The Reptile House — Revisited
Story by: Diana Lamphiere
Photography: Tim Motley
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
It started with a Facebook invite. A little red notification icon as I logged in. I clicked on it, and had a cartoonish jaw-drop of a moment. It was finally happening. Someone was finally doing it. The Reptile House was coming back, if just for one night.
I reached out to Mark Sellers, the owner of Stella’s, where the event would be held: “Just wanted to touch base with you about the Reptile Revisited event at Stella’s coming up. I was a dancer there in the early/mid 90s. Let me know if you need any help.” The response was almost immediate, asking me to dance for the event. And just like that, the past was back. I would be the girl in a cage again, at least for one evening.
I met with Mark and his right hand man Garry Boyd (himself a Reptile alum) to check out the cage, get a feel for the space, and get a clear picture of what they wanted, which was authenticity. Five other original Reptile House cage dancers signed on. And thus began endless messaging between the dancers about old times, what to wear, and who we might see.
I combed through my music collection to make a Reptile House playlist, messaging often with DJ Colin Clive (formerly of Reptile A-Go-Go, currently of Control at Rocky’s), who would naturally be in charge of the music for the event, and DJ Tim Pratt, who was flying to GR from San Francisco to spin. I remembered the good times and bad at The Reptile House, and reflected again on what I already knew: Reptile was a pivotal moment in my life, a place and time I could point back at and say, “There. Then. That’s where and when I started to truly become who I was going to be.”
It felt like a nostalgia bomb had gone off in the Grand Rapidsarea. Everyone from back in the day was buzzing about the event, talking about the old days, and going through their archives. I dug through my trunk of memories and found photos, flyers, and a copy of our old dancers rules (example: “You must dance your whole set, even if you do not dig the music. You may get another dancer to sub for you if the tunes truly make you want to die.”). I went through all of my black clothes for fishnet, lace, PVC and leather.
A little background on The Reptile House, which is talked of with fondness by those who went there, and longing by those who never did (you need only browse on the I Hung Out At The Reptile House group page on Facebook to see that): Owners Al Bregante and Jeff Nordruft opened The Reptile House (named after The Reptile House EP by The Sisters Of Mercy) on the corner of Division and Cherry in April of 1990. The idea seemed to be to create a place in Grand Rapids for good music and counterculture, where pretty much anything went. And truly, that’s what it was. National bands touring in the Midwest came through Grand Rapids to play shows at The Reptile House in between stops in Detroit and Chicago. Local bands got their starts playing out at The Reptile House. Many local DJs cut their spinning teeth at The Reptile House. On DJ nights, there were go-go dancers in cages. On nights where there wasn’t a band or a DJ, you might see a fashion show, a bondage show (one notorious night in particular, and wow, did that shake up this repressed town), or just shoot pool and hang with friends. There was usually a line of motorcycles out front. The drinks were cheap and strong. The bathrooms were memorably gross. The shirts shouted out profanity and cleverness, as did the staff. But the most important thing was this: People came to The Reptile House and found their tribes. There almost seemed to be a collective moment of discovery for many of us, a feeling of, “Ah, this is where I belong, this is where my people are.” And that is what was largely lost when The Reptile House closed in 1996/1997.
That sense of community is what Reptile House Revisited aimed to recreate. Would it? In a word: Yes. And how.
The event was billed to start at 8, and the dancers got there at about 9:30. Walking through the Ionia Street alley to enter Stella’s, the wall painted with piles of skulls had a distinctly Reptilian feel. We got inside and found out that the bar was already at capacity. As we weaved through the crowd to get behind the scenes to finish dressing up and making up, faces from the past jumped out at us. Bar staff, patrons, former band members, photographers (stellafly’s own Tim Motley, natch), every old school faction was represented. There were also plenty of people there who weren’t old enough to go to The Reptile House of old, who showed up to see what one of Grand Rapids’ most infamous night spots was all about. The bar was full of happy chatter, people hugging, and the constant repetition of one word: “Remember.”
The dancers took to the cage at 10 p.m. Getting up there and looking at the crowd, it felt like coming home. The music played, we started to move, and it was, to use a cliché, just like riding a bike. Once a cage dancer, always a cage dancer. Looking over the packed dance floor, I knew it was the same for everyone there. The body doesn’t forget.
Wandering the bar in between dance sets, what struck me was how happy everyone was. The original Reptile House was a place of great fun, but also of great drama. Reptile House Revisited was all of the fun, with none of the drama. Like a high school reunion, but with people you actually wanted to see and catch up with. The only sad note came from the people who were missing. I think everyone looked up at the constantly running slide show of old pictures and flyers and saw someone who would never be making it to a reunion. It’s inevitable, but bittersweet, of course. Many a glass was raised to someone who’d been lost.
On the whole, though, the vibe was one of joy. People who hadn’t seen each other in years were catching up. People who do still see each other often, but who met in the Reptile days were feeling sentimental. Some people looked so different as to be unrecognizable and some looked exactly the same, some people joked about how late they were out (hardcore partiers from days of yore who rarely made it out past 11 these days), but they were all there and on the nostalgia trip with the rest of us.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Reptile House Revisited was all about the best of times. We rediscovered our people. Turns out you can go home again.