The woman ahead of me is 7 feet tall. I'm in the restroom queue at Oasis on a packed Saturday night, during the intermission for a party called Mother. It's Madonna night. Sue Casa is performing to “How High,” a deep cut off Confessions on a Dance Floor. There are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, women with impeccably dapper haircuts, muscle-bears with glittery beards, Millennials of indeterminate gender, and some respectable-looking nine-to-fivers all intermingling like molecules in a glass of water.
Mother is the follow-up to the former Trannyshack, San Francisco drag legend Heklina's long-running drag show, which had been popping up around town since 1996. Ultimately, Heklina opted to change the name after changing social mores around transgender issues gave “Trannyshack” a slight whiff of insensitivity, but a revamp was likely in order anyway, as Trannyshack was monthly while Mother happens every Saturday night.
That's because Oasis is Heklina's baby. Along with drag queen-choreographer-playwright D'Arcy Drollinger and several other partners, she opened Oasis on New Year's Eve 2014 mere hours after crews of friends and fans finished assembling it. In less than six months, it has upended San Francisco's nightlife, through regular parties like Mother, Polyglamorous, and Red Hot Burlesque; Drollinger's bawdy original musicals (Shit and Champagne, and its forthcoming sequel, Champagne White and the Temple of Poon); and line-for-line drag queen re-enactments of classic TV shows like Sex and the City and The Facts of Life. Oasis has created a home for local talent as well as a landing spot for out-of-town acts that might otherwise never come to San Francisco.
This is particularly notable because, in spite of being a boomtown in nearly every other way, S.F. has been hemorrhaging LGBT spaces. In the last year, the Mission lost two of its three gay bars (Esta Noche and the Lexington Club) while the third (Truck) has announced its impending demise. The city is also losing performance venues — gay, straight, or otherwise. Marlena's is gone. Café du Nord has been on hiatus. Yoshi's, 222 Hyde, the Red Devil Lounge, and others have all disappeared in the last couple of years.
Against this wave, the only other success stories of Oasis' ilk would be the near-miraculous 2013 resurrection of the Eagle and the emergence of Hi Tops, which also opened in 2013, in the Castro. But the Eagle is a sui generis leather bar, and Hi Tops has a kitchen that churns out solidly excellent pub fare, making it an anomaly among sports bars even before considering that it's a gay sports bar. So Oasis is, even by San Francisco standards, unique. And for all its hipness and the avant-garde performances and the crowds that it draws, it could be said to be way off-trend. Oasis didn't merely buck the trend of atrophying nightlife, but tore off its wig, ripped off all 10 of its fake nails, and told that trend to get the hell off its stage.
The weeks leading up to Oasis' New Year's Eve opening weren't entirely auspicious, however. At the T-minus 10 days stage, Heklina and Drollinger — along with their partners, Geoff Benjamin and Jason Beebout — realized they were in way over their heads.
“The architect was saying, 'No way, not going to happen for at least another month,'” Drollinger said. “And we'd sold out for New Year's! It was that moment when we had to go to friends in higher places for help.”
“We had upholsterers standing there with sewing machines in the lounge putting together the booths at 7 p.m. on the day we opened,” Beebout said. At one point, they were reduced to pantomiming the act of getting up to code in order to satisfy the minders, but everything that needed to get done got done, and Oasis rang in 2015 like a glitter cannon that exploded at the speed of sound.
The space had been a gay club in the '90s, and later became a Latino club called Caliente, but lay moribund for about five years before the current ownership. Drollinger had been to the old Oasis, and Heklina had even hosted a night there when there was a Plexiglass floor over a swimming pool and a retractable roof. After 20 years at the top of the city's nightlife, she's a commanding presence, and her booming laugh carries onstage as much as in a booth. Drollinger, whose background is in theater, is a bit more sugary and measured in her remarks, and the two of them frequently finish each other's sentences. The other two partners — Benjamin, who is gay but not a drag queen, and Beebout, who is straight — may be less visible to the casual patron but are no less vital to the club's operation. And it's hard work. When Heklina plays the theme to The Muppet Show in the run-up to Mother, it's pure self-deprecation.
