ManRay, once the heart of alternative nightlife in Cambridge, is rebornPlay
Saturday night at ManRay is packed for Heroes, an '80s new wave dance night. The crowd is multigenerational, bopping to Bowie under the glow of purple lights. They’re decked out in mesh shirts, 7-inch platform boots, and no shortage of leather harnesses.
This night has been a long time coming. ManRay was the heart of alternative nightlife in Cambridge throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. When it shuttered in 2005, it became the stuff of legend, a symbol of old weird Cambridge invoked whenever another treasured neighborhood club closed its doors. This month, it reopened (at a different location), after an 18-year hiatus.
Cody Publicover is one of the hundreds who donned their party clothes and descended on ManRay in its first week.
“I love ridiculous outfits,” Publicover says. “So I’m currently wearing a sloth, riding a Tyrannosaurus rex, shooting laser beams out of the eyes, while wearing floral pants.”
Just to be clear — it’s the T. rex, not the sloth, that’s shooting laser beams out of its eyes, and Publicover is the one wearing the floral pants, not the dinosaur. He’s a regular at Heroes. The long-running series started at the original ManRay, then migrated to different Central Square locations.
“Heroes is the most welcoming night to ever exist in the entire world,” he says. “Everyone is welcome to come and dance and cause chaos and be happy.”
Publicover is thrilled that Heroes has returned to the place of its birth — but the 32-year-old is too young to have ever danced at the original ManRay.
There are others here who do remember the old club, like security staff Jojo D'Chanel. He surveys the crowd from a corner near the bar, and recalls how he started out as a gogo dancer back in the ‘80s.
“It was kind of a novelty, and I would dress up in elaborate costumes,” he says. “My motto is: if it doesn’t fit, make it fit. If it fits, wear it.”
D'Chanel says when he heard ManRay was reopening, he jumped at the chance to work there again.
“I mean, I go out to nightclubs. I see more people on their phones than on the dance floor,” he says. “But look at tonight. Everyone’s on the dance floor.”
The ability to conjure a bygone era is a big part of ManRay’s draw. The original club was founded by Donald Holland at a spot on Brookline Street and served a largely queer clientele. It was the site of a popular Thursday series, Campus, billed as a night for “gay men and their friends.”
“For 23 years, my dad commanded Thursday nights,” says Cheryl Holland, Donald’s daughter. “Everybody went to Campus.”
Campus will return on Thursdays at the new ManRay — a boon for a town where queer nightlife has dwindled.
But the old ManRay wasn’t just a gay bar. On the club’s famed fetish nights, a dominatrix named Mistress Mimi presided over a play dungeon with whips and paddles.
The club also became a prime spot for goth, industrial and new wave music thanks to DJ Chris Ewen, who continued his popular nights at other clubs around town after ManRay closed. “We didn't disappear when ManRay disappeared. So the fact that we were there doing things was, I think, really important,” says Ewen, who will spin three nights a week at the resurrected ManRay.
The original club shuttered in 2005 to make way for apartments. Cheryl Holland says her dad tried to retire — but it didn’t really take.
“He's one of those people that cannot just sit still,” she says. “He's like, ‘I gotta open ManRay, I have to open ManRay. I just can't sit around. I’m going crazy.’”
Over the years, the Hollands tried and failed to resurrect the business in different places.
ManRay hostess and promoter Xtine Santackas says throughout this, the community was steadfast. A ManRay reunion at Paradise Rock Club sold out in 2015.
“At that point, we knew we couldn't let Donald and Cheryl give up hope,” Santackas says. “They had to find someplace. There was definitely a need for a new home.”
An opportunity arose when ImprovBoston closed its theater at 40 Prospect St. in 2020. The Hollands took over the space in 2021. They installed a wheelchair ramp, sprinklers, and brand new sound and light systems — and, of course, painted the interior black.
At long last, the ManRay crowd can come home to roost.
“This is where we kind of come to be ourselves,” says Santackas. "This is the place that we feel comfortable. This is our safe space.”
On Saturday, it feels like old times at ManRay — although, Santackas does kick one person out for vaping inside.
That’s a problem she didn’t have to deal with before. But the presence of the new is something ManRay will need to cultivate if it’s going to survive. With any luck, a new generation of diehards will carry the nightclub into the future.
This segment aired on January 27, 2023.