In Memoriam: Donny Thinnes

Chuck Tierney, Donny Thinnes, and Jack at the Norreh.

The dimly lit room is scattered with men in jeans with hankies poking out of their back pockets. They eye each other curiously, waiting for the right moment, sipping their drinks at the standing bar. The room is hazy with smoke; the chatter from upstairs leaks in, providing adequate background noise for a room that would otherwise be near silent. Two men catch each other’s eye, one tilts his head toward the back room, and the other begins walking slowly, but without hesitation. Soft music lilts in as the soft conversation resumes and everyone waits to see who will pair off next.

This is how I imagine the Norreh. The late Donny Thinnes’ bar was dubbed as more “serious” than the other gay bars of the 70s and 80s, known in part for its two-floor division with two very different bars existing on either floor. “Donny’s was famous for downstairs and its back room where it was dark, you could go downstairs, and then there was another bar and there were no seats, people just stood around. It was somewhat darker than upstairs, and then the back room through a little hall was even darker,” says Tim Ziaukas, a patron of the Norreh in the 1970s and a friend of Donny.

There was a time when the upper floor was a lesbian bar, “One of the few really women spaces in the city.” There was a time when the lower floor was a leather bar. There was a time when the upper floor was disco and art, and the lower floor was pool tables and games. “Norreh” is “Herron” spelled backward; the bar resided at 1226 Herron Avenue, and there were “a lot of inverted things happening at the Norreh.”

The Norreh was a late bar; it was the place to go after having heard the last call at every other gay bar in the city. You could party at Pegasus, The Eagle, The Holiday, and at the end of the night the Norreh would always be there waiting for you. “Was there ever last call at the Norreh, aside from the final one?”

The Norreh was initially branded as a social club, as many gay bars at the time were. Being licensed as a social club was a way for after-hours bars to operate somewhat under the radar and out of the eye of local law enforcement. This was essential during a time of police raids on gay bars and clubs. As for the bar owners, “You had to be both sweet and sour at the same time, you know, it took a rough, tough person to be in an illegal business.” The Norreh/D.B.’s/Donny’s Place had its doors open for about half a century, which not many other gay bars in the area can claim. As a social club, the Norreh offered membership cards to its patrons, which offered a sense of community to the regular attendees of the bar.

All kinds of events occurred at Donny’s Place: a Country and Western reunion, Halloween parties, Superbowl parties with All-You-Can-Eat dinners, and a fundraiser in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Motorcycle Club that gave teddy bears to children in the hospital over Christmas. Donny held toy drives and gave out free soft drinks to designated drivers. For their 20th anniversary celebration, there was “Something Special Everyday” for 20 days leading up to the anniversary. This included things like free pool and pinball, a free album from DJ Billy, and an open bar, free food, and gifts for everyone on the 20th day, October 13th, “All on Donny.” The bar was even presented with a Certificate of Merit in Public Health in 2001 for “outstanding service to the citizens of Allegheny County in the recent outbreak of Hepatitis A”!

Donny himself had been involved with Pittsburgh’s gay bar scene since the late 60s when he started working as a liquor runner for Lucky Johns, another giant in the world of local gay bars. “[Donny] has been a part of the business and a part of LGBTQ Pittsburgh since the Nixon administration.” According to Mr. Ziaukas, “He was funny too. Dark, edgy, um, uh… interesting.”

Aside from running the Norreh, Donny also helped establish the Pittsburgh Tavern Guild Association: a line of communication and collaboration between the gay bar owners in the city. The Tavern Guild was instrumental in helping to put on the yearly Memorial Day and Pride month picnics, as well as many other LGBTQ events across Pittsburgh. Donny and the Guild were also key in aiding the Pitt Men’s Study, a study dedicated to curing HIV/AIDS. At the time of the AIDS crisis, the Guild came together and allowed the study to set up places to give blood in the bars, massively increasing the reach and effectiveness of the study.

Donny had a reputation for taking care of those who lacked community. “He had a very generous spirit and was very kind and giving to many people, particularly many people who had little or nothing because of what it meant to be gay and out in the early 70s.” Like many of the bar owners of the time, Donny gave generously, and often anonymously to LGBTQ causes and organizations around the city. “There were a lot of gay and lesbian orphans in the 60s, 70s, people who really had no other family than the family they made in the community. And people like Donny did a lot of things for holidays with those people. You know, there were dinners and holiday gatherings. So I mean, he really was among the people who helped create a sense of community.”

Donny Thinnes passed away this year on January 20 after battling a myriad of health issues. He was 76 years old.

Silas Maxwell Switzer is a musician, poet, and history student who's dedicated to exploring and preserving the local queer history in Pittsburgh, PA, his lifelong home. In his effort to emulate the noble possum, Silas has taken to allowing himself to be coaxed out of his hiding spots by pieces of interesting trash, an interest which he calls "digital archiving." You can follow his work on his website, silasmaxwellswitzer.com.