Ending Up on Top

Blocking the entrance to the Endup, a medium-sized, black-clad security guard laughs at my inquiry about a cover charge. “Admissions are on the house,” he says, parting the entryway's thick black curtain. The room inside reveals a scene worthy of a documentary on San Francisco dance culture: A young raver, decked in trainers and a neon backpack, shuffles in time with the beat; a wide-eyed thirtysomething blonde twirls unsteadily on 6-inch silver platforms; two older, bare-chested men kiss passionately. Outside, dank cigarette smoke billows over a large patio where a young girl laughingly dusts off her leather pants after a piggyback ride ends in a drunken spill. It's 11 a.m. and the Endup's 25th anniversary party is in full swing.

On an overcast Sunday morning, club owner Carl Hanken has gathered 500 friends and former employees, from all three decades of the club's existence, to drink, dance, and reminisce about the highs and lows of one of San Francisco's most colorful nightspots. “The Endup has always been the place to be,” Hanken says as he sits on the back patio, casually pointing a security guard toward a man passed out in a chair. “Everyone from gay to straight can come here and feel at home and just be themselves.” Clad in a blue jumpsuit, the former research chemist and trucker looks more like a grandfather than a club owner — white wisps of thinning hair top a fleshy face creased with years of ruddy laugh lines.

The job of running the Endup was once his late brother Al's, who opened the club in November of 1973. “My brother was a round-the-clock partier,” Hanken chuckles. “He took this place from a simple club to a body-on-body dance hall.” When Al opened the club's doors in the early '70s, his vision was to give San Francisco's gay community a place where its members could feel comfortable. But the bar's real success came as a result of after-hours permits, which allowed it to stay open all night. Al began a Sunday T-Dance that started at 5:30 a.m., attracting the runoff from the Saturday night clubs that closed at the same time. According to Grant Minix, an Endup patron of 16 years, the club's early years were exactly what Al had envisioned. “For gay culture, it was our bar,” he says, sipping a cold cocktail. “You could always count on it to be open and the employees have always been like a family.”

By the '80s, club showcases like “Decadence” and “Universe” had transformed the venue into San Francisco's mecca for the flamboyant and chic. “In the '80s, you could always come and see the most outrageous costumes and fashions,” says Minix. “It was a crazier time before AIDS hit. There were a lot more drugs, like Ecstasy and speed, in the scene.” Special events like underwear and basket contests, at which men were judged on the size of their packages, would turn into free-for-alls of casual sex. (The milieu would be immortalized in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.) Former bar back Carmen DeTitta remembers a night at “Decadence” with a full mud wrestling ring as a high point of the carefree '80s. “It got completely out of hand,” he recalls. “Mud was everywhere — on the bar, in hair, all over the floor — and everyone stayed and danced the rest of the night. It was great.”

Despite the excesses, most appreciate the Endup as a place to just be themselves. Lizzard, a self-described androgynous fan of the club, says, “I feel like I could do anything and people wouldn't go, 'Oh, gross,' ” as a light drizzle falls on her curly locks. “It helps that there's such a mix of people from street people to millionaires that come here. Everyone just accepts each other as they are. You know, no pretenses.”

Back on the patio, Hanken recalls the darkest days of the club. “When my brother Al passed away of AIDS in '89,” he says, “he left the club in the hands of a Douglass Whitmore, who was the general manager at the time.” For five years, Whitmore ran the club loosely: Drugs were rampant, permits expired, and many friends and employees felt their one-time home was becoming more about money than family. In 1993, Hanken contested Whitmore's executorship in a court battle that lasted three years and ended in Whitmore's death and the Endup shutting its doors. “It was a war of attrition,” says Hanken. “I finally won in 1996, but it took its toll on everyone.” With the court decision Whitmore became unstable, showing up at Hanken's door with a loaded .38 pistol. “He stalked me for weeks and finally came to my door and shot me in the back.” The FBI eventually tracked Whitmore to a trailer in Millbrae where he took his own life after tear gas was shot through the window.

With the club back in the Hanken family hands and the doors reopened, the last two years have been a time of rebuilding. “Our main focus was to get our permits back and to re-establish the family atmosphere,” says Alison Page, a publicist for the Endup for 16 years. A bar back who goes by the name of Dick remembers this fight as the toughest time of all. “After the club closed, we had to gather all the current and former employees behind Carl,” she says. “But the roughest part was getting the old crowd back.” Old fans began to reappear as club nights such as “Kit Kat,” “Club Dread,” and the T-Dance returned.

Back inside, the crowd parts as three huge white frosted cakes are paraded through the pool room. Hanken starts to pass out cake and champagne to grateful patrons as a twentysomething girl dressed in huge bell-bottoms and pigtails whispers, “I don't know what I'd do without this place.” Strawberry mousse is smeared on her cheek. “There's nowhere else in this city that's more of a melting pot for people.”

Page overhears this remark and adds, “The Endup is to San Francisco what San Francisco is to the United States. A little crazy and full of color.”

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