Sweet Lips retires his column after 39 years
by Seth Hemmelgarn
The Bay Area Reporter columnist who's been writing for the paper since it was founded in 1971 is retiring his column today (Thursday, June 24).
Sweet Lips, a.k.a. Richard Walters, and the late B.A.R. founding publisher Bob Ross were roommates when Sweet Lips started his self-described gossip column.
He wrote about people, bars, and events in San Francisco's Polk and Tenderloin areas. He even worked in a few bars.
But declining health has led him to retire the column. He is now living in a Peninsula nursing home.
Sweet Lips, 87, said he started the column to provide "publicity for other people and myself."
Coy Ellison, who along with his partner, Sal Meza, has been helping with the column in recent years, said, "You didn't have to have a title to get noticed" in the pieces, and the column often bridged younger and older generations.
Sweet Lips, who wore a charm bracelet with little red lips hanging from it to a recent lunch interview, explained how he got his name.
"Because of my wonderful disposition," he said, someone suggested his name should be "Sour Lips." But others said it should be "Sweet Lips," and the name stuck.
He recalled the way the Polk area used to be decades ago, when gay bars were more prominent there. It was also ground zero for the gay community before the Castro became the city's major "gayborhood."
"Polk Street used to be a good cruising area," said Sweet Lips. "Even I made out."
He doesn't seem to have lost the "wonderful disposition" that led to his nickname.
Asked what the people in the Polk neighborhood were like, Sweet Lips said, "Gay. Don't ask me silly questions."
He did say, though, that San Francisco was different.
People "liked to do things together," he said. "If you had a party, you practically had the whole town come."
Sweet Lips appears to still have plenty of friends in San Francisco.
Before leaving for lunch, Ellison gave Sweet Lips a black T-shirt, a gift from a local stripper.
Sweet Lips asked when he'd get a performance and said, "I hope he wore it."
Ellison quoted Sweet Lips as saying he was retiring the column because "When you've lived as long as I have, and done as much as I have, it's time to hand it over to someone else."
Steven Rasher, a longtime friend of Sweet Lips, said the columnist has trouble concentrating, and can't see or hear very well, but other than that, he's doing fine physically.
Thomas E. Horn, the B.A.R. 's current publisher, said Sweet Lips "has been an institution not only to the B.A.R., but in San Francisco, and part of the moral and ethical glue that has held our community together" for decades.
"We will miss her enormously, but we know that she will have a long and fruitful retirement," said Horn.
Toward the end of the lunchtime interview, asked if he'd like people to know anything else, Sweet Lips quipped, "I'm available."
Sweet Lips's final column is on page 66. Cards and letters may be sent to Brookside Skilled Nursing Hospital, 2620 Flores Street, San Mateo, CA, 94403 attn: Richard Walters. Visitors also are welcome. Brookside's phone number is (650) 349-2161.