BARchive: Between the cities; an LGBTQ history of the Mid-Peninsula

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday November 1, 2022
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San Francisco Chronicle coverage of the 1956 raid on Hazel's Inn
San Francisco Chronicle coverage of the 1956 raid on Hazel's Inn

Suburbs get overlooked in LGBT history. Since 2020 I have been trying to fill in the gaps for San Mateo and northern Santa Clara County in a program I have done at Peninsula libraries. For the purposes of this article I'm focusing on the period from the 1950s forward, when the first businesses catering to the community opened.

Article on the 1973 Czarina Ball for Czarina IV Billie Diamond from David Magazine. courtesy JD Doyle  

Prior to Stonewall, one of the few ways we come to know of this history is through encounters with the law. Twice in the 1950s men were arrested at the Southern Pacific Depot restroom in Palo Alto, in both February 1956 and January 1959 (23 in 1956 and 24 in 1959).

In 1956, plainclothesmen entrapped men and in 1959 motion activated cameras were used. In both instance the names, professions and addresses of the arrested were printed in the papers.

Stanford Students given leave of absence after 1956 bathroom arrest: San Francisco Examiner  

In the 1956 case, seven Stanford students were suspended pending "satisfactory medical evidence of their rehabilitation" according to the SF Examiner. Regarding San Francisco residents arrested in 1956, Palo Alto Police Chief William Hydie told the Examiner that police activity in San Francisco "apparently drove them from their own haunts and caused them to gather here."

In another raid in February 1956, 90 people were arrested at Hazel's Inn, a bar in Sharp Park (now Pacifica), and charged as "lewd and dissolute persons." Of the 90, only eight were residents of San Mateo County. The others were San Francisco residents who had crossed county lines in the mistaken notion that they would be safe from prosecution in San Mateo County. San Mateo Sheriff Earl Whitmore made clear that this was not the case, telling the San Mateo Times:

"The purpose of this raid was to let it be known that we are not going to tolerate gathering of homosexuals in this county."

Article from the San Francisco Examiner on Palo Alto bathroom arrests in 1959.  

dire Strait
In August 1962 the Carriage Bar in Menlo Park (1149 El Camino Real) was raided and five men were arrested for "soliciting other men for lewd acts" as the Examiner put it. Again the names and addresses of those arrested were published.

The Chronicle described the bar as a "homosexual hangout." This time there was push back, however, in the first San Francisco gay newspaper, the LCE News. Editor Guy Strait ran an editorial on the front page calling the arrests a "Crucifixion Without Nails" and polled people in Menlo Park as to whether or not they minded having a gay bar in town. The vast majority didn't care. Nonetheless, the Carriage closed by 1963.

San Francisco Chronicle coverage of the 1962 raid on The Carriage.  

Other gay bars developed a survival strategy. They would open as a gay bar on some nights and a folk music venue on other nights. The Sabre Club in Brisbane and the Cracked Pot in Redwood City (2785 El Camino Real) both used this ruse.

The Cracked Pot was well known as the place where the Kingston Trio first played in 1957, but was listed as a gay club in 1964 in the Directory 43 and in the Damron Guide in 1965, two early gay bar guides.

Ad for The Cruiser, Redwood City, from Vector Magazine, 1970  

The San Francisco Chronicle announced the Sabre Club's opening in November 1961, calling it a spot for "old fashioned community sings" accompanied by a banjo player and piano. But Sabre Club was also advertising in 1961 in LCE News. The ruse didn't always work, however. In May 1964 the Chronicle reported that the Sabre Club was closed for 30 days for "permitting lewd acts by homosexuals on the premises." It's the last mention of the Sabre Club in the press.

swingin' '60s
By 1968 things had changed considerably and bars and baths were opening throughout the area. Bars often closed under one name and reopened under another. Dino & Tils (2651 El Camino Real, Redwood City) was open by 1968 and reopened at The Cruiser Lounge at the same address in 1970 (it was open through 1989).

The Bayou Lounge (1640 Main Street, Redwood City) opened in 1970 and became The Answer and then Revenge (billed as "a dance bar" in advertisements) in 1985. Other bars which didn't have quite so long a tenure included the Golden Stein (2601 El Camino Real) and the women's bar The Hive (also known as the Bee Hive, at 3201 Middlefield).

