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The final days of Gay Chicago 

The beloved bar rag and the end of its 35-year run

Gay Chicago's reformatted cover (left) turned the magazine into a tabloid newspaper.

Gay Chicago's reformatted cover (left) turned the magazine into a tabloid newspaper.

Gay Chicago was shut down in September by two antagonistic owners, neither a fully credentialed member of Chicago's gay community. Internet whiz Dane Tidwell has lived in Chicago just three years and hasn't made his mark; not many people know who he is. Most people know the last name of Craig Gernhardt, son of the late Ralph Paul Gernhardt, who founded the beloved bar rag in 1976. But as it happens, Craig Gernhardt isn't gay—not that there's anything wrong with that.

In its day, says gay politico Rick Garcia, Gay Chicago "was a huge icon in the gay community. I could have my picture on the front page of either of the other papers"—at different times these were Windy City Times, Outlines, and the Chicago Free Press—"and one or two people would say something. But whenever it was in Gay Chicago I'd be in Walgreens and some little old lady—I loved it when little old ladies did it—would say, 'I saw you in the paper, honey.' Wow! Everybody picked up Gay Chicago."

Gay Chicago's top ad salesman—until Gernhardt and Tidwell fired him three months ago—says the publication went astray when Gernhardt took it up-market this past spring. "They wanted stories on the civil union bill and gay crime," says Star Salesman, who asked me not to name him because Tidwell accused him of improprieties, and he doesn't want them trailing him to his next job. "July 1 was the biggest news in Illinoistwo women can get married. Well guess what! Nobody wants to know that. They want to know who's got the dollar drink specials. Who's DJing at what club. Or where they can get laid." In the view of the bar owners Star Salesman sold ads to, these are the proper concerns of a bar rag, and when Gay Chicago became less of a bar rag they had less reason to advertise in it.

The deeper reason why Gay Chicago folded in September might simply be that folding is what newspapers and magazines are doing these days, be they big or little, prim and proper or laced with porn. Pointing this out is not likely to console a son who feels he's failed his father. Ralph Paul Gernhardt died in 2006, and Craig, who'd delivered the magazine, and Stacey Bridges, who'd managed it for Ralph Paul, shouldered the load together. It was an unhappy collaboration, and in 2009 Gernhardt bought Bridges out. When Bridges started a competing bar rag, Grab, he was able to take most of the bar ads with him, says Star Salesman. "Craig alienated a lot of people."

Meanwhile, Tidwell came to Chicago from Texas in December 2008 and was dabbling in local politics—trying to organize the Stonewall Democrats of Illinois, styling the website of gay attorney Jacob Meister during Meister's brief 2010 run for the U.S. Senate, thinking out loud about running himself for alderman this year. None of these initiatives went anywhere. Says Garcia: "I got an e-mail [from Gernhardt] saying he was having difficulty with his new co-owner, Dane Tidwell."

Yes, Gernhardt was still Gay Chicago's publisher, but in July he made Tidwell managing publisher and gave him 50 percent of the business. Gernhardt took this desperate step because Gernhardt Publications Inc. had run up a huge debt with its printer, Newsweb, and Newsweb was coming after him in court. A default judgment of more than $95,000 loomed, and Tidwell offered to assume the debt in return for half the company.

Gay Chicago's troubles came to my attention last week when Gernhardt and Tidwell exchanged heated e-mails. Gernhardt accused Tidwell of fraud. Tidwell threatened to sue. Gernhardt copied Garcia, so Tidwell copied Garcia too when he replied, and somehow it happened that minutes after Tidwell and Gernhardt were reading each other's e-mails I was reading them too—thirdhand, maybe fourth. News travels fast when it's sensational.

As you'll notice, Gernhardt's voice isn't present in this column. When I asked for an interview he replied by e-mail, "If I'm going to spill the beans, it might as well be to you." On the other hand, he said, he didn't want to be sued. He asked if he could think about it overnight. I never heard back from him.

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