August 21, 2013

Mike Burnes creates an oasis for all at Missie B’s, a gay nightclub in midtown

Missie B’s owner Mike Burnes looks at his club’s diverse clientele as a positive. Each straight person who visits his club for a drink or a gawk is another harmless opportunity to mix cultures and reduce homophobia. Attracting a diverse crowd isn’t about making more money, says Burnes. “It’s a sign that society’s views are changing. The days of division between gay and straight are vaporizing.”

Every Saturday on 39th Street, Missie B’s attracts the bawdiest of bar crowds.

Inside its doors, a glittered disco ball spins. Speakers thump with music. Waiters flit from person to person, hoisting trays of Jell-O shots.

Outside, a line of people wait to get in. A mirror-shiny limo pulls up and disgorges even more guests: eleven young women, all wearing feather boas, low-cleavage dresses, stiletto heels and sucking up drinks through penis-shaped straws.

“We’re here to paaaaaaarty,” says one, swaying, already feeling the beat of the music. She wears a glittery crown atop spiral blond curls. The crown has a tiny sign, ensuring that everyone knows she is the Bride-To-Be.

These self-professed straight women traveled from Olathe to this midtown bar to one version of fun — screaming at drag queens’ antics, gawking at gay men holding hands, stealing glances at the smooching lesbians, and drinking ... a lot.

“ and not worrying about being groped by a horny guy,” adds Kendra Voelker, 28, the Bride


to-Be’s friend.

Before the night was over, the Bride-to-Be was singled out and teased with sexual innuendos as friends and strangers laughed right along with her.

Missie B’s, one of the metro’s longest running gay nightclubs, has become a hip destination for BFFs celebrating getting hitched — a cruel irony to the part of the gay crowd who feel this is their bar, their place away from the judgment of the straight community.

“We hate the bachelorettes,” says John Long, editor and publisher of Camp, Kansas City’s magazine for the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual community. “I don’t go when they’re there because they are clueless. Do they even think about all of us who would love to legally marry?”

But Missie B’s owner, 67-year-old Mike Burnes, looks at his club’s diverse clientele as a positive. Each straight person who visits his club for a drink or a gawk is another harmless opportunity to mix cultures and reduce homophobia.

Attracting a diverse crowd isn’t about making more money, says Burnes, who dresses up as ‘Missie B’ once a year on Thanksgiving eve. “It’s a sign that society’s views are changing. The days of division between gay and straight are vaporizing.”

He reminds his gay and lesbian staff to be as friendly as possible with customers, whatever their orientation. Show respect. Take care of everyone. He installed more than a dozen television security cameras monitoring entrances and hallways and parking lots because he wants his club to be a safe haven for all.

“This is a place where people can let their hair down or put their wigs on. You can be whatever you want to be but you have to behave,” he says. “If you’re a lady, act like a lady. If you’re a man, be responsible. ... We have fought to knock the doors down to have the same rights as straight people, but you must accept the straight community, too. That’s the reality.”

His message that today’s bully might be tomorrow’s friend is something he’s witnessed, especially when diverse audiences laugh at the same jokes.

“Little by little people who come here realize the gay community can be pretty cool. Someday Missie B’s won’t be seen as a homosexual or a heterosexual bar but a metro sexual bar,” he says.

Like many bars, there is a pool table, darts and the show stage. Upstairs, more bars, a leather fetish shop and dance floor. But how many clubs employ an interpreter for the deaf who stands next to the drag performers and signs the lyrics?

Burnes is trying to make the world a better place one person at a time.

During the day Missie B’s is a quiet hangout with no performers, just a place to sit and chat. One afternoon before Burnes comes in, stories about him by customers and employees pour out faster than the drinks around the bar.

“He’s the biggest, most kind-hearted man in Kansas City. I love him,” says Jan Allan, the manager of Missie B’s who has worked for Burnes for 21 years. She names groups to which Burnes donates: AIDS Walk, Safe Home, Gay Pride, Passages, the Free Health Clinic, the Angel Tree and others.

