LGBTQ History Month: Queer couple seeks history of their Oakland home

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday October 18, 2023
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Rebecca Longworth, left, and Joan Howard stand in front of their East Oakland home, which used to be the site of The Jubilee, an old lesbian bar. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Rebecca Longworth, left, and Joan Howard stand in front of their East Oakland home, which used to be the site of The Jubilee, an old lesbian bar. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

Joan Howard and Rebecca Longworth wish the walls could talk in their East Oakland home, which they discovered was once a working-class lesbian bar.

The building's past began to reveal itself to the couple as they started to give it some tender loving care after they bought it in 2015. The 1940s-era two-story building that stands on an island at Bancroft Avenue (formerly Bond Street) between Fremont Way and 50th Avenue had lived nearly nine lives before the couple took ownership. The building survived a fire and experienced some neglect through the decades.

Longworth, a 47-year-old queer woman, said the couple discovered that it started out as a cocktail bar and restaurant after the Southern Pacific Railroad stopped using the property as a depot at the end of the 1930s. The Oaklandside reported the building remained mostly a bar and liquor store over the years. It was an easy stop for the former streetcar that ran up and down the street until the 1960s, said Longworth, who is a theater director and high school English teacher. It was briefly the home of Oakland Oaks minor league baseball player Frank "Shorty" Perry. The building's latest life as a cannabis growing space was short-lived, landing it in foreclosure. That's how it came into Howard and Longworth's hands.

The couple saw an advertisement for the boxy building on Craigslist. It met their needs for a home and creative space for Howard's wood workshop and a rehearsal space for the couple's theater company, The Peripatetic Players.

While renovating they found mysterious remnants of a dance floor in the area that is now their office and rehearsal space, said Howard, a 52-year-old nonbinary person. Howard, who is a carpenter and builder when they aren't working as a clown and doing theater work, added the building had three separate entrances and two staircases at one point. The couple also found a beer can in the ceiling, the back of a pinball machine, and an exit sign once hung in what is now their kitchen.

Neighbors would occasionally comment to them that they used to party in the building. The couple was aware their home was a nightclub at one point, but the artifacts never revealed its queer history. They never suspected that one of the lives their home lived was as a mostly women of color working-class lesbian bar.

Friends discovered the home's hidden past at the Oakland Museum of California's 2019 exhibit, "Queer California: Untold Stories," and told them during a dinner party that year — the building once was the last home to The Jubilee.

Curious, Howard and Longworth went to the exhibit. There was their building on display in a photo taken by photographer Kaucyila Brooke. Brooke started documenting lesbian bars — past and present — in 1996 with her project, "The Boy Mechanic," reported The Oaklandside.

Brooke, a professor at CalArts, started her project in San Diego. It took her up the California coast to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland and overseas to Cologne, Germany.

"It was exciting to find out that it was a lesbian nightclub, and then find out that it was really for women of color," said Longworth, who was thrilled to know their home "was a really safe space and an exciting space."

Brooke felt Howard and Longworth's home, painted a bright blue, was "monumental," she told the Oaklandside. She explained so many buildings lesbian bars called home are not "archived, and not 'important' spaces' in a mainstream kind of way." In her artist's statement, she wrote lesbian bars and spaces are, "so often anonymous or mute, and now waning."

The Lesbian Bar Project reported that in 1980 there were 200 lesbian bars in the United States. In 2021, there were 21 lesbian bars. By 2023, that number grew slightly and now numbers near 30, with a burst of new lesbian bars opening across the country during the COVID pandemic.

Many reasons surround the closure of lesbian bars, from gentrification to the mainstreaming of lesbians to sobriety to queer women coupling up and not going out as often.

It is unclear if any of these are the reasons for The Jubilee's closure, or if Betty Arnesen and the late Velma "Val" Souza, who owned the bar for nearly two decades, simply retired. The Jubilee closed sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, neighbors told Howard, but no one who spoke with the B.A.R. or talked with Howard and Longworth is exactly sure when the last drink was poured. Souza remained very active in Oakland's community through the 1990s, according to the B.A.R.'s archives.

The B.A.R. could not locate any official records searching government agencies' databases or newspaper archives under the bar's name and the owners' names. If the Jubilee was registered under a different business entity the name is currently unknown.

The Jubilee

The B.A.R. previously reported that the East Bay's LGBTQ history "stretches back at least to the 1950s." While North Beach's Black Cat is noted in history for being the first queer bar to successfully challenge California's Alcoholic Beverage Control for the right to serve LGBTQ patrons, it wasn't the only gay bar to do so. The newspaper reported Oakland's lesbian bars Mary's First and Last Chance also challenged the law and won in 1959.

The Jubilee was one of 50 known LGBTQ bars that once inhabited the East Bay since the 1950s, according to a list compiled by the late B.A.R. queer East Bay scene columnist Nez Pas in 1985, reported the B.A.R. Nez Pas was the pen name of Peter Palm, the co-owner of the long-shuttered gay bar Revol. The White Horse, which is on the Oakland-Berkeley border and celebrating its 90th anniversary, is believed to be the nation's oldest known LGBTQ bar, the B.A.R. reported earlier this year.

