As SFist noted in this roundup of gay parties last month, one of the most noticeable trends in SF gay nightlife the last year or so has been the infiltration of Burning Man camps specifically Mystopia and GlamCocks whose fundraising parties have grown into hugely popular monthly affairs, themed costumes and all. Now, kicking off Saturday, is the first collaboration between one of the GlamCocks promoters, Shane Alan of Shameless Events, and two veteran SF party-throwers, Gus Bean and Juan Garcia. It's called Empire Ballroom. Named for the space it's in the former Stars restaurant and Trader Vic's space at 555 Golden Gate Avenue that's recently been taken over by the Jones/Public Works crew the party is hoping to to be the next big gay weekly, happening every Saturday.
As Garcia says, "San Francisco nightlife changed dramatically and quickly after the closing of Club Universe and Palladium in the early 2000s. Gay men got into the habit of hopping from small bar to small bar, forgetting that the fun didn’t used to end at 2 a.m." Many promoters in town have been frustrated by this, and for the most part no one has tried to do anything too ambitious unless it's a monthly or occasional party.
But Alan, who's now making a go of it as a full-time promoter outside his role in the GlamCocks camp, hopes that he and his playa brethren can change that and bring in an age-diverse crowd to boot a party that's not just limited to a specific scene, but brings together all kinds of people.
SFist asked Alan a few questions about how the gay Burning Man scene became part and parcel with the SF gay scene, and about his hopes for Empire Ballroom.
SFist: How/when did the GlamCocks fundraiser parties get started?
Shane Alan: Just after my first Burning Man in 2012, back when there were only 6 GlamCocks in San Francisco, we decided to do our first SF fundraiser, a beer bust at QBar. My best friend Matt Hagenian (Lucifer) and I had thrown a lot of thematic costume house parties so we decided to use that model as a way of doing something different for a beer bust. That year we did a few beer busts and a bus party, all of which seemed very successful at the time time.
In 2013 our camp grew significantly in size, and after that burn Michael Donofrio (Pretzel) took my place as Regional Lead for SF. That year we did some more beer busts and bus parties, but Pretzel was ambitious and wanted us to do a larger dance party at F8 on Folsom. Mystopia had already paved the way, but at the time it still felt like an impossible endeavor. Pretzel talked Lucifer and I into it and it turned into a great success.
When did you guys figure out that you needed to move to Mighty?
By the time we had our third party at F8 earlier this year we had brought on our virgin GlamCocks (known as Cockerells) for this year and the party exploded. There was literally a line around the block with some people waiting 90 minutes to get in because they had spent weeks on their costumes.
After that I approached a lot of clubs and Mighty seemed like the best fit. At the time, the manager was one of the founders of Pink Mammoth, a large Burning Man camp, and they have been wonderful to work with.
Did Juan Garcia and Gus Bean approach you about this project?
Juan approached me about GlamCocks hosting a party in Guerneville, but it was too soon after the burn for us and we had to decline. Juan is the type of person who genuinely wants what’s best for the queer community, not just for his own career and he quickly became my go-to source for logistical questions for GlamCocks as we prepared to move to Mighty.
I had just left 14 years in social services was looking for a new career, so Juan and I had a lot about discussion about whether or not event production was a realistic pursuit for me beyond GlamCocks. When he and Gus decided to take on Empire Ballroom, Juan introduced me to Gus And we hit it off instantly. The three of us have incredible chemistry, even when we don’t agree with each other.
Do you think costumes are a huge part of what makes a party?
Without a doubt! And it goes well beyond costumes; from the Facebook event page to art and decorations, the theme of the party permeates the experience. GlamCocks uses the creative talent of their members, including artists, writers, graphic designers, dancers, and drag queens to tell a story and create an atmosphere. But much like the Burning Man organization, GlamCocks simply sets the stage. It is the hundreds of people who work for weeks making the perfect costume who are able to transform Mighty into Neverland, once a month.
Do you have a day job at this point?
