11/17/1938 – 9/6/2020
Joe Redburn, the owner of several Salt lake City LGBT clubs over the years starting with the Sun Tavern in the 70s, died of natural causes Sunday, Sept. 6. He died at the Intermountain Medical Center after being found unresponsive at the South Salt Lake Men’s Resource Center homeless shelter. He was 81 years old.
Redburn bought the Railroad Exchange Saloon on the corner of 400 West and South Temple and opened the Sun Tavern as a gay bar on Feb. 20, 1973.
“We opened at noon on that day in 1973. I’d never done it before. We were all scared,” Redburn said in an interview with QSaltLake Magazine‘s JoSelle Vanderhooft in 2008. “The Sun Tavern had been the Railroad Exchange, and I found it because that’s where the anti-war people hung out. It was owned by a former Pittsburgh Steeler, and they had a sign outside – it was a Pepsi sign that said Railroad Exchange. And I changed it to say The Sun Tavern. I can remember a guy who had a bar just south who said, ‘You can’t do that! The gay bars can’t have signs!’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna do it, anyway.’ That’s what got me, how oppressed this community was. We were oppressing ourselves. We didn’t think we could put a sign in front of a gay bar.”
“I named it after the Midnight Sun in San Francisco,” he said.
“When we got the old Sun, I think we put the first sound system in for a DJ in Salt Lake,” Redburn said. “I’ve never just catered to the gay community, everyone was welcome. So we had a lot of straight people that liked it, especially when we put in the sound system.”
In the next few years, he leased an adjoining space and called it the East Room, which was arguably the first LGBT community center in the state.
In 1977, Redburn hosted what many call Utah’s first Gay Pride — a kegger on the shores of the Great Salt Lake known as Bare Ass Beach. The next year it was held up City Creek Canyon.
“We started having keggers up the canyon, and that kinda started everybody thinking – since Gay Pride was getting started around the country – that we should do more,” Redburn said in the interview. “And then other people kind of got involved so we started having another at Fairmont Park with a couple of hundred people. And that probably launched Pride out of the old Sun. Then it evolved into what it is today.”
When the then-Delta Center was built at that location, the original Sun Tavern was relocated to 727 W. 200 South. He later started Bricks Club at the old In-Between bar when one of the owners died, and then The Trapp (now The Sun Trapp), which he owned for 20 years.
Redburn was born and raised in Laramie Wyoming. He went to the University of Wyoming there and then Armed Forces Information School in Ft. Slocum, New York.
“In those days you either gave yourself up to the draft — which I did — or wait ‘til they drafted you,” he said. “I just wanted to get it over with. In those days, if you checked the box that you were gay they rejected you, so I didn’t. I went in actually lying to them. I was in the U.S. Army at Fort Riley in Kansas for two years. What we did was the news on local stations. Then when I got out, I went back to Laramie, and then I came over to Salt Lake to get a job here.”
With his ultra-deep bass voice, he began a long career in radio on KTKK — one of the first all-talk stations in the country during the Vietnam era.
“We started out with a program called Controversy. This was one of the first times in Salt Lake talk radio where the talk show host actually gave his own opinions,” Redburn said. “So we were different and we were probably that successful because I could give my opinions. I was a Goldwater conservative at the time.”
Ultimately, Redburn gave up his conservative beliefs and, at the same time as Hillary Clinton, he began to support Democrat Eugene McCarthy and protested the Vietnam War. In time, Redburn would consider himself a Libertarian, while supporting Democratic candidates.
He was on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union and ran for the Utah Legislature in 1976 in the Avenues.
“I lost two-to-one to Genevieve Atwood. And then the Republican right wing got rid of her because she was too liberal,” Redburn said. “But now the Avenues are like Democrats. Salt Lake has become so Democrat, it’s amazing. I only ran for the legislature once, but it was quite an experience. Everybody ought to do it once.”
Redburn was honored with the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire Community Service Award in 1983 and the Utah Pride Dr. Kristin Ries Community Service Award. In 2004 he was given the Utah Gay Rodeo Association Grand Marshal Award.
