Ann Arbor’s history of inclusion and tolerance of LGBT people is long, colorful, and took place largely at the Aut Bar in Braun Court.
But since the Aut Bar is no longer there, local DJ Mark Gruszka – who goes by the DJ name Mysta Mark – is bringing back the community to celebrate its legacy for the second time this year at Kerrytown’s North Star Lounge on April 22.
“I’ve been wanting to do it ever since Covid started and they closed the Aut Bar. I’ve never gotten a venue to agree to it, so I went into the North Star and started talking to (North Star Lounge owner) Phillis (Engelbert) and she thought it was a great idea because she is friends with (former Aut Bar owners) Martin (Contreras) and Keith (Orr), so it all got together,” Gruszka said. The first celebration reached capacity at one point, he added. “Aut Bar was the only completely gay bar in the Ann Arbor area. It really supported love is love, and were big in promoting gay marriage, stuff like that.”
Aut Bar history
Conteras was fully committed to a career as a physical therapist when he first acquired the business that would soon become the Aut Bar. His mother was still running the restaurant in Southeast Detroit that he had grown up in in the late 70s and early 80s, at a time when the cocaine epidemic was making the city more dangerous.
He convinced her to move out to Ann Arbor and start a new restaurant there, which she agreed to do before passing away from cancer.
“I had met Keith (Orr) at the same time, in ’86. After Mom died, he started helping me out behind the scenes,” Conteras said.
Facing a level of dissatisfaction with another long-gone gay establishment, The Flame, Conteras and his eventual husband Orr decided to reopen as a gay bar.
Conteras added, “After a while we just decided ‘we’ll reinvent ourselves’ … did a major remodel … and it took a life of its own.”
Braun Court took what used to be seven houses off of Fourth Avenue and turned them into shops. Aut Bar was one of them.
When Aut Bar started in 1995 “gay bars … were closed off spaces. They usually had no windows, or window treatments so you couldn’t see in. You went into hiding when you went into the bar. We really wanted to do something different, which is ultimately why we called it the ‘Aut Bar’,” Orr said. “The whole idea was being out and in the open. We had windows on the courtyard. It was a bright space.”
Its wide bar dominated the little of what would have been the open plan living room had it still been a home. It’s somewhat tight quarters made the space cozy, but easy to navigate. It was as homey as a private house and painted with pastel colors that kept a delicate balance between being soft and pastel.
Conteras and Orr sold the bar in 2019. It ultimately closed the next year, one of countless businesses to fall victim to the Coronavirus shutdowns.
Attendees who don’t remember Aut Bar can come and dance, but you can also hear stories from old customers about meeting boyfriends and girlfriends there, hardships endured as a community and the way the community celebrated the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision.
Conteras and Orr may not attend. But as for if there will be a third reunion, Gruszka said “We don’t know yet.”