K.M. Soehnlein remembers The Stud, San Francisco's oldest queer bar, shuttered by COVID-19
The author pictured in front of The Stud, which has been within walking distance of his home in San Francisco for decades. (Courtesy of K.M. Soehnlein)

K.M. Soehnlein remembers The Stud, San Francisco's oldest queer bar, shuttered by COVID-19


The first time I saw the boy who would be my husband perform was on stage at The Stud, a one-story wooden building that felt like a cross between a biker bar and a mountain lodge, low ceilinged and lined in mirrors, with a postage-stamp stage crowned by a tattered curtain. He and his female performance partner were dressed as Mormon missionaries, lip-synching to the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and transforming mid-song into a cross-dressed bride and groom: "We could be married, and then we'd be happy, oh wouldn't it be nice…"

The Stud was never "nice," it was naughty, nasty, neighborly, and nine kinds of queer fun on any given night. I'd need 10,000 words to even start to recount the memories we made inside its walls, the friendships that started there, the explosive drag creativity unleashed weekly, sometimes nightly, and the never-ending joy of dance music mixed by the greatest DJs in the world. (Oh, how I crave a packed, glittering dance floor...) I don't have the clarity of mind right now to put 10,000 words together while my body reverberates with the gut-punch news that our current shit storm of economic free fall has led the queer collective that runs The Stud to the only decision they could make: to leave the location where they've been for 33 years, free themselves from San Francisco's ravenous rental market, and strategize for an uncertain future.

The Stud is San Francisco's oldest queer bar. Fifty-five years old. It started at a different location, on Folsom near 11th, and made its mark as an acid-hippie-art bar bringing all genders, ages and inclinations together at a time when the South of Market scene was mostly men, mostly leather, and mostly macho. I learned a lot about this era of The Stud doing research for Out of Site: SoMa, the site-specific theater piece I wrote for director Seth Eisen. (The play was performed on the streets of the neighborhood in 2019, and it will run again in June 2020 on Zoom. Please support the project here.)

Out of Site includes a scene set entirely at the original Stud, based on interviews Seth and I did with Mike Caffee, who was part of the family of magic- and mischief-making artists, including the legendary Chuck Arnett, who ran the bar in the '60s and '70s. Back then, Mike told us, they changed the art on the walls monthly based on the signs of the zodiac and welcomed in the drag waitresses from across the street at the original Hamburger Mary's.

I have older friends for whom the Folsom Stud was the only Stud that counted, who never quite saw the new location as the real deal. One era ended, a new one began, and not everyone came along for the ride. For those of us who entered the Stud at Ninth and Harrison before we knew its history, this space was the one that counted. And what a fucking ride it's been. I jumped on board in the '90s with dance parties like Junk and Sugar and showed up nearly every Tuesday night for Trannyshack, where that Mormon missionary number was just the overture to a decade-long symphony of lip-synching, stage dives, costume reveals, onstage rimming (I'm looking at you Heklina), and Happy Birthday sung loudly and out of tune to anyone born that week (or just claiming to have been, if you really wanted a piece of cake).

Precious Moments and Falsetta Knockers at The Stud parodying 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' (youtu.be)

My husband—drag name: Falsetta Knockers—took the stage as Ziggy Stardust, Frank N. Furter, Bette Davis doing Baby Jane, Elaine May doing comedy with Mike Nichols, and the Statue of Liberty raped by George W. Bush, among a gazillion other characters. Falsetta closed out the final night of Trannyshack in an epic performance as three generations of drug-damaged club kids lip-synching three different versions of "Love to Love You Baby." Trannyshack updated itself to Mother and begat Tiara Sensation which begat Some Thing which birthed dozens of drag babies who reinvigorated the scene over the past decade and proved that no matter how much San Francisco was gentrifying and techifying and congesting itself with ride shares and development, nothing could stop the next generation of queer performers—and the audience who needed them—from raising a middle finger to heteronormative consumerism.

The Stud Collective—seventeen or so people from all different backgrounds, plus the staff that serves drinks and hangs up coats and works the door and unclogs the plumbing thank you very much—saved the business from a real estate guillotine in 2017. It was a small miracle, and every blast of new programming, every experimental performance, every theme night and DJ party and drag show popping up since then has had the glow of the miraculous about it. My husband and I have lived four blocks from the place for most of our San Francisco lives. I could walk to Ninth and Harrison blindfolded, and I've certainly walked home from there blind drunk. The cocktails, by SF standards, were cheap.

It took this pandemic to do what even AIDS and economic recession hadn't: shut the doors, kill the income stream, and remind us for the umpteenth fucking time that we live in a system built on profit hoarded in the hands of the few and a government barely able to keep us sheltered, healthy and fed. The Stud is leaving Ninth Street forever, reorganizing in some new mobile, homeless form, hosting digital shows, and keeping alert for what's possible. Those mirrored walls that held us are now memories.

Buildings are not community. Brick-and-mortar is not the same as spirit. The spirit at the core of The Stud has flowed through more than one structure and I trust it will find another four walls to fill. Queers are resilient, and the brilliant, brave, infinitely creative Stud Collective is not giving up. But today, on my masked morning walk through my neighborhood, and afterwards, when I came home to try to write this post, all I really wanted to do was rage. So I'm just gonna end with this: fuck capitalism, fuck developers, fuck speculators, fuck real estate, fuck corporate greed, and Long Live The Stud.

This article originally appeared on kmsoehnlein.typepad.com.

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