Freddie's Sings Its Own Tune
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, June 3, 2005
Many karaoke nights are simple affairs -- move a few tables and chairs to make space for the singers, add monitors for lyrics and make room for the DJ equipment. If you're lucky, you get a stage.
At Freddie's Beach Bar & Restaurant, though, it's karaoke gone fabulous. Singers climb curving steps to reach the stage where, in front of a backdrop of metallic purple streamers, they can dance or even recline on a white baby grand while performing. A trio of disco balls twirls overhead, and pots filled with (fake) flowers and plastic flamingos provide the perfect campy touch. When a song is really good -- say, "Proud Mary" or "I Will Survive" -- the DJ can flip on a smoke machine that turns Freddie's into a scene from an '80s music video.
Of course, going over the top is the norm at Freddie's, a popular gay bar and restaurant on Crystal City's 23rd Street strip. More plastic flamingos hang on strings above the thatched bar, where patrons sip apple martinis and employees pour ice into the frozen margarita machine. A row of boxed, mint-condition Barbie dolls lines one wall, along with life preservers and Tiki masks. Beach balls and more flamingos sit by the large, smoke-free sidewalk patio.
The color scheme is pink, turquoise, periwinkle, purple and lavender -- think Rehoboth Beach hut by way of "Miami Vice."
"I have a little travel trailer down at the beach in Rehoboth," said owner Fred Lutz. "Nothing fancy. I carpeted it, and I had a little tiki bar out back with flamingo lights. People would come over and say, 'Wow, this is great!' And I thought, 'Why not do this in Crystal City?' "
Lutz grew up in the neighborhood -- he lives in his childhood home -- and moved back to the area after attending the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1976, he took a job managing the small, family-run Cafe Italia on South 23rd Street. He stayed for 25 years.
"I just know everybody here," Lutz said. "I went to nursery school here. I had couples who came in [to Cafe Italia] when they were dating, and now they come in with their kids and grandchildren."
After 25 years at the same restaurant, Lutz said, he found himself growing bored and decided to open his own place. He didn't have to look far: Just up the block from Cafe Italia a bar called the Foxhole was for sale. Lutz spent months dressing it up to create Freddie's, and although he kept the bar's karaoke night, he added the stage and "took it up a step."
Outside, the five-year-old Freddie's is a gaudy mix of bright lights, neon and colorful pride flags, and the facade is one that gets passersby talking. "Basically, straight people come up and see the rainbow flags and ask if this is a gay bar," Lutz said. "I've instructed my staff to say, 'No, it's a straight-friendly bar.' That's something that I'm really proud of, that we get such a mix of people here."
Freddie's is apparently the only gay bar in Northern Virginia, and although Lutz hasn't had problems with neighbors or patrons, "I don't think I could have made this happen 10 years ago," he said.
"Every day, things are getting better and people are more accepting. Attitudes are changing."
On Sunday and early in the week, Freddie's is a magnet for the local gay community, offering the Sunday night cabaret "Freddie's Follies," hosted by drag queen Jymmye Jaymes, and a weekend brunch. On Monday, Comedy Night is hosted by beehived, blue-eyeshadowed Jolene Sugarbaker, the self-proclaimed "Trailer Park Queen" who tells jokes about being "white trash with class" while introducing local stand-up comics.
Karaoke remains the major draw, however, bringing mixed crowds on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday beginning at 9 p.m. More than 2,500 songs fill the loose-leaf binders on the bar and on the tables up front, and although you'll find the requisite Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams, the regulars are far more interesting -- "Lose My Breath" by Destiny's Child, Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out," George Michael's "Faith," songs by The Band, a smattering of 1960s soul.
Throughout it all, the audience is good-natured, shimmying in their seats, clapping for the better performers and laughing as one man performs a bawdy version of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"
Lutz, though, declines to take part. "There's not enough liquor in the place to get me up there," he said, laughing. "People always ask me, 'Do you sing karaoke?' I always tell them I've come down with laryngitis," he said, clutching his throat.