Diving Into SoMa/Folsom: Club Life..."Hit me with your Rhythm Stick!”

By Will Seagers

 

Hi folks! Will here. Today's stroll back through memory lane will put a little bounce in your step - it's time to look back at some of the famous and infamous dance clubs in our "Dive" into Soma/Folsom history!

Although the South of Market area hosted some of the biggest and most popular discos and dance clubs like Trocadero Transfer, Dreamland and The End Up, it would not be fair to the history of San Francisco not to mention some of the clubs that started the whole phenomenon. The City, Dance Your Ass Off, Bones, and The I Beam come to mind... just to name a few. These were some fantastic dance venues in other parts of town back in the day.

 

Dance Your Ass Off button (L); I Beam sign (R)

Dance Your Ass Off button (L); I Beam sign (R)

 

Just off Folsom and down the street from Hamburger Mary's and The Stud was The Oasis. This bar with its unique swimming pool made for an exotic backdrop for the equally exotic and talented Timmy Rivers, its first DJ. Timmy was famous for his very sophisticated taste in music as well as legendary mixing skill. Still open and featuring great drag and cabaret, it has weathered several decades in SoMa!

 

 

Oasis SF, present era

Oasis SF, present era

 

Although huge in popularity, The End Up was a modestly sized venue located at 6th and Harrison that was opened in 1973. You could always count on great music from DJ talents like George Ferren (listen to his current music here), Steve Fabus and Peter Struvy - just to name a few. Although it had its own attraction for the late night/early morning crowd, it became an infamous after hours club catching the "still wired" revelers from Trocadero and Dreamland - which closed at 2 AM. The DJs took full advantage of this crowd and played amazing classics as well as breaking a lot of hot new tunes. Yours truly had the privilege (albeit sort of brief) of being one of their sound techs. Together with Tom Junnell in the late 80s, we revitalized the sound system with state of the art JBL Cabaret series speakers and some vital new electronics. It seemed that the DJs and the dancers noticed and responded with joy! This was truly one of San Francisco's one of a kind experiences.

 

End Up ads including a flyer for its 8th Anniversary party (1981) featuring Steve Fabus with producer George Ferren

End Up ads

 

Now on to the big time... Trocadero Transfer! Built in 1977, it was owned and created by Dick Collier of Baltimore. This club broke new ground in terms of size and sound. Graebar Sound was brought in from NYC. Peter Spar and Barry Lederer of Graebar brought to the table the kind of sound found in 12 West and Fire Island Pines' Sandpiper and John Whyte's Boatel (the home of the original Tea Dance), just to name a few. The hardwood dancefloor was vast and specially built as not to fatigue the dancers through the long nights. After a parade of talent made its way up those steps of the mirrored pyramid (the DJ booth), a young man originally from Masapequa, Long Island made his way up those steps to be one of the most famed DJs in the country: Bobby Viteritti. He was a massive success for the club and had an immense following. And, it gave rise for yet another Goliath – Dreamland.

 

Trocadero Transfer ad (L); Will Seagers' Dreamland membership card (R)

Trocadero Transfer ad (L); Will Seagers' Dreamland membership card (R)

 

Dreamland! Born in the late 70s (circa 1979), was the "dream" and creation of Michael Maier, formerly of Cincinnati. I had the pleasure of meeting and having a rather torrid affair with Michael during the summer of 1978. We both worked on Fire Island. He worked for The Sandpiper and I worked for the Boatel. After work we would go out dancing in our "neighborhood bar," The Sandpiper. The music was always great - with the likes of Robbie Leslie, Richie Rivera, and many of the other top name NYC DJs. A funny thing... we both liked to play tambourines to the music... even while dancing. It was not uncommon back in the late 70s to bring a percussion instrument onto the dance floor. Michael surprised me by moving to San Francisco that next fall.

