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Still dancing: Neighbours Seattle celebrates 27 years
Still dancing: Neighbours Seattle celebrates 27 years
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

This Friday, September 5, and Saturday, September 6, Neighbours celebrates 27 successful years as Seattle's favorite big-time, big-space classic disco. The Neighbours story is really a family's story that begins a long time ago and far from the Pacific Northwest.

Moe Elassiouti, Neighbours' owner, was born to a poor family in a small town in Egypt. He lost his father at an early age and was thrust into the role of patriarch. In his 20s, he traveled to Germany to escape Third-World poverty. Moe worked as a bartender and waiter at a local resort while attending a hotel and restaurant management school there. That's where he met his future bride, a young German woman. "It was love at first sight," said their daughter and general manager of Neighbours, Mona Elassiouti.

Mona continued, "However, Germany in that day was very, very racist. My mother's family did not approve of the relationship. Very few people did."

The couple married and eventually settled in more tolerant Vancouver, B.C., where they opened a little cabaret on Robson Street called Sahara Nights, a Middle Eastern-style venue with belly dancers who performed nightly in a Moroccan decor. Over the course of several years, the club began to attract more and more Gay clientele due to its unique ambiance, quaint atmosphere and prime location. Dad's desire to give the customer what they want resulted in the transformation of the venue into a hip little dance club called Neighbours.

In the early '80s, Moe expanded the business by opening Neighbours Seattle on Capitol Hill. The location was Bogart's, a beer and sandwich place that didn't succeed. Business was slow in the beginning due to strong competition from nearby club Brass Rail, later known as the Brass Connection, according to Miss Toni James (aka James Williams), Neighbours' entertainment director. "At first, they didn't serve liquor, and the Brass Rail did. People didn't want to come here and only drink beer," James said.

James has been going to Neighbours since the beginning in 1982. "Crystal Lane [Kristopher Anderson's stellar drag persona] had the fabulous drag shows, and included in those shows were wonderful performers. Back then, Seattle was a melting pot for drag," James said. James served as Miss Gay Seattle 1992, has been a member of the Neighbours family every since. For the last 14 years, she has split her time between Seattle and Las Vegas, where she regularly performs on the famous Vegas Strip.

Dominatrix Roxy, host of the Neighbours Wednesday night "House of Dolls" and Saturday night "Vogue in the Underground," recalls the early years. "I started going to Neighbours about 19 years ago at the age of 21. We all loved Neighbours because of its size and the huge dance floor and progressive music."

About a year after opening, Lane, the aforementioned legendary Seattle drag entertainer who died in 1994, began performing, and crowds of Queers followed. In fact, Lane started the long tradition of drag shows and benefits that Neighbours has become famous for. Business slowly increased, and by 1988 Neighbours was fully licensed to serve liquor. There was no looking back.

Though Moe's venture into the Gay bar business was serendipitous, it seems the entire Elassiouti family has fully embraced their adopted community. When Mona speaks of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, she does so with quiet reverence regarding the role the club was thrust into. "Yeah, we became activists. At first the community was fragmented because of AIDS. Then, AIDS solidified it." The club became a place where people gathered to be a part of something, to identify with each other, comfort each other, and forget the devastating suffering for a few hours. Mona seems to truly understand how important the club's role in the community was in those years.

The Elassiouti family's relationship to the Queer community notwithstanding, Queer people still seem stuck on the idea that a straight-owned Queer bar is somehow problematic. I spoke to a number of people in preparation for this article and almost every time those queried mentioned the fact that Neighbours is straight-owned. Mona seems at a loss to explain the preoccupation, though she doesn't question its existence.

"What is straight? I believe that sensuality, not sexuality, defines a person," she says.

In fact, I'm not sure what straight means, either. As usual, we are hampered by language that isn't always up to the challenge of accurately describing diverse reality. Though the family has definitely profited from the business (Mona was flashing some serious diamond rings the day of the interview), they also have given a lot back to the Queer community. In addition, Mona obviously likes her job. "I love this experience," she says, "I love this place."

Mona refers to the early years of her parents' marriage, saying, "Interracial tolerance was very low, and as such, they were frequently subjected to disapproval of all sorts when they were out in public together. Our family has always understood and embraced the challenges of being in a minority position. At the end of the day, discrimination is discrimination, and everyone in our family understands that. Striving for equal rights as it applies to race, religion, sexual orientation and gender has been an underlying theme behind everything we do."

How do you keep a club, Gay or straight, around for 27 years? James said, "It's all about innovation, not imitation. And creating trends, bringing in diversity, and changing the look."

Indeed, Neighbours pioneered things like bringing performers in from all over the United States, staging elaborate choreographed drag production numbers and performances by local theater groups, using go-go boys, focused fundraising for Queer organizations, support of the Court of Seattle, putting up huge video screens above the dance floor, the still-popular '80s night each Thursday, and the buffet of the mid-'90s.

The diversity of their clientele keeps popping up when you talk to Neighbours' management and staff. It is something they are extremely proud of. "Everybody comes to Neighbours: Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Tranny, crossdressers, and straight," James said. Diversity is considered by the Neighbours crew to be key to the club's successful 27-year run and vitally important to building a strong community.

Dominatrix Roxy said, "I believe it has survived 27 years because it's a place for people to come out, be free, and express their real selves without prejudice. They also keep updated on the latest music and trends as well as their very long-lived '80s night on Thursday."

In the future, Mona hopes to develop and hone the Neighbours brand and eventually to share what she calls "the ultimate alternative experience" with folks in other states.

More immediate plans call for transforming the entire club into a haunted house for the week preceding Halloween. James is calling in Hollywood/Vegas set designer Joe Klein to build the elaborate temporary structures.

There are also plans for Queen's Landing, a corner of the club dedicated to all things drag. Mona and James see it as an homage to the drag community in honor of all the service, fundraising, and entertainment performed over the years.

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