Ad for the opening of B. Street from 1981 in the Bay Area Reporter  

Palo Alto had its own bars too, including the Kona Kai (3740 El Camino Real) which was in business from 1972 — 1974 and then became the Gold Mine in 1975. The Whiskey Gulch neighborhood (which was in both East Palo Alto and Palo Alto) had The Garden (1960 University) and Whiskey Gulch (1951 University).

Baths in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto included the Golden Door (1025 E. Bayshore, East Palo Alto) and Bachelor's Quarters (1934 University, Palo Alto). Further up the Peninsula, B. Street and Sassy's opened at 236 B. Street, San Mateo in 1981. Sassy's was a women's bar and was upstairs from B. Street, which was predominantly a gay men's bar.

The spread of venues and services featured a flowering of LGBT culture as well. A three story show bar, Le Cabaret (2821 El Camino Real, Redwood City) opened in 1970 at that opening with an evening advertised as featuring a night with "The Entire Royal Court of San Francisco," presided over by none other than the Absolute Empress of San Francisco (and former Redwood City resident) José Sarria (it closed in 1972).

The court system was involved with events on the Peninsula like the Grand Czarina Ball, held at the Bold Knight restaurant in Sunnyvale (769 N. Mathilda Ave) on February 11, 1973. At that event Billy Diamond was named Grand Czarina, Regent to the Peninsula Realm (only to be removed from office on October 23 by Maxine, Empress VIII de San Francisco — quelle scandale!).

Ad for Stacey Q at B. Street from a 1989 Bay Area Reporter  

B Street featured a wide variety of events including a midnight performance by Stacey Q (of "Two of Hearts" fame) on October 7, 1989 and burlesque performances by Male Express and the Fantasy Playmates. Upstairs at Sassy's Bay Area Career Women had networking events like their "Thank God It's Friday" parties.

Throughout the 1970s and '80s, events on the Peninsula were well covered in the Bay Area Reporter, with a column called "Peninsular Gossip" appearing 1971. In 1974 a columnist with the paper and performer who covered events on the Peninsula named Alfie (Alfred Newton) was arrested in connection with a particularly lurid murder in Redwood City and later found not guilty. The trial was heavily covered in the paper.

When B Street opened in 1981, the initial ad for its opening ran in the B.A.R. Also in 1981, when the bar held a benefit for Palo Alto Coalition for Equal Rights (PACER) on Measure B, which would have guaranteed nondiscrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation, it was featured in the paper as well (the measure lost 59 to 41%).

As things began to turn sour towards gay businesses on the Peninsula during the AIDS epidemic, it was covered in the paper as well. In April 1986, a group of attackers attempted to use a battering ram to smash through the front door of B Street and the police did nothing to stop it.

It was covered by B.A.R. reporter (a Stanford alumnus and a founding member of the GLBT Historical Society) Gerard Koskovich.

March 2000 B.A.R. article on the closing of Shouts, the last gay bar in San Mateo County  

I have had participants in my library talks report that San Mateo police would wait until closing and follow patrons from B Street in the 1980s as well.

Koskovich also reported on gay patrons being removed from the bar Boomers for same-sex dancing in 1986. Boomers was the straight version of the bar that had been the Bayou Lounge, Cruisers and the Answer, and went out of business later that year.

When Shouts (2034 Broadway, Redwood City) closed in 2000 it was covered by former B.A.R. reporter (and current president of the GGBA) Terry Beswick. Shouts was the last gay bar in San Mateo County.

When the Women's/LGBT Bookstore Lavender Dragon (605 Cambridge, Menlo Park) closed in December 2001 it was covered by B.A.R. reporter Katie Szymanski.

Regarding the closing of her bookstore, owner Owl Blossom told Szymanski something that rings true regarding what happened to LGBT businesses on the Peninsula:

"I think that the community in Menlo Park has assimilated. Of course as the world becomes safer, that's what we want, but it breaks up the community. It's a double edge."

Part of that assimilation has resulted in gains in the public sector, however. Since 2012, a county-sponsored Pride event has been held annually. In June 2017 the San Mateo County Pride Center opened (1021 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo). In December 2020 San Carlos swore in Laura Parmer-Lohan as the city's first openly lesbian mayor (a feat which has not happened in larger Bay area cities).

So the passing of the era of the Peninsula's gay businesses cannot be seen as a total loss of community.

Watch Michael Flanagan's presentation, 'LGBTQ+ San Mateo County: a History:

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