Arnesen and Souza took over The Jubilee at its original location at 4700 East 14th Street and later at 4712 East 14th Street (now International Boulevard) in 1966. The partners in business more than in life (they reportedly separated romantically but remained business partners), opened The Jubilee the same year as famed late San Francisco lesbian bar-owner Rikki Streicher opened Maud's in the Haight-Ashbury, reported the Washington Post.

The Jubilee moved to the Bancroft Avenue building in late 1975, said Susan Fahey, who was Streicher's bar manager. She recalled going to The Jubilee's grand opening party in January 1976, but she remembered The Jubilee's sports teams the most.

Fahey, a 72-year-old gay woman who is retired from the San Francisco Sheriff's Office, at various times held all the executive positions in the Bay Area Women's Softball League and reviewed her records for the B.A.R. The league was founded under various names in 1974. By 1976, the league formalized with teams from both the East Bay and San Francisco playing against each other. She said the Jubilee team dropped off her softball rosters in 1980, but they reappeared in 1981. The Jubilee team did not appear on the 1982 roster or any roster after that. She could not recall when The Jubilee closed.

"They never fucking lost. And in those days the loser had to go to the winning bar and pay," Streicher said in an interview for Wide Open Town History Project, reported The Oaklandside.

Fahey agreed The Jubilee's softball team was very good and its basketball team was even better, she said. Her records showed The Jubilee softball teams won most of the years they appeared on the league's roster, but they "dominated" in basketball.

"I remember playing Jubilee and their basketball team was even better than the softball team," Fahey said, describing how the women would pass the ball up and down the court, scoring. "It was impossible playing them in basketball."

Ollie's was the last lesbian bar to close in Oakland in 1986, according to Barbara Hoke, a former Jubilee patron, who wrote a brief account about her experiences at The Jubilee, reportedly affectionately called "the Jube" by regulars, and other East Bay lesbian watering holes on Soul Studio Arts.

Hoke described Arnesen and Souza as "polar opposites" who held court in the upstairs and downstairs spaces at the bar for possibly about a decade. She also mentioned the bar had two softball teams — the Uppers and the Downers (reflecting the two floors). Fahey didn't know about the two different Jubilee softball teams. She said the Jubilee only played as one team in the league.

Hoke wrote that the upbeat Souza was upstairs with the younger diverse crowd of queer women that had the dance floor and DJ. Arnesen tended to the older lesbians at the downstairs bar.

Souza also co-owned San Francisco lesbian bars Leonarda's in Visitacion Valley with Peg Clark in the 1970s, and 1001 Nights on Jones Street, reported the B.A.R. and San Francisco Heritage. San Francisco Heritage reported Leonarda's was famed for its Sunday brunches and live entertainment. It's unclear when Souza sold Leonarda's, but it appeared she no longer owned the bar and restaurant in 1974 — when the B.A.R. reported a robbery and murder at The Jubilee. It's also unclear when she owned and sold 1001 Nights. Souza died at the age of 75 in 2003, according to an East Bay Times obituary on The B.A.R. was unable to find information about Arnesen.

Souza, a Hawaiian native from Kahala, Oahu, was very active in Oakland and the East Bay's queer community. She served on the Royal Grand Ducal Council of Alameda/Contra Costa Counties Inc.'s Privy Court and was given awards for her service from courts from the East Bay to Stockton in the 1980s, according to the B.A.R. archives. She founded the In Memory Foundation, which raised funds and granted up to $200 for the funeral costs for people who died of AIDS until it closed in 1995, reported the B.A.R.

Rebecca Longworth, left, and Joan Howard dance in their workspace, which was once the former Jubilee dance floor, on April 26, 2022. Photo: Kelly Sullivan for Oaklandside  

Preserving queer home and history
Howard and Longworth's curiosity about the story of their home's lesbian past drew them to learn more about the building's history. They've asked their neighbors and searched archives over the years, but they haven't been able to locate much information, especially in the way of personal stories about life at The Jubilee.

Howard and Longworth wonder what the bar and neighborhood were like in the 1970s and 1980s.

"I'm so interested in knowing what was the neighborhood like?" said Longworth. "There must be so many stories."

"I just think about people congregating outside too," added Howard. "I like to imagine the moments of congregation and what the flow of traffic was like. This is where people gather to smoke. This is where people are coming up to the dance floor and people going down and they're meeting on the stairway. Just those moments."

The couple continues to work toward preserving the building by restoring and caring for the rare wood used to construct it, and installing reclaimed fixtures and cabinets from the mid-20th century period, Howard said, pointing to the kitchen beams and drawers.

The couple wants to celebrate the building's lesbian history. They started with simple metal lettering spelling "Jubilee" above one of the entrances to their home to denote the former bar.

"I'm grateful to celebrate the history of the building," said Longworth, who believes the couple is returning the building to "its heart."

"That feels better than having a random building," she said.

If anyone has information about The Jubilee, email Howard and Longworth at [email protected]

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