How the Stud Was Saved

An 18-member nightlife collective prevented SoMa's 50-year-old queer bar from disappearing.

(Photo by Eric Pratt)

It’s 11:40 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and everyone around me is drunk. I’m drunk, too. I’m at The Stud, a 50-year-old gay bar in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, where emcees VivvyAnne ForeverMORE and Honey Mahogany are trying to shoehorn at least one more performer’s act in before midnight. Drag queens operate on drag queen time, but not tonight. Focused on her task, a bartender pours way too many Champagne toasts for the packed house to distribute efficiently through the room, like delicate sandbags. So they bottleneck and foam.

The year ahead promises unparalleled irritation and destruction, but at least we can ritually dispose of 2016 together.

The people closest to the bar gleefully down the surplus flutes of bubbles, taking selfies and posting one last pic on Instagram, bidding adieu to the worst year since the bubonic plague erupted in 1347. The lighting in here is terrible — a particular hue of terrible that, in this context, sets the scene perfectly and probably generates more envy and more likes.

It’s 11:56. VivvyAnne and Honey make smalltalk onstage, as if this were live television and a producer were making a stretchy gesture to indicate that they should slow it down and prevent dead air at all costs. The tension builds. People grin, counting down, preparing to smooch.

Then it’s midnight. No one thinks 2017 will be pretty, but everybody’s cheering wildly. A beloved queer bar — written off as dead only five months before, when the rent nearly tripled — has officially transferred ownership to the two queens onstage, plus 16 other members of a collective of DJs, artists, nightlife figures, tech workers, and others. After equal buy-ins from all parties, suddenly everyone’s an owner and everyone’s a barback. It’s a risky, utterly Northern Californian way to grapple with a particularly San Franciscan form of urban decay: asphyxiation by prosperity. The collective is now a co-op.

The Stud has been saved.

Top left: Houston Gilbert, Marke Bieschke, Oscar Pineda, Jerry Lee Abram, Mica Sigourney/VivvyAnne ForeverMore, Dottie Lux, Neven Raja Samara, David Schnur. Bottom Left: Nate Allbee, Maria Davis, Rachel Ryan, Paul Dillinger. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

Having opened on Folsom Street in the spring of 1966, in what is now Holy Cow, the Stud was unusual from the beginning as a place where women were welcome. At a time when the city’s plentiful gay bars were highly stratified and catered to almost comically narrow demographics like “sweater queens,” it was “the first and often favorite mixed gay bar for all the children,” in the words of chronicler Mark Freeman.

A drag bar, a leather bar, a punk club, or everything at once, the Stud has always been unique — at its original home on Folsom, or at its current digs at 399 Ninth St., where it moved in 1987. Sylvester performed there. So did Etta James, RuPaul, and a pre-Scissor Sisters Ana Matronic. Björk and Matthew Barney went there. Heklina’s madcap, long-running, monthly drag show, Trannyshack, famously ran for more than a decade. (It wound down in 2008, but has since been resurrected as Mother every Saturday night at Oasis, the club Heklina opened with fellow performer D’Arcy Drollinger and others.)

In the meantime, San Francisco has hemorrhaged gay bars. SoMa now has fewer than half a dozen. The Mission, a nightlife-centric neighborhood if there ever was one, has zero. The Gangway, a gay dive in the Tenderloin that’s been around even longer than the Stud, had a near-death experience last spring.

And then in July, Stud owner Michael McElhaney disclosed that the rent was going from about $3,500 per month to almost $9,000 and he was moving back to Hawaii. The bar looked like just the latest casualty of a city always in flux, always breaking the hearts that love it most.

But for whatever reason, its vibe or its history, news of the Stud’s impending closure hit a nerve. It became international news: VICE covered it, but so did stodgier outlets like The Economist.

A “Save Our Stud” Facebook group grew big, got active, and — somewhat surprisingly — stayed active. Behind the scenes, the collective that would purchase the bar quietly coalesced. But because commercial rent control is prohibited in California, they would have to get creative to do an end-run around an insane real-estate market.

