1015 Folsom Keeps On Ticking By Embracing Its Audience

S.F.’s clubs are shutting down left and right. How has 1015 Folsom managed to stay around for 30 years?

Photo by Kevin N. Hume

When Ira Sandler took over SoMa’s Das Klub and reopened it as 1015 Folsom on a Friday the 13th in 1989, it was not the most auspicious of beginnings.

The Loma Prieta earthquake happened days later, for one, and there were cultural headwinds besides. Nightlife in the ’80s was largely about live rock and punk shows, not DJ-led parties, and AIDS was decimating a community that had kept it all going once disco was banished from the mainstream and began to morph into house.

“We had Doc Martin playing house, and sophisticated cocktail music in the front room,” Sandler says. “Besides Doc we had Ernie Monson, but what really saved 1015 through those first few hard months was San Francisco’s gay community. Gus Bean did our first New Year’s Eve and started Colossus which continued on successfully a few weeks later and ran on a few more years. It was an instant success.”

Colossus took off at a dark time in part because of Bean, who’d been a promoter at the legendary late-night club Trocadero Transfer, and partly because from 1977 until 1984, the address had been home to Sutro Baths, a gay bathhouse. These are huge names to those who were there and those who wish they had been.

And so 1015 Folsom was born.

In addition to being the place where serial killer Andrew Cunanan met Gianni Versace, 1015 Folsom has also played host to titans like Giorgio Moroder — you can pretty much divide music history into categories marked “Before” and “After” Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” — as well as Madonna, Ja Rule, Fatboy Slim, global mega-DJ Tiësto for his first West Coast show, and Anderson .Paak before he blew up and started winning Grammys. Clubs come and go, often for bullshit reasons like disputes with neighbors who bought a condo in an entertainment district only to conclude that entertainment constitutes a nuisance. These days, Mezzanine is on borrowed time after a landlord dispute, yet a few blocks away, 1015 soldiers on.

It’s about staying relevant, Sandler says, a bizspeak truism that nonetheless contains plenty of honest truth. He’s retained staffers for decades — a rare thing in an industry with notoriously high turnover. A bar manager who’d been with him since the early ’90s died last year, but the guy who hired him is still there, and an R&D person who left to work on Holy Cow and start their own sound company later returned. He looks for rule-breakers he trusts, like the promoter-producer DJ Dials, who sometimes throws two or three simultaneous parties in the five-room club with a capacity of around 1,350. Constant renovations and refreshes have given the venue a sense of mystery, in that you can walk around and approach various rooms from different angles and feel like you’re on a treasure hunt.

Of DJ Dials, Sandler says, “You have one of the best innovators in staying ahead of the curve and a true disruptor and a person with an ear to how to start the trends instead of follow them.

“Most clubs come up with formulas, and it’s a tough thing,” he adds. “It’s not me going out seven nights a week. It’s me being a coach and choosing great players.”

Of course, after 30 years, a venue is going to rack up some detractors. Chris Zaldua, a San Francisco DJ and writer, notes that not all the complaints add up.

“I’ve seen and heard people complain about 1015 Folsom for almost every reason under the sun,” he says. “It’s too big. It’s not big enough. It’s too crowded. It’s too empty. It’s too crowded, but with all the wrong people. There’s not enough people, or the right people at least. It’s too loud. It’s not loud enough. It’s too dark. There’s too many lights.

“I’ve also had genuinely life-changing moments there,” he adds, citing Joy Orbison and Moodymann.  “The thing is, clubs like 1015 Folsom don’t really exist anymore. It’s huge. Cavernous, even. … It’s celebrated and showcased almost every genre of music under the sun, including some I loathe, and some I imagined I’d never experience in a mainstream club,” he says. 

At a house he owns in Bernal Heights that he hasn’t lived in for years, Sandler is an unusual interview subject. He’d dictated notes to himself, later writing keywords on a series of colored index cards, tools to recall the distribution channels by which house music that no one had yet heard arrived in San Francisco. Heterosexual DJs, some of whom worked at radio stations and got new records before anyone else, played at queer nights.

“My memories are of a sense of fabulousness,” Sandler, who is also straight, says of the mad late ’80s, when he had to be the sound tech, the lighting tech, oversee security, and run over to Kinkos to print flyers for these underground parties nobody might otherwise learn about. “It just breathed exuberance. No straight club was playing that music, so in a sense the gay community was in the vanguard of playing the best music you could hear on the planet. The celebration at that time was people who wanted to reaffirm what was the most important thing in life: just connecting and letting yourself go to the music.”

In addition to the short-lived Colossus, there are seminal raves and 1015 staples like Release and Spundae, the latter of which remains one of the biggest risks Sandler says he ever took on account of the largely European DJs they booked having relatively small followings in the U.S. at that time.

“Putting money out there and taking losses and building toward the future” was the way to get that electronic music to new audiences, he says. “We built a worldwide reputation doing something no one else was going. That paid off.”

But the most significant party might be Pura, one of S.F.’s longest-running Latin nights — every Saturday for the past nine years. Over the years, Sandler has observed that the Latinx community appreciates and reciprocates respect, and Pura’s regulars aren’t as “jaded” as some other communities with a wider range of alternatives.

“They’re coming there as much to be the party as much as have the party come to them,” he says. “They bring the enthusiasm, energy, joy, and celebration — and we just have to be the backdrop for them. As long as we treat them extremely well and do all our production to the highest quality, they’re very loyal.”

The last anniversary Sandler did was in 1996, with “Carl Cox in 1996 and a whole list of all the people who came here for the first 10 years.” So this year’s 30th anniversary doesn’t entirely sync with that timeline, but 1015 Folsom’s calendar for October is full of huge names, including Dixon (Oct. 11), Black Coffee (Oct. 15), Honey Dijon with Jlin (Oct. 18), and a Justice DJ set (Oct. 20). There’s a 30-year anthology forthcoming, too, as befits a venue that’s done more than almost anyone to keep club culture alive in San Francisco.

“We don’t put oxygen in the air like Las Vegas,” Sackler says of patrons’ palpable excitement. “We take them on a thrill ride of their lives.”

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