While all four principals have solid experience in nightlife and entertainment, none had owned a club, and they were outbid several times before landing a space. There have been a few mishaps during the many 17-hour days spent learning aspects of club management on the fly, such as the realization that more than just the dressing room would need air conditioning.
“That was the one element we overlooked,” Heklina said, with deliberate understatement, then grabbed my recording device. “This has all been a nightmare, the biggest mistake of my life,” she laughed, glaring at me. “Don't put that in there!”
“It was January,” added Beebout, referring to the AC omission. He goes on to compare Oasis to the cult sci-fi film Dark City, where every time you enter, the place has morphed almost unrecognizably into something else: One night it's a cabaret, another night it's set up for a punk show.
Overall, most errors have been prosaic — Beebout recalls his impression of opening night's aftermath as, “That's a lot of trash, what are we going to do with it?” — although a bar that runs out of ice and a patron who trips on the steps are only prosaic if you're not the one clamoring for a vodka soda or falling on your ass in a club.
The hours spent booking and organizing shows inevitably lead to a hole in the calendar, here and there. Although tight-lipped and polite about nights that have been underwhelming, Heklina does admit that, “Mondays and Tuesdays have been challenging.”
“There was one night that we thought was going to be successful and it was a complete turkey. It was so underground that nobody heard of it,” she said. When pressed, she would only say, “Feline … connotation.”
But for all the minor and easily corrected sins of omission, they lavished a lot of attention on certain elements, namely the dressing room.
“Some of the burlesque girls started crying when they saw it,” Drollinger said. “Because they actually got a mirror and a place to sit and a bathroom they didn't have to walk through the audience to. People who are used to performing, you're getting ready in a bathroom stall, in an electrical closet. The drag queens are the same way. Here, they can go somewhere and have a space that's built for them. Heklina and I were very conscious of that.”
Designer David Marks, who oversaw the industrial-glam interior, agreed with this assessment: “It was very important for them to have a true dressing room.”
The backstage toilette isn't the only restroom of note. Front of house, there are also single-stall bathrooms, which patrons appear to appreciate a great deal.
“We wanted something high-class, unisex, and handicap-accessible,” Benjamin said. “We've had a lot of people with wheelchairs compliment us.”
With respect to ease of access for all, and to the sticky issue of gender expression and bathrooms, it is a progressive policy. At the same time, irrespective of the venue, a casual restroom environment invites shenanigans of all stripes.
“It was not our intention,” Drollinger said, referring to the ease with which two or more people may enter any given stall simultaneously.
“We do have security in there on occasion, just to make sure that the line moves,” Benjamin added.
But for Marks, the pissoir layout was almost central to the entire floor plan.
“We had a lot of discussion about how to route customers into the restrooms,” he said. “We did it on purpose, because they're doing shows there. At intermission and after the show there's always a big line. At previous places, the line was always getting in the way of people having fun, so we really didn't want it blocking the bar. We worked really hard to create this little maze, which enabled us to create the lounge area.”
One approaches the stage through the Fez Room, a smaller space with a full bar that opens onto the main room, with its proscenium. The lounge, which uses red booths that were original (although located elsewhere in the building), provides a bit of intimacy to one corner while restoring some glamour to what had been a derelict building. But to the extent that there are Moroccan accents, they're quite subdued. In spite of the occasionally elaborate stagecraft, perhaps the best descriptor for Oasis' overall décor might be under-the-top.
“We didn't want to feel only like a theater space,” Marks said. “Because when it's a dance club, we wanted it to feel like a dance club. We did paneled walls all around that room that are made of vintage doors, with a tall wainscot. When they set it up with tables and chairs to watch a show, you feel like you're sitting in an actual room. But when it's a nightclub, you're just in a big space with light and music.”
There is also a grand piano that lives in its own “piano garage” backstage. Like the dressing room, it too was a crucial component.
