About the Spijker Bar
The story of the Spijker starts in the late 1960s, when two men met in the notorious DOK disco on Koningsplein.
A blond Dutch hunk, Peter Königshausen, chased Avi Ben-Moshe, a gorgeous Israeli in his early twenties. The couple bought Hotel Orfeo near Leidseplein and transformed it into a gay hotel. Business flourished and the couple enjoyed a sparkling life filled with travel, fun and hard work. However, one of Avi’s dreams was to have his own bar. A building at the beginning of Kerkstraat had been on the market for years. Kerkstraat was the center of gravity in gay Amsterdam in the 1970s, and Avi and Peter decided to buy the property at number 4.
On one of their many trips to New York, Avi and Peter were very impressed by one particular bar: The Spike. The Spike in New York was everything the couple thought a gay bar should be. TVs showing porn, a pool table and hot cruising. It was a great place to hang out, a great place to have. While Avi and Peter moved in upstairs at Kerkstraat 4, they completely refurbished the two lower levels. Avi claims to know every nail in the bar. Down in the cellar the bar looks very much as it did then, pool table in the back, TV in the upper right-hand corner above the bar, and the open fire opposite. Upstairs, at the front of the building, a small restaurant was hammered in. The U.S.-style Sunday brunches were a huge success, the Bloody Mary’s outstanding, served with stalks of celery sticking out. Tom of Finland was spotted here with his close friend Rob, from the shop with the same name. In the back of the restaurant floor there were (and still are) cruise toilets and (for convenience) a tiny dark room.
Beer for a guilder
When the Spijker opened on April 15, 1978, beer was sold for one guilder as a promotional stunt. This proved to be such a success that beer for a guilder became a regular feature in Tuesdays. Eyewitnesses from that period remember customers queuing up outside the Spijker in lines that stretched as far as the canal. Tuesday came to be known as “Spijker Day”. Women were not allowed in the Spijker. However, an exception was sometimes made for the restaurant.
The Spijker was everything Avi and Peter had dreamed of. An international crowd swamped the bar. Crazy parties were held, and the bar became known for its offbeat but tasteful decorations during the holidays. Avi remembers one Christmas in particular, the décor was magnificent. White painted tree branches with white doves circling them, covered the ceiling. One of the more bizarre happenings in the Spijker in those days was the ‘most beautiful butt competition.’ Peter hung a curtain with holes in it from the ceiling, and the contestants stuck their arse’s through. The most beautiful butt got a 100-guilder note stuck between its cheeks.
With the bar a success and the hotel full most of the time, Avi remembers suffering from an enormous lack of sleep. When Peter was hit by arthritis, the couple decided to change gear and sell the Spijker exactly five years after it had opened.
American Repertory Theatre
The new owner of the Spijker was no stranger to the place. Raphael Brandow was the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre and had performed in the Spijker from 1980 onwards with such plays as ‘I’m Working as a Waiter but I’m Really a Star” and ‘Thinking Straight’. These performances were held downstairs after Sunday Brunch. While the actors sweat it out on the pool table, the audience was sitting on beer crates in the bar.
Raphael’s dream was to have a ‘real theater’. The first thing he did was close the restaurant upstairs and put in a stage with 65 seats. American playwright Edward Albee officially opened it, in October 1983. A big billboard at the front of the building announced ‘American Repertory Theater’ in huge letters, while a much smaller sign was attached to the door read ‘Spijker’. At the front of the building you can still see the outline of what was once the ticket booth.
Raphael left the bar downstairs untouched. Tuesday was still Spijker Day and women were still not allowed in. This stood in contrast with the theater upstairs, which was open to everyone. David Swatling, one of the actors in those days, thinks back: ‘Although the audience was invited for an after-show drink, women were ‘encouraged’ to leave as soon as possible. Productions like the gay classic ‘P.S. Your Cat is Dead’ and the tap-dancing mini-spectacle ‘Dames at Sea’ were big hits, but the box office earnings didn’t cover the costs. The bar did.’
Then, over the course of just a few years, something hit the gay community straight in the face. Healthy good-looking hunks turned into walking wrecks within months. Purplish sores, frightening weight loss, dubious infections and death. Aids had arrived.
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine how carefree the gay community had been before Aids, but anyone who was there knows the fear and the grieve. The Spijker lost many friends during the crisis. In 1986 the American Repertory Theatre presented ‘A Quiet End’, the first play about Aids to be performed in Amsterdam and, ironically enough, one of the last plays the company performed above the Spijker.
The following year, Raphael sold the bar to one of his bartenders, Tony Derosa, whose ambition was to make the Spijker one of the most popular gay bars in Amsterdam.