“There are no limits, no boundaries to how much he will help people. And that rubs off on people,” adds general manager, Chad Seton. “It makes me a better person.” There are stories of sick people Burnes has helped over 30 years, groceries he’s bought, even funerals he paid for.

One customer, Greg Falzone: “He’s a business genius, always reinventing himself. He’s creative and seems to know what’s trending.” Missie B’s is four times the size it once was because the club keeps knocking down walls to offer something else to the growing crowds.

The nightclub is open every day of the year, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter. Burnes cooks meals on these holidays so anyone who wants can come in and eat. Free.

“Many gay people are most lonely on holidays because their families have disowned them,” says Seton.

In comes Burnes, a tall lanky Vietnam veteran with a ready grin. Embarrassed that the group has been talking about him, he shrugs, waves the compliments away and reaches for a cup of coffee. Yes, he nods, when asked about the groups he’s tried to help.

“It’s the right thing to do. It’s because of Mary. She showed me how. She showed me why it’s important.”

Mary Burnes, his mother, was a full-time nurse and the rock in her little family of two boys. Besides Burnes, she also had Patrick, who was born with a congenital heart defect.

“Patrick would have died young except for my Mary,” Burnes says. Both have died but he feels their presence every day.

The family lived in a one bedroom apartment in Kansas City’s Leeds district. Although their father left them when the boys were young and never returned, Burnes doesn’t speak ill of him.

“My father always told me, ‘Son, if you learn to cook you’ll never be hungry.’ There were a lot of times growing up I was on the brink of hunger. I slung hash for years on Highway 40. My father was right,” he says.

“My mom showed me how to care for people, and my brother taught me empathy,” he says, then throws his head back to laugh. “And then Vietnam just about made me lose my mind.”

Then he’s serious again. “When my brother died a part of me died with him.” His family now are his friends at his club.

Burnes created Missie B’s because he wanted to give the gay community a place to have fun together, instead of feeling a separated “us and them,” he says. He stops and winks: “Without ‘you,’ there would be no ‘us.’ I say that one a lot. Mary said it a lot to me.”

He struggled to get good grades in high school before dropping out. He has dyslexia, he would learn later. While in high school he married a girlfriend after she became pregnant, but it quickly ended in divorce. “She’s still my first love,” he says.

Drafted in 1968, he married again just before deployment to Vietnam. “I thought maybe marrying a woman might make my gayness go away.” But he knew immediately it was a mistake; another divorce after the war.

Assigned to the 9th Infantry Division — in which Chuck Hagel, now secretary of defense, was a squad leader — Pfc. Burnes was discovered to be adept as a radio and communications man. He thinks his dyslexia helped him scramble the codes faster than most.

Burnes begins to shake as he talks about the war. The memories of Vietnam are dark ones; memories he’s rarely visited.

“It was a bad time,” he says, and reaches for a cigarette. His unit took heavy casualties. “I thought I would never come back. ... I have PTSD, and this is a part of me I cannot fix.” He makes regular visits now to the VA, especially in the last 10 years.

“Being Missie B was a good escape from all of that. I could do twirls and be gay,” he says, and dances a little in his seat. But he grows serious again, shaking a finger in the air to emphasize: “I never did anything gay when I was in the service. I was a big ole princess, but I didn’t know it.”

After Vietnam, he was sent to Fort Riley, where he earned his GED and worked at the officer’s club managing the restaurant. Sgt. Burnes left with an honorable discharge. No one knew he was gay, but his first visit to a gay bar was outside the fort.

“There were a whole bunch of people like me!” Even now, his eyes light up with the remembering. “I numbed myself for years, hiding from who I was. I don’t want others to do what I did.”

Although he lived in San Francisco for a while, he missed Kansas City. “I was a mess,” he says. “I needed my family. Life was kicking me in the ass.”

He found work managing bars at Ramada Inns. As a manager he always had a knack for finding the right people. In fact, he has a knack for ‘reading’ people. His first business was Mike’s Kitchen. He opened The Kon Tiki, The Dixie Bell, Mary’s Saloon and Grill, and in 1994, Missie B’s.

