A moment has arrived that many of us have been dreading for years: THE STUD is ending its 33 years of residence at 399 9th Street and Harrison, a victim of COVID-19’s harsh sentence for all bars and clubs in our city right now, a pandemic-related closure that has become permanent. The Stud is iconic, a legend, a church, a home, a playground, a touchstone, an institution, a haven, and holds the title of San Francisco’s oldest queer bar.
See, like some women who are coy about their age, The Stud is actually 55. She originally opened in 1966 at 1535 Folsom, where the Holy Cow is now, and then moved to Harrison Street in 1987. There are those who say the “new” location was never like the original, but I never knew the difference, since I didn’t move to SF until 1994 (although I remember seeing The Stud’s sign every time I’d drive into the city and take the 9th Street exit—it has been a beacon on that corner for many reasons). I guess we’ll have to hope and see where its third home will be, and we can complain about it all over again.
Four years ago, we almost lost The Stud. In the summer of 2016, just after celebrating a 50th birthday, the building was sold right out from under them and suffered a huge rent hike (try triple!). Then-owner Michael McElhaney (who purchased the business in 1996) decided that after 25 years of faithfully steering the pirate ship, it was time to sell so he could return to Hawaii to take care of his aging mother. Things looked bleak.
But, an SF gaymiracle happened, and the Save Our Stud group formed into The Stud Collective, a co-op of 15 drag queens, performers, DJs, bartenders, and LGBTQ business leaders who bought the business, making it the nation’s first cooperatively owned LGBTQ nightclub in the United States. They have done an incredible job the past few years to keep The Stud vibrant and well-programmed with fun parties (like PUFF!) and pouring tasty drinks and keeping it well-maintained, a place you want to visit much more than once a year at Pride (ahem). This co-op collective crew is formed of people who care—deeply. Keepers of the flame—truly. Clubs need constant tending to stay healthy and alive, especially queer spaces—we keep losing them.
I know that for the past few years, the collective has been looking for another location in SoMa for The Stud—the lease was going to be up at the end of this year (gasp!). But instead of continuing to hemorrhage cash for rent and utilities (on a virtual press conference call last week, they revealed the expenses total out to almost $450 each day), and with no opening date in sight for our bars and clubs, they decided to pull the plug to save any money and assets (which includes the liquor license) so they can start up again elsewhere. Why continue to descend deeper into a money pit while inheriting a future of severely diminished revenue, for who knows how long? The co-op is determined to bring The Stud back, so they have to kill it to save it. The Stud is a spirit, and just like Soylent Green, The Stud is people!
Trust, I know it’s so hard to have the doors closed to that beloved place. We all have so many STORIES there. So many first-time-to-a-gay-club stories. First time seeing drag. First time in drag. Trannyshack was legendary! Spotting Bjork there. Or Lady Gaga. Or Pink. Or seeing Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters on stage. (And then there are the truly epic stories from the past of seeing Etta James, and Sylvester, the Cockettes, and Patrick Cowley.) I have been hearing so many amazing Stud tales from friends this past week (many off the record, forever!).
And then there are the poignant stories. Couples who met there. Remembering our friends we used to dance with there who are no longer with us. I vividly remember one night at a Go Bang! party about seven years ago—it was my birthday—and I met a man who was telling me his memories of coming to The Stud for his first time in 1977! All the friends he danced with to the disco songs we were listening to all over again that night… It was such a full-circle moment. I bought him a glass of bubbles and we raised our glasses to all our friends who are no longer with us. Especially to all the souls we lost to AIDS—that club knew so many of them. The Stud is packed and woven and laced full of memories—some painful, most precious.
What stings so much is we didn’t get to say farewell, to close that venue properly in a bacchanalian blast and blaze of glitter glory. I know so many of us are pained to have that club fade to black without a last look, last show, last shot, last dance. She deserved better, but it’s a mercy killing and the ultimate French exit all rolled into one. We have people all over the world who don’t get to say goodbye to their loved ones during this pandemic—I can’t imagine, it’s the ultimate heartbreak and tragedy—and this is another (lesser) version and variant of that grief. You never know when it’s going to be your last time with someone, somewhere, and I’m grateful that my last time at The Stud, I closed the place down with a good friend at Sunday Situation—we took over that dance floor until DJ Rich King played the final track. I didn’t know it would be the last I’d hear there. We were also the last ones out, that side door slamming behind us. As they say, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
For me, The Stud is San Francisco. No matter where you were on the gender or sexuality or color or body type or age or income spectrum, you were welcome. Freaks and geeks, come one, come all, let’s get down. There were parties with troublemaker names, like Reform Skool and Guilty. (And the annual Halloween party? Lord.) You could come to drink, flirt, cruise, play pool, play pinball, watch drag shows, meet friends, make friends, make out, dance, get rowdy, get down, get wild, get high, get fucked, get thrown out, anything was possible. Just be nice, and don’t be Bambi Lake (I will never forget the screech she let out when someone behind the bar spotted her and bellowed: “GET OUT, BAMBI! YOU KNOW YOU’RE 86’ED!”)