This was no easy task. Since Raphael cared more about the theater than about the gay leather bar ‘that happened to be in the same building’, the Spijker was barely viable in business terms. Tony, like Raphael a transplanted New Yorker, took over the bar for almost nothing and set his mind to making the bar profitable again. One of the first things he did was install a second TV next to the one showing non-stop porn. Tony was a big fan of cartoons, so from that moment on, the fucking and sucking men were accompanied by Dumbo, Roadrunner and other animated heroes. Tony salvaged the bar’s wooden paneling from the Wells Fargo Saloon when it closed down, and fixed it to the Spijker’s bare brick walls. The ceiling was soon covered with posters. The wall behind the bar became a collage of pictures and memorabilia, with models of the Chrysler Building and the Statue of Liberty looming in dark corners. Tony drew his own cartoons on the blackboards above the bar. The dog in the top left-hand corner is a memorial to Tony, and is drawn over every year by Paul, the bartender on Friday afternoons.
In those days Tony practically lived in the bar, and in fact you might say he was the bar. Women were no longer ushered away, and the atmosphere changed from serious leather to something more ‘tongue in cheek’ (ever tried laughing in a leather bar?). Little by little, new customers became regulars. The bar was no longer simply a dimly lit, cruise cellar with a darkroom for anonymous sex.
Safe Sex Pin-ups
With the former upstairs restaurant/theater as an empty space now, Tony decided it wouldn’t hurt business if he rented that space to a group of people who organized safe sex parties, the Amsterdam Jacks. Journalist Rod Bolt went to one of these parties to review it for the London-based gay magazine Boyz. ‘If you wander upstairs you feel as if you’ve walked into a nude male version of a ghastly family birthday party….. Suddenly there are sweaty, bumping huddles of men everywhere…. And some of the groups get quite big….. The atmosphere is cheery, and the party monitors (they are the ones in shorts) make sure that no one is hassled, enforce safer sex rules and clear away any debris…. After a couple of hours the party begins to wind down…. Clothed punters walk in off the street, apparently oblivious to the odd nude at the bar enjoying a past-jack drink.’
Something else Tony understood was that he had to hire sexy bartenders. Han still works in the Spijker, and he was surprised with the trust Tony placed in him from his very first night: ‘Tony explained where everything was, gave me the keys and left.’ Another legend behind the bar was Jon, hired in 1990. This outgoing and sexy Scotsman proved to be one of the bar’s most valuable assets. When in 1993, the Schorer Stichting launched its memorable ‘Safe Sex Pin-ups’ campaign, Jon starred throughout the city as the December pin-up. Jon loved sex and didn’t mind to party. Sadly, he overdosed in 1994.
By 1992 the Spijker business was running well again, it was time for Tony to sell the bar and start making another of his dreams come true: launching a gay newspaper. His Trash in the Streets was the first English-language gay newspaper in Amsterdam and became famous for its satirical style and outrageous headlines. Most memorable: ‘Pope May Have Aids.’ The column ‘Not one to gossip but….’ was a must-read for keeping up with gay happenings in the Dutch capital. Trash in the Streets was distributed free in all gay bars and clubs and was the direct forerunner of today’s bilingual publications, Amsterdam Gay News and Gay & Night.
The owner of the Spijker in 1992 was Gordon Miller, a man from Texas. Gordon had been on holiday to Amsterdam many times before, and liked the free spirit of this city. When his boyfriend died, he came over to Amsterdam and Tony offered him the bar. Gordon soon made up his mind, as he wanted to open up a new chapter in his life, and there it was, presented to him on a plate: a successful bar in the center of Amsterdam. Tony stayed on for a year to coach Gordon on all the ins and outs, and since then, business has been better than ever. Gordon is incredibly laid back regarding the Spijker. It seems that he knows how to manage his bar with as little sweat and as much effect as possible. Trusting and supporting for his staff, he knows what makes a good bar tick.
Gordon Miller is unfortunately deceased on the 30th of August 2006 and then Paul Tarrant and Ton van Bokhoven became the new owners of the Spijker, until april 1st 2020, the Corona crisis.
Now The Spijkerbar is run by Steven Koudijs, a dutch former barkeeper of the Spijkerbar who bought the place with the help of his mother-in-law, crowdfunding in Amsterdam’s gay scene, other gay businesses (such as Lola The Green Aardvark) and regular customers of the bar.
So what is going on in the Spijker at the moment? Of course the vintage porn and comic TVs are still there and the pool table. Write your name on the blackboard just under the stairs, wait your turn with a drink to calm your nerves, and play against the winner of the previous game. There are regular pool competitions on sunday afternoon. On Saturday afternoons, Miss Dora Royale hosts exciting bingo sessions. On Tuesdays Beer Bust is still a favorite event and every day there is a successful happy hour from 17.00 till 19.00 hours. And on other days and nights? Just come on in with an open mind and enjoy quality music, relax, drink, cruise and meet the locals./* CSS Document */