Barchive: Bars, Baths and Beyond

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Sunday January 29, 2012
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1973 Bay Area Reporter ad for Palo Alto's Bachelor Club.
1973 Bay Area Reporter ad for Palo Alto's Bachelor Club.

If you are new to the Bay Area, you could be excused for thinking of the area between San Francisco and Mountain View as a nightlife free zone - at least as far as LGBT nightlife goes. But it has not always been this way. In fact, between 1970 and early last decade there were both gay and lesbian bars, show bars and bath houses in San Mateo County.

By the time the Bay Area Reporter began publishing in 1971, there were already two gay bars, the Bayou Lounge and Le Cabaret, one lesbian bar, the Bee Hive (jokingly referred to as the 'Beer Hive'), and a bath house (the homey-sounding Fred's Health Club) all in Redwood City. The bars were regularly featured in the column 'Peninsular Gossip' by Roger Thomas which ran in the B.A.R. that first year. And should you think these were quiet neighborhood bars, Le Cabaret was a three-floor dance and show bar and was already sponsoring VD clinics in the early '70s!

There were also two bars (the Garden and the Locker Room) and two bath houses (Bachelor Quarters and the Golden Door Sauna) which were billed in gay travel guides as being in Palo Alto. As I prepared this story, Peninsula friend asked, 'Where would there be room for a bath house in Palo Alto?'

It turns out there wasn't. They were a block outside of Palo Alto in East Palo Alto in a neighborhood called Whiskey Gulch. When the Four Seasons moved into East Palo Alto in 2006, the Los Angeles Times described the neighborhood as "a seedy strip of dive bars, liquor stores and run-down apartment buildings known for drug sales and gang violence." So. although the guides assured the reader that at least one of the bars was "very popular" it would seem that visiting them was definitely AYOR (At Your Own Risk).

In the 1980s, the Bayou Lounge changed names three times, first becoming the Answer and then Boomer's. Likewise, the Golden Door became the Tubs and the Locker Room changed names to reflect the neighborhood and became Whiskey Gulch. As the '80s progressed and AIDS took its toll, all three bath houses closed on the Peninsula. And in the early '80s, B. Street and its upstairs women's bar Sassy's opened in downtown San Mateo.

The '80s were an odd time for gay bars on the Peninsula. Boomer's, which had been a gay bar for two decades, abruptly decided to change direction and kicked out two men for dancing together in 1986 (an employee of the bar told the men "we don't do that shit here anymore") and were successfully sued for bias.

Also in '86 there was an incident of anti-gay harassment at B Street which had the bizarre outcome of barring the B.A.R. reporter that reported on it, Gerard Koskovich, as well as all people quoted in the article from the bar as the owner objected to the article. B Street seems to have gotten into the community spirit however, as their calendar and fliers show they were soon doing turkey raffles and other benefits for AIDS groups on the Peninsula.

The 1990s saw further changes, including the closing of B Street and the opening of the last gay bar in San Mateo County, Shooter's in Redwood City. It was a small neighborhood bar that lasted another decade.

Did real estate prices doom the bars? Did the internet cause people to stop going out to meet? Ultimately some questions will always remain. Will some inventive entrepreneur find a new way to reintroduce them to the area? Only time will tell.