Over the many years he owned his bars, on Prides he always held a free steak fry, and hired the Saliva Sisters to perform.
In recent years, Redburn spent much of his time posting barbs on Facebook. In the past two years, however, he seemed to drop off the face of the planet. It was then, it turns out, that Redburn found himself homeless.
Former Sun Trapp bar owner Frank Chugg, who worked with Redburn for many years, saw him at the bar in August. He could tell he was homeless and Chugg appealed to the Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire, whom Redburn hosted for dozens of years beginning with their first reign, for help.
Friend Marty Pendry-Struthers did a GoFundMe fundraiser which raised about $2,000.
“I can’t even begin to tell you the hundreds of memories we have with our friend, Joe,” said Pendry-Struthers. “What do you say about a sarcastically funny man who also cared so deeply about our community and the lives it surrounded? How do you put into words that his ‘bigger than life’ presence could either scare you or educate you or both? I truly think that, not only have we just lost a powerful and unforgettable human being, but we also lost part of our community’s heart. An icon, a leader, a presence, and a deep, intelligent voice. But most of all, we lost a beautiful friend.”
“I first met Joe in 1981 when I repaired his sound system in the original Sun,” said Club Try-Angles co-owner Gene Gieber. “We had a sarcastic and fun relationship throughout the years. On Sunday afternoons, we would get into beer buying wars on the patio at Backstreet. After opening Try-angles, we would trade (friendly) jabs at each other in our weekly ads. At Off Trax, we named our grilled ham and cheese the Rita Redburn. He ordered one every time he came in. To say that Joe was an icon of the gay community is not enough. He WAS the gay community.”
“Joe Redburn was my friend, boss, roommate, and business partner,” said Nikki Boyer, who worked with Redburn for many years since the 70s. “He was the father of the LGBT community. He gave us a wonderful, safe place to meet, exchange ideas, and dance our asses off. We owe him a lot. Rest, my friend.”
“Joe was a man who would willing help anyone who needed it,” said Bob Childers. “He gave jobs to many in the community when they were down and needed help. Though he could be gruff on the outside he was a man with a true heart and spirit for the LGBTQ community. Born in Wyoming Joe always head that true western spirit and loved to play country music at Trapp in the DJ booth named for him. Rita’s Roost. He was one of Cher’s biggest fans and would often proclaim loudly, ‘Cher is God!’ Steak Fries, Fish Fries, and his annual Labor Day luau were famous, where he have someone barbecue a whole pig overnight at the bar. Pounds of cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day and, of course, the place to be for those without family on Thanksgiving. Joe donated to the community both financially and with a place for groups to hold gatherings. We have lost a true icon of the community of not only Salt Lake City, but all of Utah. He will be missed.”
“Joe, I am so grateful for your life,” Jim Dabakis wrote on his Facebook wall. “The doors you opened. You made life so much more open and acceptable for so many of us in the community and the state. I am upset at the way life ended for you. If I could have found you, I would have helped. Special thanks to those that tried to help Joe. Salt Lake City flags should be at half-mast. This man was a great, albeit very human, Utah pioneer.”
“I can only think of a few people who did as much for the Pride community of Utah as Joe Redburn,” Salt Lake City Weekly Publisher John Saltas wrote in his column. “He did the heavy lifting for decades, including hosting his outspoken radio program, opening the Sun Tavern (now known in its latest iteration as Sun Trapp), promoting and helping to fund the original gay community tabloids, and even hosting the seminal event that grew into Utah’s renowned Pride Parade. That he died alone and homeless is a real kick in the pants and a warning to all would-be pioneers: Very few will understand or care what you’re going through today, including some whose lives you’ve made better.”
“Joe was a hero in this town. If you don’t know that, especially if you don’t know that and consider yourself part of the LGBTQ+ community, then shame on you,” Saltas continued. “He opened the door for you and held it open. He had the foresight to shape the minds of people like me, to push citizens to do the right thing, to hug, to share, to engage, to grow, to awaken, to be proud of one another.”
Funeral services were handled by Franklin County Funeral Home. This story will be updated as funeral arrangements are made.