An Oasis of civilization

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Wednesday January 28, 2015
Share this Post:

"San Francisco; an oasis of civilization in the California desert." �" Addison DeWitt, All About Eve

If the walls could only talk, what stories the Oasis would have to tell.

It started its life as the Polly Ann Restaurant in the middle of blue-collar auto shops and gas stations. You can almost see the gingham tablecloths and smell the spaghetti. When it became the Covered Wagon in 1968 and turned gay, it was still a restaurant, but it evolved into a bar that held private parties for the mysteriously named "Longhorn Club."

We should not be so puzzled by the presence of longhorns in the South of Market Area however, since the iconic Tool Box, the first leather bar in the neighborhood, was at 4th Street and Harrison by 1964. The Tool Box garnered national attention that year when the Chuck Arnett mural in the bar of men seriously pursuing pleasure was the opening spread of Life magazine's article "Homosexuality In America."

In 1966, two years before the Covered Wagon opened, Febe's and the Stud opened in the same block of Folsom Street with the Cruiser Café (which would become Hamburger Mary's) opening at the other end of the block in 1967. The leather community was already well established in the neighborhood before the Covered Wagon pulled into town.

By the time the Covered Wagon became the Leatherneck in 1977, the community was well established. The mural in the Tool Box had echoes in the Leatherneck with "The Perils of Pecs O'Toole" cartoon panels by Al Shapiro (A. Jay), which Jim Stewart wrote about in the BARchive column ( 7/24/14). It's obvious that there was a homey feel to the bar and a thriving community established there by Thanksgiving of the next year, as Stewart recounted in "Thanksgiving High" (11/21/13).

But the Leatherneck only lasted through 1978 and was replaced in that year by Dirty Sally's, which only lasted one year. By 1979 the bar had become the "San Francisco Plunge." The Plunge was advertising in a May 1979 issue of the Bay Area Reporter, letting readers know that "summer is here" and that the pool was open.

In 1980 the Plunge was gone and the Drummer Key Club and its retail outlet, the 'Studstore' had taken over the spot. Jack Fritscher has written extensively about this period of time in his books Eyewitness Drummer and The Rise and Fall of Drummer Magazine.

I was particularly interested in the incongruity of pool culture and leather and asked Fritscher about this. Apparently John Embry, the publisher of Drummer was interested in emulating the Playboy Clubs and attempted to start his own gay club empire, starting with the Drummer Key Club. But it was not a fully formed concept and the business faltered a few years in.

A drag Halloween Day party at the upstairs patio of the old Oasis, 1982. photo: Robert Pruzan. Courtesy the GLBT Historical Society.

The Rise and Fall of Drummer Magazine includes an essay by Daniel Curzon, who wrote, "'His [Embry's] publications were doing well in the late 1970s, and then Embry got too ambitious. He decided to open the Drummer Key Club, modeled after the Playboy clubs, only for South-of-Market types". The Key Club was a flop, and money became tighter." Embry did have elements which could possibly have saved the enterprise as Jim Stewart, late of the Leatherneck, was managing the bar, but it was not to be and the Drummer Key Club locked the doors in 1982.

The Oasis opened later that summer of 1982. It was an inauspicious time to be starting a new club in San Francisco. The ephemera collection of the GLBT Historical Society reflects this. The announcement for the first event at the new club is a benefit for the (then newly formed) K.S. Foundation, which would eventually become the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. The business sponsoring the event was The Connector, an "Electronic Glory Hole."

Not all signs pointed to doom, however. In September 1982 there was a travel event at the club sponsored by a local travel agent that had a drawing for a trip "to beautiful sunny Puerto Vallarta!"

A cowboy master surveys his two submissives at The Plunge, 1980. photo: Robert Pruzan. Courtesy the GLBT Historical Society.

And in the ad for the event, the iconic pink flamingo (which adorned the outside wall of the club on 11th Street) was featured for the first time. Halloween was also an event at the club that first year. It was open from 6 A.M. for revelers who had spent the previous night partying "After The Galleria, I-Beam & Trocadero the party begins at Oasis" the ads promised.

