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From Newsstand Studios at Rockefeller Center: Sundays at Café Tabac

By Lea GoldmanApr 5 2021
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When it comes to legendary broadcast spaces, nothing quite compares to Rockefeller Center, home of NBC’s Today, Saturday Night Live, and countless other iconic programs. And now it welcomes a new generation of content creators with Newsstand Studios at Rockefeller Center, a premier podcast studio located in the 1 Rockefeller Plaza lobby. Built out of a retrofitted 40s-era newsstand formerly filled with wooden magazine racks, it’s now kitted out with state-of-the-art equipment helmed by in-house engineer Joe Hazan, formerly of East Village Radio and Red Bull Radio. The studio’s mission: to give voice to bold storytelling, told through a decidedly New York City lens.

Today Newsstand Studios at Rockefeller Center is a nexus for a diverse and growing community of homegrown podcasts tackling everything from New York’s DJ scene to surfing in Rockaway Beach: “Rave to the Grave” featuring Vivian Host, “Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab” featuring Elaine Gan, “Sundays at Café Tabac” featuring Wanda Acosta and Karen Song, “The Refined Collective Podcast” featuring Kat Harris, “Swell Season” featuring Wax Radio, “Don't Tease The Animals” featuring Pamela Riley and Sarah Armstrong-Brown, “Working Wife, Happy Life!” featuring Bethanie Baynes, and “Magical Moments with JILL LINDSEY” featuring Jill Lindsey.

Hosted by LGBTQ+ nightlife icon Wanda Acosta and Karen Song, “Sundays at Café Tabac” spotlights riveting “coming out stories.” The podcast is an extension of their documentary film of the same name, about the legendary Sunday night salon series for lesbians, which took place at Café Tabac in downtown New York City from 1993 to 1995. The Center Magazine talked to Wanda Acosta and Karen Song about their podcast, documentary, and the original, legendary Sundays at Café Tabac, a milestone for the city and pop culture.

You record the Sundays at Café Tabac podcast in Newsstand Studios at Rockefeller Center. How did you connect to that space?

KAREN SONG: [Rockefeller Center owner] Tishman Speyer reached out to us. They were looking for podcasts that underscored their commitment to New York City narratives. And since our project celebrates a unique community that reflects the greatness of our city, it was a no-brainer. Women being seen and heard, daring to take up space and filling it with beauty, lives at the heart of our project. So coming to Rockefeller Center, with its prominence in broadcast history and [being] synonymous with iconic New York, it’s like coming full circle.

Tell us a bit about the original Sundays at Café Tabac. What made it such a memorable New York event?

KS: Wanda Acosta and Sharee Nash created Sundays at Café Tabac as a place where queer women came to hang out and meet other women—there was nothing like it at the time.

WANDA ACOSTA: You could have cocktails, dinner, conversation, and dance, in such a casual yet elevated environment, with phenomenal music curated by Sharee, unique to lesbian spaces then.

KS: It took the downtown lesbian scene by storm, becoming a destination for New York creatives, many in fashion, and a diverse group of lesbians, also rare at the time. And word of it traveled around the globe and made headlines in the media. Wanda has since become well established as an LGBTQ nightlife icon for her many subsequent parties and establishments.

“Women being seen and heard, daring to take up space and filling it with beauty, lives at the heart of our project.”
—Karen Song

Tell me about the cultural forces that came together to make Sundays at Café Tabac such a singular moment. Why didn’t it happen five years earlier or five years later?

KS: At that time, it was an exciting moment of unprecedented lesbian visibility in the mainstream—whether it was Madonna at her peak, always photographed with a lesbian or exploring her own sexuality. Or “celesbians” coming out publicly, making headlines. Lesbians on primetime television, on runways, in major ads, winning Grammys, and who could forget that Vanity Fair cover with K.D. Lang and Cindy Crawford.

