The Armory After Porn

Adult-film production is likely gone from California, but nightlife legend Audrey Joseph won't let the coolest building in the Mission just sit there.

A Gold Rush-era set from the new historical tour in the Armory.

“I see dead car dealerships, and I see them as nightclubs,” says Audrey Joseph, vice president of events and venues for the San Francisco Armory. “I can make a nightclub out of anything.”

She’s walking through the Armory’s Drill Court, a barrel-roofed space an acre in size that the Army Corps of Engineers built in 1914 for the National Guard. Her unmistakable Brooklyn accent reverberates across the gymnasium-like room, which is legally permitted to hold 4,000 people — and which was once known as the “Madison Square Garden of the West” for the number of prize fights held there in the mid-20th century.

Joseph’s mild braggadocio isn’t unwarranted: After a career in the record industry, where she racked up a number of gold singles and platinum albums, she co-opened S.F.’s sorely missed club, The Townsend. Home to notorious circuit parties and tea dances like Pleasuredome and Club Universe, its decor changed every weekend for years. (A decade-and-a-half after it closed, a Facebook group called “I Remember Club Universe in San Francisco at 177 Townsend” still contains more than 2,000 members.) The Armory’s size suits Joseph’s skill set and her long record of producing large-scale events — first at the Townsend and later at Mezzanine on Jessie Street, which Joseph helped open in 2004.

“I produced main-stage Pride,” she says. “Doing an event for a couple hundred thousand people, a million people? No problem. A cocktail party for 10? I’m really not so good. I’m a size queen.”

While the space’s potential is clear, Joseph was quite skeptical when Peter Acworth of Kink.com proposed purchasing the Armory in the mid-aughts as a film studio and event space. It wasn’t the dimensions, the lack of a prep kitchen, or even the building’s age: It was the restroom situation in a structure erected almost exclusively with men in mind.

“There was no ladies’ room,” she says. “The ladies room was the men’s room where they’d pulled the urinals off the wall. ’Cause it’s an armory! And they had urinals everywhere.”

But she quickly fell in love with the venue, and installed a proper ladies’ room plus 19 gender-neutral restrooms and a coat check, enclosing the venue’s vestibules with sound-attenuating materials so noise wouldn’t leak and disturb the neighbors up the street, some of whom had been quite vocal in their opposition to the Armory’s new plans.

“It wasn’t until 2014 that I did my first Pride party here,” Joseph says. “But I fell in love with this place because the potential was real, and I perceive myself to be a nightclub developer. For me, the bigger the space, the better — because I can lower the price and people can come in and get bang for their buck and because I can work on volume. That’s why we spent so much money on the soundsystem, the stage, the grid.

“Peter called me up from Tahoe one day and said, ‘I could buy a house up here for what you spent on that soundsystem. It better be good,’ ” Joseph adds. “I feel like we’ve come a long way. It’s been two years in the making. We’re ready to go.”

Built in 1914, the Armory was essentially abandoned for 30 years until Kink.com bought it in 2007. (Photo by Mira Laing)

The 200,000-square-foot Moorish castle bounded by Mission, 14th, and Julian streets is actually San Francisco’s fifth armory, according to resident historian Matty McCauley, who starts leading historical tours of the building this Saturday, Sept. 16. Two were lost to fires, and the fourth one was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. So the National Guard, with funding by the state, seized the opportunity to build a more durable structure in the ruins of the Mission, which had been decimated.

They chose part of the site of the former Woodward’s Gardens, the 19th-century amusement park and zoo that had once displayed Monarch, the enormous grizzly bear that adorns the California state flag. A military facility for decades, the Armory fell into obsolescence in the postwar period, and the Guard ultimately relocated to Fort Funston in the 1970s (albeit briefly). Landmarked shortly after, the building sat largely empty until Acworth’s Armory Studios LLC bought it in 2007.

Famously, Mission Creek runs through the Armory’s sub-basement, which had once been used for shooting practice. Its course drains the area from Mission Dolores to the bay, and the presence of fresh water and the animals it attracted were instrumental in human settlement of the region.

“That water was really the reason anybody settled here in the first place, 13,000 years ago when humans showed up,” McCauley says, “and 4,000 years ago when one of the most prominent native tribes were here. They were the population until the missions came in.”

He’s gone “pretty deep into this building,” he says, finding mysterious rooms that may have been built decades after the building was initially constructed, then forgotten about.

