Bars, Baths and Beyond

by Michael Flanagan

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.

1973 Bay Area Reporter ad for Palo Alto’s Bachelor Club.

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.

(The author would like to thank the GLBT Historical Society for access to their ephemera collection, which was invaluable in putting together the article.

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5 Responses to “BARchive:
Bars, Baths and Beyond”

  1. Michael,
    I just discovered your Barchive in Bartab. I wonder if you have ever written the history of how SF, one of the most famous gay Mecca’s in the world, allowed it’s bathhouses to be banned? When I lived in SF during the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, they were everywhere and popular. After a 20 year temporary absence, I returned in 2002 to a very anti-bathhouse city. No one I know seemes to remember by whom, why, or how the bathhouses got banned, and dont seem to care either. Maybe such gay apathy was the culprit. In any case, if you have not written about it, do you know if anyone ever did and where I could find a detailed account?

    By the way, I recently learned that the most recent obstacle to opening new bathhouses has been Dr. Michael Katz. Perhaps, I was inadvertently and partially to blame for his rigidity. In 1975, I personally met with him to inform him about the unknown epidemic of intestinal diseases sweeping through the SF gay population, hoping the city health department could do something about it. His refusal to believe me led to the situation becoming extreme, which might have gotten him in trouble. Maybe as over-compensation, he reactively vowed to never let himself get caught in a similar situation again? For what it’s worth.
    Don Cowley

  2. michaelflanagansf on January 13th, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    Dear Mr. Cowley,

    I have not written about the closures of the bathhouses, but there is a lot of material written about it. The Journal of Homosexuality did an entire issue on this topic “Gay Bathhouses and Public Health Policy” in 2003 (vol. 44, no. 3/4), and you should be able to get a copy of that via inter-library loan from your local library. Another book which has recently been released (which may be easier to find) is “Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco” by Josh Sides. I’m currently reading that book and though there is only a short section in it about the closures it is footnoted and you can find further sources there.

    The next time you are in San Francisco you can also look at the “People vs. Owen bathhouse closure litigation records 1984-1987″ in the San Francisco History Room of the San Francisco Public Library.

    There is also a considerable amount of information about the closures in an interview online from the PBS program Frontline with Dr. Mervyn Silverman, who was the director of Public Health in San Francisco at the time:

    All the best to you in your research,

    Michael Flanagan

  3. michaelflanagansf on January 14th, 2012 at 3:10 am

    One additional note regarding the bathhouses on the Peninsula that closed and the law in San Francisco: The bathhouses on the Peninsula did not close as a result of laws in San Francisco. They appear to have fallen because there was a lack of business for them. Meanwhile bathhouses in Berkeley (Steamworks) and San Jose (the Watergarden) maintained their businesses and their connections with the community and other sexually oriented business like Eros in San Francisco survived and thrived.


    Michael Flanagan

  4. howdy
    u forgot to mention the Kona Kai which was actually in the city limits of Palo Alto on El Camino Real owned by George Zell and Mel Gilman…it was there from about ‘70-’73. I worked as a daytime bartender there and remember when Gene came in w/the first BARs. the were about 2 pages long back then, but we really looked forward to their arrivals each week cause they were so informative and brought the gay bay area community together. Gene was such a character, and a really nice guy.
    thanks for your time…

  5. Does anyone know what happened to the Cruiser and Fred’s Health Club. I used to enjoy going to each.

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