As it turned out, co-op member Nate Allbee, who served as an aide to former Supervisor David Campos, wrote the Legacy Business legislation that the city passed last year as an effort to keep quirky yet financially viable neighborhood businesses safe from globalized capital’s sharpest talons. While not a guarantee of long-term survival, its registry provides businesses that have been around for 20 years or more with a $500 annual grant for each full-time employee, and defrays their rent at a rate of $4.50 per square foot (each up to a certain maximum). Through the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development and with assistance from Supervisor Jane Kim, Allbee won the Stud legacy status. On top of that, the collective negotiated a two-year extension of the current lease while its members hunt around SoMa for a permanent location, and launched a $500,000 crowdfunding initiative to make capital improvements on both the current Stud and its future home.

Allbee knows that simply raising cash to save gay bars was no guarantee of anything: When Campos’ office organized a fundraiser for the owner of Esta Noche, a bar centered on the Mission’s Latino LGBT community, he simply paid his back taxes and sold the place.

“This system does not work to save us, so we have to change the system,” Allbee says. After the creation of the Legacy Business registry, “the obvious answer was co-ops.”

Pointing to successful templates like Rainbow Grocery and Arizmendi Bakery — which he calls a “co-op franchise,” since it spins off its subsidiaries — Allbee feels the Stud is in good company. (Technically, it’s a standard limited-liability corporation, but one that’s governed cooperatively.) Noting that group ownership of a bar is quite common, he draws a distinction between the Stud’s formula and the partnership between silent investors and active management. Collectives, it turns out, are very unusual.

“We’re the very first co-op nightclub in the United States,” he says.

This “allows for the diffusion of pressure,” as co-op member Dottie Lux later tells me. And as a worker-owned entity, the Stud doesn’t have to worry much about employee theft (as people would be stealing from themselves) or disgruntled workers slacking off. But with 18 strong-willed people, there’s a lot of potential for squabbling and bad blood. Allbee, with his legislative experience, knew how to circumvent it with a highly organized set of bylaws.

“In a normal bar, they just go into it saying, ‘Oh, we’re all friends. It’s going to be fine,’ ” Allbee says. “But there’s always deep conflict in bars. You hear these stories all the time. You have money, personalities, and alcohol all under one roof. It makes for a lot of yelling in meetings.”

So they codified everything. They vote by consensus. They established six committees to streamline matters, and they force outspoken loudmouths to raise their hands before speaking during meetings.

Co-op president Rachel Ryan, an underground bartender and early childhood educator, knows how unusual this is.

“I have five or six friends, promoters who’ve been throwing parties together for years,” she says. “People sit around and yell at each other. Having a facilitator for every meeting since Day 1 has kept this calm and consistent nature to the process.”

But beyond the collegiality, she’s surprised things came together at all.

“My dad said something recently,” she says. “He was flabbergasted that we pulled it off. He’s a general contractor, and his business is across the street from the Eagle,” a leather bar three blocks down Harrison Street from the Stud.

“He’s more in tune than most straight White dads with the leather community,” she adds. “He said, ‘I was struggling, watching you go through this process, thinking it would be a hard lesson for you to learn when it didn’t work,’ which is how I feel also. So even when I’m scrubbing toilets, I feel like all my friends are here.”

Consensus is not an efficient way to operate, but that sense of urgency clearly helped. A short, steep learning curve — teaching non-mixologists to make Boulevardiers, educating math-challenged artsy types in rudimentary bookkeeping — meant petty bickering didn’t have a chance to fester.

“We taught, in under six months, a group of 15 people what a co-op was, what the process was, and everything having to do with finance and the legality around the co-op,” Allbee says. “We found and raised the money, we created a new way to run the bar, and we found whole new parties to bring back life to the club. We would never have been able to do that if we weren’t using that really productive model.”

