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Night Crawler 

Swan Song

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
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Swan Song
In the 1930s, as vaudeville began to give way to the more revealing burlesque show, female impersonators struggled to find a new outlet for their particular artistry, and "pansy shows" cropped up all over the country. Filled with sensational costumes, suggestive one-liners, and catchy tunes, the pansy shows offered folks a chance to giggle at otherwise taboo subjects in a high-spirited setting that challenged the sexual mores of pre-World War II America. Of course, police harassment and city ordinances that prohibited cross-dressing for anyone but club employees didn't make it easy. In 1932, Ray Bourbon, a courageous and infamous female impersonator endowed with blooming police files (begun during his participation in two scandalous productions written by Mae West), brought his show Boys Will Be Girls to San Francisco's Trait's Cafe. It didn't last long. Numerous police raids, one of which was broadcast on live radio, sent Bourbon packing, but a seed of sequins had been publicly planted in San Francisco soil.

In 1936, after watching an impromptu performance by a Sophie Tucker impersonator in his father's speak-easy, Joseph Finocchio opened the first nightclub in the world solely dedicated to the skill and refinement of female illusionists. Rather than causing a scandal, the transvestite's Valhalla became a first-class tourist attraction, known around the world as the fabulous Finocchio's. Great stage performers like Ray Bourbon and Lucean Phelps, a Sophie Tucker impersonator with a 27-year residency, called the North Beach stage home, as did some unlikely visitors, like Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich, who joined the midnight show in women's clothes on at least one occasion; the common crowd rubbed glittery elbows with Bette Davis, Bob Hope, and Tallulah Bankhead, and servicemen defied military authority to "forget troubles and woes at the one and only world-famous Finocchio's" (albeit for after-curfew drinking). At the height of its popularity, Finocchio's offered four different shows, six nights a week, and Joe Finocchio was always there at the front door with a smile and a handshake, while his wife, Eve, sold tickets just a few feet away, and his children (and, later, his grandchildren) served drinks.

After Joe's death in the mid-'80s -- by which time drag shows had become commonplace, Finocchio's had become the cleanest act on Broadway, and attendance was lagging -- the club and the family carried on. A great black-and-white portrait took Joe's place at the top of the stairs and Eve's distinctive voice continued to answer the phone, day in and day out, with the familiar greeting: "Forget your troubles and woes for a while, at least, and join us for an evening of fun and entertainment at the one and only world-renowned Finocchio's, family owned since 1936!"

Until last week.

Embedded in Eve's singsong inventory of comedy, song, and dance routines and fabulous costumes is a new message: "Because of landlord's high increase in rent and other demands, Finocchio's will be closing after 63 years." Eve's voice breaks with emotion, then carries on her graceful style. "Thank you for the memories. We will always be grateful for the support, love, and understanding you have shown us. Thank you. Eve ... goodbye for now."

Outside Finocchio's, it's almost like the old days. A line of nicely dressed patrons waits patiently in the growing cold, murmuring excitedly underneath the giant red F that stretches into the fog overhead.

"My mother used to come here in the '30s," says Ann Simms, who has returned this night with her daughter. "It's just terrible. This is a San Francisco landmark."

It is a litany repeated again and again in line.

"This is supposed to be the gay capital of the world," says 28-year-old Mark Driegan. "How could something like this happen?"

In a small dressing room, crumbling under the weight of memories, 24-year Finocchio veteran Paco Rios applies his makeup and tries to keep a stiff upper lip. "Half of my life has been spent in this room," he says, looking wistfully at wigs and mementos. "It's so, so sad." Commiseration, good wishes, and strong cocktails only threaten his carefully applied mascara. "No, no, don't make me cry," Rios says, rising elegantly to shake my hand. "Please, don't make me cry."

In the club, glittering with candlelight and gold lamé, waiters (comprised largely of Finocchio kin and those who have come to think of themselves as family) bustle about trying to take drink orders.

"If people had known earlier," says Dan Payne, a four-year employee who works as a waiter and assistant to Eve's grandson, General Manager Eric Jorgensen, "maybe there would have been a way to save it." For the first time in Payne's memory, the crowd will not be allowed to stay for all of the scheduled shows. "There was a time when the crowd was like this every night."

Ed "Teach" Reynolds remembers. Teach first came to Finocchio's in 1951, when he was in the Navy during the Korean War, and he has returned several times a year, every year since -- first with the Ringling Bros. Circus, then with his wife, then with his daughter, then, after his wife's death, with his girlfriend, Kiki.

"This is the best show in town," says Teach, gallantly removing his Irish cap. "It's classy, clean, good fun." He sits down, smoothing the red tablecloth and remembering, with great fondness, performers who have long since passed away and private performances given on behalf of the traveling circus; he remembers the band and the best New Year's Eve of his life; and how Joe used to stand at the top of the stairs.

"The Finocchios are a class act," he says, finally, and hands me a small, antique card carefully prepared for Eve, which reads, "May all your days be circus days."

The lights dim, followed by a drum roll and titillating strobe effect.

"Welcome to the world-famous Finocchio's, where the most beautiful women onstage are men," begins the well-known introduction. "If you want to take pictures, please give our performers time to pose."

Teach grins and nudges me, eyes fixed on the stage as four flashy "dames" sing, "If you don't see what you want up here, you should have stayed in bed." Quick-witted MC Brian Keith, who wears at least 20 dazzling gowns this night, takes center stage and banters with the crowd -- "My god, it's been so long since we've seen people in the cheap seats. ... Where you people from? Santa Cruz? Are you stoned? Kansas?! Ooh, look, electricity and indoor plumbing" -- until the audience is stomping on the floor like "Spam-sucking trailer trash."

Marcos de la Rosa, Angel Amor, Holelotta Times, Jealousy Jiggets, Nikki Starr, Barbara-Joe Peterson, Paco Rios, and Alejandro Cruz play their hearts out -- cape dances, burlesque stripteases (with little flashlights and a whole lot of imagination), trailer-park magic acts, and Hollywood-style lip-syncs. Keith says his legs are like peanut butter -- brown, smooth, and easy to spread -- and the crowd is smitten. During the notably racier second show Rios performs his famous drag transformation. Times offers parting tips on brassieres and bird seed, and Nikki Starr dedicates her number to Mr. and Mrs. Finocchio, and the "Camelot they created for female impersonators." The standing ovation draws a very small, well-dressed Eve Finocchio teetering to the stage, where she sits, modestly squinting in the spotlight, until the song is done. Dan Payne rushes through the crowd brushing tears from his cheeks. Everyone is crying backstage, makeup be damned. There is hardly a dry eye in the house.

"This is the best drag show I've ever seen," says 23-year-old first-timer Loraine Van David.

"Isn't that the way it goes," says Teach. "My father used to say, 'If you love me, tell me now. Don't wait for the preacher's bow.'"

During the third show, surrounded by family and cast, Eve Finocchio says the only thing left to be said: "I love you all."

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

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Silke Tudor

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