Diving Into SoMa/Folsom: THE FOLSOM STREET FAIR

By Josh Eliot

 

The Folsom Street South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco was the gritty contrast to the famed Castro District, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. When the Castro had its annual Street Fair, the crowd was eclectic, including men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes. Dancing, and sometimes flashing, drag queens, street performers, snake charmers, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and country & western groups who would suddenly break into a square dance in the middle of the street, forcing the crowd to separate. There were Dunk-A-Hunk booths, face and body painting, numerous food tents and the Gay Men’s Chorus staking claim to the plaza in front of Hibernia Bank to belt out some show tunes.

 

Castro Street Fair, 1980s

Castro Street Fair, 1980s

 

You would see large groups of partygoers hanging out the windows of their flats and overcrowding the fire escapes and overhangs on the apartment buildings above Star Pharmacy, Valley Pride Market and Market Liquors. The bars, of course, were packed to the brim with large crowds surrounding the doors. The Main Stage was on Market Street and the corner of Castro and featured performances by artists like Sylvester, comedians like Ellen DeGeneres and Danny Williams as well as local and somewhat well-known bands. The whole event was just slightly over the top and refreshingly not overly political.

The Folsom Street Fair, by contrast, was a full-on South of Market “sexperience.” Some would call it sleazy, others would say it was the ultimate middle finger to society. It was a bit of both. If you’ve read Will Seagers' last two blogs, Diving Into SoMA/Folsom: Hamburger Mary's and Long Live the Stud!, you’ve already got a first hand account of some hot spots in the neighborhood. Spanning the blocks on Folsom from 8th to 13th streets and splintering off between Howard and Harrison streets, there was quite a large area for bad behavior to take place. To say that Folsom street really brought the grit is a major under-statement. I think the first rule of thumb we learned was don’t even think about showing up without putting on a cock ring, because you would definitely not be in the majority. You would always expect to see bare asses in chaps, tits galore, random whipping displays, hoods, ball gags, leather jockstraps, and chains, but a street fair wouldn’t go by without some shocking outfit or action that you never saw coming!

 

Folsom Street Fair

Folsom Street Fair

 

Whereas the Castro fairgoers would separate to let the square dancers dance, the Folsom fairgoers would crowd in and form an impenetrable circle to shield the circle jerk or blow job that spontaneously started happening in the middle of the road, keeping out anyone who was looking to stop it. I don’t know if all that happens these days but it was very commonplace in the 1980s. I remember going into one bar and seeing someone squatting on top of a cigarette machine while getting rimmed. Dore Alley sat smack dab in the middle of the street fair map and surprisingly it looked much different in the light. Dore Alley and close by Ringold Alley were notorious “last chance” cruise spots for bar patrons once they closed at 2am.

In 2014, Mike Skiff’s (videographer and director for Catalina Video under Mark Jensen) documentary Folsom Forever was released by Breaking Glass Pictures. I was so proud to see what he had accomplished after we all parted ways when Catalina Video was sold to Channel 1 Releasing in 2007. I recently viewed the movie on TUBI, the free streaming service, which documented the behind the scenes actions and adventures of the fair organizers and volunteers. The Folsom Street Fair organizers' self-proclaimed mission statement reads, in part, as follows:

“Folsom Street is committed to cultivating a safe, open and inclusive environment for kink, leather and alternative sexuality. We are dedicated to sexual liberation and the right to pleasure as a crucial part of the whole liberation movement. Folsom Street is an explicitly anti-racist organization and we are committed to decolonizing our practices.”

 

Folsom Forever poster and director, Mike Skiff

Folsom Forever poster and director, Mike Skiff

 

No Folsom Street Fair would be complete without the appearance and contributions of Mr. Markus. Marcus Hernandez, a longtime leather columnist for the Bay Area Reporter, was always front and center throughout the fair and on the Main Stage. Mr. Markus, through his column and international ventures, influenced the leather/BDSM subculture, its ethics, traditions and fundraising efforts. His smart and sarcastic column shone a light on the culture that had long been demonized and suppressed by mainstream gay and straight cultures, generating respect by showing that the leather community was among the most dedicated to their tribe. Even though he passed away in October of 2009 at the age of 77, his voice and message of pride for the LGBT and his beloved leather community reached far beyond San Francisco to like communities internationally. I remember seeing him several times at the International Mr. Leather Contest in Chicago when we shot it to release on DVD. It had been so many years since I heard his distinctive voice across the loud speaker and it brought me right back to those dirty, nasty, fabulous days that my roomies and I let our inhibitions fly at the Folsom Street Fair.

 

Mr. Markus and the Main Stage at Folsom

Mr. Markus and the Main Stage at Folsom

 

Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment
That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?
DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake
We Waited 8hrs for a Cum Shot... Is That a World Record?
Don't Wear "Short Shorts" on the #38 Geary to LANDS END
How Straight Are You Really?
BEHIND THE (not so) GREEN DOOR
The BOOM BOOM Room
CATCHING UP with Tom DeSimone
Everybody’s FREE to FEEL GOOD
SCANDAL at the Coral Sands Motel
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Castro Theatre
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Midnight Sun
RSVP: 2 Weeks Working on a Gay Cruise Ship
VOYAGER of the Damned
I'M NOT A LESBIAN DIRECTOR

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DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Badlands

By Will Seagers

 

I am very excited to begin this new series with my co-author Josh Eliot. Readers of the Bijou blogs should be quite familiar with Josh's excellent writing style and accounts of gay history past. This new series will be delving into various neighborhoods in San Francisco during the 1980s. Our first look will be in the Castro... a perfect place to start!

