|POP 101: essay|
By Mark Freeman
Bay Area Reporter June 16, 1994
My first impression of The Stud bar came from a passed-down pillow book, one of those yellow-bound volumes in the Parisian Press series put out by Le Salon on Polk. This particular book, probably by Billy Farout, was given to me when I visited some gay guy’s apartment in the Haight. The guy who gave it to me said something like, “This is really hot, you’ll like it,” which was a bit surprising as I was a 22-year old supposedly straight, curly-tressed hippie with a girlfriend. The novel turned out to be pure Summer of Love-style porn, gay escapades in a picaresque San Francisco. Several of the book’s scenes were in places that haunted my dreams and would become San Francisco legends-- Ritch Street Baths and The Stud.
I don’t know how long it took before I finally got myself to find and enter The Stud. By this time my girlfriend and I had spent a year traveling in Latin America, and had returned only to see the end of our relationship. Within weeks I’d fallen in with (and in love with one of) a group of young gay politicos. Mostly, they were too correct to go to bars, unless it was to leaflet. But I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and found someone to take me.
There was never a line to get into the old Stud in the ‘70s—and there was never a door charge. All it took was a walk through the neon glow from across the street (at Hamburger Mary’s) through a heavy door, and then past two big, seemingly always stoned bouncers who sat against the wall. In the new Stud, the bouncers are stationed outside the door; instead of inside, like the moustached gatekeeper to the Emerald City. You entered and always proceeded clockwise.
In the old days the Stud was crowded on any night of the week with the best that ‘70s San Francisco could offer: bearded and longhaired hippie bucks and ‘fro-topped poolsharks like Ric Mavrick; Sal Mineo lookalike Eddie Rodriguez before he became bellydancer Jamal and started filling short orders at Hamburger Mary’s; the first of the hip chicks in slinky black dresses, and drag queens who didn’t even try to pass for female. Down a long carnal tunnel the crème of dishabille nightlife rubbed shoulders and torsos with random tourists in button-down collars and confused clones in Izod-wear.
In With the Out Crowd
I recall everyone in the bar talking or laughing. Nobody seemed aloof, though perhaps this is my idealization. There were certainly others there who were as intimidated as I was the first time I encountered this crowd. There was the utter euphoria of being In with the Out crowd.
And the sexual atmosphere of the place was not to be denied. At the back of the bar were men, boys and women in hippie garb or tank tops dancing free-form to music that was always ahead of its time. There was even the occasional slow drag for close-up dances.
The dance floor was made of uneven wooden planks: funky camp paraphernalia dripped from the ceiling and erotic artwork adorned the walls. Beyond the tiny “ballroom” area was a coat-check boy who shared space with a urinal open to public view and two private toilet booths, which were used almost exclusively for making drug deals. The circuit from there went around the far side of the central bar, through another narrow passageway full of friends or posing artwankers, past the pool table-- an elite corner of trash and trade—and came to an end at the pinball niche that guarded the office. Always this same great circle route; I never knew anyone to do it counter-clockwise.
Over the years the faces and styles changed, and folks came and went, but the people still looked the same. They were just as young, somehow, just as different. Now it was no longer beards with glitter, but equally outrageous mohawks or cats in “X” hats. The Stud crowd could never be accused of being clonoid, yet always had its own “correct” look.
In August 1987, The Stud moved away from its Folsom St. location, away from it sister, Hamburger Mary’s. Now the pool table had a different location, and some of the old folks are still shooting pool and Larry Larue still spins vintage discs on Wednesday nights. Today’s crowd, however, won’t put up with ‘50s music: “Oldies” now means psychedelia, maybe some surfer stuff, classic disco, even ‘80s techno-puff.
For those who discover The Stud today, it means as much to them as it did to the neo-hipsters at the end of the Eisenhower era, their hippie progeny, and the gay libbers and New Wavers of the late ‘70s. And it’s been an equally important magnet for the children of the ‘80s, who are characterized by a strange amalgam of repression and rebellion. The Stud in the ‘90s is still a mix of studied cool, those who could care less, pugnacious political punks, art school poseurs wonder if they’re missing out on some other place even more hip, kids of all colors well on their way to Coming Out, and drugged angels dancing on the famed head of the pin, along with just plain gay folks who appreciate this particular mix.
How It Got That Way
The Stud has occupied a remarkable place in this city’s gay history. There ere always bigger and better places to dance, it’s true. At one point that honor would have gone to the Mineshaft on Market St. (once picketed for carding only minorities and women) before it became Alfie’s. For a while, Oil Can Harry’s filled the need for good black music and a racially mixed clientele. When the Midnight Sun moved around the corner from Castro St. it stopped being home base for “genderfuck queens” and went video. The Alley Cat in the Tenderloin had a few too many fights involving dykes and/or drag queens and finally closed, as did the Rendezvous, which used to keep go-go boys in sailor suits dancing in cages. The I-Beam was the new “in” place (and not just at Sunday tea dances). And then there was the Troc and Dreamland, and later Boy Parties. Recent venues have been the surreal Klubstitute, run by the Popstitutes, the Underworld affairs, world beat Fridays called N’Zinga at El Rio, hip-hop Thursdays at The Box, a real sweatbox, and a series of lesbian dance party clubs that began with Club Q.
