Crowing for Roosters — How a Devastating Fire Illuminated a Community’s Love for a Neighborhood Bar
Updated: Jun 21
A FEW DAYS AFTER THE FIRE, when the West Palm Beach Fire Department finally took down the yellow safety tape from the entrance of the damaged building, A.J. Wasson stepped into the blackened remains of his bar at 823 Belvedere Rd.
The blaze itself was limited to the rear kitchen, where a pile of chemically-soaked rags sparked a spontaneous combustion fire on shelves stacked with paper products.
But the smoke from the flames spared nothing. It curled throughout all 2,700 square feet of H.G. Roosters, a popular gay bar that opened in 1984 just south of the city’s Flamingo Park neighborhood.
“Everything was covered in soot,’’ Wasson said, recalling the ghostly black residue shrouding the tables, chairs, jukebox and bar, even the iconic 5-foot rooster statue that greeted customers.
Water was everywhere, too, in puddles across the floor, dripping from a gaping hole in the ceiling, breached by firefighters battling the flames in the early morning hours of May 19, 2020.
As Wasson struggled to take it all in, something bright on the other side of the room caught his eye. He sloshed his way to an object that looked so out of place amid the grime — a crisp white envelope on the floor below the mail slot.
“Everything was black except for this small white envelope that was sitting on top of all the other mail,” he said.
He opened it and pulled out a handwritten note.
Dear Mr. A.J. Wasson, Please accept this donation to rebuild your HG Rooster establishment. I’ve never been to your place but I hope you will get enough money to rebuild. Please accept this small donation of $50.
Wasson choked back tears as he recited the letter from a stranger yet again one day last week. (He has memorized it.)
“What a wonderful thing for somebody to do,’’ he said. “It was one of the saddest days in my life and to see this little beacon of light on the floor and all the hope it gave me, it was really an inspiration.’’
The letter was just the start of what would turn into an outpouring of love and support from a cross-section of the community, the collective lifting from the ashes of a scorched soul.
Today, the letter is sealed in a frame. It will be displayed in a place of honor in the new H.G. Roosters, which Wasson hopes to open before the end of the year.
FOR PARTS OF FIVE DECADES, H.G. Roosters has been more than just a neighborhood bar offering affordable drinks, philanthropic support and weekly events like pool tournaments, male dance reviews and “Sissy Bingo.’’
Since 1984, it has been a gathering spot, safe space and cherished home for the LGBTQ community in Palm Beach County and beyond.
Roosters “is a life-saver for many. I know that sounds crazy, but stick with me on this: 35 years ago, home was not a very safe place for me and there was no such thing as LGBT community centers, or GSA clubs,” Julie Seaver, executive director of Compass, told the South Florida Gay News in 2019.
Before it became Roosters, the space at 823 Belvedere was occupied starting in the early 1960s by a gay bar called Turf West, one of three area gay bars with the “Turf” name.
“The gay bar scene in the 1960s and 1970s that Turf existed in was much more than just a place to drink. It was one of the only places gay men and women could feel safe interacting with each other and simply being themselves and embracing their culture,’’ Wasson said.
“Before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, a lot of these places operated in obscurity. ‘’
It wasn’t uncommon for patrons walking to Turfs West to be harassed by people driving by or even the police. The main entrance was moved from a door facing Belvedere Road to a side door off the parking lot before the bar became Roosters.
After Turf West closed in 1979, the space was leased to non-gay businesses before Bill Capozzi and his business partner, Tom McKenzie, took over with plans for a gay bar. In 1984, H.G. Roosters opened. (The H.G. stands for Heidi and Greta, the two men’s nicknames.)
“The AIDS pandemic was hitting the community and nobody knew how it was transmitted or what to do to prevent it,’’ said Wasson, a Rooster’s bartender that first year.
“We had no Compass, no place to go. Roosters was a place where people came and found out what to do and how to help each other.’’
The bar hosted benefits to help people suffering from AIDS pay their rent, many “as they were being evicted on their deathbeds,’’ he said.
Over the years, Roosters blossomed into not just a beloved gathering place but also a philanthropic leader raising money for Toys for Tots, Compass and causes like Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.
Before Capozzi died in 2006 of pancreatic cancer, he sold the building and half the business to Wasson and willed the other half to longtime manager Michael Brown.
Then in 2008 Brown died violently when he was beaten and stabbed at his Flagler Drive condominium by a former boyfriend, police said.
At the time, Wasson was traveling around the country as a promoter for Live Nation and Clear Channel. Now it was up to him to keep Rooster’s operating — and he said he did so with money he’d earned from his day job.
“It was a tough row to hoe,’’ he said, recalling how business tapered off after the deaths of Roosters icons Capozzi and Brown.
But Wasson never forgot what the two men had built and what that meant to its patrons and the gay community.