He compares it to a road trip that could have gone horribly but turned out to be “really awesome.”

“I love these people now,” he adds. “These are my brothers and sisters in a way I didn’t expect.”

(Dylan Goldberger)

 

While saving the Stud was important, the formation of this co-op is also about changing the way the city regards the preservation of LGBT culture — and altering the way queers in San Francisco regard their own history. Passing down lore across generations by word of mouth has an undeniable mystique, but like a game of telephone at a children’s birthday party, much gets lost — especially with a whole generation having succumbed to HIV/AIDS.

“There’s a movement of ‘punk-rock preservationists’ pushing back on the idea of preservation that was rooted in very upper-class, White values,” Allbee says. He cites a hypothetical Southern plantation, lovingly preserved as it was in the antebellum period while the enslaved people’s housing was torn down or left to disintegrate, further marginalizing their contributions to history. That’s the model the new generation wants to move away from, which is why Allbee’s next battle is to execute the recently announced Compton’s Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual District. Straddling eight blocks of SoMa and the Tenderloin and centered on the intersection of Market and Sixth streets, it’s intended to honor and commemorate a population that had frequently been written out of queer history, to say nothing of standard social studies textbooks. (“Compton’s” refers to Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, an eatery at Turk and Taylor that was the site of the first queer rebellion against police discrimination, in August 1966 — three months after the Stud opened.)

“Bars and restaurants have always fallen into the category where nobody tried to preserve them,” Allbee says.

Fellow collective member Paul Dillinger, who by day is the head of design innovation at Levi’s, goes further.

“Straight culture and community have always had the town square and the church as natural points to convene and craft cultural momentum that manifests as policy,” he says. “Gay culture has always been denied that.”

The institution of the gay bar has always been the locus of queer culture, he says, but because “the platform for queer advocacy has always been associated with vice, and has always been managed by the same department of the city that manages vice, there’s always been this pejorative quality.”

In other words, even in a strongly pro-LGBT city, there’s something of a bias hangover eroding the longevity of San Francisco’s gay spaces. Owing to increased acceptance of same-sex attraction and the proliferation of hookup apps, gay bars are closing nationwide. But post-Orlando, and in the age of Trump, there remains a need for safe, vital queer spaces — both as sites of political resistance and places to get entertained, get drunk, and get lucky.

But in San Francisco, market pressures are arguably a bigger threat than even violent homophobes.

“Prosperity has become the blight that we have to worry about,” Dillinger says. “If we can use the collective power of this really smart, engaged, funny group of people to fight back a little, dig in the heels and stop it, that was a fight worth doing. I want to get some shit done from here.”

If bad times make good art, then unease with the nation’s dark path isn’t without some positive consequences. Suddenly, amid the revolutionary fervor, you don’t hear much glib talk lately about the kids today not needing gay bars anymore.

“I’ve heard, even while bartending, so many post-election conversations about calls-to-action, or people saying, ‘It’s the last Some Thing,’ ” says co-op member Neven Samara. “People saying, ‘Drag is catharsis,’ or feeling the need to be around their people. I’ve had a new respect for what space provides and why certain governments are afraid of people convening in spaces. I’ve seen the energy on certain nights I’ve been here.”

It’s also vital for the queer spaces to be queer-owned, co-op member David Schnur says.

“The notion of the bar as being the central institution or physical space for the queer community is what makes it so important that we have community ownership of the spaces,” he adds. “Historically, queer bars were owned by profiteers who said, ‘Let’s have the homos spend their money on me, and I’ll pay off the cops.’ Those days are pretty well past, especially in this city, but this is the next step: to say the space is owned not by a businessman who’s doing this as his way of becoming wealthy.”

Drag performer Honey Mahogany — another co-op member who, like Allbee, is heavily involved in the Compton’s TLGB District — grew up in the Sunset District. She remembers coming off the freeway with her parents and seeing the Stud’s rainbow flag, so becoming a part-owner is personally meaningful.