As for the "birth" of Dreamland... some of it happened right in my little 10th St. San Francisco apartment as I mentioned in a prior blog. Blueprints were unfurled right on my coffee table and investors were invited to get this ball rolling. So, just months later with yet another Graebar sound system and another specially engineered vast hardwood dancefloor installed, the doors were ready to welcome the dancers and night life of San Francisco. I was among its first employees. With the talented Roy Shapiro we did the light show.

Opening night was memorable. The immense four foot diameter mirror ball was lowered to the floor in a non-spinning mode. Opening night's DJ was Vincent Carleo - of Flamingo (NYC) fame. As patrons filtered in, he started with "The Land of Make Believe" by Chuck Mangione and that enormous mirror ball started to spin and raise into the heavens. This tasteful start was followed by lots of the very urban and gutsy music that Vincent was known for. Dreamland was a hit!

 

Mirror ball

 

My DJ debut took place at Dreamland. It was the Tea Dance of Easter Sunday 1980. Having played lights there and being an integral part of the "family," both Michael and Roy learned of my budding taped music career. After hearing my tapes, they decided it was time to move off the lights and onto The Wheels of Steel! It was a marvelous event attended by lots of friends and fellow DJs. I was scared to death... but rose to the occasion with tons of familiar tunes. The roar of the dance floor kept me going!

I started off by mentioning there were too many wonderful places all over San Francisco to list all of them. My co-author, Josh, and I will do our best to do highlights for you! Life is a Dance!


 

Bio of Will Seagers:

Will Seagers (also credited as Matt Harper), within his multifaceted careers and participation in numerous gay communities across the country in the '70s and '80s and beyond, worked as a print model, film performer, and DJ, just to name a few. He made iconic appearances in releases from Falcon, Hand in Hand, Joe Gage, Target (Bullet), J. Brian, Steve Scott, and more, including in lead roles in major classics like Gage's L.A. Tool & Die (1979) and Scott's Wanted (1980). He brought strong screen presence and exceptional acting to his roles and was scene partners with many fellow legends of classic porn.

George Ferren, a close friend of Will's frequently mentioned in his blogs, was a major figure in the San Francisco music scene in the '70s/'80s. His current music is available for your pleasure on Soundcloud: BY GEORGE

 

Will Seagers, present day image

 


You can read Will Seagers' previous blogs for Bijou here:
Welcome Matt/Will
What's For Dessert?
On and Off the Set of L.A. Tool & Die
Wanted, Weekend Lockup and Weekends in Hermosa Beach
Honeymoon in the Palms
Birds of a Feather
The Stereo Maven of Castro Street
The Pass Around Boy
The Ecstasy and the Agony
Fitness and Fantasy: The Early Gyms
Chasing the Boys and Chasing the Sun: My Story of Sun Worship and Where It Got Me
Becoming Invisible
The Reverse Story of Dorian Gray
Pin Money
One Organ Leads to Another! Part 1
The Wheels of Steel
Feast and Famine: The 1970s to the 1980s
An Alphabet Soup of Powders and Pills
Merry Christmas (and Getting Re-Organized)
Now and Then
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Badlands
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: Moby Dick Bar
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: "Just Another Stroll Down the Castro!"
Diving Into SoMa/Folsom: Hamburger Mary's
Diving Into SoMa/Folsom: Long Live the Stud!

 

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I Know I'll Have Many Other Homes, But Never a Place Like This: A Brief-ish History of Bijou Theater Parties

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

 

Bijou exterior and upstairs map
Bijou Theater exterior and upstairs map

I first went to the Bijou Theater in 2008. It was a snowy day that March. I was in my last month of being 21 – quite an eventful year. It was weeks after I met my first real girlfriend, who I would wind up being with five and a half years. At the beginning of my 21st year, I had my first kiss. (I was a very late bloomer.) Months later, I first had sex (in the bathroom of the longstanding goth club, Neo, another Chicago landmark that closed mere months before the Bijou Theater in 2015). Shortly afterwards, I began going to S/M events and getting curious about the sexual spaces in the city.

