Aunt Charlie's Lounge
The Tenderloin Treasure's still Ticking
by Michael Flanagan
Aunt Charlie's has always been kind of an iconic bar for me. I've been coming here since the late 1990s, and it has always functioned as something of a litmus test: if I bring my out-of-town guests here and they have a good time, then I know they're my kind of people.
One night early last decade, I took a friend from Minnesota to Aunt Charlie's. After a fun show, we were leaving, and this being the Tenderloin a guy approached us with steaks that look like they had "fallen off a truck." He asked us if we wanted to buy some. From then on, it was our joke that we knew where the name of the Tenderloin came from.
This has been something of a banner year for the bar. On June 26, the block the bar sits on was re-named "Vicki Mar Lane" in honor of the longtime performer Vicki Marlane, who ended her 50-year performance career at Aunt Charlie's.
Earlier this year, the GLBT Historical Museum hosted the exhibition Vicki Marlane: I'm Your Lady, which celebrated Vicki's life and performance career. Both the street naming and the exhibit were due in large part to the work of Felicia Elizondo, who performed with Vicki at Aunt Charlie's as Felicia Flames. Aunt Charlie's hosted parties both in celebration of the street naming and the exhibition, and Felicia's work is readily noticeable as you walk in the bar, with the Transgender flag flying proudly at the door.
It's no surprise that Aunt Charlie's would be involved in these sort of community events and would be interested in preserving history, because the bar has been active in community work, and was part of a larger gay community in the Tenderloin which has become much smaller in the last decade.
The roots of this community go very far back, at least to 1935 when the Old Crow (at 962 Market Street) opened two blocks from where Aunt Charlie's is today. Author Dr. Jack Fritscher pointed out to me that the Old Crow was a "hustler dive" where David R. Hurles (aka Old Reliable) picked up hustlers for his photography (you can read more about this at his site www.jackfritscher.com).
The Old Crow was just the beginning of a string of gay and trans haunts in the neighborhood, including the Club Turk Baths and Bulldog Baths at 130 Turk Street, the Blue and Gold, a piano bar which was next door to Aunt Charlie's at 136 Turk Street, the Sound of Music at 162 Turk (which started as a drag bar and became a punk club) and Gene Compton's Cafeteria (where the transgender riots occurred in 1966) at the corner of Turk and Taylor.
Vicki Marlane performed at three bars in the neighborhood before Aunt Charlie's: The Frolic Room at 171 Mason (which closed in the 1970s), The Peter Pan on 45 Turk Street (closed in 1994) and the 181 Club on 181 Eddy (closed in 1999).
I asked Collette LeGrande what her favorite memory of Vicki was and she replied, "When she was at the 181, she used to swing out into the audience on a swing. The crowd loved it!"
Regarding the neighborhood, Collette said, "The Tenderloin was hopping in those days."
Aunt Charlie's has its own history as well, of course. There has been a gay bar on the spot for 35 years now; the Queen Mary's Pub opened at 133 Turk in 1979.
Prior to that it had been Mitch's Cocktail Lounge since the 1940s and was purportedly straight (or as straight as any bar could be when it was across the street from the baths).
Absolute Empress XXV Marlena worked at Queen Mary's Pub before opening Marlena's and said of the time, "it was an era when gay bars were gay bars and there was a freedom to explore making friends and buddies."
In 1987, Robert Hall, who owned the Gangway as well as Queen Mary's Pub, sold the bar to the current owner Bill Erklens. Erklens named the bar Aunt Charlie's after Charles 'Chuck' Hemphling, who had worked for Erklens several years at the time.
Hempling had worked at the Railway Express on Taylor and the PS on Polk Street, as well as Queen Mary's Pub. He managed Aunt Charlie's before the current manager Joe Mattheisen.
Regarding Chuck, Collette LeGrande said, "My fondest memory of Chuck was that he loved his girls. If he liked you, you became one of his girls and he protected you."
When I asked Joe how the shows came about, he explained that the owner likes to cross-dress occasionally. After his kids left for college in 1998, he decided he wanted to be able to do it in the bar – but didn't want to be the only guy in a dress.