Heklina and Drollinger's directive, Marks said, was, “'We want to do the drag queen TV show re-enactments,' because those are crowd-pleasers, but we also want to bring in headliners and have a true cabaret with a piano. They made it a priority, to entice performers to come.”
Indeed, perhaps more important than assuaging the management's worries about where people can pee is the reception among San Francisco's drag community. As a burgeoning scene, the drag world includes lots of newbies who might be intimidated by the more-established queens and the 45-degree angles of their Kabuki eyebrows, and Oasis seems to be winning plaudits from nearly everyone.
Christopher White — who is married to Marks, the designer — has performed as his alter ego Crissy Field at Mother, pole-danced at Drollinger's original show Shit and Champagne, and appeared at fundraisers. He believes that Oasis has quickly become indispensable.
Oasis “feels very nurturing to new performers,” White said. “It just feels welcoming and supportive. Heklina, — and D'Arcy in particular — have created a space where queer performers can experiment, try out new things, and feel like they're part of a family.”
Last month, White rode on the AIDS Lifecycle as part of Team Oasis and will be co-captain (along with Dina Isis) in 2016. At least five of the 10 members — cyclists and roadies — are drag queens.
“We want to be the drag team from San Francisco and represent the drag community on the AIDS Lifecycle,” White said. “We promoted the club in exchange for a place to do fundraisers. We did a drag grab bag where people pay $20 to grab as much donated drag as they could. It was very good for new drag queens.”
Kim Burly, who performs regularly at Mother, said she “absolutely adores” Oasis. It “filled a void for a much-needed, fully equipped theater space in SOMA,” she said. “It is a delight to get to perform there as they have all the state-of-the-art equipment to fulfill any queen's performance desires: lights, curtains, projectors, fog machines, and a pumping sound system. The audiences are great! Mother brings in old-school Trannyshack-ers as well as the youngsters.”
Sugah Betes, who played Heklina herself in Sue Casa's Madonna number, has hosted nights at Mother.
“I live in the Castro, so those clubs are easier for me to get to,” she said. “But this one has the better stage, so we make it out there. It's one of the biggest stages we have in the city, and the dressing room is bigger and well-lit. Except if you're taller than 5 feet, the mirrors are hard to see into.”
Tamale Ringwald is a cocktail waitress at Oasis. She bartends, too. On top of that, she performs at Mother and played Natalie in Drollinger's The Facts of Life: LIVE! re-enactment. In boy drag, he helped build out the roof deck and can be found some days covered in sawdust, building sets. But it's the performances she loves the most.
Referring to The Facts of Life — in which she was something of a breakout hit — she said, “This was the first time in a long time I'd done that, and I was very nervous. It was definitely ego food. I heard the term 'scene-stealing' every once in a while.”
“This club was needed on so many levels in the city,” Ringwald said. “I like hanging out here even when there's nothing going on. The owners are just fun people to hang out with. Finally, a job where I feel like I'm with family. At least it happened before I was 50.”
Ringwald has been commissioned to paint a mural in the back alley, decoupaging vintage Trannyshack fliers over a cutout image of Tina Turner.
“My biggest inspiration is the CBS Special logo, but I want to use very '70s colors, like two-toned orange, two-toned pink, and brown. Vapor trails, is what I called it. I want to draw on the history of drag and queer spaces in the city, incorporating fliers from parties that used to be here” in the venue's previous incarnations.
And for all the moves towards $15 cocktails and steep covers, Oasis remains small-d democratic, with the door typically in the $7-$10 range.
“They keep the covers affordable, they keep their drink prices affordable,” Ringwald said. “And for Mother they let all drag queens get in free. Throw on some eyeshadow and you don't have to pay!”
However much it sounds like the cleaning crew has to sweep up discarded wigs and Windex lipstick off every surface every night, co-owner Benjamin doesn't consider Oasis a gay bar per se.
“Talking about us as a gay bar is limiting,” he said. “As we were building it, I kept referring to it as a 'gay culture bar,' offering the best of gay culture.”
