Your NPR news source
Curious City Executive Sweet thumb

A collection of Executive Sweet party flyers from the 1980s and ‘90s. Photo, from back left: Pat McCombs, Pam Terrell, Sheron Webb and Vera Washington (front center), the past and present organizers of Executive Sweet. All flyers and photo courtesy Vera Washington.

Traveling parties are part of a queer Chicago culture of partying as resistance

Pat McCombs was in her twenties when she started dropping in at CK’s, a bar in the Lake View area on Chicago’s North Side.

At the time, McCombs was living on the South Side, but she often made trips north to visit lesbian bars.

CK’s is no longer around, but this was 1974 and the bar — at 1425 W. Diversey Parkway — was a lively, popular place.

It wasn’t long before McCombs started to notice that Black women, herself included, were treated differently than white patrons at CK’s. McCombs was there with a friend who, after presenting her driver’s license, was asked to show an additional form of identification. “They asked her for a green card,” McCombs recalled. “And during that time, green cards were public aid identification cards. I got angry about it because I don't know why you make the assumption that all Black people are on public aid.”

 McCombs wasn’t the only one who experienced the bar’s treatment of Black women. In the April 1975 issue of Lavender Woman, a Chicago-based lesbian newspaper, a woman named Loretta Mears was quoted as saying a CK’s bouncer asked her for five different forms of ID on one occasion the previous year. The bouncer reportedly said he “had trouble with some Black women in the bar once” when asked about his discriminatory behavior.

To McCombs, it felt clear that the ever-changing rules around identification, unequally applied to Black women, were part of an effort by CK’s to keep the number of Black women at the bar to a minimum. “I got mad and I said, ‘We gotta do something about it,’” she recalled.

So McCombs organized a protest in front of CK’s. The large group gathered outside the building carried signs, she remembers, and asked people to boycott the bar.

It wasn’t just CK’s they saw as a problem. McCombs created the Black Lesbian Discrimination Investigation Committee — a formal name for an informal group that would take notes when they visited white-owned lesbian bars. They reported bars with discriminatory practices to the Illinois Liquor Control Commission.

Eventually, the owner of CK’s was charged with “inconsistent ID checking standards” by the Liquor Control Commission. The charges were later dropped, according to the December 1975 issue of Lavender Woman, in an agreement in which the owner of CK’s admitted to discrimination but promised to clearly post the bar’s identification policy and stick to it.

McCombs felt the response didn’t go far enough. So when she heard rumblings about a group of Black lesbians starting their own space, she was excited to get involved. “That was right up my alley,” McCombs said.

“Come and meet me at the Executive Sweet…”

One morning in the late 1970s, Sheron Webb woke up with a start.

For years, the DJ from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood had been searching for spaces in the city where Black lesbians could gather. Like McCombs, Webb had long believed racism at majority-white lesbian bars like CK’s was a problem, and she’d been thinking for a while about starting a space of her own. A place centered on — but not exclusively for — Black lesbians.

But she needed a name. And it had arrived in a dream. That’s what woke her. A voice spoke to her, she said, with these words: “Come and meet me at the Executive Sweet, where women are discreet.”

 Webb had been DJ-ing since she was in high school. But she spent most of her time DJ-ing for people outside of her community. She longed to lend her talents to a place or party with other Black queer women.

Webb knew McCombs from McCombs’ work organizing parties for gay men and lesbians on the South Side, at places like the Roberts Motel on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. “I liked her personality,” Webb recalled of McCombs. “And since I was a DJ, I needed someone who could be at the door, greeting people — who could really host.”

Webb also connected with a woman named Pam Terrell, who worked in sales and was familiar with venues around the city. The three decided to collaborate on a series of parties. Terrell was in charge of finding venues for their events, Webb was the DJ and McCombs was the primary party promoter and hostess, according to Webb. Most of their parties cost around five dollars to get in.

At the first Executive Sweet party, which took place around 1979 in Old Town, about 100 people showed up, Webb said.

Initially, they didn’t make clear to bar owners why exactly they wanted to rent the place. As McCombs recalled, they showed up in skirt suits and briefcases and asked to speak to the owners. “At first we told them we were sororities and that we wanted to party,” McCombs said with a laugh. “Because we didn't want to say lesbians.”

The trio found a few reliable venues and threw parties three days a week. On Wednesdays, Webb and McCombs said, they held parties at a venue called El Panama on the South Side (72nd and Stony Island); on Fridays at a place called the Factory on Sheffield Avenue on the North Side; and on Sundays at Galaxy in River North, which McCombs said later became the site of the Rock N Roll McDonald’s.

According to McCombs, they held an Executive Sweet party at Galaxy on the night before it closed to make way for the McDonald’s in the early 1980s.