The snowy March evening in question, I attended one of Bijou's Wayward Sisters parties with a group of friends. These parties were a blast. They generally got good turn outs and lively crowds – mostly younger art students and predominantly women, though a big mix of folks were present, including Bijou regulars. (There were intentionally never any gender restrictions at the Bijou, unlike many other gay adult businesses. Bijou owner Steven Toushin welcomed all adults and his attitude was always, “No one should be left out; it shouldn't be an exclusive space.”)

At these parties, David Boyer from Chicago's leather bar, Touche, would hand out beers in the back garden and spank the recipients. People DJed in the theater area and danced on the stage and, upstairs, explored the space, cruised, had sex, talked to each other through glory holes. That night, I wound up in the sling in the dungeon, making out with two of the girls I'd shown up with, while some Bijou regulars stood around in the dark and jacked off, a few of our other friends peeping at this display through a window. I later went outside and saw my dude friends and some other guys standing in a circle on the balcony with their dicks whipped out, comparing them while deep in conversation.

Bijou exterior and upstairs map
Bijou's upstairs

About six months after attending this party, I wound up answering a Craigslist ad seeking an editor for a gay porn company; an ad so brief it was almost cryptic. When I went in for the interview, it was a very pleasant surprise to realize it was for Bijou and that, in addition to the theater, Bijou was also a vintage gay porn company. I was a filmmaker with a particular interest in '60s sexploitation films and LGBTQ film history and a burgeoning interest in '70s porn, so this was extremely up my alley. I very much wanted the job, even more after Steven discussed the company and its history and philosophy, so I was thrilled when I picked up the call confirming that I got it.

The Wayward Sisters events were still running when I got hired at the Bijou office and, in total, operated for around a year and a half. Steven recalls once showing up at a Wayward Sisters party with his partner and doing a flogging and fisting scene in the dungeon. As they played, party-goers wandered by and started gathering, their conversations soon growing silent as they watched intently. Afterwards, a group of young women came over to talk to his partner and pay compliments about the scene. I went to one or two more of these parties before they wound up being discontinued not long after the person who originally ran them moved to Europe.

But let's back up much further, well before my time.

Wells Street in 1976 and 1970s Bijou Theater ad
Wells Street, 1976, and '70s Bijou Theater ad

The Bijou Theater opened in 1970 in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood on Wells Street, where it was in the proximity of several other gay and sexual businesses. The first film that played there was Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech, named after the Nixon dog. The next was a gay porn film. In 1980, it expanded to a second floor, with a maze of glory hole booths and a dungeon room. By then, it was open 24/7 and people partied there late into the night. Touche and other gay bars would bus folks over and the crowd from Carol's Speakeasy, located next door, regularly spilled into Bijou (sometimes for free through its back door) after hours. During these decades, the theater endured numerous police raids, obscenity busts, bomb threats, and more, but it kept running. In addition to porn films on Bijou's screen, these first few decades saw live performances on stage by many of the films' major stars, including Al Parker, Richard Locke, Lee Ryder, Peter Berlin, Jim Cassidy, and Casey Donovan (and Colt stars later on in the 2000s).

Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater
Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater, April 1980

From 2000 to 2002, Miss Tiger and her Erotic Cabaret, featuring the Bijou Boys, took to the Bijou's stage. Drag performer Miss Tiger's events were elaborately staged erotic revues featuring theatrical pieces, humor, musical numbers, strip shows, live sex acts, and more. One notable show incorporated a Gregorian chant playing as a man came out dressed as a priest and with four men dressed as choir boys. They all read from Bibles, then the choir boys took turns sucking the priest's dick on stage.

Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater
Ads for Miss Tiger's Erotic Cabaret

Not long after I began working at the office, a fellow employee asked me if I wanted to help out with one of the theater's strip shows. I wound up running lights and music for these each month. Another co-worker, Bryan, took over as host for a long while and he incorporated stand up comedy into the Nude Revues. We often made elaborate videos to feature during the intros and during intermission. Finally, Michael, who worked in the box office, took over hosting. He had a great rapport with the customers, which made for a comfortable flow. (At the final Nude Revue before the theater's closing in 2015, he ended the show by singing a poignant song, which brought tears to many an eye in the crowd.)

Bjiou Boys Nude Revue posters
Bijou Boys Nude Revue posters

Bijou held a big 40th anniversary party in the first months of 2011. This was hosted by David Boyer, and the packed audience took in live music performances of classic gay porn theme songs accompanied by dancers (one of whom poured orange juice all over her naked body to a very noisy cover of the theme to Arthur Bressan Jr.'s 1984 film, Juice), videos about gay porn history and Bijou's history (both viewable at the bottom of the Bijou Theater page on our website), words from Steven Toushin, a two foot tall ejaculating dick cake (made by my girlfriend), and a strip show.

Dancers, bands, and dick cake from the Bjiou's 40th anniversary

Bijou Theater 40th anniversary party photos


During the 2000s, more people were approaching Steven with interest in doing events at the theater, as the dynamic at the bars was changing. The first huge event to be staged there by organizers from outside the theater during my era in the 2010s was the release party for the vintage gay porn soundtracks of Patrick Cowley by Dark Entries Records on Valentine's Day of 2014. DJs played in the dungeon (which got crowded, hot, and sweaty) and others played downstairs on the stage while clips from the movies Cowley scored were shown on screen. This event illuminated some new possibilities for hosting parties in the space that were influential during the theater's final two years, during which we worked with many different organizers and artists.

Later that month, a friend of mine staged reading of an erotic play he'd co-written about Abraham's Lincoln alleged gay relationship. This event segued into a year or so when a friend in the same circle proposed doing monthly variety shows at the theater. I helped him run these and they were chaotic, sometimes thrilling, and often messy installments called Upstairs/Downstairs, featuring performance art, video art, experimental film, punk bands, noise musicians, installations, DJs, and stand up comedy. Some highlights: a performance featuring a corn cob strap-on covered in I Can't Believe It's Not Butter; legendary Chicago bands and performance artists taking to the stage and finding creative ways to utilize the space; a night when I had to mop milk, piss, and cum off the floor of the dungeon after the show; and a fake human sacrifice and haunted house.

Dancers, bands, and dick cake from the Bjiou's 40th anniversary

Upstairs/Downstairs poster; performance by Chicago legends Ono and a "human sacrifce"


With these and following events, inspired by the broadly mixed crowd and dynamic use of the building seen in the Wayward Sisters and Patrick Cowley parties, we tried to find more opportunities for newcomers - across a range of ages and genders - to feel welcome in the theater, while also hopefully being an interesting change of pace for the customers who had called it home for decades. Finding this balance was tough and sometimes tense, but a worthwhile endeavor. Steven was interested in people trying new and different things at the theater and he gave them pretty much free reign in what they planned (basically unheard of), though he often suggested to organizers that one successful approach to the uniqueness of the Bijou was allowing things to unfold throughout the entire venue. The staff of the theater went above and beyond during the events in these final years, which often required a huge amount of extra work.

During this span of time, S+S Project hosted an exciting show highlighting the work of many talented local artists, including installations of artwork, video art screening in the theater, and performances on stage and upstairs (featuring nudity, lard, and balloons). Afterwards, we hung around late into the night in the dungeon while DJs kept playing.

A couple of large queer dance parties were thrown by Chances Dances – one for Halloween and one for Valentine's Day. These included DJs, performers, vintage lesbian porn, and more.

