Covered in drops of sweat, paint and at least a small amount of blood, the couple can’t help but smile while they talk about building the bar around them.
No, it’s not just a bar. It’s a “gay piano bar.”
And it’s not just a place to grab a glass of Prosecco on tap. It’s a place to feel safe and loved, no matter who you love, and free to sing along to whatever tune is coming from the piano.
At least that’s the goal.
Business partners and boyfriends Josh Franklin, a Colorado Springs native, and John Wolfe, who grew up in West Virginia, are used to being on Broadway stages and touring theaters across the country. But they’ve (mostly) paused their jobs in the arts to open Icons, what they’re emphasizing as the downtown area’s only food and beverage establishment designed and geared toward the LGBTQIA community.
A grand opening is planned for Friday.
During tough days of renovating the space at 3 E. Bijou St., formerly Bella’s Bakery, Franklin doesn’t forget why he’s building this.
And why he’s doing this here, in a town that was not always kind to a teenager bold enough to come out in high school in the 1990s.
There was the homophobic slur spray-painted on his car, found after homecoming his senior year. There were harsh chants — “Josh is gay!” — during his marching band performances.
“You know,” he says now. “Kids can be mean.”
Back then, the cruelty was heavy. Staying in Colorado Springs felt impossible for Franklin. So he left. With big dreams of acting and of being accepted, he moved to New York City. He stayed for the next 18 years, appearing in Broadway shows like “Grease,” “Legally Blonde” and “Ghost.” He’s also recorded two albums of original music.
As those dreams were coming true, Franklin met a boy who loved to dance. They both had dogs. They both had big dreams. There was an instant connection.
They told each other their stories. Franklin shared about his hometown, which kind of sounded like Wolfe’s time in college in Utah.
“My sexuality was found out,” Wolfe said. “And I wasn’t able to go there anymore.”
When it was time to bring Wolfe home to meet his family about five years ago, Franklin set low expectations for Colorado Springs.
“I think anybody going back to their hometown is going to have a certain perspective,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe, on the other hand, saw something else.
“My impression was this was going to be the next best thing,” he said.
Franklin’s mind started to change, too.
“His fresh eyes on Colorado Springs got me excited,” he said. “I could see the growth and the momentum.”
They bought a house here and rented it out while continuing to tour and work in New York.
After Franklin performed in a show on New Year’s Eve in 2019 with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, the couple decided to finally stay for a while in the house they bought.
“I knew I could make a bigger difference in Colorado Springs than I ever could in New York,” Franklin said. “And it would mean more.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic halted their theater commitments, leaving time to come up with new dreams. They thought of all the cities smaller than Colorado Springs they’d visited and what was missing here.
“We couldn’t believe there still wasn’t a gay bar downtown,” Franklin said, adding that it can send the message that this community doesn’t embrace LGBTQ people.
As he points out, there are “gay friendly” bars in town. And Club Q, a gay bar located on North Academy Boulevard, offers more of a club vibe compared to the mellow feel the owners of Icons are going for.
The 2,100-square foot space will lean into the theme of “queer icons,” says Franklin. There will be a 7-foot painting of Dorothy’s red slippers and a wall of black-and-white portraits of faces who have influenced the LGBTQ community. Local artist Molly McClure was commissioned to paint vibrant murals of stars like Nina Simone and Lady Gaga.
The menu will offer themed cocktails like the “Ricky Martini” alongside food items such as “over the top hot dogs.” There will often be live music in one form or another.
“Bartenders will make you a drink and then sing to you,” Franklin said. “And if they’re too busy, we’ll sing something for you on the piano.”
Both Franklin and Wolfe plan on regularly lending their performing skills at the bar.
Since moving back here, Franklin says he feels Colorado Springs is a “loving place to live.”
The couple hopes Icons adds to that.
“Being part of Icons … means offering hope to LGBTQIA youth and adults for a life outside of the shadows, proud of our struggles and our demand for acceptance,” they wrote on a GoFundMe campaign for the bar. “Something little Josh had only dreamt about growing up in this beautiful town.”