Historic Circle J club closing
by Zak Szymanski
Walk through the Circle J club's inconspicuous front door and you are magically transported from a sunny afternoon in 2005 to a different place in time. The dark and musty ticket booth corridor is enhanced with sound system moans reminiscent of a haunted house, but on the other side of the wrought iron gate it's paradise for those who consider self-pleasure in a group setting to be their favorite ride.
Pioneering gay activist Hal Call opened the historic Adonis Bookstore on this Tenderloin block in 1967, eventually adding one of the first gay peep shows and taking over the current space at 369 Ellis Street to screen porn and host "circle jerks," or group jack-off sessions. But decades later, one of the lone surviving businesses to cater to such a specific clientele has succumbed to San Francisco's ongoing gentrification; Circle J will close its doors for good on November 30.
"These pa and pa places are all going," said Lon Farris, who along with Ben Heath, has owned and operated the Circle J since Call died in 2000 at the age of 83. Like some other recent gay-owned business turnovers in the area, Circle J will be taken over by a neighboring church organization; Youth With A Mission, an evangelical organization dedicated to "creating godly environments and providing services where each individual can recognize their worth and purpose in life," reportedly will expand into the space at the beginning of next year.
Last year, Terrance Alan's New Meat Campus Theater and Club 220 at 220 Jones Street reopened as a heterosexual strip club, prompting neighbors at the San Francisco Rescue Mission to pounce on the supposed "change of venue" as reason to shut the place down; a hunger strike by Pastor Roger Huang resulted in mediation through the Board of Supervisors and Alan's eventual agreement to sell the building to the church. In January of this year, Club Rendez-Vous at 1312 Polk closed its doors to make way for the LGBT-affirmative First Congregational Church, but neighborhood controversy around the bar made relocation difficult; it finally reopened as the Deco Lounge at 510 Larkin Street in September.
YWAM simply offered the landlord more money than he was paying, said Farris, noting that Circle J has paid its very reasonable rent on a month-to-month basis for many years, and it was only a matter of time before it became unaffordable.
"I knew it was coming; the property is just too valuable. [The church] has always wanted it, especially since it comes with parking. They made a better offer, and if I was the building owner, I would do the same thing. So, I have no ill feelings," said Farris.
YWAM officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Farris, who has worked for the company since the 1980s, said that if he had the same high sex drive as Call, he might have found a way to reopen in another location despite the inevitable neighborhood protest and high cost of operation.
"Business-wise it's just not worth it," he said. "Too many people don't want this kind of place around."
The hassle of operating a gay porn company was worth it to Call, Farris explained from his upstairs office while sitting on a gold-hued couch. Call would often retrieve men from the downstairs viewing room to come up to the office to masturbate while he filmed them. The Gold Couch Capers is now a collector's DVD series, capturing not just the players of an emerging sexual underground, but the early development of camera techniques through Call's instructions to "hold that dick up nice and tall" while he experimented with angles and poses. "That's the spirit!" Call can be heard from behind the camera talking to his erect models during most scenes.
Watching porn on the gold couch means watching men watch porn while on the gold couch, and combined with the scenes of familiar furniture and the roughly 7,000 movie titles still stacked on the surrounding shelves, it's hard to differentiate between the then and now.
Downstairs, some of the same clients from 35 years ago sit in one of seven church pews lined up in a small room with a large movie screen. On a recent afternoon, most pews had one guy in it, pants unbuttoned to the waist, sitting and staring straight ahead, jacking off in close quar
"All ages have always been welcome here. The younger guys who come here like older guys," said Farris, attributing the club's success to its unique niche and customer loyalty.
Unlike sex clubs and even some aggressive glory holes, the Circle J's primarily hands-off code of conduct is a rarity, and "the people who come here don't come here to have sex. They won't let you touch them. They're exhibitionists, or they like to watch. We've never had word of mouth because nobody would tell their friends where it's at. It's their place and they don't want the company of people they know."
The Circle J is open 10 a.m. to midnight every day, with mandatory clothes checks on Tuesdays and Fridays. Only once in the last 20 years has Farris had to break up inappropriate sex, he said, and those guys actually met each other on the street and ducked into the club because they needed a place to go.
People stop in from all over the world. One guy has been coming to San Francisco for years from Arizona for the sole purpose of visiting the club, another man from London wrote to express sorrow at the news that his favorite attraction was shutting down. It's the end of an era, many customers have acknowledged with tears in their eyes.
"Used to be, people would come to San Francisco and ask where to go, and you'd just say, 'Well what are you into? You want to be peed on? Tied up? You like young? Old?'" said Farris. "Those places are all gone. AIDS really knocked a lot of those places out."
That's another reason this place has lasted so long, Farris said.
"We've hardly lost anybody to AIDS, because you don't get AIDS from jacking off."
The Circle J was one of many contributions made by Call, whose quest for sexual freedom sparked everything from the 1950s homophile organization the Mattachine Society that he incorporated with Harry Hay to the publication and distribution of sexually explicit gay materials at a time when even congregating with homosexuals was grounds for arrest.
Yet Call's politics were actually considered conservative, arguing that homosexuals were just like heterosexuals but whose sex acts endured undue censorship and pathology.
"In Call's view (and those of most of the Mattachine membership), homosexuals were no different than heterosexuals, with the exception of private sex acts," wrote scholar JT Sears on his Web site www.jtsears.com. "The assimilationist Hal Call publicly celebrated the phallus and argued for a materialist sexual radicalism that linked heteronormativity to a Judeo-Christian sex-negative tradition. Call's sexual ideology predated that of gay liberation, which emerged in the confluence of feminist theory and Marxist analysis, and was in sharp contrast to contemporary gay rights assimilationists who deny or de-emphasize the sexual."
Less police harassment and better technology aside, not much has changed at the Circle J since its early days; even the complimentary admission coupons are originals, with 1960s typewriter font boasting a "new" theater and Call's initials at the bottom. It's the kind of place that just can't be replaced, said Farris, and the closure "is going to disappoint a lot of people who have been coming here for years," he said.
"I don't know where these people are going to go."