Pontarelli continues. “The wonderful thing is how diverse we are and there are more places than ever that speak to that diversity.”
All agree it will be nice to return to the good-old days of pre-internet and pre-RuPaul's Drag Race, if only for one night. “I’m excited to perform a couple of numbers that I am known for at Barracuda,” says Cayne.
“I have no idea what I’m doing at the reunion yet,” Beat admits. “Most people might call that being lazy, but I call it being spontaneous! What I am most looking forward to is seeing everyone again!”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the close to fifty drag queens planning to attend Barracuda’s 25th Anniversary Celebration takes place on Sunday, September 26. Many of the queens rarely perform anymore and five are flying in for the event and to raise a glass (of sparkling water for Beat as she doesn’t drink) to Sweetie, Mona and the proud history of the bar they all hold dear.
“We’re celebrating 25 years of gorgeous patrons, brilliant queens, extraordinary staff, and unforgettable memories,” says Pontarelli.
When asked if he believes there will be another 25 years of Barracuda, Pontarelli asserts, “That’s certainly the plan! There’s so much more trouble to get in to!”
Barracuda’s 25th Anniversary Celebration takes place on Sunday, September 26 from 7 PM to 12 AM at 275 W 22nd St in NYC. For more information, visit Facebook.com/BarracudaLounge and Twitter.com/BarracudaLounge