It was the early 1980s and Asbury Park N.J. was the popular, if inconspicuous place for gay and lesbian bars. When three local businesswomen gave new life to the abandoned Albion Hotel, they created the Key West Hotel, a place tounwind, meet friends, future loves, party, swim or dance the night away without the pressures of the heterosexual world. For the majority of women, the hotel offered the only means of interaction with other lesbians, since being gay was still taboo. The Key West Hotel would eventually become the 1980’s most popular club for New Jersey lesbians, and possibly the oldest lesbian venue of its kind on the East Coast. 

It all began in the early 1970s when lovers and California transplants Carol Torre and Camille Neto settled in Asbury Park and met Kay San Fillippo, a bartender at a small straight bar which featured a weekly “gay day.” The three women were frustrated with the over-all conditions and treatment of lesbians at the gay clubs in Asbury—to have a bathroom that functioned was a rarity and some of the women’s bars excluded gay men, even if they were friends of the women patrons. So, Torre, Neto and Fillippo decided to open their own bar. “In the beginning we just wanted a bar that didn’t demean women and take this attitude that you have no other choice because you’re gay,” explains Torre.“We wanted a bar where people would be treated respectfully. If women came in with a guy, the guy was welcome. They didn’t have to grovel because we were nice enough to give them a bar.” The women opened The Owl & Pussycat, on Main St. in Asbury. “ The Owl,” as it became known, was a success, so when the opportunity arose in 1981 for Torre to purchase the nearby deserted Albion Hotel, she could not refuse. Torre saw its potential, despite the fire damage, broken windows, dated interior, antiquated plumbing and electricity. Convincing Neto and Fillippo was another story. When she took them to see the hotel, they thought she’d lost her mind. “They both cried and said, ‘This is a joke, right?’” Torre recalls. But she convinced them to throw caution to the wind. 

Renovating the hotel wasn’t easy, but the women were determined—and resourceful. An old dining room was converted into a disco and a smaller bar was created in the lobby. They constructed tables for the restaurant but other furnishings came from auctions: Tables and chairs for the disco, and bar stools for the lobby bar came from the Playboy Club in Manhattan; the disco bar came from a local Italian restaurant and the beautiful bar in the main lobby from a New York City restaurant. Although the women were meticulous about renovating the interior, the hotel’s exterior was foreboding. But they preferred it that 
way—if the outside was appealing it would attract straight couplesand locals from the nearby biker bars. 

Key West crew: Kay San Fillippo (from left), Carol Torre and Camille Neto 

jersey girls

Remembering a landmark lesbian venue.
By Patricia A. Post
In 1982 the Albion was ready for its second life and was renamed the Key West Hotel. It became more than a hotel: It was a community of women who shared friendships, holidays, softball games, bowling, pool tournaments, picnics, birthdays and holiday parties. There was something for everyone. If dancing downstairs in the once famous Rainbow Room or upstairs in the Over the Rainbow disco was not your thing, you could relax in the quieter Owl & Pussycat lounge, shoot a game of pool or get acquainted with a potential love. In 
summer, the Floridian pool was the perfect place to cool off. Occasionally, the Rainbow Room gave local gay musicians a chance to play for the hundreds of women who filled the hotel’s dance floor on summer weekends. 

For many New Jersey gay women, the Key West Hotel was the beginning of becoming comfortable with their identity. Going to a lesbian bar for the first time could be frightening for young lesbians. Torre instructed her staff to be aware of women with a “deer-in-the-headlights” look and go the extra mile to make them comfortable. For some, the hotel was home—literally. At any given time as many as fifteen women resided in the studios, large apartments and penthouses in the hotel. If you were too merry to drive home, rooms were available free of charge. 

But by the end of the decade there was trouble in paradise. Rumors about the Asbury waterfront redevelopment circulated and many believed the hotel had closed. Other gay bars opened, especially in northern New Jersey. But it was the AIDS epidemic, rampant during the late ’80s, which threatened the establishment. Not much was known about how the disease was spread, which caused paranoia.“By 1986, I had women afraid to go into the pool because they heard a guy had been in there,” says Torre. “People no longer wanted to drink out of glasses. I had to switch to plastic.” With the imminent redevelopment of Asbury Park’s waterfront, the hotel’s days were numbered. New Year’s Eve 1989 was the last hurrah for the Key West Hotel and its doors closed forever.Torre took it in her stride.“I felt I was at the end of my 10-year stint. I have no regrets. It was a good time—a time that we could never recreate.” 

That time saw a generation of lesbians became comfortable with their sexual orientation and many formed lifelong friendships and relationships. Unfortunately, the hotel was demolished in the mid 2000s as part of the redevelopment and has been replaced by blacktop. Most young lesbians who stroll by the site are not aware of the community that existed just a few short decades ago. But to those who remember, Joni Mitchell’s lament, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” really hits home.
Flashback to the 80's:  Poolside at Jersey's Key West Hotel

For more memories, check out the Key West Club/Owl & Pussycat page on Facebook

JUNE 2011