My knowledge of The Badlands and its sister bar The Phoenix will be coming from the perspective of a DJ. That was my job in both of these bars. It would not have been right to skip over the Phoenix, as that was actually the first of three bars that I played in the Castro. Also, in its original iteration known as Toad Hall, it was one of the most famous and history rich spots in the district. Many a famous face (and body) waltzed in and out of its doors during the heydays of the mid 70s. People such as Al Parker appeared there frequently. You never knew who you were going to bump into. But, you were always guaranteed a good time!

 

Toad Hall exterior and advertisements, 1970s

Toad Hall exterior and advertisements, 1970s

 

After my brief but pleasant stint playing at Dreamland, I realized that I was not cut out for playing the very long hours that were required. My hat is off to those who could play those sometimes twelve-hour shifts! Luckily I had been approached by the manager of the Phoenix and Badlands who asked me if I would be interested in playing. Without hesitation I said yes and soon started at the Phoenix.

This was a very different kind of place for me. It was a Castro St. bar with a very regular and dedicated clientele. They seemed to take to my eclectic mix of R&B, disco and jazz. My only complaint about the bar was the booth. It was more like an aerie! One had to climb what appeared to be a ladder straight up the wall and enter the booth through the floor. Bringing up crates of records... well, you can imagine what that was like! The view and the sound were great. But, you certainly had to put on a long song if you wanted to take a pee break! Lol. My tenure at the Phoenix was only a few months, as I was suddenly moved "across the street" to The Badlands!

But before leaving the Phoenix, I need to mention a neighborhood spot just two doors down on the corner of Castro and 18th: the Star Pharmacy with its celebrity Jackie “Star.” She was loved by everyone in the neighborhood.

 

Star Pharmacy

Star Pharmacy

 

Moving on, one afternoon the manager of both bars, Ben, came into the Phoenix to ask me if I wanted to play at The Badlands. Once again without hesitation I said yes. I was pleased to find out that he had become a fan of my music and thought it would be an even better fit at The Badlands. I guess I should also mention that this move had something to do with my popularity in L.A. Tool & Die! The booth in The Badlands was in the back of the bar but was visible to most of the clientele. It was shortly after this that I met the owner of both bars, Ron Holmes. Ron was always very quiet and a bit shy. He seemed to like me and always treated me with respect. When I least expected it, I would find him in the back of the booth smiling and enjoying the music. Sometimes it actually startled me!

 

L.A. Tool & Die poster

L.A. Tool & Die poster

 

This was a great job and a great house to play. I remained there for four years! At first, it was a bit daunting in that some of the very best DJs in the city played there: Timmy Rivers, Johnny Hedges and my very dear friend Jorge Martinez (who formerly played at the Boom Boom Room as discussed in one of Josh's previous blogs). For the first few weeks I followed Timmy Rivers' "Church." Timmy did an amazing and soulful mix on Sunday afternoons that got the whole bar swaying! I would come in at 8PM to relieve him and continue until we closed at 2AM. My biggest challenge and goal was to seamlessly blend into his last record and keep the feeling he had created intact for as long as possible. After a bit, I would segue into something more energetic with my signature thumping bass line! After about a month or so, I was given Saturday nights. These were my most cherished memories of being a DJ. I loved to take the room on a trip by taking popular tunes and building momentum to a point that the crowd would scream with joy when a new peak was hit during the night. One of my fondest memories/compliments was when a patron came to the booth with a shot for me and told me that my music made him feel like he was on cocaine! Their only complaint was that they could not dance... it was a stand up bar!

It was a treat and a privilege to have worked with the great and sexy bar staff that that provided the drinks and visuals that made this bar a legend. Its iconic cedar shake interior with license plates from all states and years adorned the walls. Most iconic were the "do not" placards. They resembled stick figures in various positions. Two of my favorites were the figure holding a pot to his mouth and a red circle and a line through it indicating - no pot smoking. The other was in one of the two men's rooms - the open men's bathroom. It had a bathtub AND a trough style urinal! This sign had two stick figures - one kneeling in front of another with the red circle and red line running through it. (I let you figure out what that one meant! Lol.) Regardless of the signs, hot little incidents would have to broken up from time to time. Men will be men! I look back at all of this and think "what a great time to have been alive!"

 

Badlands bar in its later era

Badlands bar (1975 - 2020) in its later incarnation

Previous blogs in DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO series:
The Castro Theatre - Josh Eliot

 

Bio of Will Seagers:

Will Seagers (also credited as Matt Harper), within his multifaceted career and participation in numerous gay communities across the country in the '70s and '80s and beyond, worked as a print model and film performer. 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.

 

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

 

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