San Diego’s Gay Bar History: Reflections on Community History and the Documentary Film Process
July 24, 2019
by Paul Detwiler
7:45 p.m., Lambda Archives, June 17, 2017
I’m hunched over a smoky glass table covered with a treasure trove of photographs, shivering from the chilly air conditioning as much as from the excitement of discovering photographic gold nuggets. I’m alone, but surrounded by faces smiling to me across the decades.
There’s a shirtless, mustachioed blond on roller skates in front of a 1965 red Plymouth Barracuda; the position of the Giant Dipper roller coaster and street signage in the background establishes the photo was taken in the vicinity of the Apartment, a women’s gay bar that opened in Mission Beach in 1974. Another photo presents a dance floor crowd, beaming faces glistening under a sheen of sweat, big 1980s hair and lip gloss in full effect on the women (and on some men, too). A third snapshot: a festive lineup of Halloween-costumed contestants—a drag version of Tippi Hedren (a stuffed crow entangled in her stylish platinum updo), a garish clown, and a butch female cowboy—all vying for prizes awarded long ago in an unidentified San Diego gay bar.
The images I’m marveling at offer candid glimpses of San Diego gay bar culture from different epochs in modern gay history. They are some of the many artifacts in the Lambda Archives, a repository for collecting, storing, and preserving the LGBTQ history of San Diego and northern Baja California. From 2017 to mid-2018, I sorted through a multitude of photographs, gay periodicals, and ephemera in the process of producing San Diego’s Gay Bar History, a documentary that was initially broadcast in June 2018 on KPBS, San Diego’s public television station, and had its premiere at FilmOut 2018, San Diego’s LGBTQ Film Festival.
San Diego’s LGBTQ history, viewed through the lens of its postwar gay bars and nightclubs (and through the voices of witnesses who lived through this history) in many ways parallels the development of the modern LGBTQ community in other large cities throughout North America, and gives the documentary, while regional in its focus, a wider relevance. A main thesis of the documentary posits that gay bars have been a foundational part of the LGBTQ experience, not only as safe places for socializing and forming interpersonal relationships, but also as cultural institutions that have played important roles in the formation of community over generations.
The film frames San Diego gay bar history within three major epochs bound by a common theme. From the oppressive secrecy of the postwar era to Stonewall; the birth of the modern gay rights movement through the freewheeling 1970s; and from the horrific AIDS crisis in the 1980s, which decimated an entire generation, gay bars have been more than just social drinking spots. They have provided sanctuary amidst a persistently hostile society, places where friendships were nurtured and lives anchored even in the face of changing cultural landscapes. The scope of this topic became quite expansive as my research progressed. I found records for at least 135 gay bars that have operated in San Diego since the late 1940s. The film really just scratched the surface of a deep, multifaceted history—one of the many histories of this community that merits further exploration.
Epoch 1: Post-Second World War to Stonewall
By the end of World War II, tens of thousands of veterans who served in all branches of the Armed Forces were stationed and/or had disembarked at California’s major coastal cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Diego. San Diego, already a major military port city even before the war, became a new home for thousands of gay men and women who were then able to discover others of their own kind. Settling in San Diego provided them the opportunity to live a life that they never could have actualized had they returned to their hometowns.
The oldest continuously operating gay bar in San Diego, the Brass Rail, first opened in 1934 as a bar and restaurant inside the Orpheum Theater on the corner of 6th Avenue and B Street. At that time, however, it was not an exclusively gay establishment. During the 1940s and ‘50s, the clientele at several downtown bars, including the Brass Rail, transitioned in the evenings from a straight crowd into a gay one. It was not until 1957 when the Brass Rail came under the ownership of Lou Arko, a straight man, that it converted to a predominantly gay customer base. The bar retained its gay patronage after Arko relocated it in 1964 to the corner of 5th and Robinson in Hillcrest. In 1973, it relocated across the street into its third, and present, location at 3796 5th Avenue.
8:00 a.m., The Rail, Feb. 8, 2017
We are inside the Rail (formerly the Brass Rail; the bar was renamed after an extensive remodel in 2016), preparing to film several interviews within the next hour. I chose this location as a backdrop because the bar itself acts as a metaphoric character in San Diego’s gay bar history, having served as both a beacon and a safe harbor for several generations of LGBTQ community members.
We will hear the personal recollections of bar patrons, bartenders, former and current bar owners, and community activists—ten in all—over the next two days. The production crew weaves around bar stools carrying tripods, heavy loops of extension cords, and C-stands. They hurriedly set up the key and fill lights and tape black plastic sheets over the bar’s front windows to block out stray light. A noisy, chugging ice machine must be silenced before we start recording sound.
