Mapping SoMa: “The Folsom Prison Bar” (1973-1977)
by Dr. Jack Fritscher
Before Stonewall, gay culture was a vanishing act, a demimonde life of bars you entered never to be seen again. In 1970s San Francisco, bars morphed into gay USOs welcoming the thousands of sex refugees seeking sanctuary from the nationwide culture war. These “community centers” dotted the Folsom Street strip from the Round Up at 6th Street, west under the Central Freeway, and to the back of beyond at “The Folsom Prison” at 15th Street. Bars were a place where when you went there, they had to take you in. Pushed by the gay population explosion at the height of our worldwide immigration to San Francisco in 1973, the Folsom Prison bar debuted at 1898 Folsom Street as yet another hot leather catwalk for the recreational promiscuity of 1970s “mad men.” Sucking outlaw ambience from Johnny Cash’s jukebox hit “Folsom Prison Blues,” the bar was as famous for its fireplace comfort as the after-hours Covered Wagon Club at 12th and Folsom was famous for its glamorously filthy blue swimming pool. Linking its DNA heritage to first SoMa artist Chuck Arnett’s murals at the Tool Box (1966), Folsom Prison hired muralist Noel Hernandez to iconize its walls.
Back in the magic window between the invention of penicillin and HIV, everyone had sex everywhere. The sex appeal of a gay bar was fun and games with a diversity of men, minus any City Hall concerns about SoMa nightspots as dangerous public nuisances. Entering the wicked Folsom Prison, you saw how the corny Vegas horseshoe “cocktail bar” worked for 360 degrees of cruising. Men fore-played around the fireplace before dodging behind overly-wrought iron “prison bars” to the back-room sex pit, or to the apartment upstairs where a six-pack purchased at the downstairs bar from Folsom Street’s legendary bartender Tony Tavarossi gained you entrance to the all-night orgy. (For journalistic transparency: Tony Tavarossi and I were playmate lovers from 1971 to his death in 1981.)
At Folsom Prison’s inaugural “Inmates Christmas Party” 1973, I first met my longtime pal, the actor David Baker, who co-authored and starred in San Francisco’s most popular 1970s gay play Crimes Against Nature. In October 1975, I sentenced my friend, SoMa photographer Jim Stewart, to Folsom Prison to enjoy the “prison fantasy.” New in town, he recalls he was thrilled by the orgiastic sex, pot, and poppers, but went into cardiac arrest when Tony “…announced over the loudspeaker not ‘last call,’ but something about ‘cops.’ Cops? Cops! The music stopped. The lights came on. Was this part of the ‘prison’ theme? I buttoned my fly and tiptoed toward the front door to escape. I had never been in a bar raid before. Where were the cops? Then the loudspeaker announced: ‘Gentlemen, we have with us tonight Supervisor Quentin Kopp who would like your vote.’”
For thirty-eight months, the Folsom Prison with its Meet Men logo played the strip, filling up empty Monday nights hosting an 11 p.m. Slave & Master Auction MCed by Mister Marcus. Pioneer Folsom eyewitness Mike Caffee, sculptor of Fe-Be’s “Leather David” statue, has kept records of some early leather bars—from the wattage of the light bulbs to the floor plans. Caffee and I concur that Folsom Prison was never quite a main-stem bar because of its funny Folsom “elbow” location. Mister Marcus called its site “far-flung.” It was four blocks and light years from Caffee’s iconic Fe-Be’s. In The Band Played On, sex-exorcist Randy Shilts, condemning SoMa, demonized Folsom Prison for its “black-leather machismo sweeping San Francisco” and fingered its “wasted” leather behavior as one source of HIV. To me its location—off the beaten path—felt as romantically isolated as Cash’s lonesome railroad-prison lyrics, signifying it as a hideout for male sexual outlaws.
The SoMa street grid,” Caffee wrote me, “runs from northeast to southwest, but at 11th Street, westbound Folsom turns, and by 15th Street, it’s running due south, giving the feel and visual perspective of a separate street. From 15th Street, you can’t even see the Miracle Mile except for Hamburger Mary’s. There’s also the psychological effect of the Central Freeway. You have to cross a four-lane highway that runs directly under the length of the elevated freeway (at 13th Street). Locals see this as the border between SoMa and the Mission. Floating at rooftop height, the freeway looks like a long, blue wall. There is also an abrupt ethnic change, and even an underground river that flows beneath the freeway.”
Drummer is the magazine of record for 20th-century leather bar and bath history. In February 1977, I wrote for Drummer 12 this swan-song eulogy: “The Folsom Prison bar at the west end of the Folsom strip in San Francisco has been torn down. …Closing night festivities included the ripping down of the famous prison bars over the big horseshoe-shaped bar, and dismantling the beloved fireplace, brick by brick. A lot of people went home the night of January 2 with a lot of Folsom Prison souvenirs. Owners and staff are planning a new bar in the same area after a brief vacation.”
© 2010 JackFritscher.com. Dr. Jack Fritscher is the longtime SoMa historian whose new book Gay San Francisco is available at Amazon, and online free: www.JackFritscher.com
(Editor’s note: the former site of Folsom Prison is a parking lot across the street from Truck, at 1900 Folsom Street.)
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