WA: I was in my early thirties and had been out, but I was trying to be social with like-minded women. I couldn’t find a space that reflected who I was. The lesbian or queer spaces that were around were indicative of the stereotypes of lesbians. But people were feeling differently. They wanted to dress up, to redefine what it looked like to be queer. So I convinced the owners of Café Tabac to give me Sunday night—their slowest night. This was pre-internet, pre-cell phones, pre-whatever. We called a bunch of friends and just went through their black books. I printed these little flyers and handed them out to everyone I knew. And we packed the place that first Sunday night! The owner was like: “This is amazing!” I’ve never seen so many women in one room! It was such powerful energy, and it just blew up from there.

KS: Greenwich Village was still a haven for artists and gays, with lesbian nightlife thriving. And the boldness in which the women carried themselves, reflected this defiant and creative energy coming out against twelve years of Reagan and Bush—of feminist and LGBTQ activism. The latter was revved up by the AIDS movement, and there was this need for our community to come together, not only in protest and mourning, but also in celebration.

I feel like you rarely hear about lesbians when we talk about AIDS. How did AIDS influence what was happening in your community and at Sundays at Café Tabac?

WA: This is another reason we want to do this film—because there’s an invisibility of lesbian women in the story of AIDS. And while of course men deserve to be heard, gay women were a part of that devastation, too. Lesbians were caretakers. They were activists. For good or bad, they were put into positions of power because so many gay men had died. There was a level of empowerment that came because of that. And we saw this shift at Café Tabac, how women were representing, how they were dressing, how they were owning themselves.

KS: The women at the forefront of AIDS activism were absolutely integral to the articulation of its connection to the larger Gay Liberation Movement, and it really progressed and unified the movement, which was, before, gender segregated. Creativity was also really crucial to the efficacy of the movement, which resulted in this acceleration towards equal rights. In this climate of AIDS, there was what felt like a moral mandate to “come out.” LGBTQ visibility was a matter of life and death. And that visibility synched with the need for lesbian visibility within the movement. It led to this daring, expanded expression for women, which found its stage at Café Tabac. It was breathtaking.

How did you two come together and decide to make this documentary and podcast?

KS: Café Tabac was my coming of age. And every subsequent queer space created by Wanda has played a crucial role in the development of my queer identity, not to mention this invaluable friendship with Wanda nurtured now over decades. Her critical role in our community cannot be overstated, especially in light of today’s near-extinction of lesbian bars because of gentrification, online dating, and, ironically, increased acceptance of lesbians in society. We wanted to honor this idea of lesbian spaces, Wanda’s legacy, the tight community of friends Tabac spawned, and the incredible women who came out of it who changed the world. We also saw the crucial role of telling our own stories to fill the void of lesbian history.

WA: I’ve never been to a place that had that feeling of not only community, but of love, of fierceness, a sincere, genuine, warm, comforting space where you could walk in by yourself, sit at a table of strangers, start a conversation with a group of amazingly creative and diverse women and remain friends for 30 years from that one night. We didn't have an idea in our head that this was going to be any kind of documentary. We just wanted to start interviewing the patrons that were there to ask them, “What was it about that night that you’re still talking about it all these years later?”

How does the Sundays at Café Tabac podcast connect to the documentary?

WA: We’ve been working on the documentary for the past six years, but the podcast idea started during Covid. We’d interviewed 60-plus people by then, and there were so many conversations we couldn’t include in the documentary. Some of these were coming out stories that were just so amazing—emotional, funny, brutal. And we wanted to keep the momentum going and share these stories of hope and liberation. I’d considered doing a virtual event for Pride, but decided to launch the podcast instead.

The podcast is really remarkable in that all the episodes are coming out stories and yet they all feel so, so different.

KS: Yes! What we found was that the specificity of the details reflects different time periods, religions, and cultures and ways of thinking. I love discovering different ways queerness is articulated. But when it comes down to it, these are authentic stories about familial acceptance and owning who you are.

WA: It’s so powerful and universal, and we hope people outside our community listen to it. They are all so uniquely personal and ultimately about expressing and finding your true self despite societal, cultural, and familial boundaries. Some parents have learned and related to these stories as they navigate through their own journey as parents to LGBTQ kids.

Newsstand Studios at Rockefeller Center is located at 1 Rockefeller Plaza. Stay tuned for more podcasts spotlighting New York stories and storytellers.

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