I started going to The Stud regularly in the late 90s, and still can’t think of a better SF party than Sugar on Saturday nights. My first time there, I remember dancing my ass off to Ellen Ferrato, watching her pump her ripped arms in the air as she worked us OUT with floor-stompin’, hootin’ and hollerin’ and hand clappin’ house music. Sugar’s dance floor was an incredible mix, with one of the more-diverse dance floors in the city, and the vibe of this party was IT. People were so kind, and fun, and playful, and sexy, with big smiles, and true warmth. I could even go to the club by myself and have a blast. Back then, it wasn’t about facing the DJ all night—you danced with each other. And bless, the Ecstasy was still good.
At the end of my first night at Sugar, covered in sweat and cheering and clapping for the DJ after the last track played, the official “door whore” (Cliff) shimmied up to me, and said, “Girl, as long as we throw this party, you are always on the list. Bring your cute friends. You are welcome here.” Those words were the embodiment of the spirit of The Stud. It was the beginning of a magical time in my life with my party posse. That place was our party headquarters.
Saturday nights: I remember rocking up with my crew, and Queen Size would be out front checking IDs, crack me a big smile and a “Hey, gurl!” Adorable Volker or Cliff would be in the ticket window, smiling big and would pass me a drink ticket, sometimes comping a friend. I learned a lot about how to throw a party from this kind crew. We all became fast friends, going to Black Sands together, house parties, Pride parties…we tore it up.
Inside, there would be handsome Charlie at the first post at that looooooooong bar, usually in a classic ribbed white tank, with that leonine face and trademark mustache that reminded you of SoMa from another time and warm smile. (RIP, sweet man. I loved hanging out at his end of the bar late at night and hearing stories from him—after some years, I would ask if I could interview him, and he’d demur: “Maybe after the bar’s 50th birthday.” I really should have pushed him more.) There was sweet Dane (oh, that laugh), and Bernie (always keeping an eye out for me and my drink), and kind Kristo, and sometimes I’d see Michael the owner flitting around behind the bar (or I’d track him down in the office to say hi)—if you were lucky, you’d catch one of his impromptu belly-dancing numbers. The Studettes were the best damn bartenders!
On your way to the dance floor, you’d walk by the rotating collage on the wall to see if Eric Shutterslut posted a picture of you (that he developed from film, I’d like to note)—it was like the dubious weekly clubber hall of fame. He’d flirt with all the cute boys and get them to take their shirts off for a picture, including my cute boyfriend—I laughed so hard when I saw a picture of Scott on the wall one week.
That club was such a playground and funhouse—there were so many random corners and side rooms and niches, plus there was the alley outside where you could smoke (oh so many cigarettes) or make out or get frisky. (Or get sick, which I did one time, oops.) Going to the bathroom at The Stud was always an ordeal—there was usually a bathroom out of order with that lousy plumbing, a long line of people waiting, and you would have to hold your breath and try not to touch anything. (More than once, I would hoof it down to the Shell station a block away.)
At Sugar, it was always a moment when DJ Ellen Ferrato would show up: I loved seeing her arrive with her “bag bitches” (as my boyfriend and I called them), carrying her record bags inside and the room would part and people would let them through. I remember seeing Doc Martin play on four decks there—although I can’t remember if that was a Sugar night, it’s a blurry memory, ha-ha.
I loved taking out-of-town friends to that party. I celebrated so many birthday parties there. Sugar was THE party! Even when I got laid off from my ad agency job, I could still go get down and forget about how broke I was. Drinks were always strong and affordable, ditto the cover (especially for me, ha!).
I started throwing a happy hour with my fellow laid-off friends in 2000 called Knees Up at the Hush Hush Lounge, and ended up flyering a handsome guy at a house party who would come to Knees Up regularly with his fun friends and soon became a bestie: Ryan Robles. We started throwing a monthly disco brunch together in 2004 (+Rehab+), and decided we wanted to throw a party for New Year’s Eve that year. We were thrilled we could convince Mikey to let us host it at The Stud and convert the club into a “luxe boudoir discothèque” for the night. The party was going to be called Clink! Clink! (I dug up the photo album from a dark corner of the internet, have fun.) We had no money, but wanted to be sure our fellow broke bohemians could come, so we kept the ticket at $20, while every other party around town was $50 and up, and we included a bubbly toast at midnight (and chocolates!).
