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.