But for three generations of gay men, The Stud has always been there, the bar you go to any night of the week, year after year. The place where this and that child, however strange, can find some kind of family. A home place. Long may it live.
The Stud’s birth pangs can be traced back to Beirut, Lebanon. That’s where George Mason, who was working as a pantomime entertainer in the Mideast, met up with former acquaintance Richard Conroy and together the two made plans to open a restaurant in Las Vegas. The location, however, was later changed to San Francisco and the idea of a café evolved into a bar—a place they found with a beer and wine license on Folsom Street whose owner had to unload because he’d been busted for selling to minors. It had previously catered to a motorcycle club, the Gypsy Jokers. “We had chains to hang your jacket on and tried to do everything as cheaply as possible,” is how founder George Mason recalls it in a recent interview given at his quiet (except for the occasional squawk of an Emu) farmhouse in Sonoma County.
George speaks of beginnings. The Stud opened on May 27, 1966. “I was becoming a hippie, I guess, when I came back from Europe. I put up psychedelic posters in our place and people came in and seemed outraged to see the guy with long hair behind the bar. A year later, though, they’d come in with their own hair long.” George is still looking good and wearing his hair long, but now it is multi-colored--non-artificially. “We weren’t bar people, so we did something different. Even bar people liked it.”
Among the innovations that made The Stud different from other bars was the type of music played. Its jukebox played ‘French rock ‘n roll and some sappy tear-jerkers,” reports Matson, “so I substituted comedy records without changing the old listings.” People thought they were getting rock, but would come out “Caro Nome” from Rigoleto, or Beatrice Lillie singing “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden” or a Gracie Fields song. Then, they removed the jukebox entirely (“Which almost caused riots, since it was a meeting tool”) and began to program tapes, an innovation even without the last-call piece, Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending, “which sent patrons home with a quiet smile.”
“We ran it as a bar for people, not just pretty bodies,” is how George puts it, “and coincidentally, a lot of love affairs started there. A lot of women also came, and told is it was the first gay men’s bar that they felt comfortable in.”
However, George never really liked the bar business and sold his half to his partner in the early ‘70s. “Richard is still alive, but under different circumstances; she is now Alexis. She sold the bar to the owner of Hamburger Mary’s and has gone to live in a 35-room mansion in Mexico—Guadalajara or somewhere.”
What about The Stud does George miss? “Maybe the Saturnalias. Since Christmas stole a lot of its glory from the pagan, we decided to celebrate Saturnalia. We’d close early and completely redecorate the bar. The first year it was psychedelic and the second year it was all country—we brought in trees and live birds and made the rear exit the entrance. Then we stayed up all night putting it back together the way it had been. No photos allowed. So it existed only in the memories of those who were there.”
That’s Larue to You
Larry Holloway doesn’t need to rely on memories; he’s still at The Stud four nights a week. Bright-eyed and ever youthful, Larue (as he is know to Studettes) is the bar’s premier disc jockey. He began work at the bar as a janitor a short while after George had sold it to Richard (Alexis), who sold out to Jerry “Trixie” Jones along with Heidi Steffan (r.g.) and Jan Hill. Trixie, along with a man named Pooh and Toulouse (Lips) Mulvey, also owned Hamburger Mary’s across the street. The Stud was later bought out by Jim (aka Edie) in October of 1974.
Larry and Jim were together for 15 years and friends for three more. “He’d been a deejay at Hamburger Mary’s while I was a janitor at The Stud,” as Larue tells, “and he used to come over and play pinball. Then we’d challenge each other at pool. One day the prize was my bootie. And the rest is history.”
Larue remembers when the eastern half of the old Stud was a separate building, called “the church side” because it was a coffee house fronting as a Universal Life Corral, an organization that helped people avoid being drafted into Vietnam, by ordaining them all as ministers. The wall was torn out, a deejay booth moved in and the dance floor previously postage-stamp size, was expanded.
The first deejay hired was Chrysler Shelton (in drag tradition, known as Borora Borealis), who bucked the then current disco craze by playing lots of funk. Music at The Stud continued to be eclectic; favorites were The Point Sister, Al Green, Eddie Kendricks, Suzie Quatro, David Bowie and songs like Lou Reed’s “Rock ‘n Roll Animal.” Then one night, as Laure puts it, “I replaced another deejay who wrote an article about punk rockers and how rude they were.” And so Larry played punk music.