“I thought, ‘I've got to keep this place going. I can't just close it down,’’’ he recalled.
“We worked hard on getting the business back,’’ he said. “This has been a labor of love for me for many years.’’
ON MARCH 16, 2020, A MYSTERIOUS virus out of China forced Roosters to shut its doors indefinitely, along with other area bars and restaurants.
Not knowing how long the COVID-19 pandemic would last, Wasson, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, kept his eight-person staff busy at the bar with painting, cleaning and other touch ups.
Then in late March, he received a $50,000 bill for the insurance policy, due on April 4.
“I think I maybe had $50,000 in the bank,’’ he recalled with a nervous laugh. “We’d just gotten shut down. I can’t use this all on insurance. I’ve got to keep my crew employed. They needed money to pay rent and buy food.’’
The decision was easy: He let the insurance lapse. With the bar closed indefinitely, he figured the last thing he needed was insurance.
But In the early morning hours of May 19, he received a phone call from Arthur Vale, a Roosters manager.
“There’s a fire,’’ said a stunned Vale, who had been alerted to the blaze by a burglary-detection system.
Investigators would determine the blaze "spontaneously ignited" in the kitchen area in a pile of "soiled rags containing an unknown amount of multiple chemicals," a fire marshal’s report said.
Wasson said his crews had been using linseed oil and other chemicals on the back patio. The soiled rags were left on a shelf that held paper products.
“You can see the moment it caught fire on the security video. It caught fire quickly,’’ he said.
The fire, ruled an accident, was limited to a small structure that was added on to the main building for the purposes of housing a kitchen. That small structure burned down; the main structure remained intact, although it suffered extensive smoke and water damage.
Wasson wouldn’t understand the scope of the damage until he was able to see it for himself.
“It was devastating to see it all and see all the beautiful things that had been done during the COVID downturn that were all just ruined,'' he said.
"Everything was ruined.’’
He returned home that day in tears.
“My partner asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I said, ''What do you think I’m going to do? I’m going to rebuild. I have no choice. This is Bill and Michael’s legacy that I’ve been entrusted with.’’’
IF WASSON HADN’T KNOW how the community felt about Roosters, he found out in the days and weeks after the fire.
Melissa St. Johns, Roosters’ entertainment director, set up a GoFundMe page. More than 330 people have donated roughly $80,000, including nearly $60,000 through gofundme.
Many others mailed in donations with notes of support, like the one Mark Sivik of West Palm Beach slipped through the mail slot where Wasson found it that first day firefighters let him back in the bar.
“It was a terrible thing that happened. I just felt like I needed to donate the money,’’ said Sivik, a teacher in the Palm Beach County School District.
Earl and Nancy Stewart, known for their Toyota dealerships, chipped in $10,000. Other area gay bars, including one as far south as Wilton Manors, hosted fundraisers for Roosters.
As a thank you, Wasson and his staff took food from the West Palm restaurant Rhythm Cafe to the firefighters who extinguished the blaze. Not long after, he received a check for $9,000 from the West Palm Beach Firefighters Association.
“It was such an outpouring of love from the community,’’ Wasson said.
With help from a Palm Beach County program, Wasson has secured a construction loan from the Bank of Belle Glade.
In April, the West Palm Beach City Commission granted Roosters an historic designation.
"Roosters is far more than a bar which has catered to an LGBTQ clientele," Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council said in a letter urging the city to support the designation.
He noted the important roles Roosters has played over the years from its support initiatives during the AIDS crisis to helping organize the county's first Gay Pride festival, held at Howard Park in 1992.
While the designation may help streamline the permitting process for the bar’s reconstruction, it was also a vote of confidence for the return of Roosters.
“The historic designation is the city of West Palm Beach telling us, ‘We embrace you. Your history is our history.’ That’s pretty moving,’’ Wasson said.
ARCHITECTURAL PLANS FOR THE new Roosters will be submitted to the city later this week.
“We are basically rebuilding what we had before,’’ he said. “It's up to the city on how quickly things proceed. We are hoping our sketches are accurate and there won't be a lot of comments.’’
The plans were shown off at the Palm Beach Pride Market in Lake Worth Beach’s Bryant Park earlier this month.
“Everyone loved the renderings,’’ he said.
But Wasson admits there were times since the fire that he nearly gave up.
He had to fire his first architect for submitting flawed plans. And he was fined more than $1,000 when trash was illegally dumped on the property, forcing him to spend more money fencing the site.
“There were times I really wanted to throw in the towels. It was just so painful,’’ he said.
“My biggest fear was being the guy that closed down Bill and Michael’s legacy. It's their legacy.’’
And he said the reopening, whenever it happens, will be nothing short of grand.
“The silver lining in all of this is this: We knew how much we loved our community,’’ he said. But until the fire, “we never knew or fully understood how much our community loved us.’’
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