The sub-basement, where the creek flows, had been under seven feet of water after sitting vacant for decades. A complete restoration is unlikely, so it will probably remain as is: a creepy dungeon with a medieval cast.

“It’s completely safe,” McCauley emphasizes, noting that the basement occupies the building’s entire footprint and the water level is where it should be.

The tours he conducts emphasize the building’s ties to San Francisco history, such as the presence of enormous guns in the building until after World War II, or the violent suppression of the 1934 Longshoreman’s Strike, a simmering 83-day conflict that resulted in six deaths. Seventy-odd years later, the Armory had become part of another side of San Francisco’s culture: freewheeling (yet consensual) sexual deviance. Kink.com, known for fetish and BDSM porn and for cultivating a professional on-set culture, used the Armory’s various chambers as film studios for a decade.

However, pressure rose against the adult industry in the form of failed ballot measures and other attempts to mandate condom usage. On top of that, a secular downturn amid the internet’s near-infinite free amateur porn ate into profit margins and sent most production to low-cost Nevada. (“Porn ain’t coming back,” Joseph tells me, wistfully.) Kink scrambled to justify its ownership of a building that looked increasingly like a white elephant, floating poorly received proposals for farmers markets, film festivals, and other community events.

Although the Armory hosted the American Conservatory Theater’s production of Black Watch in 2013, assurances of a firewall between the Drill Court and the dungeons proved futile. The taint of having the NSFW-iest of NSFW delights under the same roof as neighborhood kids or phallic-looking organic produce was impossible to overcome, so in January, Kink wound down all on-site porn production and announced it would gradually transition out of the building, leasing the top floors as office space and searching for new revenue streams.

That’s where Joseph came in. Even while she was battling ovarian cancer in 2014, Acworth persuaded her to work on a part-time basis that quickly became full-time. And in spite of her history with nightclubs, she insists the venue is more than that.

“I want the Armory to be a multipurpose space,” she says. “I want to have concerts, prizefighting, dance parties, roller derby, basketball, drone races. We have team building with Segways, so they have Segway races and they joust. I want it to be everything to everybody. Why can’t I?”

She’s done it before.

Drill court (Photo bi Mira Laing)

Opening a door to the Drill Court that says “NO ENTRY NO ACCESS NO EXCEPTIONS,” Joseph points to the thin, rectangular windows at either end.

“We did those shutters,” she says. “By the way, our windows are 18 inches wide by 30 feet high. You can’t get them off the shelf.”

Virtually everything about the redesign was a custom job, including a stage Joseph designed to be a “sandwich,” with a non-skid surface on one side and a carpet on the other (to make it useful as a dancefloor and for hosting corporate events). The stage can be reconfigured into different shapes or at various heights depending on the occasion, or into several stages of various sizes. And for all its sins regarding faulty levee systems or the foolhardy destruction of the Everglades, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Armory durably enough that Joseph’s crew has installed the “only ‘super-grid’ west of the Mississippi,” trusswork capable of supporting 40,000 pounds of LED screens, soundsystems, and other equipment. (She can go very deep into the technical specs, and isn’t above hugging a massive chain bag out of respect for its strength.)

“There is nowhere in that Drill Court that I can’t place a light,” she says. “We bought the D&B V-Series soundsystem, which is the No. 1 touring soundsystem in the world. If you were here for Pride, you heard most of it. … For a dance party, I break it up and the sound makes a cross in the middle for a dance floor, with complete saturation.”

Crowing about state-of-the-art audiovisual toys is far from where Joseph started. The arc of her career reveals a star-crossed C.V. that includes stints in various aspects of nightlife, event production, and LGBT culture for more than four decades — and it likely could not be replicated today.

Toward the tail end of the hippie era, after going to law school, she talked her way into working at a four-floor club in Brooklyn called Dynamite with themed rooms and a lot of Day-Glo paint. It didn’t hurt that the owner “had a crush on me,” she says.

“What fascinated me about Dynamite was [the owner] had money, so it was progressive,” Joseph says. “Two record players and a fader, so they would fade from one record player to another. Unheard of! People like Frank Zappa played there, and it was packed, with a head shop and a room downstairs with Tarot Card readings run by Susie, Queen of Snow — who was a white witch. How did you know? ’Cause she had white hair. She dyed it white, on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn!”