First to Go Punk
“We weren’t just the first gay bar to play New Wave music—we were the first bar of any kind in San Francisco to do that. It was almost demanded of me,” says Larue. Punks who made the art scene and lived South of Market used to find their way to The Stud every Sunday afternoon for the free (if you bought a drink) spaghetti feed. “They were my friends and they started bringing in new records—like Patti Smith—and insisting I play them”
“Mondays became Punk Nights and they were always exciting, some even more than others. “White Night” [the riot at City Hall after the minimal sentencing Dan White received for shooting Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk] was one of the most memorable because they all came to party afterward, and it just happened to be on a Monday. I don’t recall anybody bleeding, but there was a lot of slam dancing. I played all the revolutionary music—you know, Stones, Sex Pistols.”
“It was on another Punk Night that Dianne Feinstein came in. She was campaigning, shaking hands before the election the next day—it was brave of her to show up on a Monday. And all the girls yelled, ‘Hi Diane, love your hair.’ But when I put on the most popular dance song of the day—the Ramones’ hit ‘I Want to Be Sedated”—a cheer went up, and poor Di thought it was for her.”
Larue would mix in oldies with the new stuff whenever he was in the deejay booth. So began the tradition of Oldies Nights on Wednesdays. Examples: Elvis’ monster “Blue Suede Shoes”; Peggy Lee singing “Fever”; Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking”. Larry was eventually picked as a nationally influential reviewer whose top ten list got printed in Billboard. “I often put gay groups on top of my list and tried to push third world sounds, like Ziggy Marley.”
Does he see the bar’s clientele changing? “This is still the first place young guys come to when they leave home. But I don’t really care for the yuppie thing that some gay people have recently been going through. All this materialism, people showing up in big cars, like a lot of college boys from Stanford. But then we are selling a lot more Calistoga water—which is good—instead of raising another generation of alcoholics, like we were.”
Larue calls himself a co-dependent as well as an alcoholic. “A strange thing happened when I turned 30, getting old and working at a bar where everyone is supposed to be young. I asked myself: Can I be an old disc jockey? Then I asked: Can I be an old drunk disc jockey? The answer to the first question was yes, but not to the second. Being older is okay; being a mess isn’t.”
Gone But Not Forgotten
Few of the old employees of The Stud are still around. Jimmie Even and Paul “Gidget” Sinclair (the one who made their collector buttons) both recently passed away. The skinny black bartender Walter, who everyone liked, died a few years ago. A lot of the thrift store find on the walls came from him. And Trixie, the owner of Hamburger Mary’s, also passed away a few years back. Bartender Brian Egg—his real name—hasn’t been heard of for some time. Sherrie Beth Reese, their first female bartender and Ben the bookkeeper, are still there. “We were one of the few bars I know that got paid vacations and health insurance,” Larue reported.
There were also celebrities, some of whom are also now gone. “One night after Gay Day there was a concert with Two Tons of Fun and Sylvester. They got up on our tiny stage and did a show that sent shivers down your spine—this was before Sylvester got real big. Once when Etta James player here—on a whole bottle of Remy Martin and who knows what else—she wouldn’t get up onstage until her coiffeur was perfect. We had a hairdresser just for her who had to do it over and over.” [Martha Wash, one of Two Tons, just played a kickass set at Oakland Pride. And when last seen on an SF Blues Festival stage, Etta James had lost a hundred or so pounds. Sylvester had already succumbed to AIDS when this was written.]
Just Dance Around It
Larue also recalled one earlier death that actually took place at the bar. “It was an Oldies Night, and he was a heavy drug abuser with a heart condition. He was using poppers and had a heart attack right on the dance floor. A doctor who happened to be there pronounced him dead at the scene. But you’re not supposed to move the body ‘til the ambulance arrives. Eventually people just danced around him.”
Just this spring, The Stud staff held a memorial service in the bar for Jim “Edie” Fleckenstein, who died after falling off his Potrero Hill balcony. “Nobody witnessed it,” his surviving ex-spouse Larue tells. “Or if they did, they’re not talking.” Larry, though, blames his death on mixing Prozac and alcohol, “a bad combination that people should be warned of.” When I talked to him most recently, Larue had become an owner of The Stud, but had just gotten out of the hospital himself. Deejaying next to the fog machine had put him into a relapse of PCP. New manager Pat Walsh has already had the machine torn out. Larue offered this advice: “People who are HIV positive and work in clubs should be careful. It’s not jus dry ice, but some chemical.”
For Edie’s wake, candles were lit all over the bar, which only added to its dream-spaciness. And a dream space The Stud remains. The fabulous collection of art deco lamps still shine in a line above the bar. The “Universal Life Corral” sign still holds a place of honor. Curios, mirrors and scrollwork gingerbread still adorn the walls and pillars, holding the space once occupied by more ephemeral bric-a-brac.
And the oldies, like us, still sound in the air. “YMCA” by the Village People and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” seep from the woodwork. And Sister Sledge is still singing the anthem, “We Are Family.”
[Larry “Larue” Holloway passed away a few years after this article’s publication in the Bay Area Reporter of June 16, 1994.]