Party with a purpose

by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – It’s about community.

Studio 13, a gay night club at 13 S. Linn St. in downtown Iowa City, has for four years closed its doors on Monday nights only to open them right up again for award-winning private dance parties. The guest list is highly selective; if you’re not part of this group, you can’t get in.

“We pretty consistently get 30 to 50 people a week,” said Matt Strabala, Studio 13’s general manager. “We have people drive as far as Williamsburg and Washington. People get excited about it.”

The dance parties are open to anyone with special needs and are a favorite of clients from Systems Unlimited, REM-Iowa, other organizations and those under individualized care. Studio 13’s work earned the business a Community Advocacy Award from Systems Unlimited, which is given to businesses that promote participation with people with disabilities.

“There’re not always a lot of social opportunities for people with disabilities out there,” said Megan McCannon, community resource coordinator with Systems. “There’re some really great programs in the area like Special Olympics and things like that but this is just strictly a place to go have fun and socialize.”

Two area residents who have since moved away came up with the idea for Studio 13 to host the parties.

“They got the ball rolling here on Mondays and they came to us with the idea that people need a place to feel normal and a sense of community in a place that’s not a cold, sterile environment but a place where they can do all the things that regular people do,” Mr. Strabala said.

A $3 cover charge pays for Studio 13’s soda costs. Pizza Pit donates pizza every week and once a month, like June 7, Gemini Karaoke donates its time and equipment for karaoke night.

“It’s been a really interesting sense of their community and our community,” he said. “Everybody’s kind of gotten wind of the idea.”

There are special events around the holidays, such as a costume contest at Halloween.

“We’ll try to do what we can to make it not just another Monday night,” Mr. Strabala said. “It’s hard because some of them are diabetic so you can’t have cookies and candy. You can’t have it that they can’t have any but everyone else can.”

Even without the cookies, Studio 13 offers something few other places can for people with special needs.

“The people who we serve, not only do they have the expense of themselves for a movie, they have to pay for the staff as well. Most places don’t let the staff come in for free,” Ms. McCannon said. “And also it’s like a dating opportunity, because people with disabilities don’t have the same type of dating opportunities that the general public does normally. So this is a really good place for them to go and find other people they’re interested in dating as well and for friendship.”

Music ranges from Dolly Parton and Elvis to Missy Elliott and Sierra on most dance party nights.

“We kind of feel it out, see what they respond to, see what they like, what they don’t like,” Mr. Strabala said. “We go from hip hop and rap to country we do whatever keeps them going.”

He welcomes the break from the regular work shift.

“It really is very rewarding. We have a really good time,” he said. “I’m here like 70 hours a week but it doesn’t feel like work to me because I’m here in a much different capacity. And I get to be with individuals whom I choose to be with. It’s only once a week, but I cherish my time with them.”

Studio 13 has not planned any changes now that the bar entry age has gone to 21-and-older after 10 p.m. in Iowa City

“I feel bad. Our drag shows are really big in the gay community and now we can’t offer that to our underage patrons,” Mr. Strabala said. “If there is really a need or want or desire we may choose to move that up to 9 p.m., so they can see an hour of the show, but at this point, we don’t plan to make any changes. We’re just waiting to see what happens.”

When he came to Iowa City for college, the 19-and-older bar entry age made all the difference to Mr. Strabala, he said.

“Growing up in a small town, when I came here, it was like, ‘Oh my god, this is awesome.’ It gave me a huge sense of community,” he said. “Without the people I met here (at Studio 13) I don’t know what my life would have been like.”