East Bay’s fulla fun

by Ronn Vigh

I admit it: at times, I can come off as jaded or catty. A few Saturdays ago, as I walked down the street with a friend, I heard hooting and hollering coming from the opposite corner. This barely-legal-looking group of bar hoppers decked out in tight hoochie clothes, glitter and beads dangling around their necks were definitely not from here, prompting me to comment, “Bridge and Tunnel!”

Richard shakes it at Latin Explosion. photo: Santos Gerardo

Fast-forward to late Friday evening, at a crowded, sweaty gay club in Oakland. A pasty white boy, standing in the corner furthest from the speakers, noticeably sways his hips off the beat. Next to him, a well manicured Asian chap, unfazed by the blaring Marc Anthony songs filling the air, stands very still, except “to text a friend in the city that he was, indeed, dragged to Oakland, or to take big swigs of his vodka and Red Bull to give him the strength to power through the evening.

That was my boyfriend and me on a recent Friday night. We stood there, pale specks in the sea of predominantly Latino party boys. I wondered, “Are we reverse bridge and tunnel?”

Typically, this late on a Friday night, my boyfriend and I are more inclined to be having a nightcap on our leather couch while we cozy up to reruns of The Golden Girls. However, this week we traded in the Rusty Anchor (Blanche Devereaux’s favorite bar) for the wildly popular Latin Explosion at Club 21. The club’s narrow façade, adorned with neon signage, velvet rope and two large doormen, is reminiscent of a North Beach strip joint. A couple floors up, the expansive club is one large room with a pumped up sound system, a stage area for performances, platforms for gogo dancers, flat-screen TVs for advertisements, a seating area for the white boy who is afraid to dance, and a full bar to help him let loose and do it anyway.

With a packed dance floor, the crowd needed no help letting loose at Latin Explosion, a mainstay of Club 21. “Latin Explosion was the first major Latin party in Northern California, and because of its tremendous success over the years, has also been one of the events most imitated,” states Valentino Carillo, Marketing Director for Club 21. “We also feature go-go dancers and the ‘Aries Trasvesti Show’ every Friday night.”

Lu Go’s a crowd-pleaser at Club 21. photo: Santos Gerardo

One thing I adore about being in a predominantly Latino club is that I’m actually considered tall.  On my visit, I counted six go-go dancers, an even split of guys and ladies. I couldn’t help but stare at one short yet well-defined go-go dancer, wearing a pair of bright yellow briefs containing a long and large bulge that wildly bounced up and down, left and right with his every move. I wasn’t sure whether to slide a dollar down the side of his shorts or feed it a peanut. That thing was so big and floppy that at some points when he turned too quickly, I thought somebody might get a puncture wound.

Around midnight, the gogo boys and girls exited their stations to divert attention to the Jennifer Lopez-themed drag show. The drag show had more of a classic feel, with jewel-laden, long-haired queens strutting their stuff to a slew of J. Lo tracks in both Spanish and English.  One performer bared an uncanny resemblance to my eighth-grade Spanish teacher. I really hope it wasn’t

Latin Explosion takes place every Friday at Club 21 and will celebrate its twentieth anniversary on August 17, with a special performance by Nina Sky. The Club also boasts VIP Thursdays, a weekly Hip-Hop & Latin party that boasts gogo dancers as well as La Bota Loca a Latin Cowboy party, to giddy-up to every Saturday night.

Club 21, 2111 Franklin Street. (510) 268-9425 www.club21oakland.com

Bench and Bar

Just a few blocks away, on 17th Street, rests The Bench and Bar, Club 21’s sister venue. Valentino explained that while the club has relocated twice, it is now the largest gay and lesbian nightclub in the Bay Area, and takes its name from the original owners, a judge and an attorney. While no ‘bar exam’ is needed to run a successful bar, the team at Bench and Bar seem to have passed with flying colors, as they are now in their 34th year of business.