Around the block was St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, which eventually succeeded in shutting down Dynamite and replacing it with a drug-rehab center that’s there to this day.

“The church was coming in: ‘Repent!’ ” Joseph recalls. “But it wasn’t gay, it wasn’t straight, it wasn’t anything — it was everything.”

Joseph later had her own late-night radio show, drove a Checker cab — “I was probably one of three women driving a cab, and I didn’t know you had to have a cab license” — and worked at the Fillmore East with a young Bill Graham, who’d only recently ceased to be a mime. After a stint at the Electric Circus, she fell in with various starving musicians who recorded clandestine late-night demos, one session of which led to Chic’s first single, “Dance Dance Dance.”

“Let me tell you who the people in the studio were,” Joseph says, ticking off names like Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards, Luther Vandross, Norma Jean Wright, and Kenny Lehman, who provided the track’s “Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah!” line. “They were all in the studio, nobody was anything, and Luther Vandross weighed like 22 pounds at the time.”

It went gold. Record execs thought the team had a magic bullet, and Joseph went on to promote several disco records that went platinum. She worked for the imperious Clive Davis at Arista Records, thwarting his Big Brother-ish attempts at eavesdropping by installing speakers near her office’s one-way intercom. Money poured in hand over foot. She later switched to the punk label Z Records, working with albums by Lydia Lunch.

Then, on April 5, 1982, unknown members of the Palestine Liberation Organization blew up her apartment building on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Their target was the Syrian restaurant on the ground floor, but Joseph sustained injuries serious enough to require a prolonged hospitalization.

“I stopped smoking cigarettes that day forever,” she says, pointing to her throat, “because all the little cilia were burnt and much of it did not regrow.”

With little to her name except a beat-up 1974 Chevy (and the dog she’d spirited out of her burning building in a jacket), Joseph went on an extended road trip. She ended up in San Francisco, where her friend, the producer Patrick Cowley, was dying of what was then still called GRID, for “gay-related immune deficiency,” and is now known as AIDS.

It was former Cockette and “Queen of Disco” Sylvester who got her to stay, to put out Cowley’s music posthumously. So she moved into Cowley’s house in the Castro and lived there for two years, never expecting it to be permanent. Two days after finding her own place on Corwin Street, someone broke in and stole Joseph’s dog — who the SPCA found in a bush a few days later.

“She lived four days,” Joseph says. “I was a disaster, but I was a San Franciscan at that point. I wasn’t going anywhere.”

In the early ’90s, with partners Bill Camillo and Les Dirks, Joseph bought The Townsend in SoMa. At first, they’d managed parties in near-perpetual crisis mode. Eventually, they accrued enough of a following that the owner, not realizing how much money they’d made, agreed to sell it for next to nothing with the liquor license intact — if they assumed $50,000 in debt. So they did. And when the lights turned out to have been stolen, Joseph persuaded their rightful owner to unload them for a fraction of what he demanded, not willing to part with “the vastest lighting system in the city.”

“We had something called a Venus,” she says. “This round spaceship that rotated and had dichroic gels in it. It came to a point where people would worship it as it came down over the middle of the dancefloor.”

Her original partners died of complications from HIV, but Joseph soldiered on. After New York DJ Larry Levan died in 1992, she got friends to buy his soundsystem and drive it back to San Francisco, with a stop in Baltimore for parts. But she had yet to create a night massive enough to justify all the infrastructure. Multiple trips to Hartmann Studios to beg for last-minute props yielded fairly cheesy results — a Buddha, an Eiffel Tower with red-and-white plastic tablecloths, a giant clamshell for the janitor’s girlfriend to blow bubbles in while dressed as a mermaid — but the club’s reputation grew once word spread that a new party called Universe fully transformed its venue every weekend.

Eventually known as the Studio 54 of the West Coast, it helped launch the careers of S.F. drag performers like Heklina, and by the time it lost its lease in 2002, it had begun to attract top-tier talent: Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper, AC/DC, The B-52’s.

“The interesting thing about Universe and Pleasuredome was that I never gouged anybody,” Joseph says. “The most expensive price was $15, and maybe $25 at New Year’s Eve. If I charged $12, and someone like Chaka Khan was there, I raised the price by $2 or a dollar. What that did for me was build family. That building had countless numbers of memorial services there, a couple commitment ceremonies, auctions to help put on Gay Games.”

