PORTLAND, Maine — Another piece of the city’s post-pandemic puzzle is falling into place.
On Friday night, DJ Jay Tubbs will fire up his digital decks and, at 8:30 p.m. sharp, begin spinning tunes from the decadent decade of big hair and shoulder pads. Then the three lit dance floors in front of him will pulsate and flash with swirling bodies, desperate to strut and sway after 15 months of standing still.
With the virus on the loose in Maine, 80s night returns to Bubba’s Sulky Lounge in Portland.
Bubba’s is the only place in town dedicated to dance. Employees and customers are eager to pick up the pace. They agree that dozens of bodies, all dancing to the same tune, will be a shared experience marking the return of some sense of normalcy after a year of pandemic-induced isolation.
Employees and customers alike see it as a sign of hope for an unsecured future and a great example of something you didn’t know you’d miss until it was taken away from you.
“It’s time for people to start dancing again. It is now. Don’t wait,” said Christine Arsenault. “Who knows what will happen in six months.”
Arsenault ran the bar at Bubba’s for 14 years. She spent part of her unplanned year off working on a tree trimming crew and said she was happy to be back at her real job.
“Yeah, 100%,” Arsenault said. “My last shift was on Friday March 13th.
She said the phone was constantly ringing with people asking when Bubba would reopen.
“We’ve been checking the Facebook page for months,” Mike Simone said.
Simone and his wife Arielle Greenberg have been regulars since 2014, despite living in Belfast. The couple often make the trip south and make it a weekend, dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. They even hosted part of their wedding party at Bubba’s house.
They are definitely coming this weekend.
They love the diverse crowd, especially on the long Friday nights of the 80s, where the dancers bond over early Whitney Houston hits as well as near-forgotten new wave gems. It’s not uncommon, they said, to see both bikers and crocodile-wearing moms dancing to the same tunes.
Saturday nights feature more contemporary music but sport the same friendly crowds.
“We’re almost 50 and we’re not even close to the oldest people there,” Greenberg said. “It gives us hope for the future.”
For the slightly older set, 80s nights, the music is pure nostalgia, taking them back to their high school days. At the same time, dancing right next to them, young people in their twenties are grooving on what they call oldies.
“It’s 21 to 95 — literally. It’s so wide,” Tubbs said.
Tubbs is strict about his ’80s music, refusing to play tunes even from 1979 or 1990. ever got where people are on the floor, before the music starts, waiting to dance.
“Normally things don’t start until late,” he said. “Not here. They come hot to dance.
Tubbs said Bubba revelers come from all over. He met them from California, Texas, Montreal and even Australia.
“And every Saturday night, 25 bachelorette parties come through here,” Tubbs said. “That’s crazy.”
Arsenault said they often run the air conditioning in the winter because there was so much sweat and steam inside.
Besides dancing, Bubba’s is known for its funky interior. From the outside, it’s nothing special, just a low, gray building. Inside, it’s almost indescribable.
The floodlit dance floors from John Travolta’s era, revamped in the 70s, are a hit with the crowds. Besides, almost every inch of Bubba’s nearly windowless interior is filled with kitschy Americana and crazy flea market finds.
Collections of old lunch boxes, wall clocks and life-size stuffed animals abound. Along one wall is a line of antique cash registers. In the dark, it’s easy to mistake one of the many mannequins for a motionless customer. In the back, there is a small museum dedicated to Maine harness racing.
Several alcoves have been added to the building over the years just to house the weird stuff – and Bubba has collected plenty of them over the bar’s 61-year history.
Why, is a mystery. Owner Bubba Larkin does not give interviews or allow himself to be photographed. As mysterious as he is, Larkin is a real person and can sometimes be spotted around town with his dog, Marley.
Beyond the kitsch and newness of 80s nightlife, dancers like Simone and Greenberg return to get in touch with something even deeper – something they missed over the long year of pandemic isolation.
They seek connection through the deep human need to get lost in the blink of an eye.
“There’s something about being in a crowd of people, feeling the music and having it come out through your body,” Simone said.
“It’s that communal feeling of ecstasy,” she said. “We’ve been so much in our heads over the past year. It’s time to get back into our bodies – and Bubba is the best place on Earth. It is magic.