“I was in awe,” she says. “It made it clear that there were gay people out there. That has always stuck with me, and it’s why I feel so strongly about the Stud.”

A fixture at Trannyshack, Mahogany felt its loss acutely — especially as the Castro wasn’t as welcoming to drag queens or gender-nonconforming people of color as she considers it to be now. “It was one of the first places that felt like home to me,” she says, adding, “Our vision and mission and bottom lines are maybe a little different from most businesses. Making a profit, while important to us, is superseded by a commitment to community.”

Mica Sigourney, who performs as VivvyAnne ForeverMORE and who co-ran Club Some Thing at the Stud every Friday night for seven years until it wrapped up in January, agrees. Noting that while there’s always been a diversity of performers at the Stud, he admits the patrons weren’t necessarily the broadest cross-section of the Bay Area’s scene.

“We have painted over the door ‘Everyone Is Welcome,’ ” he says. “But I don’t think that’s known by everybody — which I think is reflected in the lack of programming for certain people.

I don’t think that’s an intentional omission, as Michael [McElhaney] was working alone and only four days a week.”

“The Stud’s clientele skews very generally over 30,” he adds. “That’s awesome that people over 30 are still going out, but where are all the young freaks? If they’re not here, where are they?”

Instead of working exclusively with established party promoters, Sigourney makes a point to cultivate relationships with younger, greener people who may have organized arts events before but don’t have a proven nightlife track record. It’s meant to hold in check a sort of kewl-kidz confirmation bias, which can lead to groupthink and cliquishness, undermining the everybody-is-welcome inclusiveness. This is refreshing to anyone who’s gotten dressed up to go out only to feel like they just paid for the pleasure of watching a group of friends preen onstage for each other’s benefit.

“Cleaning toilets isn’t glamorous, but taking care of the space is an honor,” he says. “I know that sounds ridiculous, but I want the nightlife that exists in 10 years to be full of beautiful weirdos.”

Dottie Lux, a co-op member and the producer of Red Hots Burlesque, takes a different (but equally sanguine) approach to mop-and-bucket duty.

“Any shift that does not include a bodily function is a good shift,” she says.

Lux has been producing cabaret shows in San Francisco for the better part of a decade, but she had little experience working behind a bar — to say nothing of scrubbing restrooms. But being a third-generation business owner, the idea of joining the co-op appealed to her as being “perfectly equitable and revolutionary,” so she jumped into it with zeal.

“This particular business structure is going to allow us to weather the uncertainty of the rental markets, the housing markets, and the entertainment markets,” Lux says, “because we have such a large amount of support.”

Like Sigourney, she’s keenly aware of the dearth of spaces for artists and creative types to perform in and make a living from.

“Watching queer spaces be eradicated is devastating,” Lux says. “I also know, as an event producer, what it’s like to produce events in other spaces. It’s impossible to make money because the spaces require so much from you: a percentage of the door, or huge bar guarantees. I’m on the production committee with the Stud, and our mission is to create a space that is essentially sliding-scale everywhere, accessible to the people who really need it.”

The loss of queer spaces is acutely felt, but woman-friendly queer spaces even more so. (The Lexington Club, widely regarded as San Francisco’s last full-time lesbian bar, shuttered in 2015, with many of the same activists who became part of Save Our Stud hoping someone would buy it at the 11th hour.) Saving the Stud is more than simply preserving what always was; it’s also about expanding into new terrain.

Marke Bieschke, publisher of 48Hills.org and the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is a DJ who also sits on the programming committee, where he handles the website, street promotions, logo design, the newsletter, and the like. A nightlife writer for almost 20 years, he thinks the city has never been more thriving — but the exodus of broke-ass artists and musicians has caused a “creative drought.”

