BARchive: Art at the Ambush

  • by Jim Stewart
  • Sunday March 31, 2013
Share this Post:

I perched on the "meat rack" in the Ambush bar, 1351 Harrison at the corner of Dore Alley. I hoped to look cool, disinterested but hot, available. Ambush owner David Delay designed the raw wood benches for cruising. Their dimensions also held longneck beer cases.

Delay's Ambush, in a rundown 1907 three-story building, was a leather-western-bear, beer and wine bar - and art gallery. It exuded the intoxicating scent of pot, poppers, leather, and sweat.

In March 1977, the Ambush hung my first photo show, "Men South of Market." It included shots of deputy sheriff Bill Essex modeling sports equipment.

"What do you think?" a guy in a leather-n-wool letter jacket said.

"Interesting..." I said, looking at the red 'sold' dots on a couple of frames.

He was past the letter jacket age but still wore it well. Jockstrap fantasies danced in my head. Did Coach know I was the photographer?

"Where did you shoot them?" he said. Great pick-up line!

Later that night Coach and I explored the sweaty world of locker-room jocks, using some of the same sports-fetish equipment I had used in the photos. It's not always art for art's sake.

Until Robert Opel's Fey-Way Studios opened on Howard Street in 1978, the Ambush was de facto San Francisco's gallery for leatherfolk art.

The Ambush got its leg up when Delay hired Chuck Arnett, the Toulouse-Lautrec of Folsom, to work the leather shop. Artist Arnett's Tool Box mural of manly men had gone national in 1964 when it was published in Life magazine with an article on gays.

I got my first Arnett, an ink doodle of a well-filled condom titled "Scumbags: Three for a Buck" when Chuck marked it with his stylized zodiac sign and discarded it to my portfolio. We later traded similar thematic works of chain-n-ass. His a grease pencil drawing on foolscap; mine mimicked a black and white crime photo.

An art opening at the Ambush was always exciting. Not only did you get to meet the artist and lots of hot men, there was often a buffet of exotica such as beef tartare, a legacy of Baltic horsemen who ate it raw.

The piece de resistance at a Jim Sterling show at the Ambush was an open-welded steel tiger whose four-foot leaping torso hung suspended in a polished chrome hoop that reflected bar lights like a ring of fire.

Bill Skelton's riveting acrylic of a spike-haired strapping Theseus and the mesomorphous Minotaur, dueling with their dicks in a labyrinth of Gauguin colors, was a showstopper at his Ambush opening. Delay sponsored Skelton's silkscreened copies of the original canvas. The signed series of a hundred sold like Ambush-brand poppers in the upstairs leather shop.

At the Tom Hinde show I bought a graphite self-portrait of the artist, prostrate, peering over his shoulder at his perfect butt, adorned with thin red razor tracks and blue singed cigar-scars, an early color homage to James Dean. Not all raved, however. A 1979 Sentinel review felt it represented "evil."

Circa 1980 the California Alcoholic Beverage Control board yanked the Ambush liquor license supposedly for serving minors. The bar put in a small restaurant upstairs and managed to stay open until their license was reinstated. It wasn't until 1986 that the Ambush closed permanently.

A matchbook from The Ambush; illustration: Chuck Arnett

Today Circle Community Acupuncture occupies 1351 Harrison Street.

Copyright 2013 Jim Stewart. For further true gay adventures, check out the award-winning Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970s SoMa and Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco by Jim Stewart.