Arts & Culture » Movies

Revisiting the Rose

by Sari Staver

Comedian and activist Tom Ammiano was a performer at the Valencia Rose. Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker
Comedian and activist Tom Ammiano was a performer at the Valencia Rose. Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker  

An evening of film, stand-up comedy, and conversation with Tom Ammiano, Karen Ripley, Dirk Alphin, Monica Palacios and Paul Boneberg will be held at the Oasis, 298 11th St., SF, on Thurs., Sept. 13, at 7 p.m.

The evening opens with David Pavlovsky's new 30-minute documentary, "Stand Up, Stand Out," which tells the story of three gay teachers' fight for equal rights during the 1970s gay liberation movement, which led to the founding of the Valencia Rose Cabaret, believed to be the first gay-owned and gay-operated comedy club in the nation.

The Valencia Rose, founded in 1981 by the late Hank Wilson and the late Ron Lanza, closed five years later. It was located at 744 Valencia St., formerly a mortuary. After it folded, Lanza resurrected the club in the Castro as Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint at 16th St. and Market, where the restaurant Starbelly is now located.

The new film "plunges into a little-known but widely resonant chapter of queer cultural history," director Pavlovsky said in a telephone interview with the B.A.R. "Through the voices and humor of the Rose's performers, the film explores gay comedy as an outgrowth of the rich traditions of activism and performance in San Francisco, an empowering response to the conservative politics of the era, and a valiant quest for joy and laughter amidst the horrific onslaught of the AIDS crisis," Pavlovsky said.

Pavlovsky, a 50-year-old New Yorker, recalled that as AIDS ravaged the city, a gay and lesbian comedy club was flourishing. Valencia Rose, he said, was not only the birthplace of many well-known careers, but also a "de facto community center" and gathering spot for activists. "At a dark historical moment, it was a locus of resistance through laughter."

The Valencia Rose Cabaret was located at 744 Valencia St. in San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy the filmmaker  

Pavlovsky said he was prompted to make the film after completing two previous films about homophobia. "Puzzles: When Hate Came to Town" was about a hate crime in a Massachusetts gay bar, when an 18-year-old attacked three men with a hatchet and a gun. The other film, "Don't Bring Scott," explores homophobia in Pavlovsky's own family, when his parents disinvited his partner to their 46th wedding anniversary party.

"I realized homophobia was a common theme in my work, and I felt a real sadness within myself because of the struggles that LGBTQ people face," he said. "I wanted to laugh and explore humor through film."

Pavlovsky and his partner took a stand-up comedy class where they were required to perform a five-minute skit. "We were told to be vulnerable and to write comedy around our own unique experiences. In the process, we each came out in our comedy material," he said.

During the class, Pavlovsky began to wonder about the stories of LGBT comics, and through his research discovered San Francisco's Valencia Rose. He spent five years making the film. Putting together the footage for the film was a challenge, but the late Ron Lanza, a co-owner of the club, connected Pavlovsky with Dirk Alphin, who had been operations manager of the club. Luckily, said Pavlovsky, Alphin had made video recordings of many of the performers.

Making the film reminded Pavlovsky that comedy can be "a tool to fight oppression, and can bond us as a community. In some ways laughter can heal us, relieve the pain we feel inside, and validate who we are by laughing at ourselves and also laughing at others," he said. "I learned that more than ever before, we live in time where LGBTQ stories can and need to be written, directed and told by us, where previously stories were simply told about us as 'other' by the larger mainstream heterosexual society.

"By preserving the voices of LGBTQ individuals through their own words and experiences, we as filmmakers ensure that future generations have access to a diverse historical record as we confront the struggles of today. Filmmaking provides a shared past that builds a common identity within our community and gives a sense of continuity and accomplishment," he said.

"The time I spent in the GLBT Archive in San Francisco made me realize there are so many more amazing stories yet to be told."

Tickets for "Stand Up, Stand Out" ($20-$40):


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