Jesse Monteagudo

The Gay Bar: Children of the Black Cat

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | October 24, 2011 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Black Cat, gay bars, gay cheerleaders, Small Town Gay Bar, The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's

black-cat-gay-bar.jpgOne of the highlights of the 1985 documentary Before Stonewall was a reunion of the staff members and patrons of San Francisco's Black Cat Café, "the most famous Bohemian bar in the world." Today the Black Cat, located at 710 Montgomery Street in San Francisco's North Beach, is best-remembered as the place where drag entertainer José Sarría became famous.

Sarría, who was an activist as well as a performer - in 1961 he was the first openly gay person to run for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors - often spiced his routines with gay rights messages and always ended his shows by leading his audiences in vivid renditions of "God Save Us Nelly Queens." At the reunion, Sarría and other Black Cat veterans - female and male; black, white and Latino; middle-class and working-class - reminisced about how the Black Cat served as a home away from home, a support group, and a family of choice.

"The Black Cat was not a bar," one woman recalled. "It was a family. They were my friends. They took me in. They took care of me. They fed me when I was unemployed. They patted my hand when I was hurting from a love affair."

According to freelance writer Joel Pomerantz, the Black Cat Cafe "launched gay San Francisco. It was a bar, a dance hall, and a revolutionary seed in the lumpy cultural soils of San Francisco."

The Black Cat officially opened in 1933, right after the fall of Prohibition, and flourished for three decades. It survived World War II and early police efforts to close the bar as "a disorderly house." The owner took the case to the California Supreme Court, which ruled (1951) in favor of the Black Cat. This did not stop the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) from repeatedly trying to shut down this "resort for sexual perverts."

In late October 1963, just before the Black Cat's annual Halloween party, ABC finally revoked the Bar's liquor license, and the Black Cat closed for good in February, 1964.

Though the Black Cat Café was the best-known queer bar of its day, it was by no means the only one of its kind. At a time when LGBT community groups were few and far between, bars often served as community centers.

"For Gay men and Lesbians, the centrality of bars to community life has probably been truer than it has for any other group," wrote Matthew D. Johnson and Claude J. Summers in "In addition to providing opportunities for glbtq people to socialize and to meet potential partners, Gay and Lesbian bars have offered members of a stigmatized social minority, often isolated from one another, an opportunity to inhabit space with like-minded folk. Until recently, they were often the only venues in which glbtq people could feel free to be openly Gay."

There is hardly a gay memoir of the 1940s or 1950's who does not recall a favored watering hole, as the late Ricardo J. Brown did in his book The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's, a bar that flourished in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1940's. Brown's fond memories are echoed by those of other queer members of "the greatest generation."

Even today, bars play an important role in the lives of many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This is especially true in small towns and rural areas that lack community centers and other supportive groups.

In the 2007 documentary Small Town Gay Bar, gay pubs and clubs play an important role in the lives of LGBT people who live in rural Mississippi . To the folks who frequented Rumors in Shannon and Crossroads in Meridian, bars were more than just places to drink, dance or cruise. They were havens for persecuted minorities and unique opportunities to be open and honest within an oppressive social climate. The brutal hate crime death of Scotty Weaver, an event that was featured in Small Town Gay Bar, only reminds us of the dangers of being a queer person living in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

Much has been written recently about the decline of LGBT bars. But we must never underestimate the impact gay pubs and clubs have in our communities. We don't have to go to rural Mississippi to find a bar where, like TV's Cheers, everyone knows your name.

To many of us, a beloved neighborhood bar is a second home and the people who work or play there form the family that we never had. Because of this, the closing of a popular watering hole - which happens every day, especially in today's economic climate - is rarely pure and never simple. To many of us, it is as if a loved one has passed away.

There is still a need in our community for places where we can relax and be ourselves; and this is a service that our bars do so well. Almost fifty years after the fall of the Black Cat Café, its children continue to do what they do well, and we are better for it.

