Memphians make Eureka home, celebrate lives together
By Don Lee
When Lee Keating and Walter Burrell moved to Eureka Springs two and a half years ago, they were at the end of a long search for a piece of paradise.
"I hadn't been here since '78, and Lee had never been here," said Burrell. "We were looking for a B&B. We'd been to New Orleans, up into Canada and Massachusetts -- both were too far away from aging parents -- but everybody said 'You need to go to Eureka Springs.' The last thing I remembered about Eureka was church buses, so I thought 'We're never going to fit in,' but our friends told us we needed to go back, so we did."
Keating said they found exactly what they wanted in Eureka Springs. They own the Gilded Lily, a Victorian bed-and-breakfast on White Street in the Historic Loop, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"The Gilded Lily is 112 years old," Burrell said. "It was built by two brothers. The blue house next door and this house are on the same lot and are mirror images of each other. One brother built that one, one brother built this one. They lived here until 1905, when they sold the property to a woman named Harriet Graves, who installed her own sister into the blue house. They lived here until they died. We set a place for them at the table every morning."
Keating and Burrell also own Eureka Live! Underground & Patio on Main Street downtown.
"How did we come to own it?" Keating said. "We're raging alcoholics and we want a place to drink for free!" He howls with laughter. "Seriously, that was the first bar we frequented when we came here. We knew the previous owners. At one point we wanted to invest the rest of our money into something to keep Walter in Eureka, and they needed to sell, so we bought it."
Burrell had taught previously at the University of Memphis. "When we moved here, I couldn't find a teaching job within 50 miles," he said. "The first year I worked in Little Rock and commuted. Not so much fun."
Burrell and Keating say Eureka Live! has fulfilled all their expectations.
"I think one main thing that's making it successful is that we don't hesitate to tell visitors about other restaurants and bars," Keating said. "The town is only as strong as its weakest link, and tourists don't want to sit in one place all day. They want to experience Eureka. So we say, 'Hey, go to DeVito's, go to Henri's, there's great food up here at Ermilio's,' and really talk everybody up. So when they come back to our bar they say thank you. Now the other bars are playing with us.'
Of course, business ebbs and flows during the year, but Burrell doesn't see winter as a bad thing. "I think we need to quit thinking of Eureka as 'closed for winter,'" he said. "I mean, people go to Aspen for the winter."
"We're booked in winter at the B&B," Keating said, "and our bar is supported by locals and people who come here all year long. I understand people wanting to take a few weeks off, but a few months off? It hurts the town altogether, and then everybody complains we don't have any tourists."
23 years together
Burrell and Keating have been together for 23 years and were the first gay couple in the tri-state area to be married by a Baptist preacher.
"For me it was love at first sight, because I could tell he was a good man," said Keating. "I wanted to get to know him. I was working as a dancer on cruise ships. I decided I wasn't going to do that any more. I wanted to settle down in a relationship. So I went on my last cruise and quit that job."
Burrell put Keating through school and then he did the same so Burrell could become a teacher.
"We just never looked back," Keating said. "Neither of us ever tried to make the other person change. We each wanted the other to excel as best he could.'
"We've had our ups and downs like everyone else," said Burrell, "but we work through our problems. Jut like everyone else."
Both men say one thing that sets Eureka apart for them is the crime rate.
"We looked in New Orleans," Burrell said. "The crime rate there was just as bad as Memphis."
Naturally, Eureka's reputation as a diverse community plays a big part in their satisfaction, but they don't see the word "diversity" as a synonym for the word "gay."
Not a 'gay community'
"We really didn't want to live in a 'gay community,'" Burrell said. "We like being in a community where everyone is together, not segregated."
"We don't own a 'gay' bar," Keating added. "When we first opened it, people asked if we were going to open a gay bar, and I said, 'Do you ask straight people that same question? Oh, are you going to open up a straight bar?' We are the most diverse bar in Eureka, that's true. And we are proudly gay-owned."
"A gay bar is like a black church and a white church," Burrell said. "We don't like segregation. The whole point is to get everybody together. On any given night you've got bikers and gays and drag queens at the bar, all having a good time."
Keating said he is encouraged by the Diversity efforts in the community. "I think it's gotten better because we're trying to organize more education, more things to do," he said. "But then again, we're fought tooth and nail by certain political people who want this to be a little sleepy town where nothing ever happens. And these people have never been to our bar to see what it is they're condemning."
"Diversity means everybody," Burrell said. "Native Americans, African-American culture, everything. We need to really be diverse."
As for giving advice to those thinking of moving to and investing in Eureka Springs, both men had advice.
"Come visit first and do your homework," Keating said. "We visited three times and just kept our mouths shut and listened. It paid off."
Burrell is more succinct. "And get a job," he adds, and laughs.