When Bravo's Tabatha from “Tabatha Takes Over” visited Club Ripples back in 2012, owners John Garcia and Larry Hebert were described as “Jekyll and Hyde.”
The business was in dire straits, according to the show. Quiet, cautious Garcia said he’d maxed out his credit cards and overdrew from his bank account by about $15,000. Hebert estimated they were losing between $30,000 to $40,000 each week, before the takeover.
Cue the music and the picture-perfect television formula: tough Tabatha took on the business, knocked some “hard sense” into Garcia and the sassy Hebert, taste-tested various drinks, modernized the bar’s rules and cover fees and updated the interior of the space.
Approximately four years later, Garcia and Hebert, though appreciative of the makeover and enthusiastic about their business’ impact on the community, have decided it’s time to retire. About a month ago, the two placed the club and adjacent liquor store on the market for $4.2 million, intending to bid adieu to the now-cutthroat world of operating a gay dance club.
They’re eagerly anticipating retirement, they say.
Screenshot of Tabatha's visit to Club Ripples.
While that dynamic of the owners was a bit exaggerated for television, the business and real-life partners are still a study in yin and yang; Garcia is the cautious, quiet one to Hebert’s loud, boisterous, and, when necessary, cantankerous personality.
In a conversation with the Post, Garcia and Hebert discussed the club’s history in Long Beach and its lasting legacy on the community.
Hebert said he was drawn to Belmont Shore ever since was a child, when he’d journey from San Pedro over the floating bridge to play on the beach and visit the shops with his family.
Garcia moved to the area from El Paso, Texas with his family, and started working as an accountant at what would later become Club Ripples in 1973, when it was operating under a different name.
Hebert jumped on the Ripples bandwagon as a cash counter at first, working his way up along with Garcia, eventually buying the place out together in 1980.
The place was making money “hand over foot,” the entire time, in a contentious time for gay people in the United States, and a decade rife with drugs as well as disco tunes.
“Lines were out the door seven nights a week,” said Garcia.
“It was a their home away from home,” said Hebert of Club Ripples. “It was their safe haven. They could dress in drag or costume, be feminine or butch. We accepted all of them.”
Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that the owners found each other in a similar safe setting: Hebert met Garcia when he went to his first gay club in Long Beach, Victor Hugo’s, at the age of 22. They’ve been together ever since.
Ripples has seen celebrities walk through its doors many times over the years. The space was the location in which Rock Hudson first came out, according to Garcia. Lesley Jordan has made numerous appearances. Oh, and of course, Lainie Kazan.
But the club, which they say tolerates no drugs of any kind, has also experienced its fair share of trauma, ranging from police ignorance in the ‘70s and ‘80s, targeting by skinheads and the Aryan Nation, the AIDS crisis and two recessions.
In fact, it was the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s that prompted the two to begin selling drinks with plastic cups, made infamous on Tabatha’s show. (She switched the business back to glassware).
“We lost thousands of people in 1980,” said Hebert. “Business just plummeted. People were so ignorant of the disease and the way it spread...so we switched to plastic cups.”
Hebert said over time, they just couldn’t cry for every person dying because it happened so often. They grew numb to the sadness.
“But we persevered because we were determined,” said Garcia.
While the two have a reputation for being tough, it’s apparent that Hebert and Garcia talk tough but show generosity through their actions. Hebert noted he often took on more employees than necessary to help them pay for college, something he sacrificed himself because he was unable to swing the finances when he was younger.
“We feed other people and help them financially, straight or gay,” said Hebert.
It goes without saying that Long Beach has changed drastically since it was the navy town of yesteryear. With the past three mayors sympathetic to the gay cause, Garcia said, “everything’s so pro-gay now.”
But the positives of more gay rights and a sense of freedom in the city have also made the niche gay bar business more difficult, according to Garcia and Hebert. Cutthroat, even, they say. They attribute the change (and dwindling customer base) to the rise of online dating platforms, the new trendy coffeehouses and gyms.
“Kids nowadays don’t know what we went through,” said Hebert.
Screenshot of Tabatha's visit to Club Ripples.
The irony of a gay bar hurting because of the success of gay rights legislation and gradually shifting attitudes is apparent, and an interesting byproduct. What will become of other institutions currently serving a niche population that is discriminated against?
For now, Hebert and Garcia don’t really want to ponder such thoughts. They’ve been there, and they’ve been through enough.
They’re looking forward to enjoying the rest of their time at Club Ripples, and soaking up some quality travel (to Naples, Italy and the East Coast) and beach time after their last official night is announced, most likely via their Facebook page.
“We’ve lived a charmed life. We’ve been around the world, we’ve met celebrities...I call that a charmed life,” said Hebert. “Everything changes—it has to, it can’t stay the same.”
Club Ripples is located at 5101 East Ocean Boulevard.