If his word choice sounds just slightly disingenuous, it's actually true. Oasis is not a gay bar, in the sense that it's neither just gay nor just a bar. As its reputation has skyrocketed, Oasis now hosts some 10-14 events per week, from the Frameline Film Festival's press conference in late May to Out in the Bay's 10-year anniversary to the party for the AIDS Lifecycle team that Oasis sponsored.
“Saying it's a 'community center' sounds so sterile,” Drollinger said. “It's a clubhouse.”
It's also a proper theater. Sex and the City: LIVE!, Drollinger's slightly off-kilter, mostly line-by-line drag homage to the HBO show, capitalizes on this idea of Oasis as a gay culture bar. With “Carrie Cosmos” and a 70-30 female-to-male ratio, it's more Marina than Powerhouse (a raunchy gay bar two blocks up Folsom). If you're in a bachelorette party — and there was at least one this past Saturday — looking to get rowdy, you can order a $160 bottle of Moet or a $200 bottle of Veuve.
Still, Sex and the City: LIVE! feels nothing like minstrelsy or a time capsule dredged up for straight audiences, and everything like what gay culture in 2015 San Francisco is all about. Sprinkled with running gags about air-quotes, open solicitations for the audience to applaud, and jokes about how uptight Carrie Bradshaw is for a sex columnist, the show is undeniably winning. It's as funny for die-hard fans who eat up dated zingers about Rudy Giuliani and Y2K as it is for people who just want to see Lady Bear playing Miranda Hobbes in a giant kitten T-shirt and losing an eyelash as she gets squirted with fake ejaculate.
Drollinger writes original works, too. Her Shit & Champagne, a scatological parody of exploitation cinema and paean to plucky strippers everywhere, was the venue's first revival earlier this year. A sequel, Champagne White and the Temple of Poon, will debut in July.
These are a pillar of the venue's programming, as are monthly dance parties such as the Radical Faerie-slash-Burner night Polyglamorous. But Oasis is and probably always will be a drag club at its heart. In a sense, it's like a vast tract of water that appeared one spring in the flight path of migratory birds. It draws acts, some of them established, others experimental, that otherwise may not have stopped in San Francisco at all. Dina Martina, Lady Bunny, Varla Jean Merman, Jackie Beat, Justin Slayer of the International Sodomy Society, and Latrice Royale of RuPaul's Drag Race have all performed at Oasis, as have queer, non-drag acts like NYC rapper Cazwell and Oakland's Double Duchess. Oasis altered the very ecosystem.
No club ever shut its doors because it ran low on ice, but venues have wheezed their last breath after a barrage of complaints from their neighbors, and here, Oasis is taking nothing for granted. Benjamin has given out his personal phone number to one neighbor in the event things get too loud.
“Bass goes in all kinds of weird ways, so he'll send me a text and I'll turn it down and ask him if it worked,” Benjamin said. “This is going to sound stupid, but one of our contractors said, 'It's really fun working with adults to open a nightclub and not some young kids with too much money.' We've all been through it a bit, some of us are homeowners, and we know what it's like to be on the other side. We want to be respectful.”
Another neighbor has his own bottle of gin, labeled with his name on it.
“He just turned 80,” Heklina said, “and he and his wife came by and I invited them to come for New Year's and put them on the list. I thought for certain they weren't [coming]. His wife was like, 'We're going to that dinner, honey.' But they were here until 2 in the morning. She was like, 'George, get a pic of me with this other drag queen!'”
Assuaging the neighbors' concerns to stay in business is one thing, but Oasis almost didn't open at all. If not for the intercession of Supervisor Jane Kim to resolve an arcane yet crucial zoning quirk whereby 24 square feet of Oasis was considered residential, the club could have been kept in limbo.
“Heklina and her legacy were far too fabulous not to fight for,” said Kim, who passed the Western SoMa Plan in 2013 with specific protections for entertainment and nightlife. Referring to the soon-to-be-implemented cultural heritage district centered on 12th Street, she added, “Oasis belongs in the LGBT Social Heritage District in SoMa. The community felt strongly about it. It's a community hub and totally unique, and I'm so happy that we were able to legislate zoning changes that would keep Oasis rocking for a long time to come.”