“We used to rent it on Sundays, from six to midnight,” she explained. “They told us we had to be out at 12 AM.” But McCombs said Executive Sweet partygoers were having such a good time that night, they kept dancing past midnight. “When 12 hit, those men came in and started taking out the booths,” McCombs continued, laughing. “They were tearing the place down as we were still in it."

Pretty soon, the group had no trouble getting 1,000 people over the course of a night, Webb said. “It was like that movie, Field of Dreams. ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

Themed attire, raffles and “house music, baby”

McCombs said that from the earliest days of Executive Sweet, the parties were about more than just having a good time. They were about building relationships. They often had activities designed to help women meet one another — for instance, at some parties, each person was given a sticker with a number as she walked in the door, and had to seek out the person with the same number. Plus, there was food, raffles and themed attire — including parties where everyone wore white-colored clothing. “When we had those parties, no one would dare not to come in white,” said Webb, laughing.

They welcomed everyone, but they went out of their way to create space for Black lesbians in particular. “Some gay guys, they would follow us,” McCombs said. “But for the most part, we tried to attract women.”

Partygoers traveled from all parts of Chicago to Executive Sweet events. As they moved around to different venues, the organizers often looked for spaces that were easy to get to, no matter where someone was coming from.

“We thought a lot about safety,” McCombs recalled. “We tried to make [the parties] as close to transportation as possible. And most of the time, we got a place with a parking lot.”

Different locations brought different concerns around who in their community could be most vulnerable. For example, if there was a parking lot that didn’t have great lighting, McCombs said partygoers would walk each other to their cars at the end of the night. “Usually some of the butchier women would help with that," she said. But in other contexts, butch women and gender-nonconforming people were the most at-risk. “They used to be harassed a lot on public transit,” McCombs recalled. “So you just had to think about that. There were some neighborhoods that we would not go to.”

Webb, who started out DJ-ing Motown and disco, said she got into house music in the early 1980s after meeting Frankie Knuckles. After that, disco and house music were regular sounds at Executive Sweet parties.

“It was kind of like when you see your child growing up,” Webb said of seeing Executive Sweet take off. “I was so excited that this dream that I had— that I looked out into the world I was part of, and I could give something to them.”

A new era: Pat and Vera

Then, around 1982, the original trio — McCombs, Webb and Terrell — fell apart. As often happens when a group of people comes together to organize something, they splintered over different visions of what they wanted Executive Sweet to be.

Terrell, who had moved to Chicago from the South, left the city. Webb went on to organize events at a number of different venues, focusing more on live entertainment.

After they parted ways, McCombs decided to throw one last party on her own. She called it “The Associates.” She said she didn’t know what would happen, but she wanted at least 150 people there. So she gathered 10 of her friends, made them brightly colored sashes, handed them printed invitations and asked them to sell 15 tickets each.

One of the people McCombs asked to help her sell tickets was Vera Washington, who lived on the North Side at the time. Washington sold so many tickets McCombs realized they could keep throwing parties together. “I said, ‘Girl, you’d make a great partner,’” McCombs recalled.

So from around 1982 on, Executive Sweet continued with McCombs and Washington at the helm. The duo held parties about once a month. And they took back the name Executive Sweet — something that was a sore spot for Webb initially. “At the time I regretted not copyrighting the name,” Webb said. “Now that’s all in the past.”

They had annual boat parties on Lake Michigan throughout the 1980s and ’90s and spent time at more venues over the years — including Lucky’s, Paradome and La Borsa — than they can count.

The party isn’t over

McCombs and Washington continued throwing regular parties until the mid-2000s. The schedule became more sporadic after that, and they held their most recent Executive Sweet party in 2017.

 These days, McCombs, Webb and Washington all say they enjoy going to Nobody’s Darling, which opened last year. And McCombs has been known to go to traveling parties hosted by groups like smallWORLD Collective — part of a younger generation following in her footsteps.

McCombs and Washington went on hiatus after the COVID pandemic began, but they said it’s just a matter of time until Executive Sweet returns.

“I like to think we had the cream of the crop parties,” Washington said. 

“Women today still inbox us, ‘Hey Pat, how you doing? When are you gonna have your next party?’”

Thank you to listener Marina Silva who asked the question that inspired this story.

Thank you to Jen Dentel at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives for help sourcing archival newspaper articles about CK's bar.

Maggie Sivit is Curious City’s digital and engagement producer. Follow her @magisiv

Ari Mejia is Vocalo’s audio and community storytelling producer. Follow her @Ari_el_Mejia

More From This Show
Chicago’s geological history stretches back more than 400 million years. The region was once an underwater reef and, later, covered in ice.
Native Americans have always lived in Chicago, but in the mid-20th century they established a cultural enclave in Uptown, anchored by community centers and social connections.