There are not many locally-owned businesses that would risk closing for over a year amid a global pandemic, but Chumley’s is no ordinary local bar.
A staple in the downtown State College area since 1984, the bar reopened on April 14 for the first time after renovations forced the business to close its doors last year.
Ellen Braun, the general manager at Chumley’s, has worked there since 1992 and said while the time away was needed, the loss of the community was “harder than [she] could have ever imagined.”
In March 2020, just as the coronavirus was first detected in Centre County, new owners acquired the local bar and shut down operations soon after in order to begin renovations.
“Not being able to see the regulars who would always come in during the week was tough enough as it was,” Braun said. “But then add to that not seeing anyone due to the pandemic, and it was heartbreaking.”
While the bar’s new owners always planned for the bar to reopen, the pandemic made renovations a little more challenging.
Jeff Sorge is the co-owner of Hotel State College & Company, a business conglomerate in downtown State College. He acquired Chumley’s alongside his brother-in-law, Michael Croce, at the end of 2019.
The two own a small family hospitality management business with operations out of Key West, Florida, but are based in Philadelphia to be “closer to family,” according to Sorge, who said they had been looking for a project in the Pennsylvania area for almost two years.
“We didn't quite know what our next work project would be,” Sorge said. “We were looking, but nothing felt right. However, as Penn State graduates, when the opportunity came up to buy Hotel State College, we knew how special that was, and so we took it.”
Hotel State College consists of a variety of beloved food and beverage places at the center of the downtown area including The Corner Room, Zeno’s pub, Bill Pickle’s Tap Room, Allen Street Grill and The Basement Nightspot.
“We saw an opportunity where we could make a difference while also reviving historic places that maybe needed some improvements here and there,” Sorge said. “That excitement really pushed us to think about the big picture.”
Though the owners had ambitious plans to work with the space at Chumley’s already, Sorge said they had not anticipated remodeling so soon.
“We were planning a slower approach to renovations over the span of a couple years,” Sorge said. “However, like so many things, the pandemic gave us no choice but to tackle the issues we had with the layout immediately.”
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Sorge said after recovering from the initial shock of closing Chumley’s among other Hotel State College businesses, the focus turned to making sure the team did everything it could to prepare for post-lockdown operations.
Like Sorge, Braun said Chumley’s had no choice but to take advantage of the extra time.
“Basically, our former layout lacked the accessibility to be fully socially distanced, so when it came time to make the tough decision to close, we knew it was the right thing to do,” Braun said. “We’re actually pretty lucky in that we benefited from the time away.”
Outdoor seating, distanced tables and dividers at the bar itself have been installed in order to prevent any potential spread of the virus, and according to Braun, the bar will follow a strict mask protocol and distancing between groups.
“It’s been nice to be able to sink our time and energy into something so productive and forward thinking,” Sorge said. “Chumley’s has always been such an inviting place, [and] we wanted to make sure it felt that way from the inside as well.”
Along with updates to layout, furniture and artistic design, Braun said the team has revamped an entirely new food and cocktail menu, calling the bar more “cosmopolitan than we have ever been before.”
Sorge added that a new partnership with the kitchen at the Allen Street Grill gave the menu just what it needed to meet the goal to produce “whimsical food on small plates with international flare.”
Though a whole new approach to the menu was incorporated into the redesign and furniture and artwork have been modernized, Sorge stressed that the bar is still what it has always been.
“So many people walk by without realizing that we’re here,” Braun said. “Outside of the queer community, we are relatively unknown, so by adding these extra touches, we’re hoping it will attract more people from this community, including students, to come in and feel safe doing so.”
Named after a cartoon from the ‘60’s, Chumley’s has stayed an important part of the LGBTQ community in State College.
“I would say we’ve been known as a gay bar almost immediately since we opened,” Braun said. “While our identity has evolved over the years, that inclusivity and acceptance has stayed a priority and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Outside of health protocols, Braun said there was also room to make the space their own, with a focus on creating a bigger street presence that supports and uplifts the queer community.
