As a 17-year-old Chamblee High School student in 2003, Angela Vara still vividly remembers being invited by her Aunt Vicki Vara to ride atop the Backstreet Atlanta float in the city’s Pride parade. “I remember coming down Peachtree Street and seeing a sea of people wearing pride clothing and holding rainbow flags,” Vara recalls. “I was nervous but very excited. It was a moment I’ll never forget. I remember thinking, ‘I’m not weird, I’m not alone.’ That was the day I started to feel comfortable with who I was.”
Now, just in time for the gift-giving season, Vara, along with her Atlanta artist wife Claire Zimmerman are paying to tribute to Atlanta’s beloved 24-hour gay disco via a new handcrafted Backstreet holiday ornament. Angela is the daughter of former Backstreet co-owner John Vara, who operated the club with his siblings Vicki and Henry and his wife and Angela’s mother Bianca. From 1975 to 2004, the Vara family oversaw the beloved “Studio 54 of the South” until the club’s increasingly gentrified and residential Midtown neighborhood forced the sprawling, three-floor 10,000 square foot 24/7 dance emporium at 845 Peachtree Street to shutter forever. Now, 19 years after the club’s demise, Angela Vara wants to rekindle the city’s nearly five-decade love of all things Backstreet.
While Vara and Zimmerman are both too young to have ever stepped foot inside the venerable Atlanta 24-hour nightspot (where clubgoers from all backgrounds routinely ended up at 4 am after the other bars in town shut down for the evening), they’re committed to keeping the club’s legacy alive via Zimmerman’s ZPotteryATL online Etsy shop.
“Seeing how proud and excited Angela got telling me about the club’s history, I knew it was something special,” says Zimmerman, who is a DeKalb County school art teacher. “That’s when I realized, this was something bigger than all of us. The whole Vara family is very proud of this. Backstreet shouldn’t be lost or forgotten. We want that Backstreet sparkle to shine still!”
The couple first realized the enduring impact of the club in August 2022 while searching for something to wear to the Atlanta History Center’s “History After Hours” disco ball dance party celebrating Backstreet (where the nightclub’s massive mirrored spinning sphere now permanently resides). Vara discovered some old Backstreet T-shirts at her family’s home. So Vara and Zimmerman wore them to the event — and were immediately mobbed by a packed dance floor of former Backstreet club kids asking where they could purchase one.
An entrepreneurial idea was born. So Vara went to her father John and aunt Vicki to ask their permission to reincorporate the Backstreet Atlanta brand name. They immediately gave her their blessing. Last summer, using the original shirt’s logo and “Always Open and Pouring!” slogan, Zimmerman and Vara debuted brand-new Backstreet shirts in her Etsy store.
Says Zimmerman: “When those sold like hotcakes, we realized, ‘This isn’t just a T-shirt to people. This is a memory.’” Working as a ceramics artist since college, Zimmerman then fired up the idea of creating new original handcrafted clay ornaments.
“The holiday season always presents the challenge of how do we do meaningful shopping,” says Zimmerman. “I always want to encourage thoughtful handmade quality gift-giving. But I didn’t want the ornaments to be specifically holiday themed. This could be something you hang at your kitchen window. We wanted to create a memento, a keepsake that isn’t just for one part of the year. It was a way of partnering with Angela to highlight Backstreet’s legacy while doing something I love.” Angela (who like her wife, is also a DeKalb County teacher), has now become handy with a pottery firing kiln as well. “I’ve become a part of the creative process,” says Vara. “I refer to myself as Claire’s studio assistant. She’s shown me how to stamp into the clay and how to glaze.”
After a kiln malfunction delayed production of the ornaments for six weeks earlier in the year, Zimmerman and Vara are currently in production overdrive with 70 Backstreet ornaments in various colors about to go on sale. The couple is also considering adding tank tops and ceramic coffee mugs to the Backstreet Atlanta product line in the near future.
“Backstreet was a place like none other,” says Vara. “I’m very proud that my family opened it in 1975 and ran it for 30 years. Backstreet became a huge place of acceptance for LGBTQ people, a place where they felt safe. It was also a place where everyone was welcomed. It’s a huge part of Atlanta’s gay history as well as Atlanta history. The club brought people together from all over the South and all over the country. Since it’s been gone for so long now, by doing this, we wanted to give back a piece of Backstreet to people.”
Adds Zimmerman: “A nightclub space like Backstreet, where people from all backgrounds come together doesn’t exist anymore. It’s nice to be able to help someone I love and care about continue her family’s legacy.”
As word quickly spreads online about the new Backstreet line of holiday ornaments, Vara and Zimmerman are nervous but excited as they brace to fulfill holiday orders. Says Vara: “Even at the school where we work, people tell me all the time, gay and straight alike, ‘I used to go Backstreet. I loved that place! Thank you!’ I tell them, ‘I had nothing to do with it but on behalf of my family, you’re welcome.’ That’s our main goal with this — to give that feeling back to people who remember and still love Backstreet.”
To shop for the new Backstreet holiday ornaments and line of T-shirts, go to the Z Pottery Etsy store.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.