Decades after closing, the legacy of Durham’s Power Company nightclub lives on. Months into social distancing, it’s difficult to avoid reminiscing about times we’ve spent surrounded by people we love. For the more than 800 people who belong to the “Power Company Alumni!!” group on Facebook, many of those times were spent at Durham’s Power Company nightclub during the 1980s and 1990s. The Power Company closed in 2000 when the owners transitioned the space into Teasers Men’s Club, but former frequenters regularly share music, photos and memories that ensure its legacy endures.
The Power Company, once referred to as “the best (gay) dance club between D.C. and Atlanta,” opened in 1983 under owners James and Debra Kennedy. The club boasted a multi-level layout including “several bars, a mezzanine lounge overlooking the dance floor flanked by a wall of thumping speakers, dynamic lighting and, of course, its fair share of mirror balls,” according to Lauren Kennedy, the owners’ daughter.
“It set the bar for how I judge clubs that I go to now. It’s unfortunate for those clubs, because they’re never going to compete,” said Chad Smith, a former frequent patron. “And they had this grand, awesome staircase that people used to prance up and down. But that’s beside the point.”
The Power Company was also renowned for its music and entertainment. From 1980 until 1994, production company Pageant Enterprises hosted the Miss NC Pageant for “female illusionists'' at the club along with weekly drag shows. And, as recalled by several former patrons, the DJ sets were often cutting-edge.
“It wasn’t just top 40, they played house music — which I had never heard of until going to [Power Company] — and freestyle,” said Christopher Locklear, who frequented the club from 1986 to 1989. “I’ve lived in D.C. and New York and have been to some of the best clubs in the country, and the Power Company was just really ahead of its time.”
Beyond its amenities, though, the Power Company is most saliently remembered as a place where its frequenters, predominantly young members of the LGBTQ+ community, felt welcomed— often for the first time in their lives.
“The Power Company was the second gay club I ever went to — the first one was this little hole in the wall … when I was still in high school. I remember being so disappointed. I was like, “Oh my God, is this what my life is going to be like? Lurking in the shadows?’” Locklear said. “And then then I went to the Power Company — it was like a breath of fresh air. I was like, ‘So this is what it’s like to be gay and open and not have to be beat-up or worried.”
For many patrons, the club was a rare safe space. As a student in Chapel Hill, Locklear remembered a conservative group attempting to get UNC’s chapter of the Gay Student Union defunded amid the 1980s HIV outbreak.
“There were so many people telling you ‘You can’t be this’, ‘You’re going to hell’, and then [we had] this space where you could go and be like, ‘No, you’re wrong. This is how the world should be.’” Locklear said.
For former patron Nick Scorzafava, the feeling of safety the Power Company provided became especially apparent after the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre. When his father asked him why he and his friends hadn’t protected themselves while spending time at the Power Company, Scorzafava remembered telling him that they “didn’t really have to.”
“The different thing about that point in time was that back then if you were gay, you went to a gay bar. If you were straight, you avoided that scene altogether,” Scorzafava said. “Nobody bothered us. I mean, throughout the entire time I went to that club, there was never a time that I felt unsafe. I actually felt like I was going home, that I was hanging out with people just like me.”
The community built at the club made it the backdrop for precious moments in the lives of many members. For Alex Waid, it was the setting of his first date and first kiss with his now-spouse. A mutual friend ensured the two were part of a group that went dancing at the Power Company, and the rest was history.
“I will always treasure [our friend] because he not only introduced me to my spouse, but he made sure we got together at a place that was important to our broader group of friends,” Waid wrote in an email. “It was the start of a lifelong commitment, the start of our family...and, really, in so many ways, the Power Company was an introduction into some meaningful transitions in life: college to graduate school, scared first-year MA student to confident member of the community, single guy to married with kids.”
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For Scorzafava, the impact the Power Company left on him “formed the basis of his identity,” influencing his sense of self, his confidence and his ultimate career path. Now an advocate creating corporate resources for companies’ LGBTQ+ employees, he credited the Power Company for expanding his passion for activism.
“People are drawn to colleges for an experience, and then when they graduate from that college, they have these fond memories of that time. For me... I did not go to college directly after high school. I went to the Power Company,” Scorzafava said. “I don’t think I will ever, in the rest of my life, experience something as significant as that.”