Lesbian Bars in the San Francisco East Bay
– Owned by Women for Women
By Barbara Hoke
When a dyke goes into a town, she looks for a dyke bar to find her kind. Not finding that, sheÕll go for a gay bar and hope it is dyke-friendly. The bar is to queers what the church is to Christians, the mosque to Muslims, the synagogue to Jews. More than one bar owner I interviewed for this article talked about wanting to create a place for the kids. The bar has traditionally been a great equalizer among us. If you are queer, you are welcome. Even if you are considered a little weird, you are welcome, as long as you behave. If you donÕt, youÕre 86ed.
á The Jubilee - The Jubilee was a working class, serious drinking bar owned by two women, Betty Arneson and Val Sousa. The two of them had once been lovers, years before I met them around 1976. They were polar opposites – Betty, taciturn and mysterious, lean, pale, tight-fisted, leaning toward cowboy shirts, – Val, extroverted, if not loud, profane, Hawaiian-bronze, effusive in praise and damnation, generous to a fault. I saw Betty laugh a few times – that is she put her chin to her chest and chuckled at the side of her mouth. ValÕs laughter bounced off walls. The two women had owned the bar at least 20 years when I began going there. I had a terrible crush on Betty, and used to sit at the bar watching her watch the bar. When she wasnÕt pouring drinks, she stood with one foot propped on the edge of a high ice cabinet edge, leaning her back against the elaborate liquor display on the wall behind the bar. She would serve liquor to you until you dropped. Val would cut you off when she thought you had enough. As different as they were I never saw any sign of conflict between them. Fascinated, I asked Betty once about the secret of the longevity of their partnership. She, in typical brevity, snapped, Trust.
The first Jubilee was located on E. 14th St. (left) later moving to the corner of Bancroft Ave. and Fremont.
(photos by CathyCade.com, 2006)
There was a peep hole in the door of the Jube, at the first location on E. 14th Street and later at the new Bancroft Avenue location. The door was always locked. You didnÕt come in unless the owners recognized you or recognized you as all right to enter. At the beginning, the Jube was underground, like a speakeasy. You had to know someone to get in. In both locations the pool table was the center of activity. Serious playing happened there. The first time I went to the Jube, I held the table the whole evening until I beat every dyke in the place who wanted a shot. It was excruciatingly embarrassing since I had never picked up a pool stick before that night. At first I laughed nervously, and most everyone else did too because it was obvious I really had never played. But when I kept winning, it ceased to be funny to anyone – most of all to me. All I wanted to do was sit down. I had never felt so conspicuous and out of place.
The Jube first held Lesbian Feminists like me at armÕs length, with a healthy dose of suspicion. They saw our outspoken and earnest political proclamations as socially inappropriate. The old dykes in the Jube could not afford to fall out with each other, so politics were never discussed. The bar was a haven, a big umbrella that covered and ignored all differences. It was a place to be a Lesbian, if you could do that no other place on earth. It was safe. The door was locked. The women were who I began to think of as covert Feminists. They didnÕt claim it but they acted it. They loved and supported each other. Whenever a regular got sick, the Jube would collect money or hold an auction to raise money for her. They once had a fund-raiser to pay for a catÕs broken leg. In both places there were residential living units that were part of the property and Val rented them to her patrons. It was tough love, though. No sentimentality was allowed, and the fast quip and bar sarcasm were the rule of conversation. I never got glib enough to contribute much.
The second Jubilee was younger and more racially mixed than the first, although both bars reflected the cultural mix of Oakland from the 1970s until it closed in 19??. There was an upstairs and downstairs at the Bancroft location. Betty tended bar downstairs with the old crowd. Husks from a huge barrel of peanuts carpeted the floor and the pool table was always busy. Val held court upstairs where disco and younger dykes danced till closing time. There was an annual intramural softball game played by Jube dykes representing the upstairs, the Uppers, against the downstairs regulars, the Downers.