(Photo credit: SF Public Library photo collection)

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Jesse, as important as the Black Cat was, I want to also put a work in for the dozens of bars and hangouts in the Tenderloin neighborhood of SF and all their huge impact on pre-Stonewall (and pre-Compton's) queer and trans history. Here is a list that was being compiled by archivist Joey Plaster of all the Tenderloin-connected GLBT businesses in the Tenderloin, certainly the queerest/transiest neighborhood in North America from 1940s-1970.

Gil's Saloon
House of O'Rouke
Daughters of Bilitis
Ambassador Lounge
Chukker Club
Crystal Bowl
Turk Street Follies
Here's How
Strand Theater
Cinema on Market
Federal Hotel
Glass Slipper
Starlight Room
Nob Hill
Wonder Bar
National Hotel
Rock (after Hours)
Robin Hood Bar
Ram's Head
Tacky Wench
118 Club (Tin Pan Alley)
Orpheum Circus
Coffee Don's
Pleasure Palace
Lavender University
Tenderloin Youth Outreach
Gay Paree Theater
Daughters of Bilitis
San Francisco Daughters of Bilitis
Gilded Cage
Spurr Club
Continental Hotel
New Continental Hotel
Donnelly Hotel
Shore Leave
Crystal Hotel
Club Turkish Baths
Bulldog Baths
Queen Mary's Pub
Aunt Charlie's
Blue and Gold
Inn Debt
Chez Jacques
Moth and the Flame
Zee Hotel
Frolic Room
Grand Central Hotel
Ethel's Cocktail Lounge (Ethel's Place)
Aloha Club
Letterman's Club
Tea Room
Third House
Jackie D's
My Third Place
Score II
Railway Express Saloon
New 222 Club
Committee for Homosexual Freedom
Metropolis (Club Rapture)
San Francisco Gym
Chez Paree
Spartan Theater
Polynesian Mary's
Metropolitan Community Church
Territorial House
Page Hotel
Sound of Music
Talk of the Town
Daughters of Bilitis
Club Martinique
Carnival Club
Road Runner
Film Room
Peke Palace
Red Lantern Saloon
181 Club
Bert's Corner
Channel 181
Tom Kat Theater
Donna Mae Coffee Shop
Tenderloin AIDS Research Center (TARC)
Salt and Pepper
Top Drawer
John's Kit Kat Cocktail Lounge
Infamous Bookstore
Screening Room
Campus Theater
Imperial Palace
222 Club
Chick's Caboose
Helping Hands Center
Ellis Street Baths
San Francisco Turkish Baths
Hanson & Fontana Barbers & Wigs
Golden Door
Rocket Club (lesbian)
Roundtable Restaurant.
San Francisco AIDS Foundation
Nevada Club
Tenderloin Clinic
Neal Clift (erotica)
Kennie's Breakfast Club
Copper Pit
Old Adobe
Peter Pan
Tacky Wench
Mr Lee-Ona's
Virginia Hotel
Council on Church and Religion
Glide Church
Alley Cat
King George Hotel
Rosy's Italian Restaurant
1001 Nights
Back Street
Royal Palace
Red Eye Saloon
Black Rose
Deja Vu
Frontier Village
Dalt Hotel
Sundown Club
Club Inferno
Kit Carson Hotel
Mark Twain Hotel
Adonis Books
Adonis Bookstore
356 Taylor
Dalt Club
Adonis Video
Adonis/Cinemattachine/ Circle J
Powell Cinema
Radio Club
Kinney Hotel
420 Mason
Fairfax Hotel
New Crow
Ginger's Too
Gay Rap
Lesbian Rights Project
Submarine Room
Before Two Club
Jefferson Hotel
Landmark (Ho's Landmark)
Cock Ring
Peter Pan
Curtain Call
Park Show Room
Mister Madam's Parlour
Aquarius Steam Baths
Atlas Club
Lonely Bull
Union Square Lounge
This Is Your Life
Baptiste Physical Culture Studio
Riley's Health Club
Golden Gate Gym
Little Nashville
Lafayette Lounge
Why Not
Pacific Bay Inn
Dottie's True Blue Café
Palace Vaudeville Movie Theater
Seven Seas
Streets of Paris
Lupe's Echo
Ambassador Hotel
Bristol Hotel
57 Powell Club
Criterion Lounge
585 Club
Frisco Club
Frisco Saloon
Frisco Disco
Frisco Roy-al
Club Six
Free Fall
Club Six
Embassy Lounge
Dakota Hotel
Gaylord Hotel
Mouse House III
Normal Norman's Mouse House
Women's Switchboard
Wooden Horse
Silver Dollar
Women's Hotel
Carriage Inn
Milky Way
65 Club
Silver Rail
Orange Room
Chukker Club
Turk Street News
Club 67
Buy & Sell Leather
Rebound Club
Nitecap (Savoni's Nitecap)
Hob Nob Lounge
Adam Theater
Night Shift
Bobby's Three Vets
Amsterdam Hotel
Turf Club
Hot Spot
Buccaneer Club
SIR Center
Council on Religion and the Homosexual
Hyde Plaza Café
Riley's Health Club
Letterman Club
Allen's Body Building
Liberty Inn
Brazil Hotel Baths
Orient Express
Have One
Tivoli Theater
Tay-Bush Inn
Brass Lantern
On the Hill
Funland Arcade
Hotel York
Golden Gate Lib House Office
Bay Area Feminist Federal Credit Union
Vic Tanny's Gym
New 6th Street Market
Old Crow
St Francis Theater
Big Basket
Leo's Men's Shop
College Inn
Pirate's Cave
Brass Lantern
GLBT Historical Society
New Village
Silver Rail
Big Hunk
Body Shop
Warfield Theater
Wig World
Goldstein & Co
Golden Gate Video #4
San Francisco AIDS Foundation
996 Club
Top of the Mark

