Characters of the Village
Saving The Stonewall—Kurt Kelly and Stacy Lentz
By Brian J Pape and Joy Pape
Many people assume the Stonewall Inn, a long-time icon of the Village scene, has been continuously operating out of 53 Christopher Street. In a quick synopsis, the first Stonewall started as a speakeasy in 1930 at 91 7th Avenue South. At the end of Prohibition in 1934, it moved to 51-53 Christopher as a regular bar/restaurant, staying until a fire in 1964 closed it. In 1966, three Mafia members reopened it as a gay men’s private club to avoid liquor licensing—but it still needed police payoffs to keep operating.
Then on June 28, 1969, a police raid went south and patrons both male and female decided to resist. Despite the publicity, the bar closed a few months later. From 1970 to 1994, a whole generation, the Village location was rented out to other businesses. A new proprietor reopened the Stonewall at 53 Christopher in only half of the previous footprint but had a hard time staying solvent. The owners worked to promote the history of Stonewall by getting the area listed on the National Register of Historic Places in June 1999. It was declared a National Landmark in February 2000. Stonewall and its surroundings were listed as city, state, and national historic sites.
Stonewall again closed in 2006 due to neglect and mismanagement. 2007 saw the rebirth of Stonewall under today’s current owners Kurt Kelly and Stacy Lentz. Since then, President Obama established the Stonewall National Monument in June 2016.
Village View (VV) interviewed Kurt Kelly (KK) and Stacy Lentz (SL) via Zoom.
VV: Kurt and Stacy, can you tell us a little about yourselves?
SL: I am a native of a small country town in Kansas, graduating from Kansas State University in 1992, moving to DC for a couple of years, then on to NYC. I worked in marketing and sales management recruiting, while living at 15th Street and Ninth Avenue, so I spent a lot of time in the Village. There I met Kurt, who was working and performing at the Duplex and we became friends. One day he asked me if I would be interested in investing in and helping save the Stonewall and I said “Yes!”
KK: I was raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. I moved to NYC in 1987 to perform at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Then after graduating from college, I started performing at the Duplex. I lived uptown on 31st Street. One day in 2006, I heard that Stonewall was having difficulties, so Bill Morgan, Tony DeCicco (owners of The Duplex at that time) and I inquired about buying the place. It took months before the owners were willing to sell. In the meantime, I was able to line up investors including Stacy. When we first walked in the doors to inspect the place, we were struck by the condition. There were rat holes and debris everywhere, drugs stashed away and metal detectors at the entry. It was awful.
We had six months to change the run-down dive bar to what we thought a gay bar would look like in the 1960s if it was legal. Pub Style downstairs and Moulin Rouge style upstairs. We began to market Stonewall as the “gay church” or mecca and as a fund-raising venue for LGBTQ causes. We marketed gay sports teams to support the bar and its causes.
SL: We advertised Give Back Tuesdays as a time for other non-profits to have events here and hosted thousands of fundraising and charity events over the years. In 2017, myself, Kurt Kelly, Bill Morgan, Tony DeCicco and Bob Kelly launched the “Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative,” a non-profit to spread the Stonewall Inn legacy to the places, faces and spaces that need it the most. It’s the official and only nonprofit of The Stonewall Inn.
KK: We bought the Stonewall to protect its historic importance, to encourage others to value its place in history and in today’s activism. We must teach the young about this civil rights history and its struggles.
VV: What are your favorite parts about your work or your most cherished memories?
KK: In 2019, after so much progress and publicity, we (the non-profit group) were invited to present our story to an LGBTQ group in Naples, Italy. The State Department paid for it as a good-will trip. It was fantastic with such a warm welcome, but we saw how financially poor the group there was. They were trying to build a youth hostel support housing but they couldn’t finish. When we sent them $10,000, they were overwhelmed with gratitude and they were able to complete the project.
When our non-profit established the Yankees Stonewall Charity with the NY Yankees team, we were able to give $10,000 scholarships to five worthy LGBTQ youth.
SL: There are really so many incredible moments as we have had a front row seat to history over the last few years but to be able to give back and support others is the best part of this work. Keeping Stonewall open is not for the money, but for the legacy we can share with others and using it as vehicle to keep the fight going that started right there in 1969 for full LGBTQ+ equality.