The Oasis also seemed to retain some of the leather clientele from the Leatherneck and the Drummer Key Club, because Manifest magazine held the contest to choose the "Manifest Man" at the club in December 1982.

But the club's luck didn't last, and it had new owners with a different vision. On March 28, 1984, the club reopened with the same name, but (as the flyers promised) "A New Beginning." And gay patrons of the club wouldn't notice much of a change �" at least at first.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence had a "High Mass" tea dance later that year, in September. Page Hodel, who had already built a reputation as a DJ at Amelia's, started with the club in 1984, and by 1987 was doing Friday and Saturday nights there.

The Hayloft's invitation, circa the late 1970s.

With the addition of Plexiglas pool covers, the club could now host bands. The Oasis was the first of the rock nightclubs in SoMa, but would pave the way for Slim's, DNA and DV8.

Etta James, who had been performing down the street at The Stud for years (and who appeared there earlier in 1984 for Valentine's Day) began performing at the Oasis �" twice in 1984 �" and brought her gay following with her.

The late John Sex, who had performed at Danceteria and the Pyramid Club in New York, came to the Oasis in November 1984. Dr. John rang in the New Year in 1985 and Tina Turner appeared there in June 1985 (she would appear at the Oakland Coliseum twice later that year). In April 1985 I saw Screaming Jay Hawkins there at a sold out event that was so good that it is seared into my memory.

A hunky bartender outside The Leatherneck. photo c. Jim Stewart.

The incredible thing about the Oasis is that you can see how much promotion affected the longevity of the businesses there. The gay bars there kept turning over until the rockers got the club and started doing lots of P.R. for the club. They put ads in local papers every week and it had an affect - hence they stayed open longer than any other business there.

It's also interesting that the Oasis did not make a big deal out of not being a gay club when the straight owners took over in the early '80s.  That's different from the way things are today. Instead of labeling themselves as "post-gay" (which would have gotten them big grief) they hired a lesbian DJ, invited the Sisters to have parties, and hosted AIDS benefits.

In February 1985, The San Francisco Chronicle published an article entitled "Nightlife Tilt on Folsom: Changing Times in the South of Market Area" that indicated there was tension between the new Oasis patrons and the denizens of the area.

Friendly service inside The Leatherneck, circa 1978. photo: c. Jim Stewart

Community United Against Violence reported there was some anti-gay name-calling by patrons of the bar, and there was graffiti painted on the club saying "Straights Get Out" and "Oasis Is Anti-Gay."

But tension seemed to be short-lived. By November of that year, the club had a "Women on Wednesday" rock night, and the same month Arturo Galster performed as Patsy Kline and the Memphis G-Spots.

By the 1990s the situation had flipped once again. Because of gang violence in SoMa, the Oasis decided to change its clientele once again. In 1994 the club decided to go all gay.

As the manager told The Chronicle, "If we go all gay, we'll send those (gang) people on their way.''

Chris, a Leatherneck staffer, in 1978. photo: c. Jim Stewart

By the last year of its existence (1997) is was hosting the lesbian dance club G-Spot, whose motto was "If you can't find it, you can't come.''

After Oasis closed in 1997, the space became Caliente and V/sf (they used both names). The Chronicle reported in 2000 that Club V/Sf "sits mostly dark after the owners declared bankruptcy." This was due to disputes with occupants of live/work lofts on 11th Street. The owners reopened it and tried again under the Caliente name, but it eventually closed once again at the beginning of this decade, and remained closed for five years.

Now, after months of planning and renovations, the four-person crew of the new Oasis opened to much acclaim on December 31, 2014. The venue has an almost nightly array of events featuring local and visiting talents in drag and live cabaret.

It seems as if the trajectory of the business was headed in the direction the club has gone now under its new ownership. It's a many-storied venue that will now have even more stories to tell.