South Bay's Tinker's Damn closes while Oakland bars open
by Heather Cassell
It was a bittersweet farewell to Tinker's Damn, the South Bay's oldest gay bar, throughout the weekend of March 28 to 30.
Upward of an estimated 400 guests came out to have one last drink and say goodbye to Tinker's Damn and one of its owners, Bill Funk.
Tinker's Damn is perhaps the oldest gay bar in Santa Clara. Around for more than 50 years, it became an institution as a neighborhood gay bar that hosted drag shows by the Tinker's Damn Divas on Sundays and Mondays and for other events.
Tinker's Damn wasn't the only LGBT bar to close in the South Bay at the beginning of the year. The Metropolitan, formerly Brix Nightclub, located in downtown San Jose, also closed its doors.
The last weekend of March was a bittersweet moment for Funk, who started working at Tinker's Damn while he was in college during the mid-1970s. He became one of the principles of Four Guys, Inc., which bought the bar in 1984, he said, after spending a day packing up a lifetime of memories collected at the bar.
In 1994, Funk, who is now the president of the corporation, bought two of the partners out, leaving him and an unknown silent partner as owners of Santa Clara's oldest gay bar, said Funk. He declined to provide his business partner's name.
"I'm disappointed," said Funk, a gay man who is "somewhere between 20 and death," about closing the bar. "I'm saddened, very saddened by it all."
Funk said that having to close Tinker's Damn came as a surprise to him as the landlords Cefalu Partners LLC planned to redevelop the property. In October 2013, Funk received the eviction notice that he needed to be out of the building by January 1, 2014, but that eviction was extended to March 31, said Funk, who at one time held hopes the building would become a historical landmark.
The building at 46 North Saratoga Avenue in Santa Clara was once a meeting hall for the farmers in the area. As the farmer population dwindled sometime in the 1950s, the building was turned into the Trophy Room Bar by a prize fighter, according to Funk, who couldn't recall the fighter's name when talking about the history of the bar.
It wasn't a gay bar until ten years later. In 1964, the bar was taken over by the Parkers, who renamed it Tinker's Damn, after Mrs. Parkers' popular phrase, "I don't give a Tinker's Damn," and it became popular among the gay community.
A decade later the couple sold the bar to Izel Starkey, who simply went by "Starkey," and the bar officially became gay. Starkey fought to make his venue the first gay bar in Santa Clara to allow two men to openly dance together, and he won that battle by the late 1970s.
In 1984, Funk and three other business partners took over the bar and the rest is history, from first drag performance to friendships and relationships made at the bar.
Funk was touched by guests' reminiscing about their experiences throughout the weekend, from guests talking about Tinker's Damn being the first gay bar they walked into, to coming out and meeting partners at the bar, among other memories made at the bar during the farewell weekend.
He added that many expressed their own sadness about the closing of the bar that was always open 365 days a year for more than five decades.
"It just broke my heart," said Lorie Ortiz, a 54-year old lesbian, who used to go to Tinker's Damn to watch her late beloved gay uncle Hal Lincoln Laird's drag performances. "An iconic place like that. There aren't a lot of wonderful places left."
Ortiz didn't get to bid farewell to Tinker's Damn due to being at work throughout the weekend, she said. She hopes the bar will reopen somewhere else.
Funk hopes to reopen as well, he said. He's searching for a new location, but he hasn't had luck with that.
"I don't think that it's going to hit the community until it's really gone," said Funk. "We've only been closed for a couple of days."
The Metropolitan goes dark
It only took about two months for the demise of the newly renovated Metropolitan to shutter its doors. According to the notice posted outside the venue, the bar is going to be under new management, but there was no mention of who that will be. Cynthia and Rod Schisler are still owners of the liquor license until November 2014 when it expires, according to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Visitors to the bar's website are greeted with a blunt message, "The End."
BARtab attempted to contact Rod for a comment, but the phone numbers on file were disconnected.
The only gay bars left in the South Bay are Splash, Renegades and Mac's in San Jose.
Social mixers at non-gay-owned locations are popping up around San Jose in response to the lack of lesbian or LGBT nightlife options thanks to Liquid Therapy. The social night out on the town meets on the first Friday of the month.
Oakland's Queer Renaissance
Oakland's queer bar scene is a completely different story from the South Bay. The city across the bay from the "gay mecca" has been experiencing a revival within the past two years, but now it is getting a burst of queer nightlife too.
Some of San Francisco's nightlife experts have decamped to the "Other City by the Bay," finding a jewel in Oakland in need of quality LGBT nightlife entertainment.
"It certainly is limited in terms of its offerings," said Sean Sullivan, who conducted focus groups and found out that lesbians and other queer people are being left out of Oakland's gay nightlife scene.
To remedy the situation, Sullivan, 37, is opening Port Bar, which he called "a hetero-friendly place to unload." Sullivan will run the venue with his partner Richard Fuentes, 31, near the Uptown area, where several gay bars are located, sometime this summer.
Christine De La Rosa, owner of Eden Pride Events and co-owner of fiveTEN Oakland Events, who is working with Sullivan, disagreed about Oakland's nightlife options.
"The state of Oakland's queer nightlife is fantastic," said De La Rosa, pointing out that Oakland's diversity creates an atmosphere where everyone parties together. "The reason isn't because Oakland is overrun by queer bars, but rather because queers can go to almost any bar and enjoy themselves in relative comfort. It is pretty awesome."
As for the girls, De La Rosa points out that lesbian and bi women are welcome nearly everywhere, but that "queer and lesbian women in Oakland are always creating space for ourselves and others."
"I don't expect that to stop, and I would tell you to keep your eye on Oakland," added De La Rosa. "We are doing big things over here."
Sullivan isn't the only nightlife promoter planting roots in Oakland's queer nightlife. Parliament, a gay-owned bar and event venue that opened on New Year's Eve, is hosting monthly gay parties.
Called The Social Life, the tea dance party runs 3PM to 8PM each first Sunday. It's produced by Chaney Turner, a 34-year-old lesbian who is the event producer of Social Life and co-owner of fiveTEN Oakland Events, with DJ Lady Ryan.
Turner described the party, which costs $5 to get in, as a somewhat dressy affair with great music.
"It's an amazing, amazing city," said Jason M. Bradford, a 33-year old gay man, who co-owns Parliament Bar and Event Venue with his straight cousins Christopher "Chris" Nowell, 33, and Davina Dickens, 33, under the CDJ Group. They plan to bring in quality entertainment as well as open the venue up to community events, he said.
It's the bar owners' goal to create a space where everyone feels "they can be involved and a part of the community," said Bradford, who mentioned that Parliament was recently nominated for the 8th Annual Oakland Indie Awards.
Bars may come and go, but LGBT East Bay and South Bay residents and visitors continue to reinvent and make space for nightlife.
(Full Disclosure: Heather Cassell is the marketing and sponsorship director of Eden Pride Events and fiveTEN Oakland Events.)
Heather Cassell is a travel and entertainment writer for the Bay Area Reporter and other publications. www.GirlsThatRoam.com