BARchive :: Halloween on Polk Street 1975

  • by Jim Stewart
  • Saturday October 26, 2013
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It was Friday, October 31, 1975. My first Halloween in San Francisco. I'd just dropped a bundle on black leather chaps from Hard On Leathers on Polk and a Muir motorcycle cap from A Taste of Leather on Folsom.

"What's your outfit tonight, Don?" I said.

"What do you mean my outfit?" Don said.

"Everybody gets dressed up on Halloween. You must have something!"


"You sure you're gay?" I said.

Don blushed. He was from Mobile, Alabama.

"You were in the navy. Still have your Cracker Jack blues?"

When I picked Don up in Nelly Belle, my GMC truck, he looked hot with his white sailor cap squared off at a rakish angle and his navy blue bellbottoms snug across his butt. We headed for Polk Street. The cops had traffic diverted off Polk for five blocks between Clay and Sutter.

Miracle of miracles, we found a place to park Nelly Belle and started ambling down Polk Street. It was packed. We bumped into the Wizard of Oz, Carol Channing, President Nixon, Little Orphan Annie, a merman with a pearl wig, and almost got run down by a flying nun on roller skates.

"New in town, sailor boy?" repeatedly greeted Don as we made our way through the crowd. Finally I heard someone in a silver jockstrap trying to prance on green glitter platform-boots say, "Tie me up, Daddy! Make me write bad checks!" So much for my budget-blowing leather chaps and cap.

When we reached the P.S. Piano Bar and Dining Room at 1121 Polk Street, it was time for a drink. We were swept into the P.S. by a phalanx of men in black tuxes with red ruffled shirts and top hats escorting Flame, who was attired in a red sequined gown. She was campaigning to have the Tavern Guild pick her as next year's Absolute Empress XI and replace Doris, the current reigning Empress.

Inside the P.S. dining room, bartender Polk Street Sally MCed from a small platform. Costumed "Cabaret-virgins" predicted the next empress by peering into a crystal ball. The crystal ball predicted everyone of them a winner. Packed in among rhinestone cowboys and glitter queens, we watched the show.

Commentators from costume-themed buses that crawled from Buzzby's to the Q.T. to the P.S. were introduced by Sally. The "Bette Davis and Friends" bus group impersonated famous actresses. Each drag actress was introduced by Bette dressed in a gray suit with net stockings and heels, a page-boy haircut, and Bette Davis eyes.

Wanna-be empresses were not the only candidates that took advantage of the gay crowd. Harvey Milk campaigned for a citywide position of supervisor. Carol Ruth Silver campaigned for District Attorney. Milton Marks let folks know he wanted to be mayor. None of them won in the election held the following Tuesday, November 4, 1975.

San Francisco's adult Halloween celebrations shifted during the 1960s from North Beach to the Tenderloin and landed in Polk Gulch by 1970. In 1976, the year after we watched Polk Street Sally introduce the future Empress Flame at the P.S., gay-bashers clashed with police on Polk Street. Tear gas spoiled the fun. By 1978 larger crowds gathered on Castro Street than on Polk. Halloween celebrations continued to grow and remained clustered on Castro into the next century.

A special thanks to ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

[email protected] 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