During the interviews, I am rewarded as a director whenever a telling remark or line of questioning sparks a visible reaction revealing insights into the interviewee’s character, values, subtexts, or implicit motivations. As they relate their lived experiences (some spanning a 40-year timeframe) they express joy, frustration, humor, anger, and above all, an earnest sincerity in the belief that this community’s history is valuable and important. The crew and I are captivated by the stories that unfold. I wish we had scheduled several more days to fully record these fascinating oral histories.
While the Hillcrest neighborhood is presently home to most of the gay bars and nightspots in San Diego, that was not always the case. From the Second World War to the 1960s, nearly all the gay bars were downtown. A few of the early nightspots (now defunct) were located at still-extant addresses, such as the Cinnabar (825 5th Ave.), the Circus Room (1039 4th Ave.), and the El Cortez Skyroom (702 Ash St.). However, no traces remain of the majority of historic downtown gay bars from locations that were demolished and rebuilt during redevelopment projects of the 1960s and beyond. Those include Bradley’s, at 303 Plaza (now present-day Horton Plaza), Blue Jackets (750 India St.), the Gold Rail (1028 3rd Ave.), the Copacabaña (12th and Broadway), the Skylark (620 West Broadway, behind the YMCA), the Bon Voyage, and the Buccaneer.
Although the downtown bars provided a modicum of refuge for gays in the 1940s and ‘50s, they were still risky places to congregate, especially for military personnel, who could be dishonorably discharged just by being seen within them. Vice squad officers and military police regularly “hit” those establishments, harassing patrons and arresting service members. Vice squad officers wore suits and hats and usually appeared in groups of three, which was a tip-off for wary patrons who knew they could be questioned and taken outside for such infractions as causally embracing each other, or even sitting in a booth next to another patron of the same sex. While dancing between females was socially acceptable in San Diego bars during the immediate postwar years, until the late 1970s men could not dance together or have any other physical contact such as hugging or hand-holding without risking arrest for lewd conduct. Surprisingly, but perhaps to prevent run-ins with undercover vice officers, Zola Mae (“Babe”) Hills, then the owner of the Loft, continued to enforce a “no touch” policy among patrons even through the mid-1980s.
The earliest recorded gay bar in Hillcrest was the Gizmo (3968 5th Ave.), a bar especially popular with lesbians in the armed forces in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Beer was 15¢ and patrons sat on crates. In those days, women had to be especially discreet, because if they were publicly exposed as gay and were mothers, it was almost assured child welfare authorities would take their children away, as homosexuals were deemed morally unfit to be parents. Thus many women used pseudonyms (“bar names”) to preserve anonymity. Even after 1974, when homosexuality was no longer listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, some lesbians in Los Angeles still lost custody of their children on those grounds. Furthermore, women were not immune from police harassment and could be targeted in raids that led to unjustified arrests on trumped-up charges of lewd conduct.
4:15 p.m., Editing Bay, May 28, 2017
One of the main challenges in visually documenting this early era of gay bar history was the dearth of images from inside the bars. This is unsurprising, since the closeted status of many patrons precluded nearly all photography within a bar’s interior. Many customers would turn away and leave the premises immediately if a camera was ever seen inside a bar.
However, one tavern in San Francisco presented a contrasting picture. I was able to obtain 8mm footage from the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco of events filmed there during the late 1960s inside an unidentified gay bar. The footage showed a racially diverse crowd of everyday people socializing alongside drag queens and leather guys, everyone smiling and having a good time. I was struck by the joy and camaraderie that the people were obviously experiencing, and this left me thinking about how the atmosphere appeared to be so vital and important for people of that generation, who risked so much to meet and socialize with other non-heterosexuals, despite the life-altering consequences: the possibility of arrest or of losing your job, place of residence, and even custody of your children. Yet the bars still drew people in, which speaks to the powerful human need for connection that superseded the punishments that an intolerant society regularly imposed upon LGBT people.
In searching through the Lambda Archives, I found no visual evidence of bar environments during the 1960s here in San Diego, a much more conservative city. Did anyone ever record footage of the early bar culture here? If so, where is it? It is saddening to think that footage of those times, if any had been recorded, might now be lost to history.