Some of his employees have made their careers working for him, through the time of the “gay cancer.”

“It was like a bad horror movie,” he says of the years AIDS ripped through the community. When he talks about how many people’s lives were swept away, his voice chokes. He shows a large group photo of friends and employees in his office. Out of 59 people smiling in rows for the camera, a third have died, most from AIDS, he said.

In the 1980s, it was a common scene that a man would come to one of his bars heaving with grief because a lover had just died of AIDS. Burnes and employees often would rush to the man’s apartment before the medical examiner arrived, gathering up all the unopened AIDS drugs. The medication was so expensive that many people couldn’t afford it.

“They kept the medication behind the bar for health care providers to give to people who needed it,” says Justin Suelter, who’s tended bar for Burnes.

Suelter witnessed many giving moments, and tells of his own experience. In 1983, Suelter was an unemployed, sad stranger who wandered into a little diner called Mike’s Kitchen. A Navy corpsman, he’d left the service without re-enlisting because he didn’t want to lie about who he was. He was caring for his sick father and was depressed about his own future.

He ordered a burger, and the grill cook brought it out. “You look a little sad, maybe down on your luck,” Suelter remembered the stranger saying. “The sandwich is on me.”

The man flipping burgers that night was Burnes, and the two men talked long into the night. Burnes later hired Suelter, who went on to work at The Dixie Bell and The Kon Tiki.

“One night, he came into the kitchen, grabbed four grocery bags and started filling them with food out of the cabinets,” Suelter says. “He told me there was this little old man down the street, disabled, sitting in his apartment with hardly nothing to eat. Mike was going to make sure he had food.”

When Suelter was diagnosed HIV positive, Burnes helped him accept it. Suelter, now a clinical assistant at the Kansas City Care Clinic, teaches patients who are newly infected how they can live with the disease.

“I’ve never met a man like Mike Burnes,” he says. “He’s the real deal.”

By 1:30 a.m. Saturday night, the audience at Missie B’s settles into its happy zone.

Two men holding hands, Paul McGraw, 32, of Shawnee, and his date, Josh Jameson, 30, of Kansas City, chuckle watching audience members place dollar bills into a drag queen’s foam-rubber bosom.

“This place is an island of genuineness, a haven for sincerity, an oasis of diversity in the metro,” says McGraw, who has been visiting the club for nine years. “I feel a lot safer here than in the Power and Light District.”

And then a shaved-bald customer, towering above most of the crowd, brushes past, waving a dollar bill.

This man is dressed in a clear shower curtain draped like a toga, cinched at the waist with silver duct tape. A tutu splays out underneath, covering his private parts in front. But every time he bends over, he moons the world.

He wears suntanned panty hose and on his feet are 6-inch clear platform boots. His eyes are in costume too: white contacts that only show black pupils.

Some people laugh at his appearance. Others stare. But the crowd parts for him like the Red Sea on “The Ten Commandments.” After handing his dollar to the drag queen on the floor, he heads outside for some fresh air.

“My name is Chuck Brackett, I’m 40 years old, and I identify as a trans,” he says, an abbreviation for transvestite. “I come here because here, the norm is redefined. I like to have fun with my look. People get too locked into what they should be instead of what they could be.”

Brackett of Mission wants the world to know that there is a whole range of gayness that straight crowds don’t realize. And he is not bothered at all by the bachelorettes “invading” a gay club.

“These lovely ladies getting married soon just want a place to be a little wild,” he says. “Unfortunately, some of us feel put out by that because we’ve been wounded and injured so much by the world. And some gay people feel they’re entitled to discriminate.”

He’s been scorned and shunned. Called a skinhead and worse. Been yelled at and disowned. He’s had years of therapy. He and his lover drove to Iowa to marry. He’s not a performer. Just a customer having fun.

But at Missie B’s he feels loved. Accepted. Here, he’s made true friendships.

“The world will be a whole lot better,” he says, “if we try to get to know one another, talk to each other and see beyond what we look like on the outside.”

And then a petite stranger approaches him and shyly asks if he would stand next to her for a photo.

“Of course,” he says. “What’s your name?”

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