Fire departments across the U.S. are sounding the bell for their annual holiday toy-donation programs, in a tradition born right here in San Francisco. S.F. firefighters have been running toy drives longer than any fire department in the nation, and their 200,000 toys given to more than 30,000 kids each year also makes it the country’s largest fire department toy drive.
The 2018 San Francisco Firefighters Toy Program drive kicked off holiday efforts last Thursday with two very different events. One was a luncheon at which guests rubbed elbows with Mayor London Breed while noshing on warm cioppino at a fire department warehouse bursting with toys.
The other was a topless dancer party at the Gold Club where unwrapped toys were the price of admission for cocktails and table dances.
The Gold Club party was not an official S.F. Firefighters Toy Program event, although proceeds went to the toy drive. And while strip clubs aren’t the primary toy-drive donors, they are one of the biggest contributors every year.
“They’re definitely in the Top 10. They’re very generous,” San Francisco Firefighters Toy Program chairperson Sally Cazzaro tells SF Weekly. “A lot of the girls that work at the clubs are single moms and have told me that previously, before working, they had to come here and get toys, or [their families did] when they were growing up.”
Cazzaro says the toy drive’s largest donors are the heavy hitters you’d expect. Big corporations like AT&T, PG&E, and Wells Fargo usually top the list.
But San Francisco striptease clubs, in a quirk you don’t usually see in other cities’ toy drives, produce an unusually large percentage of the toys that go into this program’s Santa bag.
“The clubs are right up there,” according to Cazzaro. “Last year was more than $30,000 in funds and money, and about 75 barrels of toys. The clientele are asked to bring in toys during the holidays.”
When she says “clubs,” she’s not talking about all San Francisco strip clubs. She refers specifically to the 10 clubs operated by a parent company called BSC Management, whose venues include the Gold Club, the Condor, the Penthouse Club, and Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. Each of these nightclubs will offer free admission for an unwrapped toy (worth $20 or more), and donate their “Charity Dance” proceeds to the toy drive, though Dec. 20.
The 10 clubs under BSC Management have raised more than $300,000 for the toy drive since 1994. This has not come without controversy.
In 2011, Chief Joanne Hayes-White canceled a check presentation ceremony from the dancers at Fire Station 1, over concerns about welcoming “entertainers” into the station with firefighters on duty. (Those check presentations are now evening events at BSC-owned clubs.)
The San Francisco Fire Department does not control the S.F. Firefighters Toy Program. It’s a volunteer charity project of the San Francisco Firefighters Local 798 union, and now incorporated as its own independent nonprofit organization.
“It was started in 1949 by a few firefighters at Bush and Grant, just fixing bikes for kids in the neighborhood,” Cazzaro says. “What it’s evolved to today is the largest firefighter toy program in the United States.”
And it runs year-round. In addition to cash, organizers suggest donations of sports equipment like basketballs or footballs, baby items, and dolls of all ethnicities.
One thing the San Francisco Firefighters Toy Program won’t accept is toy guns. But they will accept another $30,000 check from strip clubs a few weeks from now.
Visit sffirefighterstoys.org for more information on how and where to donate.