Thank goddess for our crafty friends who helped us pull this off: we found vintage wallpaper at SCRAP and stapled it up on the walls, and our friend Donovan made the most amazing black-feathered, three-level chandelier, and installed my brocade curtains and tied them back with silk bows, and suspended vintage silk slips and chemises and garters I found at the thrift store everywhere. We took the wood planks that covered the windows down (most people didn’t even know there were windows to begin with), and we even painted those grotty bathrooms (people remembered us for this for years, ha-ha) and hung up beaded curtains—it was the best those filthy cans ever looked.
We covered the high-boy tables in fabric, and brought some of our paintings and lithographs from home to hang on the walls, and borrowed shiny pillows and old lamps. We scrounged around for crystal chandeliers to hang above the dance floor (fortunately Michael had a few extras hiding behind the bar), we rented quirky movies from Le Video and our friend Scott did such cool projections, we hired saucy go-go boys and three DJs (Neon Leon, Marc Deon, and Rich King) to take us to 4am (although we went later!), and we even had Veronica Klaus perform at midnight (she was a vision in her gold beaded dress, looking like a glass of shimmering Champagne). Our friend Tim sweetly rented us a red carpet so our guests would have a snazzy entrance, and running the velvet rope and the guest list was our panther Linus Mendenhall, while Spider was in coat check with his cheeky smile and porkpie hat.
I will never forget walking into the club that night and seeing the staff in their finery: Charlie sported a shimmery waistcoat, and Dane wore a huge ruffled collar—Mikey (aka my dear Badge) was so dapper and looking like a croupier from a 1920s casino in Europe (he ran the bar that way, too, and kept things flowing all night), and Bernie had a hot pink bra she showed off after last call, ooh la la. Everyone was giddy—no one have ever seen The Stud look so elegant before. The old gal deserved some lipstick and a satin dress like the saloon girl she was. We all had a blast and packed the house. That party was off-the-hook fun—one of my very favorites I have ever hosted.
It was truly such an honor to throw a party at The Stud. It feels like giving something back to SF.
And the plan is for other people to be able to say the same thing in the future. But we have a huge and growing problem: our bars and clubs are in danger, now more than ever in this age of the coronavirus. So are many other businesses, but our bars and clubs are especially endangered, from the dives to the big dance clubs. There is no clear path to survival for them since we don’t know how and when they can open their doors again, to what, 20 percent capacity at six feet apart? And sorry, but to-go cocktails just won’t cut it—they need more revenue.
Without rent relief (learn about the recently proposed amendment to SB939 in this episode of my On the Fly podcast) and federal stabilization funds, there won’t be much open by the time we can start to gather once again. How can we expect these places to continue accruing debt and back rent, with no revenue, and no help? We also won’t have many performers, bartenders, DJs, musicians, drag queens, and other creative and talented people who make this city sparkly around, either. We have to keep everyone safe, but how do we keep our nightlife family thriving, let alone surviving? Only so many people fill their tip jars…and we really need some big tippers to come through. I wish more people with money in this town gave a shit.
What can we do? Well, for now, please follow and support The Stud’s weekly virtual drag show “Drag Alive” (every Saturday at 6:30pm) on Twitch (tip the queens!) and tune in for more shows and programming (look for nights from the Go Bang! crew, and I had such a fun night on Friday at “Don’t Make Me Wait”—tip your DJs!); subscribe to The Stud’s Patreon account and get advance access to their podcast, “Stud Stories,” and they just launched a new GoFundMe to help get though this transition, find a new location, and reopen when the time is right. It’s going to take some money, people. (Paging Lady Gaga!) In the meantime, I know the collective will come up with some clever ways to keep The Stud vibe alive and community engaged.
This coming Sunday at 6pm is a virtual drag funeral for The Stud, with live and recorded performances, DJs, tributes, and more (lineup here). Wear black on the outside, because I know we’re already wearing black on the inside. This one is gonna be tough.
We have to push our city and our state government to help save our bars and clubs and nightlife spaces and safe spaces and queer places to gather, even when we physically can’t be in them right now. But we will return in time. And so will The Stud—she is too much a part of SF to leave us this way (cue up Thelma Houston, and Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L.)
“I wanna see all my friends at once
I’d do anything to get the chance to go bang
I wanna go bang!”