By Amy Young, November 2018 issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2018 here.
Not everyone knows what they want to do with their life at the age of 21. That wasn’t true, however, for Rhonda Walden. The Phoenix resident, who was born in Texas, had a penchant for – and experience in – the hospitality industry and wanted to open her own bar.
Armed with determination and desire, she unlocked the doors on her first of many popular LGBTQ hangout destinations in 1970. It was called Happy Gardens and it was located in north central Phoenix, on Camelback Road where an Oregano’s restaurant now sits.
“At the time,” Walden recalled, “we were one of just a few gay bars in town.”
Before diving into her next Phoenix bar adventure, Walden worked for Darden Restaurants, the multibrand operation that owns several popular chain restaurants. That gig had her traveling around the west and southwest, further cementing her passion for drinking and dining establishments.
When she felt it time to take the knowledge she absorbed from that position, traveling was a part of the equation she decided to keep, this time, strictly for enjoyment. She made the rounds through Europe with a friend, bringing with her a love for the continent that she was familiar with from her youth. “I was a child in a military family and we spent a lot of time in Germany between the 1950s and ‘60s,” Walden told us.
A self-proclaimed foodie, Walden says that European dining and cuisine taught her a lot about food and culture. These days, she and her partner of 20 years, Char Ortega, a dynamic and successful businesswoman in her own right, love to try new area restaurants but also carry soft spots in their hearts for long-running establishments like Durant’s. Walden, herself, has a passion for spicy food and has no problem venturing to another Phoenix classic eatery, Richardson’s for some kicky New Mexican cuisine.
It was around 1987 when Walden opened Cash Inn Country with Carol Shearer and was there until about 1992. “I was a fan of country music at the time, and we all had so much fine line dancing,” she told us. She was instrumental in building the bar inside the venue by hand, leaving a permanent mark on this popular joint.
Following that endeavor, she opened some other clubs, like Country Club Bar and Grill, which is now the Pat O’s Bunkhouse Saloon, and Talk of the Town, which she renamed Desert Rose.
In addition to owning and operating fun places to dance, drink, and eat, Walden and her partner are both very active in fundraising for area charities. Years back, Walden was involved in getting the Gay and Lesbian Association of Darts (G.L.A.D.) up and running. The nonprofit hosts two competitive seasons each year and the money raised at their events is split between multiple in-need organizations. “The Phoenix Shanti Group and Aunt Rita’s are two local groups that we have been able to help.”
Many community members think of Walden as a mom figure. She’s provided welcoming havens for the gay community and has continuously given back. As her partner says, “She is a backbone of the community, and as someone who has faced challenges of her own, she always wants to offer others hope who also have challenges to overcome..”
The way things have evolved for this Phoenix icon makes Walden feel blessed. “I love being part of the community. I look up to so many of my peers, and am grateful for the many friendships and successes that I have had."
Echo: Desert Rose evolved into a few different ventures for you, correct?
Walden: Yes. It was Misty’s – which was named for a dear friend who also bartended there. zGirl Club and Zoan followed.
Echo: You’re definitely not afraid of change. What was the impetus for always taking things in new directions.
Walden: Well, there’s a strategic side to it – in my experience, trends in the bar and club realm tend to stay on a trend for about four years. When you notice the change in trends, it’s a good time to take a look at things.
Echo: What do you like about going to the bars and clubs these days?
Walden: I love seeing more people that have open minds these days. I see a lot of change in attitudes from the heterosexual community and I like that growth.
Echo: You’ve done so much work for charity that won’t soon be forgotten.
Walden:Yes, in addition to the darts league fundraisers we talked about, it was just always a policy to keep an open door for in-need groups and find ways to support their efforts. Animal rescues, women’s softball, and the roller derby teams are just some who used our venues to raise money.
Echo: Tell us what the future holds for you?
Walden: At some point, we’d love to do some more traveling. I’ve been so fortunate to do the traveling I’ve done so far and would like to do more. I’ve been all over the United States – a lot of that has been for work – and I’d like to see it in a new way. Maybe we’ll get an RV and travel around with our dog Buddy.
Congratulations to the Class of 2018! Meet the rest of the inductees here.