Epoch 2: Post-Stonewall through the 1970s
The 1960s ushered in the Civil Rights Movement, spurring the nascent LGBT community to ramp up its own struggle for equal rights. The Stonewall Inn uprising and the riots that began June 28, 1969 in New York’s Greenwich Village became a watershed moment for the community nationwide, signifying its refusal to be treated as second-class citizens and its determination to fight back against brutality and homophobic oppression. With this empowered outlook, the 1970s witnessed a burgeoning of celebratory gay bar culture, and San Diego saw the appearance of dance clubs such as the Ball Express, the Barbary Coast, the Lombard, Diablo’s, and the West Coast Production Company. Hillcrest grew in importance as a gay neighborhood with an increasing number of bars and gay-owned businesses contributing to the economic growth of the area. Early gay publications provided information about gay topics, social events and bar gossip, and these were distributed throughout the bar network. Thus the bars became clearinghouses where people could engage and build community before there was an established gay center or systems of support services The Imperial Court system became a key aspect of bar culture. Bars would sponsor candidates to compete for the city-wide titles of Emperor and Empress, who would be crowned at a festive gala and then lead fundraising efforts for charitable causes throughout their year-long reign.
In addition to new bars opening, old bars would turn over and soon reopen under a new name and ownership. For example, in the Kettner Boulevard/India Street area, the Club (a women’s bar since the mid-1960s) was purchased from Lou Arko in the early 1980s by Fred Atcheson and transformed into the BULC, a leathermen’s dance bar. Similarly, another Arko bar, the Swing (named for the suspended velvet seat in which go-go dancers and birthday celebrants swung to and fro over the bar) changed ownership to Ed Coleman in 1976 to become A Different Drum, a western-themed tavern. It later converted into Libido’s, a male strip club, then eventually morphed into the women’s bars Club Bombay and 6 Degrees in the 1980s. By the mid-1970s, nearly 30 gay bars were spread across San Diego in La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, North and South Park, Hillcrest, Downtown, and some extending eastward to La Mesa.
The bars that epitomized San Diego in this heyday were the beach bars. Bar events in Mission Beach, like the Sunday beer busts at the Outrigger (844 W. Mission Bay Blvd.), the bikini contests at the Apartment (a women’s bar at 756 Ventura Place), and barbecues at the Matador (4633 Mission Blvd. in Pacific Beach—first a women’s bar, then in the 1980s attracting a mostly male clientele), all drew large crowds of locals and tourists, many clad only in bathing suits.
6:05 p.m. Editing Bay, July 14, 2017
A lot of thought went into the post-production editing phase to decide which narratives to present and how to distill them into compelling segments for an hour-long broadcast. We couldn’t include the gay piano bars, or the bars’ role in sponsoring teams for the softball and pool leagues, or cover any of the North Park bars. With over sixty hours of footage to edit, we attempted to strike a balance between developing each segment as fully as possible and representing the variety of the gay bars of this high-water mark period.
Bar matchbooks served as a powerful unifying visual motif that carried through the film—in many cases these mementos were the only physical remnants of bars that have long vanished. Fortunately, a wonderful collection of historic gay bar matchbooks is housed within the Lambda Archives. Whenever possible, we filmed interviewees holding the matchbooks of the bars they were reminiscing about—each matchbook a kind of talisman, embodying a history of personal experiences that could be slipped casually or furtively into a pocket, a token of the bar carried closely against the body.
It was especially interesting hearing about the colorful men and women’s bars in the beach areas and noticing the deep sense of place and community shared by interviewees. In particular, two women, who met on camera after having not seen each other for at least twenty-five years, described the centrality of the Apartment in their lives during the late 1970s, with fond recollections that seemed as fresh as if the events had happened recently. I felt this was one of the more touching segments in the documentary.
Epoch 3: The Plague Years
The 1970s was an era of increasing social liberalism on many fronts, yet many of the bars remained segregated by gender, and misogyny was not unknown. As one interviewee commented, “In the ‘70s…the separation between men and women was pretty clear. But AIDS changed that.” The AIDS crisis that
began in 1981 dealt a staggering blow to the LGBT community. By the year 2000 it had decimated an entire generation of gay men, causing 448,060 deaths throughout the United States and 5,802 deaths in San Diego alone. Leather bars such as the Loading Zone at 1702 India Street, the BULC on Kettner Boulevard, and Wolf’s at 30th and Upas were especially hard hit by the epidemic, as scores of men in the leather community perished.
