• Industry

Docs: “Art and Pep” – A Moving Tribute to One of America’s Most Iconic Gay Bars

The documentary Art and Pep, directed by Mercedes Kane, received its world premiere during the 40th anniversary Outfest LGBTQIA+ film festival. At the heart of this film are Art Johnston and José Pepe Peña, two Chicagoans who have been involved in the city’s gay community and found themselves crucial figures in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, leading their local community in both activism and celebration for nearly fifty years.

Arthur Johnston, a teacher from New York who had just moved to Chicago to continue his educational career met José Pepe Peña, a young man who had just immigrated from Cuba in the 70s, at a Chicago bar. Pepe was a popular bartender there.


Together they learned all the ins and outs of bar culture and babbled on about how incredible it could be to launch a gay bar and provide a haven for many. So, when an opportunity came knocking, their lives took a drastic turn. Together, the two lovebirds started an exciting new path: they opened their own bar named Sidetrack.

When the popular Boystown’s bar first opened up, it was much incognito. It had no outdoor signs. It was windowless. The place would soon have homophobic spray-painted graffiti on the front door – it read ‘fag bar’.  However, their opening night was a triumph, for the story enlightens the viewer that Art and Pep end up having to borrow beer from a neighboring bar after they’d run out.

Sidetrack has thrived and became one of the most lively and inclusive LGBTQ+ people’s spaces; a home, that was dearly missed during the 2020 pandemic shutdown. Art and Pep highlights the prominence of Sidetrack, which as of today is one of the nation’s most significant queer bars; especially since it has sustained a community during the AIDS period and aided with activism fundraising. These soulful caring humans not only created local jobs but made sure that their numerous employees and associates would get a feeling of family, a sense of being part of a safe space around the bar. 

Many employees are featured and contribute interviews throughout the film. In one of the scenes, we get to witness the story of one barman who, with tears in his eyes, recalls that Art and Pepe offered to adopt him when his US citizenship application failed.

This Chicago iconic bar has become more luxurious with ever-expanding neon lights and huge screens where Musical theater came to be a specialty and where inspiring political messages stay on the forefront. During their interview with The Caftan Chronicles, Art and Pepe mentioned the songs blasting through the bar such as The Greatest Showman’s “This Is Me,” and classics like “All that Jazz” from ChicagoLiza Minnelli singing “Cabaret,” Streisand’s hit “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” “Those things never die,” they said in the interview.

When asked which clip gets played every time, the answer was: Madonna singing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Art added: “Our audience has developed their own lyrics to some of the songs. “Oklahoma!” is “Oklahomo!” And they’ll grab stacks of napkins and everyone will throw them in the air at a particular moment in the song. In the 1980s we were busy every night but Monday. So, we decided to try the musicals night. We never expected it to become a blockbuster. People even bring props that go with Wicked. It’s kind of a Rocky Horror sort of [participative] thing.”

The award-winning LGBTQ+ documentary Art and Pep is streaming on Peacock. It can also be purchased for educational and community screenings through Green Planet Films.