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Gangway for History

by Michael Flanagan

Bartender Matt Wruble (right) at the Gangway Bar toasts the community with a group of patrons in January 2016
Bartender Matt Wruble (right) at the Gangway Bar toasts the community with a group of patrons in January 2016  (Source:Rick Gerharter)

The history of the Gangway is relatively easy to trace back half a century. Listings for the bar in city directories and phone books date from 1960 forward. Along with its nautical theme, like a grounded pirate ship, the bar holds a treasure chest of historical tales.

Coy Meza, who has been going to the bar since the 1970s, said that both the first meeting of the Tavern Guild (in 1962) and the last meeting (in 1995) took place there. The first owners of the bar were a relatively private group (I have not been able to find their names), but they were involved enough in homophile politics to give donations to the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in 1965. Records of this exist online.

The bar really started cooking in 1967. That's when the first ads for the bar appeared in Vector. Not coincidentally that's when the second owners, Daddy Joe Roland and Roger Hall, took over the bar. This anniversary was marked annually with a party in mid-May.

As Roland was Lithuanian, he began having a Lithuanian Independence Day party there on February 16. The event was a wild affair with marching bands (sometimes leaving the bar and marching around the block), catered food and the crowning of Mr. and Miss Lithuania.

By the early '70s "Lithuanian" had become a synonym for "gay" in the bar, with Bay Area Reporter columnist Sweet Lips using it in this item from 1971, two months after the paper started:

"Seems as if the Gangway is attracting the stars - Burt Lancaster was there last Thursday - I didn't know he was Lithuanian!!"

Meza, who was Lips' caregiver and ghostwriter through his later years, informed me that Lancaster (who was bisexual) was particularly fond of the longtime Gangway bartenders John Wise and Darrell Warren.

In the 1970s, the Polk Street neighborhood spilled over onto Larkin. During that decade there were several gay-oriented businesses in the neighborhood including Totie's (743 Larkin), Bo Jangles (709 Larkin, later Oil Can Harry's), the Vagabond (800 Larkin) and the Hook and Ladder (1035 Post, it was also Partners). These businesses were a bridge between the Polk street area and Tenderloin bars like Kokpit (301 Turk) where Sweet Lips was "on the planks" (bartending) for years.

Roland and Hall were directly responsible for building the bridge between the Polk neighborhood and the Tenderloin as well. In 1979 they opened the Queen Mary Pub (133 Turk), which stayed in business for eight years. The bar subsequently reopened as Aunt Charlie's in 1987, which remains open to this day.

The Gangway was also a community center and fundraiser beginning in the '70s. Bars often cooperated in events. Totie's and the Gangway put on an old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration together in 1971. In the early '70s, the bar hosted Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's parties, complete with food.

Ring exchanges between partners were celebrated in the days before same sex marriage was legal. In 1977 Roland hosted a fundraiser, donating cash and turkeys to seniors for Thanksgiving which Harvey Milk acknowledged with a plaque presented in the bar. Roland held events for both the Imperial and Ducal courts and was the Grand Duke I, the Lithuanian Steed.

Community activism at the bar continued into the '80s. The bar held auctions for Coming Home Hospice, which raised thousands of dollars.

They also participated in the late Mark Friese's B.A.R. article, 'Bar Wars,' a pub crawl where a donation allowed participants a drink at several bars (Wooden Horse, Rendezvous, the Motherlode, Polk Gulch, Kimo's, the Sanctuary and other bars participated as well as the Gangway). Funds raised went to buy video player for Ralph K. Davies hospital one year and to the Godfather Fund other years.

Roland and Hall owned the bar into the mid-90s, when it was taken over by a lesbian couple Uli and Trada, according to Meza. The Lees, who currently own the bar, took over ownership in 1998. Both subsequent owners maintained the tradition of holding benefits for the community, particularly Tenderloin Tessie's, which provides holiday meals for the community.

Tracing the history of the bar before 1960 proved difficult. From 1949 through 1959 the Polk directories list 841 Larkin as being a General Electric Self Service Laundry. In the '30s, it was Camille's Tavern and the Oyster Loaf Café.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has an article which says the bar opened in 1910, but then refers to the legacy bar and restaurant map from San Francisco Heritage which says, "The Gangway opened its doors under a different, unknown name in the Tenderloin in 1910."

Meza says that the San Francisco Art Deco Society has an advertisement for the bar from the 1915 World's Fair, and further suggests that a raid on the bar in 1911 is documented in the city's Health Department records. Hopefully, further research on this earlier history can be done in the future.

In researching this article, comments on review sites lamenting the impending loss of the bar proved arguable. "We don't need them (gay bars) anymore," wrote one person.

Some would disagree. Besides being a place where people had a good time, The Gangway raised money for the poor and the sick, and provided a place for people to celebrate the important events in their lives. Given the state of national and world affairs, we need bars like The Gangway more than ever.


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