Thus were born the shows which would eventually become the Hot Boxxx Girls and the Dream Queens Revue. The initial lineup included Grizzella Presley, Daffney Deluxe, Vicki Marlane and Gypsy Calabres. There have been a number of hosts for the shows over the years including Kristy Cruise, Gina La Divina, Tiger Lily, Aurora Styles and Victoria Secret.
All of the history and the descriptions, however, cannot prepare you in any way for the wonder that is Aunt Charlie's. I went to three events in the week I was preparing this article: The Dream Queens Revue, Tubesteak Connection and the Christmas In July benefit.
The Dream Queens Revue (which happens every second and fourth Wednesday) was all decked out for Christmas with tinsel, trees and blinking lights in preparation for that weekend's benefit as Collette opened the show with "Everything's Come Up Roses" and Bobby Ashton followed that with a version of "Feelin' Good."
Bobby performs in a style which Joe calls "gender drag" but I prefer to think of as a male drag king – that is he is a man performing a stylized performance as a man.
The emcee for the evening, Ruby Slippers, found some lively members of the audience which she designated as her future ex-husbands and entertained them (and us) throughout the show. The audience was from places as far flung as Rhode Island, Texas and Canada – and seemed to be having a wonderful time.
As the evening progressed, Sophilya Leggz performed St. Vincent's "Bring Me Your Loves" and the Vandals "My First Xmas As A Woman" and Bobby gave us OneRepublic's "Love Runs Out" and Kelly Clarkson's "Catch My Breath."
By the time Collette performed "Maybe This Time" by Norma Lewis, she was dropping soto voce lines like "I'm burning up" as she performed and Ruby Slippers admitted "I've lost control – as usual." I think she may protest too much. As usual Aunt Charlie's stood up to its usual standard of hilarity and performance.
I visited Tubesteak Connection because Joe had mentioned how lively the bar got on Thursday evenings. Where once had been tinsel and trees were now porn stars and vinyl. DJ Bus Station John brings his own décor with him when he performs, and there were posters from the films of Scorpio and photo spreads from Blueboy and Inches adorning the walls and vinyl like Georgio Moroder's "From Here to Eternity" hanging from the bar.
Some of the music I hadn't heard in quite some time, like Suzy Q's "Get On Up and Do It Again" and Metropole's "Miss Manhattan." Others I was just glad to hear in a club again, like Grace Jones' "La Vie En Rose" and "Private Life."
The crowd, which clearly wasn't born when most of this music was made, danced up a storm and kept our bartender Mini Minerva quite busy. About the only things that seemed out of place for the 1970s was that there was no sense that anyone was policing fashion in the bar and that there were no icy bar glares – only smiles! And was that Kip Noll on the video?
The Christmas in July benefit was, however, the busiest of all three events I visited. It may have been due in part to the Dore Alley fair, but the bar was packed. Food was provided by Joe and it was quite a spread – meatballs, chicken and ham with potato salad and rolls. This reminded me of some of the other spreads I've seen in bars like The Cinch and I mentioned that to Joe.
He reminisced, "All of the bars used to do food. You could go out and eat every night."
Collette clearly loves to do these benefits. "It's one of the best things about working here – Night Ministry, Magnet, Christmas in July for Mama Reinhardt are some of my favorite events," she said.
photo: Georg Lester
The show was fun as well, hosted by Alexis Miranda with Collette doing Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Prince Aja of the Ducal Court doing "Back Door Santa," Sophilya Leggz performing "Frosty the Pervert" and Bobby Ashton (in his semi-annual drag performance as Lucy the Slut) doing "I Want A Boob Job for Christmas." It no wonder gentlemen in the audience were getting hot enough to do what they referred to as the 'Dore Alley Flash.' It was a great success, raising $2000 for the Sunburst Camps.
Aunt Charlie's has been around for 27 years and it obviously fills a niche. Aside from the performances I mentioned, the Hot Boxxx Girls are every Friday and Saturday night and are always crowded. If you're going, a reservation is a good idea.
One of the interesting things about the neighborhood is that it feels safer these days. Joe puts this off to an added police presence after a shooting that occurred around the corner in March, and I did notice patrol cars on two of the nights I was there.
It's nice to feel more comfortable, but I hope the neighborhood doesn't change too much. Let's hope that with OMG opening in the neighborhood on Sixth Street that we will see a resurgence of the gay and trans communities in the Tenderloin, with Aunt Charlie's leading the way.