I also want to link to a little film which was recently done featuring Felicia Elizondo, a trans woman and former sex worker who has lived in the Tenderloin since the 1960s. It was done as part of Frameline's Generations Film Project:

It's called Tenderloin: A Forgotten History

um, how about putting a "word" in... not a "work"

Many thanks for the article, Jesse. As for ginasf's catch-all list, while she obviously means well, with all due respect, can't good intentions come with editing? For those unaware—or simply, understandably confused—no, Daughters of Bilitis [listed four different times] was never a "business" in the Tenderloin or anywhere else in San Francisco. It, like the Council on Religion and the Homosexual [listed twice] and the Committee on Homosexual Freedom, were organizations. A number of names listed that did qualify as business or other kinds of LGBT-supportive entities with physical locations were/are not IN the Tenderloin, e.g., the Top of the Mark bar at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill, or came into existence long after the referenced 1940s-1970, e.g., the various AIDS groups and the GLBT Historical Society.

Interesting list, but such sloppiness is one of the reasons so much of what is repeated a priori about our people's history is just plain wrong. Thank you.

Michael, I posted the list as is (it was originally not a list of only pre-Stonewall stuff although most of it is, so I mistakenly included the AIDs orgs, my bad). And could you kindly reread my post... I said bars and hangouts, not businesses. Places where queer/trans people congregate in any sort of social way are hangouts. DOB meetings were a hangout. It was founded as a hangout before it acted as a political organization. I agree the "Top of the Mark" is a total stretch and I probably wouldn't have placed it on that list myself... I'm assuming it was cruised by 'A-List' gay men (although it was mostly a straight bar). It might be on Nob Hill, but it is, in fact, one or two blocks from what is traditionally called The Tenderloin.

What I do wonder about is how you just diss this incredible list of places and queer/trans history based on a few overly-zealous inclusions? Some of these spaces were open for years (although there's amazingly little photographic evidence of them in historic archives). I just wish the queer and trans community could claim some of this as the amazing formative community it was instead of droning on and on about the Castro.

