As gay bars around the city have closed their doors here and there over the last ten years only to be replaced by unremarkable straight bars — RIP, Marlena's, The Gangway, Bar on Church, Truck — I've always said that I wouldn't throw myself on any coffin unless or until The Stud had to close. Let the wailing begin.
(If you have Stud memories to share, feel free to put them in the comments or email longer ones to [email protected])
It's a bar that inspires that kind of fierce devotion and fond memories from everyone who's spent time within its walls — maybe for the weird and wonderful things they saw on the Stud's tiny stage, or for the bartending staff that remained consistently stalwart seemingly over decades, or for the friends and lovers they met on the dance floor. It's a bar that, more often than not when mentioned in conversations with semi-strangers at other bars or parks or gay beaches, elicits a response of "Aw, I love the Stud!"
I first set foot in The Stud in 2001, having heard about the dance party Sugar from a few friends shortly after moving here — DJ'd usually by the great Ellen Ferrato, a devotee of San Francisco house music and all things melodic. And soon I was making regular drives from my Oakland apartment to attend Trannyshack, the only midnight show on a Tuesday I would ever take pains to attend — and endure the pains of the next morning at work. I was delighted by Heklina's raunchy comedic stylings — always just a tad more shocking in their boldness than any drag queen I'd seen in my six years in New York, onstage rimjobs included. I remember arthouse-worthy performances by Kiddie, Phatima Rude, Fauxnique, and Suppositori Spelling. And I couldn't help but absorb the giddy energy of that audience each week — its loyalty and love was palpable, and everyone seemed to understand that this club was special, and we were witnessing some SF magic at work.
Then I moved to an apartment a few blocks away and became a regular. Over the years, after hosting the likes of Lady Gaga and Charo, Heklina would take her shows to bigger venues, and eventually drop the T-word and morph into Mother at Oasis. The dance floor became home to mashup parties like Bootie and Juanita MORE's weekly dress-up party Playboy and a hundred other things. Later there was the drag night Tiara Sensation that morphed into SomeThing every Friday, with VivvyAnne ForeverMore and her crew keeping the flame alive for the bizarre and performance-arty drag that T-shack had helped to birth, complete with a craft table.
The Stud has been many things to many people, but to me it was place where the mild stink of the bathroom that never worked and was long ago boarded over began to smell like home. It was the home of my misspent, gloriously sordid youth. A place where I have no bad memories, only blurry ones.
The announcement arrived Wednesday night and immediately it became clear that the ownership collective — consisting of 15 or so people who banded together to save the bar from extinction once already — wanted to have it both ways in announcing the tragic closure and an upcoming drag funeral for the Stud, but also to make clear that this wasn't so dramatic as a death.
"No, we're not dead," said collective member Marke Bieschke. "We've made the choice to become nimble and mobile in an uncertain moment that could last years."
"Everyone who is an owner feels strongly this is not the end of The Stud," said Honey Mahogany to KQED.
The place has been living on borrowed time — albeit very creatively — for about four years. Things have been uncertain ever since the previous owner sold the business when facing a steep rent hike, and it became clear that the offspring of the now deceased original property owners intended to develop the site or sell it for development and profit handsomely. (In recent years, the gargantuan L7 apartment complex rose next door to Stud's tiny edifice on what had for decades been a surface parking lot for Muni and Golden Gate Transit buses, and the image began to feel like one of those cinematic fast-forwards about gentrification.) The Stud Collective, recognizing this, began hunting for a new space in 2016 even as they got one and then another two-year lease from the property owners.
As of this week, after two months of a pandemic lockdown and news of untold months ahead of uncertainty and capacity caps for nightlife venues, the group did the only thing it could do, and the next step they say will be to raise $500,000 for a "stabilization fund," and to restart the business in an as-yet-undetermined new location.
Longtime SoMa neighbor and perennial fan of the Stud, local writer K.M. Soehnlein, writes on his blog, "Buildings are not community. Brick-and-mortar is not the same as spirt. The spirit at the core of The Stud has flowed through more than one structure and I trust it will find another four walls to fill. Queers are resilient, and the brilliant, brave, infinitely creative Stud Collective is not giving up. But today, on my masked morning walk through my neighborhood, and afterwards, when I came home to try to write this post, all I really wanted to do was rage."
Soehnlein acknowledges that for many queer people in the generation before him, the previous location of The Stud on Folsom Street (where Holy Cow is now), was "the only Stud that counted." And that is how the passing of iconic and well loved venues tends to go. If you spent untold fuzzy hours of your exalted youth in a particular set of rooms, a relocation to fresh paint is always going to feel like a sad consolation prize, an imitation of something that you fell in love with in its only authentic form.
From 1966 to 1987, The Stud forged a path among LGBTQ nightlife venues that was unique in this not-always-tolerant country of ours, and uniquely San Francisco. It was a come-as-you-are, welcoming place that didn't shun women, or twinks, or bears, or leathermen, or people of color, or trans people, or drag queens. It was a place to dance, originally with a then-fashionable western theme, but it evolved into something fearlessly eclectic, as the mini-documentary below from 1982 makes clear.
"Originally a Hells Angels hangout, by 1969 it had become a dance bar for hippies on the margins of the leather scene," the video poster writes. "Sylvester, Patrick Cowley, Etta James and others performed there. Next door was the Universal Life Corral at 1531 Folsom from 1969-1970, an after-hours club that eventually became part of The STUD when the bar expanded."
The latest iteration of The Stud was no less weird or welcoming, but the faces were of course different in the last three decades — no doubt, though, I would have loved that earlier Stud too.
As much as many do right now, I hope that The Stud gets to have a third (or fourth?) act in a new location, when the pandemic has passed. Will I be one of those people who has a hard time accepting it as the place I knew in its Harrison Street home, just like the regulars at its Folsom Street digs did in the late 80s? Probably. But I will still put on my dancing shoes and go. And I will hope against hope that the spirit of the place remains unextinguished, as it apparently did for five decades. It should in the capable hands of its current stewards, so that newly arrived queer people in San Francisco get an inkling that this has been a special cloister for freaks and homos for a long, long time, haunted only by friendly ghosts.
Photo: Garaje Gooch