The Men's Room parties also came to the Bijou during this time and hosted several events. These quickly turned massive, culminating in a sprawlingly large and debaucherous one during the IML weekend of the theater's final year. These nights featured music on both levels and erotic performance art (once incorporating fireplay and once featuring piercing play; in the latter scenario, a disco ball was strung up to the performer's cock and balls and when the needles pierced into his chest were tugged out, blood spilled down his body and onto the disco ball).

Chances Dances and Men's Room poster
Chances Dances and Men's Room posters

In the same era, we held an intimate memorial service in the theater, hosted by the folks I went to my initial Wayward Sisters party with, for their friend Wiley, a long-time Bijou regular who loved the place and had recently died. His friends shared memories and screened videos they'd made with Wiley in the theater to a small gathering that also included theater attendees and employees who'd known him.

In the fall of 2015, we got the terrible news that the Bijou was being forced to close, as the result of a legal battle with its landlord. We quickly scheduled a series of events for its final week, David Boyer running several great Touche parties and classic porn films playing 24/7 on the screen. We set up one last party on the theater's final night in operation, and I welcomed anyone who was interested in participating to contact me. We had an overwhelming response.

The night saw wild performance art in the dungeon, live music, beautiful dance performances on stage, DJs doing disco sets in the dungeon, classic porn clips in the theater, erotic videos by local artists screening upstairs, a photobooth and roaming photos by GlitterGuts (all of which you can see here), and I even, in one gorgeous moment, walked by to see a person sawing out a section of the glory hole booths while fucking someone. (Several panels were removed for posterity, Steven keeping some and the person who removed them continuing to this day to install pieces of the Bijou in art shows and other spaces around the country.)

Glitter Guts final party photos
Forced Into Feminity and more from the final party by GlitterGuts

Many friends and strangers talked and fucked. Intergenerational conversations were happening throughout the night, as many people from all different points in the theater's history (and newcomers) showed up. I finally managed to have sex in the theater (in one of the booths, with my then-girlfriend). People were so appreciative of the space, each other, and the history, and being able to be free to do whatever they wanted there, engaging enthusiastically in the way I'd always hoped for. A few asked if they could keep the faded vintage porn film posters on the wall and we took these down and gave them out. One DJ (who'd been involved in putting on several previous events) played an entire new score to the Frank Ross classic Made in the Shade in the theater, which thoughtfully included a sample of the lead performer's final line: “I know I'll have many other homes, but never a place like this.”

Final scene from Made in the Shade
Final scene from Made in the Shade (1985)

This party ran until the next morning. As the remaining stragglers lingered, I found myself alone in the dungeon as Donna Summers' Last Dance came on the playlist, and I danced and cried.

Party remnants
Party remnants

The rest of that day is a blur. I may have napped in the office or not slept at all. A few of us, including Steven, David, Bijou's custodian Shrodney, and I, had to take down the screen and clear out any remaining equipment by the end of the night before the property was turned over to its new owners. We climbed ladders to disconnect lights from lighting rigs, cleared out the projection booth, and packed everything up. Shrodney and I made a final pass through the upstairs, which was a wreck from the party (we didn't have to clean up after it for once), and removed lightbulbs and signage and took photos of the graffiti on the remaining glory hole booths. We headed down the spiral staircase for the last time and shut the door to that room, placing a peacock feather we found, left over from one of the previous night's performers, on top of the door frame.

Screen removal, peacock feather, graffiti: final photos taken in the Bijou
Screen removal, peacock feather, graffiti: final photos taken in the Bijou

We all finished our work and headed out, locking the front door for the first time in 35 years. Steven had to install a lock for this, because the front door didn't even have a functioning one – the theater had been open every day all those years, even through fires and bomb threats, since it became a 24/7 establishment in 1980.

Weeks later, a large group of my friends, moved by their experiences there, held a beautiful memorial service for the Bijou Theater in their own space, which was deeply in the spirit of the venue. I've seen its spirit continue on in gatherings of friends, sexual spaces, and porn screenings since, and hope to continue to catch glimpses of it as the years pass.

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