Braun said a mural was designed to display the history of significant LGBTQ events, and a custom bar top was installed with tributes to former customers who died from AIDS, historic quotes from movies that support the queer community, and symbols of unity including the Stonewall riots.
“We wanted to make sure the space still had the neighborhood bar intimacy that we love but also the whimsical feel that honors the past,” Braun said. “Because we had the luxury to make some of those artistic decisions, it’s really special that that can now be shared with the public.”
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Josh Bannon is an executive board member of Penn State LionPride, an LGBTQ student organization, and first noticed Chumley’s after walking by and seeing the rainbow flag hanging outside.
“Honestly, almost as soon as I walk off campus, I feel like I am in the real world,” Bannon (junior-aerospace engineering) said. “State College gives off this cute little college town vibe, but sometimes it does not seem that way at all.”
Bannon said finding out Chumley’s existed was a “breath of fresh air” but hopes the bar off campus is welcoming to all members of the LGBTQ community, including those enrolled at the university.
“I believe the new ownership is a good thing because they have the opportunity to reinvent themselves,” Bannon said. “If they can incorporate more aspects of Penn State queer culture and get involved with some of the orgnaizations on campus, that would be amazing.”
However, while Bannon said they look forward to attending Chumley’s, they do not feel comfortable going to any bars until they receive a vaccine.
“Personally, I have had too many coronavirus scares at this point to be willing to risk it,” Bannon said. “I keep telling myself to be patient and wait until I am fully vaccinated. Once that happens, I will feel much more comfortable getting back to some of the things I miss most.”
Alex, a student who wished to remain anonymous due to past experiences as a queer person of color at Penn State, said the division between queer safe spaces and non-queer-dominated spaces is quite evident in the broader State College community.
Like Bannon, they have struggled to find places off campus where they feel comfortable being themselves and hope Chumley’s offers a new experience altogether.
“When I am walking around, I am always super hyperaware,” Alex said. “When I want to be around my other queer friends, in a space where I know I can be myself completely, I’m glad Chumley’s exists.”
Alex said even though they had siblings who attended the university, they had no idea there was a queer bar downtown until their second semester of their sophomore year.
“I’ve always kind of dreaded the bar scene,” Alex said. “But to have a place like Chumley’s back up and running again, it really means the world.”
Braun said while over the past 10 years there has been more of a wider acceptance of the LGBTQ community, she has met many students who have shared similar experiences.
“Since I started working here almost 30 years ago, there are a lot of people from surrounding areas that just don't have resources,” Braun said. “They come to this university and they don’t know where to go. We want to be a place for them to take that mask off.”
Ismaiel Szink is a former Penn State graduate student who moved to the State College area in 2015 and has since been a customer at Chumley’s.
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“Having a gay bar in the middle of downtown, I mean that in of itself is pretty special,” Szink said. “So being away from the place and the people who make it what it is for so long was really hard for me. It’s like my second home.”
Szink said while growing up in Provo, Utah, the acceptance, support and community he had was lacking compared to what he feels at a place like Chumley’s.
“I have so much respect for a place, even if it’s a bar, that puts inclusivity and acceptance ahead of everything else,” Szink said. “As a gay man, that means something.”
Braun said while Chumley’s remains at its foundation a gay bar, the way many percieve gay bars has “drastically changed” over the years.
“Other than changing who we cater to and what our outward appearance looks like, we’re still the same old Chumley’s,” Braun said. “We want to be able celebrate all that Chumley’s is while making sure people know our renovations come from the desire to continue its legacy into the future.”
Chumley’s has different priorities as a neighborhood bar, according to Braun.
“We have a different niche that has only become further evident with the renovations,” Braun said. “It’s important to be different, and that's what anyone should expect when they come here.”
Szink said every time he walks down College Avenue and sees the rainbow flag above the bar, it changes “the whole perception” of what a small college town in the middle of Pennsylvania represents.
“I get the privilege of promoting a message of love and equality each and every day I come to work,” Braun said. “Knowing all of that gets me emotional when I think of all the work that has gotten us to this moment. I just couldn’t be more grateful.”