“We’re at the risk of becoming bland because of that,” he says. “For me, this project is close to my heart, because I want to keep the rough-and-tumble, DIY, accessible, affordable spirit of San Francisco nightlife alive, and to create and hold space for people to discover themselves through nightlife without necessarily worrying about how they’re going to survive.”

Or, as Allbee puts it, as recently as six or seven years, ago, San Francisco was the kind of place where “you’d come visit a friend and stay on somebody’s couch and have this amazing life where you’d eat half a burrito in Dolores Park and do drag and art.”

With that in mind, the idea is that the current collective’s membership will eventually rotate out, and new people will take their places, to keep things fresh. (As with the Stud’s exact rent, co-op members declined to reveal what the buy-in’s dollar amount is, but Allbee emphasizes the goal is for it to gradually fall and become less of a barrier to entry for artists with little money.)

“Artists need time to do art,” he says.

To that end, the calendar is newly stuffed with happy hours like Bieschke’s Thursday afternoon Par Avion (which promises beats from around the world and “anti-colonialist drink specials”) and a cannabis-appreciation party called PUFF (Tuesday, Feb. 21), along with one-offs like a celebration of Michelle Obama (also Feb. 21).

There are new monthly events like the “weirdo4weirdo” dance party called Creature, which opens Friday, Feb. 17, with underworld figure Krylon Superstar and DJs Mariscos (aka Brown Amy and Jorge from El Rio’s summertime fete, Hard French), a first-Sunday tea dance called Towne & Country, and Desperate Living, an art-punk mashup with live bands that begins March 3. And there’s Vivvy’s Grand Opening, an ongoing, every-second-Friday-of-the-month successor to Club Some Thing, which debuts March 10.

Lux wants to see more daytime events like heavy-metal yoga, more parties geared toward women, and — being the only non-drinker in the collective — more programming for teetotalers.

“We have a brunch coming up on Feb. 19,” she says, “and Shop Sunday, which is queer women of color setting up, essentially, a mall inside the Stud.”

Overall, she says, “My goals for the space are to revolutionize the idea of what a nightclub is.”

Or, as co-op member and top-notch bartender Oscar Pineda says, “I want this to feel like a big queer clubhouse.”

The collective assumed ownership of the Stud on New Year’s Eve, 2016. (David Schnur)

 

 

Of the very few times I ever attempted full, shave-my-beard-for-this drag, the very first was in 2010 for the Coronation of the Imperial Court, the oldest of S.F.’s old-school drag communities. As the plus-one for a well-connected septuagenarian queen, I got to meet San Francisco’s newest emperor and empress, as well as the first empress of all, Jose Sarria, the Widow Norton. (I looked like an old lady from 1964.) But afterward, I got dropped off at the Stud, where I drank for free, waiting for my boyfriend at the time to arrive and walk me home the four blocks to our tiny apartment on Dore Street. My feet hurt, but it was exhilarating.

It made intuitive sense to go there.

Later, Club Some Thing started Try Some Thing, an undercard show for baby queens to try out their stuff and get feedback with a reduced (but definitely nonzero) amount of shade. Of the dozens of times I’ve been back to the Stud, I’ve seen plenty of outstanding performances alongside some half-assed, coked-out lip-synching.

But I’d never been onstage — until the other night, singing karaoke, hosted by Flora Good Thyme of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Between the smoke and the stagelights, it’s hard to read the lyrics on the TV, but I managed to croak out Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” For my glorious finish, I stared straight into one of the lights, blinding myself so badly that when I reached for the songbook, I accidentally grabbed a different binder by mistake. It’s the Stud Bible, the operations manual. Apart from information on whose party charges what cover and where the circuit-breaker is, it has recipes for “Studly” cocktails — the Manhattan’s “2.5 ounces” of bourbon is scratched out, and the number 3 is written in — plus notes on how to provide good service behind the bar.

“Say please and thank you, and try to smile, it’s contagious,” it reads. “DON’T BE THAT BITCHY BARTENDER!!!”

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly’s  arts & culture editor.

 

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