Having friends on the Entertainment Commission probably didn't hurt, either. And Heklina's unblemished history as a promoter got the SFPD to sign off.
“Twenty years of putting on a wig and throwing events without incidents,” got her far, Heklina told me in December, when I first wrote about the club.
But of course, nothing would happen without the landlord. Joe Carouba, who owns many of San Francisco's adult venues (including the Gold Club, Hustler, and Penthouse), met Geoff Benjamin when the latter was scouting for a location, and unable to find a property.
“I was very excited about what they wanted to create in San Francisco,” Carouba said. “So I said if I could find a building, they could lease it.”
It's not the most typical arrangement, but Carouba's enthusiasm is genuine, such that he even brought his 85-year-old mother to Shit & Champagne.
“I just think some of the stuff Heklina had done in the past in the community is really unique. It wasn't your normal drag, three-songs-and-a-brunch on a Sunday and be done. And then I thought D'Arcy was really a creative talent as well, and the shows she was putting on were really unique. I see them as an asset to the community.”
I asked if these aren't strange words for what should, in theory, be a strictly commercial transaction.
Carouba didn't disagree. “I'm a businessman first, but some of the things I do contribute to the health and vitality of the city,” he said. “The nuts and bolts of the deal had to work, but we worked really hard. I thought it was important they had a home.”
Carouba signed Oasis to a 20-year lease.
As the Pride calendar ramps up, so too will Oasis' programming. While Geoff Benjamin was unable to implement Carouba's suggestions about starting up something like the Gold Club — “He was asking me, 'Can we do this for gays?' and I was like, 'No, Joe, because gay men don't pay that much for sex.'” — they're layering in new shows and events all the time.
The rooftop patio is already open, and Sundays are given over to “The Morning After: BBQ on the Roof.” Jill-of-all-trades Tamale Ringwald, she of the carpentry and the Facts of Life scenery chewing, stands behind the bar, garnishing her Bloody Marys with a bit of Slim Jim between two olives, as various queens move through the crowd, whispering double-entendres and pinching buns.
As Sex and the City ends its run and before Champagne White and the Temple of Poon picks up, there will be the Oasis Follies, a weekly night of classic female impersonation starring Holotta Tymes, who made her name at the legendary North Beach drag club Finocchio's. Heklina fretted about Mondays, but as of June 22, there is Hysteria (a comedy open mic for women and queers, hosted by Irene Tu and Jessica Sele), followed by Beat It, an '80s dance party. In July, Man Francisco, an all-male revue that looks at 175 years of city history and features guys who've all worked as strippers or go-go boys, will roll out. And in October, in what will probably result in something like a citywide meltdown, Oasis will do an all-drag, original-series Star Trek, which hopefully involves pelting the audience with Tribbles.
You can stand on Oasis' rooftop and, if you crane your neck properly, watch the wholesale transformation of SOMA unfold in real time. The Mission is rightly the focal point for San Francisco's existential crisis, but much of Folsom Street is nearly unrecognizable from its heyday. While those days of cheap rents sound almost enviable, much of the institutionalization of SOMA, LGBT culture — particularly the Folsom Street Fair — was itself largely a response to gentrification.
Once, there was a club in the spot that houses Oasis that was also called Oasis. At other points it was known as Dirty Sally's, the Plunge, and Covered Wagon, and there was a sex club called the Drummer Key Club, where the price of admission was $1 and a six-pack — or so Heklina and D'Arcy Drollinger told me. Unlike cities in ancient Babylonia, there's virtually no evidence of any of this (although the steps near the bar line up with what was originally a swimming pool), and it could all easily have vanished under poured concrete and rebar if not for the cosmic alignment that brought everything together. Depending on who you ask, freaks and queens may be as much at the margins as ever, or they may never have been as central to San Francisco culture as they are now. But in Oasis they have a home, and a vanity to get ready at, and a proscenium to walk through, and crowds to adore them.