A Chat With: John Kenny from The Masquerade

With a much anticipated re-opening on the horizon and spirits high as we enter what would have been the week running up to Pride in Liverpool, we catch up with John Kenny, new co-owner of one of the scene’s best-loved venues, the Masquerade.

So John, can you tell us a bit about yourselves and how you came to be the Masquerade’s new owners?

 “This is mine and Ian McCulloch’s first venture together in business, although we both have a background in bars and the night-time economy – albeit not in bar ownership. Whilst both of us have other jobs, we felt that our personal links to the Masquerade made the proposition something so tempting, we thought it was worth making the jump into the LGBTQ+ scene to run a very well loved and established venue, following the very sad deaths of both Phil Jones and Jeff Drury.

You were both close to Phil and Jeff, how did you know them?

“I had been a very close friend to both of them for more than 23 years and Ian is Jeff’s nephew, so both of us were very close to the Masquerade for a long time and we have a good feel for how it ticks.”

Masquerade has long been known as ‘Liverpool’s friendliest gay bar’ and Phil and Jeff were much loved members of the city’s LGBT+ community. You have big shoes to fill, what’s that like for you?

“It’s very daunting as both Phil and Jeff created a great space and left such a legacy. It was such a shame to see the bar deteriorate over the couple of years since they both had to hang up the keys and we both felt deep down that there was life in the old girl yet.  The bar had lost its way and closed down by the time we signed our lease, the place was also totally wrecked so it wasn’t really hard to decide to rip it out completely and start again. 

“Virtually my first experience of Liverpool gay scene was at the Masq and suffice to say I stayed with it. I have lost count of the close friends i’ve made there, from all parts of the LGBTQ+ community and it’s been my home away from home for most of my adult life. It’s quite ironic now that i’m spending so much time and effort doing it up, as I used to do the same every year with Phil and Jeff when they did the annual renovations. 

“Phil used to tart the place up every year on the anniversary of him opening it up, as he started trading on his birthday in March. We’re doing quite a bit more than they did each year, but it’s been funny and sometimes emotional to uncover some of the stuff I was involved in putting in over many years. Good and bad that is, like the seven layers of flooring, laid on top of one another, that we had to take out! It was also sad to be the one to take down the old ceiling that looked like it was about to collapse, as i’m sure people saw that as a feature of the bar – but alas it needed to go.”

What changes have you made to the venue physical venue then?

“Well, we want people to feel like they’re back in the old Masq, albeit with a fresher, brighter and more current feel. We have tried to keep the old layout as much as possible, but with some marked improvements. We’ve increased the toilet capacity to both sets of facilities, made the cubicles bigger and fitted new drains to avoid the smells of old! The bar is now bigger behind, so more staff and less queueing! 

“There’ll be much more seating too, with new leather chairs and plenty of tables at normal height, as I know the high tables weren’t to everyone’s taste. We’ve also invested in lots of lighting for both day and night so people can come in for a coffee or a pint in the day without feeling like it’s midnight. Most seating will have laptop power sockets and USB for phone charging and we’ll have WIFI throughout with plenty of large TV’s to show all the main sports and shows that the community like to watch.

And what can people expect from the Masquerade bar when it reopens in terms of entertainment?

“In terms of the vibe and entertainment, we’ll be trying out some live acts, not just drag, as we’re not predominantly going to be a drag venue – although we will have a good mix of both. There’ll hopefully be something for everyone and we’ll be asking shortly on our Twitter and Facebook pages for people to tell us what they’d like to see in terms of theme nights. 

“Nothing is off the table for entertainment effectively. I’d like to see plenty of camp and disco though, as that’s what first attracted me to the Masq and is part of my memories over the years. Can’t beat a bit of camp!”

I guess we can’t avoid talking about it… how has COVID-19 and lockdown affected your reopening plans?

 “We started negotiating with the landlord early in the new year and we had ambitious plans to have a grand opening on the weekend of Liverpool Pride in late July. Alas that was not to be, as although we were able to eventually sign the lease, lockdown prevented us from getting the builders in when we needed to start work. 

“That didn’t phase us though, we had everything ready to go as soon as we were able to get in there. Obviously there are specific conditions we have to adhere to to prevent the spread of the virus and protect our staff and customers, but despite the COVID challenges, it’s not going to stop us getting the bar back open and I’m sure we’ll all adapt to the new way of working. Having seen the start of easing of lockdown in recent weeks, I’m certain we’ll be able to swing the doors open in some way or other.”

Have you had a chance to connect with other LGBT+ venues in the city since taking over ownership of the Masq?

“It’s been strange as we’ve done all this at a time when every other venue has been closed too, so we’ve had little interaction with many of the other venues. We are close to Billy from Kitty’s Bar and he’s offered us a lot of help and we’ve had some lovely messages of support from some of the other venues too, but to be fair they’re all going through a very challenging time too.

“It’s fair to say i’m sure some thought it was odd that someone would want to open a bar when they’re all closed, but the truth is that we’d started this journey prior to COVID and committed ourselves, so the show must go on so to speak. In any case, i’d like to think that when all this is hopefully over and we get back to some form of normal, the old Mazzie will be back, bigger, brighter and better and ready to welcome everyone in.”

Do you have a reopening date yet and can you share any launch surprises with us?

“Yes (fingers crossed) we’re aiming to open up on the late summer bank holiday weekend in August. There may well be things that stop us from opening the doors, but we’re going to do our utmost to get the bar open in any way we’re allowed, come hell or high water (just not too high as we’re in the basement!). 

“We’ve also got some surprises planned if we’re able to open that weekend, but i’m not going to let slip just yet until we’re more certain. Suffice to say some familiar faces may well be back and some high profile appearances from the scene may also be on the cards.”

This year our theme is ‘Young At Heart’, which promotes the right for LGBT+ people to live happy, healthy and carefree lives, regardless of how they identify. How important are our city’s LGBT+ friendly venues and what impact do you think they have on overall wellbeing”

“For us, this isn’t merely a business venture. I’ve been on the scene in Liverpool for most of my adult life and as a gay man I know how valuable the venues can be in helping people within the community find a safe space to gather, meet people and enjoy themselves. I know from personal experience how important it is to have places to go and ‘be yourself’. We aim to make the venue an inclusive space for all parts of the LGBTQ+ community and will be looking to groups to use the bar to meet and socialise etc. 

“We’ve created a small lounge seated area that can be reserved for groups of up to 28 to use too, so I’d very much like to offer it out for use as much as we can. Mental wellbeing is a really serious issue for our community, so anything we can do to help in any small way we will, and if we can create a space that people feel safe and comfortable in however they identify, we will – along with having lots of fun along the way of course!”

Finally, what does Pride in Liverpool mean to you? 

“We see Pride in Liverpool as an essential part of the community calendar and although the Pride event is a chance to celebrate, Pride to us is much more than that – having that visibility in the wider community within the region is critical if we’re going to help to better normalise LGBTQ+ peoples’ position in society. The Pride event for us is also about showcasing how well we can come together as a community in a number of ways to celebrate what makes us who we are, despite our differences. It’s also a great chance to party though, as we all know some of us gays do like to party too!”

Very true! Best of luck with the relaunch and let us know about those opening surprises when you can!

To stay up-to-date on re-opening news follow The Masquerade on Facebook and Twitter or to contact Ian and John, email masquerade.bars@gmail.com 


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