Three graying men sip light beer and plunk down dominoes.
One man munches a bag of pork rinds. At the bar, a few patrons talk over cold drinks, chuckle. A laid-back, over-30 crew. Passing the night at Players Lounge.
The fans on the black-painted ceiling swirl. Owner Steve Thompson stands near the swinging kitchen door wearing a white apron and gazing up at the color television, inside this storefront at 2737 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.
Once upon a time, topless dancers jiggled here until dawn, and the ruffians and goings-on kept the good neighborhood folks away.
But the strip scene is gone now. The rowdy crowd just a memory.
It's Tuesday -- Karaoke Night -- at Players. But it's only 8 p.m. The singing won't start for another hour, after the crowd has trickled in: Linda and Rick, Eric and John, Tony and all the other regulars, who sing on stage in the back room, under a disco ball and flashing lights. It's the same room where the topless dancers worked until Thompson changed the main attraction at Players about seven years ago.
Since then, it has become a more neighborly establishment, say patrons -- the kind of place where a visitor might encounter a local politician, maybe a mayor or aspiring politicians attending a political rally or election-night victory party. In recent years, Players has become a stomping ground for those looking to hobnob with people on the east side of the Anacostia River. Here a reporter can gauge the pulse of the community, fill up a notebook with opinions.
The bar is lined with rows of shot glasses and tumblers. Behind the bar, a mounted deer head wearing a blue cap hangs on the wall.
David Bean, who has become a regular, sits with his friend, Jim Bradford, having after-work drinks.
"At one time, I was afraid to come up here," says Bean, 41, talking in between swigs from a bottle of beer. "The young guys were hanging around -- positive people are more afraid to come out."
"Once the dancers were gone, the young guys stopped hanging out," says Bradford, nursing a glass of orange juice, a bowl of ice and a half-pint bottle of gin.
"People want to come and be black," Bean adds. "Normally, when you get a club in the community, it's a . . . " bad place for the neighborhood.
That is not true of Players, at least not anymore, say patrons of the club, which somehow has survived in a neighborhood where many businesses, buildings and institutions have vanished.
"I just like to be comfortable. You try to stay close to your roots. It feels good," says Bradford, who like others has come here tonight for the karaoke.
The restaurant/bar has been run by Thompson and his wife, Georgene, for the last 2 1/2 decades. It is the only sit-down restaurant and bar in the District's Ward 8 and exists in a neighborhood filled with neon-lighted fast-food joints.
On a sign behind the bar, today's menu is written on a blackboard: baked chicken, fried chicken, BBQ chicken and curry chicken; meat-loaf, liver and onions . . . cabbage greens and candied yams. And for dessert: apple cobbler, peach cobbler and bread puddin'.
On Karaoke Night, a buffet is served in the back room. The $4 cover includes food and song. Drinks are extra.
The bar was already in business when Thompson bought it in 1973. It wasn't known as Players back then, but Massey's Tavern, Thompson says. A few years later, Thompson figured he'd change the name. His customers suggested "Players," as in "playboys," as in smooth-talking ladies' men.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the 2700 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue had three other strip clubs, until neighbors banded together and pushed the bars out of the neighborhood, Thompson recalls. Players survived, in part, Thompson says, because he promised community activists that he would get rid of the dancers and hire security guards to reduce trouble outside the club. From about 1984 to 1989, there were no topless dancers at Players; then Thompson says he brought them back to drum up business.
But the clientele changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crack turned young thugs into high rollers.
The "young'uns," as Thompson refers to the young drug dealers, would frequent the club, sometimes carrying concealed pistols, buying expensive liquor, wanting to touch the women. They were "big tippers," but they scared some customers away, he says.
An off-duty police officer was shot inside the club in the 1980s, Thompson recalls. In 1989, a man was shot dead outside the club after an argument in the bar. In 1990, an off-duty detective killed a 28-year-old man who allegedly threatened a woman with a gun in the parking lot. There were always fistfights, too many to number.
"When the crack cocaine hit, it was real scary," Thompson says. "These guys had more guns than the security had."
Then something happened. Rather than entrepreneurial genius, it was more like luck. In 1992, after Marion Barry's release from jail, Thompson and his wife sponsored a fund-raiser in Barry's honor. It was held at another club in Maryland, but the Thompsons catered the event with food from Players.
Not long after that night, Thompson began receiving orders for catering, and over the next year, Players began getting more customers for its food. About a year after the fund-raiser, Thompson got rid of the dancers, this time for good.
Since then, Players has been host to more than a few election-night victory parties, including one for D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D) in 1996, when she won her Ward 8 seat. More recently, Barry and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and other political types assembled at Players for a farewell celebration to City Paper columnist Ken Cummins, a k a Loose Lips.
As a reporter covering election night, Cummins said, "one of the last stops would be Players."
"It's not that hard to get to, and word just kind of spread that this is the place where east meets west, black and white, rich and poor," Cummins said. "The reputation has been built by word of mouth. There's just no place that's like that."
"You had Mayor Barry dancing with the waitresses there. You could be dancing in that front room and gabbing in that middle room," or sitting out back under the tent, eating barbecue ribs, sipping drinks, catching the night breeze.
Then there was the night, maybe a week after the primary election, when mayoral hopeful Williams showed up at Players. It was Karaoke Night, recalls Philip Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinating Council, who also worked on Williams's mayoral campaign.
"I suggested that he sing. He asked, `What would you suggest I sing?' " Pannell recalls. "I said, `I Will Survive.' He was a major hit. Folks loved him."
Williams's wife, Diane, and Cora Masters Barry followed the candidate with a duet: Aretha Franklin's version of "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman."
"It's a live-and-let-live bar," said Pannell. "It's very much the community watering hole, both politically and socially."
-- John W. Fountain, February 1999