At 9:30 on a Friday night, things are just starting to roll at Hunter’s in Elk Grove Village. There’s a mannerly array of mostly male customers around the big, cozily lit bar on one side of the L-shaped space. On the other side, a lone muscled man-boy in tank top, baseball cap, and jeans gyrates to “Dancing Queen.” A few singles and couples perch at the small tables lining the darkened dance floor, their eyes raised to the images flashing on a dozen video monitors–tarted-up no-talent kids lip-synching to bad music. No one pays much attention when a caricature of a 1950s bombshell in platinum wig, white fur stole, and XXL white gown pays the $4 cover and flounces to the bar. “When people ask me who comes here,” says owner Mark Hunter, “I say we’ve got one of everything.”

The northwest suburbs were a lonely place when Hunter was a gay teenager there. He lived in Arlington Heights, went to Wheeling High School and Harper College, and trekked into Chicago “to do anything.” What he did best was dance: jazz, tap, ballet, “but my forte was ballroom dancing,” he says.

“This was the time when Saturday Night Fever had just come out. Disco dancing was real popular. First time in years that you touched your partner. I knew all the disco moves.” He chuckles. “I was just like Travolta.” He got a job as a professional ballroom dance instructor, first at the Fred Astaire dance studio in Niles and later at the Astaire studio in Downers Grove.

That was where he met his wife. Marion Dudley was a Downers Grove widow 20 years his senior who came in for dance lessons and wound up with a business partner. By that time, Hunter says, there were a couple of gay bars in the suburbs: the Hideaway and the Nutbush in Forest Park, and the now defunct Charlie’s Angels, on Golf Road in the Des Plaines area. Hunter had been to Charlie’s Angels and it got him thinking: “I was dancin’ my butt off for hours and hours every week, goin’ ‘There’s got to be a better way to make a living. This guy’s doin’ real well. I’d like to do the same thing.'” He found a location (a former restaurant in a commercial area on Higgins Road), Dudley put up the money, and they opened Hunter’s and ran it together. That was 18 years ago. Three years after the bar opened, Hunter says, he turned his back on his own homosexuality and they married.

“I was gay,” he says. “But when I was married I made a commitment to my wife that if I was going to want to be gay or have gay sex, I would get a divorce. I made a commitment and I was very happy while I was married. We did everything together. We were with each other 24 hours a day. And I had, you know, heterosexual sex as well.” Dudley passed away in 1995, Hunter adds. He still lives in the house they bought together in Barrington, but his hiatus from the gay life is over. The bar is going great guns, drawing a mostly suburban crowd, including people from as far away as Elgin and DeKalb, and he’s opened an outpost, another bar in the booming gay resort and retirement area of Palm Springs.

The suburban gay community, which “used to be very closeted,” is “a little bit more open now,” Hunter says. “We have always been very obvious where we’re at in Elk Grove and we have rarely had any problems. Once in a while people will drive by and roll down their windows and go ‘gay bar,’ or ‘faggots,’ but basically that’s it. The community as a whole in Elk Grove has really not been very bad to us at all. And the police are good–they work with us very well. They like our bar because we have so few problems there. And we have wonderful customers. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to over the years that said Hunter’s was the first gay bar they went to and they’ll never forget it. It was the first place that they came out. And I’m really proud of that fact, that they remember the bar so fondly.”

Hunter is being honored for his many years of “providing an island of safety for suburban lesbigays” at the third annual Rainbow Spirit Awards this weekend. Proceeds from the awards dinner and dance will benefit Metropolitan Community Church of the Incarnation and Diverse Communications/LesBiGay Radio. Also being honored are activists Vernita Gray and Lorrainne Sade Baskerville; two other bar owners, George Grivas of Temptations and Mike Zych of Nutbush; and Nina Beck and Stacy Jolles, the Vermont women who were plaintiffs in a groundbreaking lawsuit involving same-sex couples’ rights. It starts at 6:45 PM at the Nineteenth Century Club, 178 Forest Avenue in Oak Park. Tickets are $75, or $125 with an earlier VIP reception. Call 773-973-9965 or 773-871-7610 for information. Hunter’s is located at 1932 E. Higgins in Elk Grove Village; it’s open from 3 PM to 4 AM nightly, with beer busts on Wednesdays and professional male dancers on Thursdays. Wednesdays through Saturdays there’s a $4 cover. Call 847-439-8840.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patrick D. Schar.