I spent 14 years working in social services, primarily in residential treatment for traumatized youth. In May 2014 I left that field and moved to Gerlach, NV (the small town just before you get to Burning Man) with my then-boyfriend who works for Burning Man and is the town mechanic off-season. I moved back to San Francisco after the 2014 Burn and had a bit of an identity crisis. I knew I couldn’t handle working in mental health any more, but that’s the only thing I felt good at. I had some money saved up, so I put much of my effort into GlamCocks and the larger queer burner community hoping I’d discover my new path along the way, which I did.
Currently my only job is owning Shameless Events. Shameless is working with some smaller Burning Man camps like Beaverton, the only lesbian-specific camp, and non-profits, such as the Where Love is Illegal campaign to produce events, but Empire Ballroom is taking up the vast majority of my time.
What was your impression of gay nightlife when you first got to San Francisco?
I grew up in Salt Lake City, where all dance clubs are 18+, but I was never big on going out and moved when I was 22. After SLC I spent four years in Portland, OR which is much more of a gay pub scene than big clubs. When my then-partner, Erik Mantsch, and I moved here in May of 2008 we stuck mostly to smaller bars like the Pilsner and The Mix.
I found the entire scene to be completely overwhelming. Erik was much more of a go-out-dancing kind of guy than I was, so I went to a handful of bigger events but mostly stood around the edge of the dancefloor feeling awkward. A few months after moving here Erik and I opened up Just Awesome! The Board Game Store and between that and my non-profit job I didn’t really have much free time and I don’t think I went into a bar or club for the next four years.
It wasn’t until Burning Man that I started to lose the shame and insecurity that had been holding me back and discovered my authentic self with the help of my GlamCock brothers. I instantly went from a shy and insecure person with only a few friends to a confident social butterfly. The Burning Man community treated me like family and I finally understood why people loved dancing so much!
What would you say is the biggest difference between the parties you throw on the playa and the ones you throw in the city?
The easy answer is that it's dusty on the playa and they take place in an artificial bubble where we can embody the 10 principles more fully. For example there is no money exchanged, so no cover, and everyone drinks for free. You must remember, however, that is only possible because of the money we raise in San Francisco.
Because there are so many of us on playa (this year 120 total, 32 of whom are from San Francisco) we break up each party into geographical regions (GoldenCocks (SF), AngelCocks (LA), GothamCocks ( NYC), and EmeraldCocks (Seattle), and each region handles the logistics and planning of their party. So you have approximately 75% of the camp at any given party dedicated entirely to making our guests feel welcome and loved. In San Francisco we operate under the guideline that you're not working a specific shift at any given time, your job is to make people feel like they belong. If you see somebody who looks shy, uncomfortable, or generally not having an amazing time, you go around and introduce them to people, you dance with them, whatever it takes so that they feel included &$151; this ends up being much easier to do at Burning Man, but I think the impact is felt more fully when it happens in San Francisco.
There is also the incredible factor of space. Even when we moved to Mighty, we saw yet another near doubling of size leading to a full club and a line all night. On playa when we have our biggest nights they just spread into the plaza.
And of course, at Burning Man you don't have to leave the party to seal the deal with the boy you've been eying your tent, yurt, or RV is right there.
Have you ever been to a Gus Presents party?
I’ve gone to Boy Bar a few times, usually out of obligation because it was someone’s birthday, and a couple of his larger things like Sanctuary. They weren’t really they type of party that drew me in, much like a GlamCocks party doesn’t appeal to everyone. That’s what makes Empire Ballroom such a magical thing to me from its inception it has been developed very intentionally to be an event where everyone in the queer community not only feels loved and welcomed, but can dance to their music and express themselves authentically. Gus, Juan, and I have pretty different views of what makes a perfect party, and it’s taken some work, but I think we’ve been able to mash up all the things that each of our communities love and create something completely new.
Three rooms with totally different styles of music; weekly themes with art and costumes; and dancers, performance artists, and bottle service hosts pulled in from every queer subculture all packaged into the most beautiful venue I’ve ever seen. I truly believe this will revolutionize queer nightlife in San Francisco.
Empire Ballroom will run from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. every Saturday at 555 Golden Gate Avenue. More info here.