The location features six full bars, multiple dance floors, a billiards room, a smoking lounge, a second-floor VIP lounge, state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems and—perhaps the biggest amenity to a spoiled San Franciscan such as myself—it’s less than half a block from the 19th Street BART station. At Bench and Bar, you can find a variety of music on the main dance floor, with Hip Hop, Old School, R&B, and House most dominant. Their events range from drag shows to pageants, including the upcoming August 17Summer Heat Party, a fundraiser for local charities, and an advance celebration of Oakland Pride events. Along with supporting the community, Valentino says his clubs have the sexiest go-go dancers in town, and we’ve seen ample – and bouncing- evidence of that.

Bench and Bar, 10 17th St. (510) 444-2266. www.bench-and-bar.com

The White Horse Inn

For a quieter tavern ambiance, The White Horse Inn stands at the corners of 66th and Telegraph in Oakland, where it has been since 1936. It is considered the oldest continuously operating gay/lesbian bar in the Bay Area.

Gilber DeJesus, popularly known as “Papi” at the bar, has been with The White Horse for 13 years. He contributes its long-lasting success to the sense of community the club maintains.

“At The White Horse, we are family and we all take good care of each other. We are very friendly to everyone, no matter who you are or where you are coming from.”

There’s a lot of history within the walls of The White Horse. The bar remained unscathed through an era where you could not tell anyone you were gay, let alone go to a gay bar. It was never raided by police, as was popular with gay bars up until the Early 1970s.

Today, as further testimony that times have changed, The White Horse boasts a full schedule of events such as Karaoke every Monday and Tuesday, The rebel Drag King show on alternating Wednesdays, The Cemora Drag Show on the second Saturday of the month, and a Bear T-Dance on the second Sundays. Gone are the days gays and lesbians had to silence their voices. Now they can freely sing “I Am Woman” for all of Telegraph Avenue to hear on Karaoke night.

The White Horse, 6551 Telegraph Ave. (510) 652-3820. www.whitehorsebar.com

A karaoke hunk plays to the crowd at The White Horse.

Further north up the BART line, Walnut Creek, an upscale town filled with ladies who lunch and plenty of pricy shopping, also has a gay bar!

Since it’s somewhat hidden behind the local 7-11 store, many Slurpee flavors have come and gone during the 35 years that Club 1220 has been open. Drag performer Holotta Tymes produces “Holotta’s Un-Boy-Liveable Drag Show at Club 1220, which is going into its 15th year. Miss Tymes attributes much of the club’s longevity to its small but sincere community.

“Because it is the only gay bar in the area, the customers are more like family,” says Tymes. “When someone or a charity is in need, the community is very supportive!”
Club 1220, 1220 Pine St. (925) 938-4550. www.club1220.com

The Uptown

A nightclub that hosts occasional LGBT nights, the live music venue Easy Lounge is also worth a visit for the stylish drinks, and food in abundance; pig roasts, tastings, and a festive mixed environment that’s easy fun.

Easy Lounge, 3255 Lakeshore Ave. (510) 338-4911. www.easy510.com

The Uptown hosts Hella Gay (purportedly the East Bay’s largest gay-straight/mixed dance event; third Saturdays)  and a bevy of local and touring bands ranging from alt. rock to goth, post-grunge and new punk.

The Uptown, 1928 Telegraph Ave.  ‎(510) 451-8100. www.uptownnightclub.com

Another gogo hunk at Club 21. photo: Georg Lester

Perhaps we everyday gays in San Francisco take our local community for granted.  An average late Tuesday afternoon in the Castro is filled with the sounds of Cher and Gaga flowing out of gay bars. Neon signs flashing “Lube for Less” blare in storefronts and abundant sidewalk signs advertising 2-for-1 Happy Hours lure locals and tourists in. Most of us just waltz in and out of these locations barely flinching- because this is our normal.

The East Bay can be just as “normal.” While there is not a gay bar perched on every other block, there certainly is enough variety and events to satisfy whatever flavor you seek. And, if you go to Club 21, bring some dollars and keep a sharp eye out for that aforementioned gogo dancer. His ‘big talent’ alone is worth the cover charge.

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Related posts:

  1. Club 21, Oakland
  2. Over There
  3. Fridays
  4. Bench and Bar
  5. Go Girls

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