Buzzby’s was the first great dance bar in San Francisco. It was also the first gay bar I remember that wasn’t hostile to admitting women. If they weren’t wearing open-toed shoes. Ann Getty was known to frequent the place so I’m sure they made an exception for her custom Vivier’s.
I had drinks with my upstairs neighbor Jim a week ago. We hadn’t seen each other since he moved out last June. We met at the Cinch on Polk, one of the last gay bars standing on the Strasse. Jim and I didn’t know each other in the ’70s but it turns out we had shared many of the same Polk Street experiences.
We talked about how ground-breaking Buzzby’s was, how it changed the whole scene. He told me stories about his best friend Steve who was a DJ there. DJ’s really were the heart of this dramatic new club life. He remembered his friend as a brilliant sound mixer way ahead of his time musically.
Before discos came along hits were made on the radio largely by the payola and sleaze associated with the record business. After the club DJ’s took charge, songs became popular on the dance floor then made it to the airwaves.
Disco would eventually become a mutli-billion dollar business and probably was as corrupt as the radio days. But in the 70’s you felt it first in the clubs. As Jim said, “Steve always knew what was coming before it actually happened.”
Soon after Buzzby’s the Trocadero Transfer opened and become the ne plus ultra of dance venues. The largest space in town with the most modern equipment, it was usually only open Saturdays. It became infamous for its theme parties like the first White Party I’d ever heard of. The head to toe white dress code was strictly enforced while wall sized ice sculptures decorated the room. The staff all wore “iced hair.” For Easter, they flooded the dance floor with hundreds of lilies just as dawn broke. Halleluh, Halleluh.
The Trocadero was really an event that you anticipated and planned for. Buzzby’s was available nightly, there for the taking whenever you needed it.
Gay Pride Float 1976
Looks a little dangerous in platforms, thank God they weren’t open-toed.
A helpful dancer offering a patron a cocktail stirrer
Mark sent me a link to a New York Magazine article about a tony bay front cabin in Provincetown. The pictures conveyed all the sterile lifelessness of a very talented decorator. But we remembered it when it funked.
In the summer of 1972 Mark and two other Bloomington friends decided to work in this quaint little artists’ (wink wink) colony. In July three of us joined them at Captain Jack’s Wharf, a beaten down place that slept two but held six that week.
My friends’ first jobs were at the fish processing pier a hundred yards down the street. They lasted only a week. The constant waft of putrefied sea life lasted all summer.
My favorite memory is of the nights at Piggies, a ramshackle little dive bar on the outskirts of town. You could dance there. The crowd was a mix of gay and straight, half-naked because there was no AC. Sweat flew to a constant onslaught of James Brown. It was a love shack if there ever was one.
Dancing in public was such a weird thing in the early 1970’s. My generation wanted to shake it but there was no place to go. In San Francisco you’d hear that you could dance at a certain bar on a certain night or that this one place had a jukebox if things didn’t get out of hand. But rumors abounded of police busts, mafia connections and liquor licenses being revoked. Discotheque was a 1960’s word, disco had yet to be invented.
Then in 1975 the first great gay dance bar opened, Buzzby’s on Polk Street. It was a small space we all crammed into. It was soon followed by Oil Can Harry’s at Ellis and Larkin.
Oil Can’s was huge and always crowded on the weekends. Attendance would fall off during the week, however, so they would often do promotions. One Wednesday they did a Nostalgia ’77 contest.
The trend of the day was for the 1950’s: Grease, Sha-Na-Na and Happy Days were on everyone’s minds. Not me, I wanted my Carnaby Street back. That night I wore a red vinyl mini-tunic, an asymmetrical bob wig, and go-go boots. In a sea of circle skirts, saddle shoes and pony tails, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I won.
In 1978 I met Brian. He talked to our mutual friend Kathy about entering The Outrageous Beauty Contest at the Fab Mab and she told him bluntly, “you’ll never win it without B.” So he called me and we started working on it.
With “outrageous” the theme, the elements of judging included: swimsuit–me in a mesh two piece with picture hat walking my poodle Brian; musical–I played the Hallelujah Chorus on a toy piano in a Bishop’s miter while he sang; and cooking–Brian did a Julia Child impression making a sauce then called for his assistant. I appeared in an outfit of tiered spaghetti and he dumped the putanseca over my head.
Our finale was Jack & Jackie. He laid on the catafalque with his exposed brain matter (doctored tripe) while I stood behind him in the pink suit reciting poignant passages from the Inaugural Address. We won.
In 1979 Ted Kennedy was planning to run for president. For Halloween I went as “Joan, the next Kennedy widow.” I wore a sleek black suit and a blonde fall which looked sexy even though no one got who I was. Brian and I went over to the Castro to hang out for a while then decided to head back to Polk.
There were no cabs so I took off my stilettos and walked the two miles in my stocking feet. At the ‘N Touch we saw some kind of competition on stage and heard a big crowd. Brian said, “put your shoes on, we’re going in.”
A drag queen was hosting a contest and pulling audience members up on the stage. She didn’t have much presence and came across as a control freak more interested in rules and regulations than in entertaining. She spotted me and called me up.
I’ve been on stage many times and live for that indefinable moment I am now going to try to define. It feels like a surge where individuals in the audience meld into an monolith of energy you fight. It’s not an a+b=c thing that can be programmed, it just happens sometimes. And when it does it’s better than any drug I’ve ever done (which I’ll save for another post.)
It happened that night at the ‘N Touch and all I had to do was slither and goad. The crowd loved it. After I did my turn I crossed the stage for the “interview portion” of the competition. The MC clearly resented my popularity and I only made things worse by being flip with my answers.
I found Brian afterwards who said “you’re going to win this.” We stayed and had a drink as the MC’s dreadful patter brought down the room. The electricity I’d felt on stage quickly dissipated into general mulling and indifference.
Finally she started naming the winners, corny best this and best that awards. Then the countdown began with fifth runner-up. When she got to third the crowd had had enough. They started chanting and stomping in unison “We want blond-ie! We want blond-ie!” It got so loud it drowned out the hapless hostess.
Brian dashed to the Ma and Pa store next door and returned just as I was pronounced the winner. He had a couple of bottles of cheap bubbly that he shook violently. As I took my victory lap on stage I popped them to spray the audience. Everyone went wild. Except the MC who shouted, “That does it! Get off the stage! You’re out of the competition!”
So what. Who needs titles when you have hearts and minds.