I’ve been busy the past couple weeks due to my current work assignment, my blog posts about the OutReach Awards Banquet (which you can read here and here), personal errands, and dealing with very loud neighbors who like to turn up their stereos’ volume to 22 (ugh!). That’s not to say I haven’t kept up on other things going on. This includes a significant news item that came about a week ago.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may recall my posts earlier this year about an LGBT+ nightclub on Williamson Street that had been known for most of its history as Plan B. Late in 2018, some drag performers raised a ruckus about being prevented from prepping for their show in a dressing room that was already less than ideal. The subsequent reaction to that incident revealed lingering issues from Plan B’s customer base, concerns about not only the club’s direction but how its then-owners and staff (mis)treated the bar’s performers and clientele, especially female and black patrons.
But a familiar white knight by the name of Rico Sabatini arrived after the beginning of 2019. Sabatini was co-founder and original co-owner of Plan B, and he stepped in to buy the bar from the controversial owners who bought the place from him in 2014. After that, Sabatini would close Plan B for some needed maintenance and refurbishing, brought in a couple of partners, and reopened the establishment as Prism on March 1.
And with that, one would think that things would be happily ever after, right? Sure, Prism would listen to its customers, put in conduct accountability measures, implement safety measures, end cover charges, and specifically highlight LGBT+ talent.
But positive changes like those can only go so far, and no amount of success is guaranteed. Which brings us to this message on October 23:
As announced on Rico Sabatini’s own Facebook account, and relayed by Our Lives Magazine as shown above, Prism will close its doors forever after a “Last Call” party takes place the night of Saturday, November 9.
To mentally grasp the reasons behind Prism’s closure, I read and re-read Rico Sabatini’s announcement a few times, as well as his subsequent comments to the Wisconsin State Journal. Let’s break down a little bit of what he said in his post:
There’s the mention of the Willy Street neighborhood Plan B/Prism called home for its decade of existence. Willy Street is indeed a magical place, as Sabatini puts it, an eclectic mix of residential homes, apartments, restaurants, bars, and retail businesses. Oh, and prominent events such as the Willy Street Fair every September, as well as Fruit Fest, a mix of music and other activities that Plan B/Prism staged in its parking lot.
Then Sabatini gets into the “many factors” (his term) of Prism closing. For one, the change in Madison’s competitive “entertainment landscape” in the decade since the club opened. For sure, there are lots of places where one can drink, eat, dance, be welcomed — and be their true selves. Emphasis on “be welcomed” there, according to Sabatini, who remarked to the State Journal that “safe spaces are becoming a thing of the past… at least locally.”
On that aspect, Sabatini has a point. Times have changed for the most part, and the LGBT+ community doesn’t have to live in the shadows as they once did. Indeed, drag shows that were once exclusive to clubs such as Prism can be held on any stage without controversy. Matter of fact, on the night I write this (November 1), Sasha Velour is staging her traveling drag show at the Overture Center, Madison’s biggest and most prominent entertainment facility (and it’s listed as all-ages to boot). And I can personally attest that I’ve been accepted as Allison in the general public, especially with the trans/CD support group I’m a part of when we dine out after meetings.
But it’s the pits to see an LGBT-owned-and-catering business such as Prism go away. Though I’m not the kind of girl who parties the night away, it was always fun to see photos of parties at Prism or even just drive past it when it wasn’t open. To know that it was a welcoming place for our proud community, as imperfect as it may have been, means so much in an era where there are still closed-minded people who judge a customer or a business based on their open LGBT identity or support. (Don’t deny the fact that bigots still want to deny our freedoms.)
Sabatini, in the above post, also mentions “some landlord/lease/legal/property development stuff.” He doesn’t elaborate any further than that, so who knows if that meant that the owner of the building (a former state lawmaker, if the grapevine I’ve heard is correct) made things hard on Prism since March 1. A tougher lease? City regulations? A sale of the building? Yeah, it’s too easy to speculate when what was a crown jewel of Willy Street is about to become empty space.
But at least Rico Sabatini appears to be going out with his head held high. He has no regrets after giving it all he could, and will be giving Prism a graceful denouement. He is also grateful for the employees and volunteers he worked with through Prism, and the customer base they served. And he can take pride in bringing our communities together — the LGBT+ community, naturally, but also the surrounding Willy Street neighborhood (two words: Fruit Fest) and Madison as a whole (Satya Rhodes-Conway had her victory party when she won Madison’s mayoral seat last April). Oh, and though he’s going to concentrate on personal and career matters in the near future, he isn’t ruling out opening another nightclub sometime in the future.
It will be sad to drive past 924 Williamson Street after November 9 and know that Prism will no longer be there. And it will be sad, too, that there will be one less place in Madison that will be queer-oriented (here’s hoping Five and Sotto can take the torch). But our community can take solace in the fact that for a decade, it was a place where people could go to drink, dance, party, and be themselves. Here’s hoping that the memories that took place there, from a drag show to a first kiss to a lasting embrace, will forever be in the minds and hearts of those who experienced them there.