I share your passion for an all-inclusive LGBT history; in all its expressions—neighborhoods, businesses, "hangouts," organizations, neighborhoods, and individuals. But don't ask me, or anyone else, to be patient with your laziness in just copy/pasting. If something's important [and such a list IN CONCEPT very much is], then it's important to get it as right as possible. And, re "I said bars and hangouts, not businesses"—back at you: "kindy reread [your] post": "Here is a list that was being compiled by archivist Joey Plaster OF ALL the Tenderloin-connected GLBT BUSINESSES in the Tenderloin." And, again, with all due respect, enough with the parsing words. As the noun form you used, "hangout" connotes a physical space NOT a group [versus the verb form as in "hangout with"]

For your and others' information, the Top of the Mark, though being then, as it is now, officially "straight," was a well-documented surrepticious meeting place for gay men during WWII, both locals and gay service members passing through San Francisco—hardly "A-List." In Allen Berube’s classic, “Coming Out Under Fire, he identified the Top of the Mark as one of three hotel bars that became “world famous for their wartime gay ambience." The others were the Astor in New York City (where one side of the large oval bar was “pretty obvious[ly]"
gay), and the Biltmore in Los Angeles. And smaller cities had their own reputations—the Mayflower & Statler in DC, the Royal in Milwaukee, and the Bentley in Alexandria, Louisiana. And, “Sometimes gay hosts rented hotel suites for grander affairs. In 1943, Jim Kepner wrote that he had gone to the ‘maddest party’ at [the] Mark Hopkins Hotel—a gay midnight weeding ceremony with more than a hundred guests, many in drag.
‘The largest gay gathering [he had then] seen’.” Sorry, but your trying to justify its inclusion it your list even were it actually "one or two blocks from what is traditionally called the Tenderloin" [which it is NOT] is silly.

Some of the bars on the list that were in the Tenderloin, such as the Silver Rail and Silver Dollar were, like others at times during WWII, alternately temporarily closed down or put "Off Limits" to troops. One thing about the Black Cat Jesse left out is that military MPs were sometimes stationed there during the war to keep troops out. San Francisco's legendary "female impersonation" club, Finocchio's, was another hot spot before, during, and after the war, and sometimes "off limits" during the latter. Neither were in the Tenderloin. The larger truth is that one of the unique things about San Francisco is that, at one time or another, gay bars have existed in almost every part of town from the most chic to the tackiest.

Finocchio's was actually very near the Tenderloin/Union Square before it was busted and moved to its later touristy incarnation on Broadway.

The other thing about the Black Cat is (and correct me if I'm wrong) that it was never an overwhelmingly gay bar. That it always had a very mixed gay/straight clientele and, in the late 50s-early 60s was as much about Beats as is was about queer people. Okay, you don't like my list making, but that's a pretty amazing list of bars, clubs, organizations and businesses which DID inhabit a rather small urban neighborhood. And I think that's pretty incredible. And I'm very glad a museum devoted to the Tenderloin in being planned and intends to include as much of that history as they can dig up.

I also want to say that, in so many books about queer SF, when they talk about gender variance, they tend to always start with Jose Sarria (who is an important activist, icon and political candidate) but there were hundreds of other queens and trans women (many of whom lived the life 24/7, not just for drag balls or performances) who are gone. It's my hope that some privately held photo collections of these balls, sex workers, and queer hotels will turn up in the next few years so we can have a more complete record of the incredible Tenderloin culture during that 30 year period.

As to the location of the Mark Hopkins... no, you're wrong dear. I'm an SF native and still live here. It's two (hilly) blocks up from Pine and Taylor, which is most definitely Tenderloin and was even more so in the post-WWII period when there were a lot of residential hotels with ex-servicemen in them.

One does not have to also live in San Francisco as I do to say that your persistence in trying to equate tony Nob Hill with the trashy Tenderloin is a form of disordered thinking I'm not trained to treat. East Berlin and West Berlin were much closer than "two (hilly blocks)—in fact, it was simply one city split-in-two by a wall—but having experienced both sides I can assure you it would have been just as nonsensical to equate them as your amplification of geographic revisionism of these two neighborhoods distant by cultural light years on top of your defensive but indefensible "organization as 'place'."

Sutter St. is the border between the Tenderloin and Nob Hill. California St. (and the Mark Hopkins) is of course on Nob Hill.

Jesse Monteagudo Jesse Monteagudo | October 25, 2011 10:52 AM

ginasf, thanks for your comments, and for informing me about the documentary "Tenderloin: A Forgotten History." Another documentary that I found most useful is "Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria" (2005). Directed by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman, it tells the story of the brave trans women and others who stood up against police oppression in the Tenderloin in 1966, three years before New York City's Stonewall Riots.