Due to the climate of fear and stigma against those with HIV/AIDS, gay bars and their patrons experienced increased homophobic harassment by city and state authorities. The West Coast Production Company was inspected nightly by Alcoholic Beverage Control and visited at least weekly by vice officers, who arrested thirteen people one night in 1984. Squad cars were parked nightly outside the venue, which effectively intimidated the clientele. Certain police officers regularly accosted bar patrons, and in some cases, physically brutalized them.
In light of the total absence of any level of government support in the early days of the epidemic, the bars became organization centers, foci where community members galvanized to become politically engaged, fight for resources, and raise funds to help those with AIDS. In fact, in 1983 community organizers met on the patio at #1 Fifth Ave. (a Hillcrest bar at 3845 5th Ave.) to create the AIDS Foundation of San Diego, the first grassroots AIDS service organization in the city.
The bars held ongoing ad hoc fundraising efforts. One especially poignant anecdote describes how donations were solicited for people with HIV/AIDS. A photograph of an afflicted person was taped to the outside of a metal coffee can, and placed in a row of cans that ran down the length of the bar. Patrons deposited money into a can to donate to that particular person, who could have been a friend or a stranger, to help pay for their food, medicines, rent, or other necessities. In the face of constant tragedy, bars did what they could to offer a place of comfort for their patrons, and supported more concerted fundraising events initiated throughout the bar network by the Imperial Court de San Diego. This continued into the 1990s, as newly formed nonprofits such as Ordinary Miracles (which asked LGBT bartenders to donate their tips for one day out of the year) brought in money to support critical social service organizations like
Mama’s Kitchen, the San Diego Food Bank, and Special Delivery, among many others.
2:25 p.m., Editing Bay, Dec. 10, 2017
During their interviews, each person related their experiences of this time with varying degrees of emotion, ranging from resigned composure to outright weeping. In listening to their stories, and reflecting on their grit, resilience, and dedication to help their community in spite of the unimaginable hardships of the period, I was truly inspired and humbled. I was a teenager in the 1980s, and my coming out journey began in the San Francisco Bay Area at the very crux of the AIDS epidemic. Consequently, I felt a personal and intimate connection to the people and stories that comprised this section of the documentary, and this made editing challenging. I had to grapple with how much to include of the impact and magnitude of the tragedy without having an overwhelming sense of loss and grief dictate the direction of the film.
It was abundantly clear to me that the epidemic forged a stronger community, both locally in San Diego and on the national front. It was also evident that many of the San Diegans we interviewed, along with the many others who died, were true community heroes who fought many battles on different fronts in the war zone that was HIV/AIDS. The San Diego LGBTQ community’s response to the AIDS crisis was significant, and it is due its own documentary.
Epilogue: New Directions, 2000s–forward
One segment in the documentary presented the perspectives of younger LGBTQ people and how they see the roles of gay bars in current society. Their views, which differ among themselves, certainly contrast with those of older generations. Gay bars play less of a central social role for a new LGBTQ+ generation than they did for the earlier generations. Clearly, gay bars have held different meanings to people that came of age within each major epoch, and their lessened importance to young people may be a contributing factor influencing the long-term viability of gay bars. This segment of the film segued into footage of the last night of Numbers, a popular Hillcrest nightclub that closed on September 8, 2017 after 25 years of operation. By mid-2018 San Diego had lost three more gay bars. This phenomenon has been occurring with increasing frequency in major urban centers throughout North America and Europe since 2010. Debates continue on the presumed reasons why in recent times more gay bars have been closing or transforming into mixed venues (catering to both straight and gay patrons).
1:30 p.m., Delivering a rough cut of the film to KPBS Studios, May 13, 2018
When I first began this film project, I was drawn to documenting San Diego’s queer past. But as the project neared completion, my perspective turned to questions regarding the future of San Diego gay bars, especially since younger people are less reliant on them as spaces for socializing and forming community. What does this trend portend for maintaining LGBTQ+ social spaces and culture in San Diego, Southern California, and beyond? And the more urgent question: how can a cohesive collective memory of the San Diego LGBTQ+ community be maintained given that the public social spaces, physical landmarks, and composition of the community itself are changing as a result of gentrification and other socio-economic drivers?
I hope that the film will inspire a new generation to address these questions as they strive to value and preserve the collective memory of our community—one that exists not only in matchbooks, periodicals, and snapshots of patrons beckoning from the past, but also in histories that live in the present. These histories can be maintained through intergenerational connections forged between LGBTQ elders and youth. When we strengthen those social bonds, we keep alive the collective memory that originated in gay bars and nightspots, the first public places that fostered the development of our community’s many histories.