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 turntables and, at 8:30 p.m. sharp, will start spinning tunes from the decadent decade of big hair and shoulder pads. Then, all three lighted dance floors in front of him will pulse and flash with gyrating bodies, desperate to strut and sway after 15 months of sitting still.
With the virus on the run in Maine, ’80s night is coming back to Bubba’s Sulky Lounge in Portland.
Bubba’s is the only venue left in the city dedicated to dancing. Employees and patrons alike can’t wait to get back into the groove. They agree that dozens of bodies, all dancing to the same tune, will be a communal experience marking the return of some sense of normalcy after a year of pandemic-induced isolation.
Employees and patrons alike see it as a sign of hope for an unguaranteed future and a prime example of something you didn’t know you’d miss until taken away.
“It’s time for people to start dancing again. The time is now. Don’t wait,” Christine Arsenault said. “Who knows what will happen in six months.”
Arsenault has tended 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’s glad to get back to her real job.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” Arsenault said. “My last shift was on Friday the 13th, last March.’
She said the phone is constantly ringing with people asking when Bubba’s will reopen.
“We’ve been checking the Facebook page for months,” Mike Simone said.
Simone and his wife Arielle Greenberg have been regulars since 2014, though they live in Belfast. The pair often make the drive south and make a weekend out of it, dancing both Friday and Saturday nights. They even held part of their wedding party at Bubba’s.
They’re definitely coming this weekend.
They love the diverse crowd, especially on the long-running, Friday ’80s nights, where dancers bond over Whitney Houston’s early hits as well as nearly forgotten new wave gems. It’s not uncommon, they said, to see both bikers and Croc-wearing moms bopping 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 somewhat older set, on ’80s nights, the music is pure nostalgia, taking them back to their high school days. At the same time, dancing right next to them, 20-somethings are grooving to what they call oldies.
“It’s 21 to 95 — literally. It’s so broad,” Tubbs said.
Tubbs is strict about his ’80s music, refusing to play tunes from even 1979 or 1990. His unique mix of mega hits and memory-jogging deep cuts helps pack them in and said it’s the only gig he’s ever had where people are on the floor, before the music starts, waiting to dance.
“Normally, things don’t get going until late,” he said. “Not here. They come in hot to dance.”
Tubbs said Bubba’s revelers come from all over. He’s met them from California, Texas, Montreal and even Australia.
“And on any given Saturday night, 25 bachelorette parties come through here,” Tubbs said. “It’s nuts.”
Arsenault said they often run the air conditioning in winter time because it gets so sweaty and steamy inside.
Besides the dancing, Bubba’s is known for its funky interior. On the outside, it’s nothing special, just a low slung, gray building. On the inside, it’s nearly indescribable.
The lighted, John Travolta-era dance floors — picked up sometime in the ‘70s — are a crowd favorite. Also, nearly every inch of Bubba’s almost-windowless interior is stuffed with kitschy Americana and crazy flea market finds.
Collections of old lunch boxes, wall clocks and life-sized stuffed animals abound. Along one wall, sits a line of antique cash registers. In the gloom, it’s easy to mistake one of several mannequins for a motionless patron. In the back, there’s a small museum dedicated to Maine harness racing.
Several alcoves were added to the building over the years just to house the oddball stuff — and Bubba has collected lots of it in the bar’s 61-year history.
Why, is a mystery. Owner Bubba Larkin famously does not grant interviews or allow himself to be photographed. However mysterious, Larkin is a real person and can sometimes be spotted around town with his dog, Marley.
Beyond the kitsch and the ’80s-night novelties, dancers like Simone and Greenberg are coming back to get in touch with something even deeper — something they’ve missed in the long, isolating pandemic year.
They’re seeking a connection through the deep human need to get lost in a beat.
“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 sense of ecstasy,” she said. “We’ve been so in our heads for the past year. It’s time to get into our bodies again — and Bubba’s is the best place on Earth. It’s magical.”