Today, that building remains tethered to the city’s zeitgeist. It’s now an unremarkable condominium with a ground-level Subway sandwich shop, directly across the street from Saison, widely considered San Francisco’s most expensive restaurant.

Joseph went on to open Mezzanine, partnering with a developer who’d once worked to shut The Townsend down because its proximity might have reduced the value of his property. (For one New Year’s Eve, she had a trained elephant named Susie stationed outside the club in a top hat, as Baby New Year.) She served on, and later became president of, San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission. This was at a time when many commissioners conceived of nightlife in more defensive terms, sometimes regarding it more as a nuisance to be contained than as a key element of San Francisco’s uniqueness (or a source of tax dollars). This led to some disagreements. Of one fellow commissioner, Joseph says, “That guy must have black-and-blue up and down his leg, I kicked him so often.”

But current Commission President Bryant Tan recalls a cordial, constructive relationship.

“She’s a strong woman, very opinionated,” he says. “But she knows what she’s talking about. I know she knows the ins and outs of how to produce a great venue, and how to produce a great party.”

Statewide, Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill to permit California jurisdictions to allow the sale of alcohol until 4 a.m. appears dead. And as to whether the pendulum has swung back toward an official pro-nightlife stance overall, Tan is agnostic.

“It’s hard for me to gauge, but I definitely know the way we talk about it is different,” he says. “There are people who are bugged by screaming revelers in the streets, but we also get to talk about how entertainment is great and we need more of it, and it needs to grow as our city grows.

“I do think we need more spaces,” he adds. “We need a variety of spaces, from the small 20-seat bar or cafe that has open-mic nights, to the big 20,000-seat amphitheater — which, hopefully, we will get with the Warriors arena. … Entertainment comes in so many forms. The Armory, I think, is filling a niche. There aren’t a lot of venues that can fit 4,000 people. It kind of jumps from 1,000 to 8,000.”

San Franciscans are fortunate to have a venue that threw a giant Pride party full of snakes and other animals, and which will throw the official pre-Folsom Street Fair circuit party (Magnitude, Sept. 23) before pivoting to host a fundraiser for Rocket Dog Rescue (Bummer’s Ball, Oct. 5) and a conference on diversity in Silicon Valley (Tech Inclusion San Francisco, Oct. 17-19).

The fact that the notoriously raunchy Magnitude will no longer host a sex party in spite of taking place in the Armory is likely to bum out many Folsom attendees, no doubt. And more generally, not everyone is eager to live next to a long-dormant fortress that now comes to life at night. The Armory has worked with neighbors along Woodward Alley to allay their concerns, most of which centered on crime. It had been a rough block, and several residents voiced anxieties that everything from gunshots to public urination might resume.

Joseph believes that’s backward, and that the Armory’s LED lights and conspicuous security presence deters crime rather than drawing it. (She also notes that, with plenty of restrooms and no ins-and-outs, using the sidewalk as a toilet is less likely.) Moreover, the city concluded that her sound-attenuation expenditures had prevented amplified noises from leaking out.

Although she’s proud of the service kitchen and the electricity upgrades — “when we did our first Chemical Brothers concert, we had to bring in two generators,” she says — public safety remains paramount.

“I developed the protocol after Pulse,” she says, referring to the massacre in Orlando, one week before Pride 2016, “about what to do with your club before you open your doors. Before we open our doors, we sweep behind every bathroom stall, under and in every bathroom garbage can, in every fixture to make sure there’s nothing there.

“What happens if you’re the UPS guy wheeling in a hand-truck full of shit,” she adds, “and you deposit a gun, or tape it behind the toilet, and come back that night? You don’t know who people are. … Everybody has the propensity to commit violence, and if I have the lives of 4,000 people in my hands, plus my staff, you bet your ass I’m going to protect them in any way I can. That’s why I always have an EMT or two on site. We work very hard to protect the public.”

In the end, Audrey Joseph is a creature of nightlife through and through, at home amid vice and comfortable with a few naughty habits.

“I have expensive ear plugs with little filters that allow me to hear the music and talk, but not the obtrusive sound that hurt your hearing,” she says. “It filters out certain highs and stuff but I pull them out all the time, I just can’t.”

Then, she compares her venue to the one named for San Francisco’s most famous promoter, someone she knew at the dawn of her formidable career: “I do believe the Armory is now one of the most unique spaces in the whole fucking city,” she says. “Bill Graham ain’t better.”

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