Dolly Parton mural to be displayed at Orange County queer nightclub

Dolly Parton Mural Gay Bar

On an exterior wall at Strut Bar and Club in Costa Mesa, artist David Gilmore creates a mural that will honor Dolly Parton and frontline workers. Photo: Strut Bar and Club.

Strut Bar and Club in Orange County will dedicate a huge mural on the outside of the club to frontline workers and Dolly Parton, who donated $1 million to help fund the development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, next month.

“I’m a gay man, but I was never an uber fan of Dolly while growing up,” said. Luke Nero, founder and CEO of the Costa Mesa queer nightclub. “I did research on her and was sold on how fantastic she is as a human being. When I learned she helped fund Moderna’s vaccine development, it solidified the choice. She represents all of us, Black, white, gay, straight, male, female.”

Long Beach artist David Gilmore, renowned for his murals and stylized painting, started working on the 50-foot-by-20-foot installation Feb. 12. The mural, a work in progress, is painted on the club wall facing Smart & Final. An unveiling of the finished work is scheduled for March 13.

Long Beach artist David Gilmore creates huge mural with queer eyes

Dolly Parton mural

“We are coming out of a very, very dark time. I wanted someone who represents the best of humanity,” Nero said. “Everybody has a connection to Dolly. She’s a queer icon, and she represents the best of America to its core.”

Text will be included on the mural that reads “Dedicated to the frontline workers” and lists the 20 people who donated money for the art piece.

Parton is represented as larger than life with her arms wide open. Once the piece is finished, she will be emerging from clouds, Nero said.

“That’s why I made Dolly look more ethereal and goddess-like,” Nero said. “She’s delivering the love and light for the frontline workers.”

Artist David Gilmore

Nero posted a message on social media in December looking for artists who wanted to paint the mural. About 50 artists applied, and Nero eventually selected Gilmore.

The two collaborated to bring Nero’s vision to life.

Gilmore, who identifies as gay, said the intention of his work is to be “inclusive.”

“Hopefully anyone, regardless of age or gender or race or identity, can see themselves in what I’m creating and know that we’re all in this together,” Gilmore said in a statement.

Strut nightclub

Strut has been temporarily shuttered by state and county health restrictions related to COVID-19 since March 15. Prior to the pandemic, Strut helped to fill the desert of queer bars and clubs in Orange County.

The building, at 719 W. 19th St., will probably look familiar to some people who love the nightlife. It was home to the gay bar Lion’s Den, which closed in 2015.

“I grew up in Sydney, Australia. Sydney is very gay friendly. My gay youth was fun, and celebratory,” Nero said.

“I was mortified the queer kids down here didn’t have anywhere to go,” Nero said. “That was my biggest motivation.”

At the time, The Tin Lizzie Saloon was the area’s only other queer watering hole, but it’s a dive bar, not club.

Strut is a glittering space with a ceiling of disco balls and plenty of neon. The club features themed nights, Sunday drag brunch, and DJs.

“We are an entertainment venue,” Nero said. “We are here to make people happy, have fun, help them forget their troubles.”

In June, Nero opened his second queer space, Donkey D’s, a dive bar just down the road from Strut. Nero said he hopes to next open a queer restaurant near the two bars. 

“I’m building a micro queer community,” he said.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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