The Jube fielded a team in the womenÕs bar league year after year. The team was coached by Jewell Buds and her assistant, Lucky. JewellÕs life partner was Johnny. The three African American women were damn near royalty at the Jube. I bet none of the three of them ever paid for her own drinks there. The team was a semi-pro level team. Pat, the pitcher, was so fast that Jewell taught her batters to swing when Pat started her wind up. I never saw the ball when I batted against her. Eula played center field for years. She destroyed the ball when she hit. Chants of, Eula, Eula started when she left the bench to bat and continued until she hit the home run, which was almost guaranteed. No team in the entire league ever touched the Jube! Sunday afternoons, after softball games, the drinking started after the game (sometimes held in the morning) and lasted till closing time. These were loud and celebratory times. The Chichen, one of the best California/Mexican restaurants anywhere, located directly across from the old Jube on E. 14th St, was the last stop before heading home, even after the bar moved to Bancroft.
á The Driftwood - The Driftwood, at 22170 Mission Blvd, Hayward, was owned by the roller derby star and captain of the Bay Area Bombers, Joanie Weston and her team mates, Cathy Read and Sandra Dunn. They incorporated and started The Driftwood in September of 1973 in order to provide them a livelihood after the roller derby. Cathy retired first and began running the bar. Joanie, known throughout the country as the Blond Bomber, was not a Lesbian but bartended at the bar and remained close to her clientele and her partners. The Driftwood retained a kind of country /western feel throughout its existence. Asked how they felt about Feminists, one owner said they were all right until those Berkeley types who didnÕt shave under their arms showed up. That just didnÕt go at the Driftwood, she added. They had a baseball team, and one year even had a basketball team that played in a short-lived SF Lesbian bar league. There were Steak Feeds, Wednesday Spaghetti Feeds, Sunday Brunch and Pool Tournaments at the Bar. It was working class and fairly low-key. The bar opened at noon to its day crowd and closed at 2 AM. Gay men, transgendered people and straights mingled with the dykes.
There always seemed to be some white straight guy there. The story circulated that the ownership
tolerated him because his wife had left him for a dyke. I encountered him when I took Vicky to the Driftwood in 1976. Newly and madly in love, I watched admiringly as Vicky began to play pool. She held the table until he put his money up. He began insulting Vick from the moment they began to play and kept up the angry put-downs. (Vicky hardly needed my protection. Fresh from the mean streets of DetroitÕs Cass Corridor, she had handled much worse than this jerk on a daily basis). I, however, drank and fumed and finally in a burst of protective love told him to apologize to her or leave - that no man could talk to a woman in a womanÕs place the way he talked to her. I think I had a pool stick in my hand as I advanced toward him. Vicky and I both were 86'ed from the bar. He stayed. The Driftwood closed circa 2000.
á The Bacchanal - The Bacchanal, 1369 Solano Avenue in Albany was owned by Sandra Fini and Joanna Griffin. It started in 1974 and closed in February of 1982. Sandra said recently that they started the bar because, ÒWomen deserved a special place,Ó which is how many women remember the Bacch. The partners spent several years trying to think of a more appropriate name, but The Bacchanal stuck. They bought the space from two other women who had a gay men and womenÕs bar called Bacchanal. It was a wine and beer bar that supported and featured visual and performance art and artists. The atmosphere was casual and friendly. It was decidedly more middle class than its predecessors in the East Bay. There were games such as scrabble, backgammon, as well as poetry readings and art exhibits. In 1975, in a conversation between June Arnold, Tee Corrine and others at The Bacchanal, the idea of a Women in Print conference that would include women booksellers, printers and illustrators, but not writers, was discussed. The next year, in 1976, the first Women in Print Conference, organized by June Arnold, was held outside of Omaha, Nebraska, at the Camp Harding Camp Fire GirlÕs Camp.
The BacchanalÕs bar can still be seen today at Britt-MarieÕs, 1369 Solano Ave. in Albany.
(photo by CathyCade.com, 2006)
á OllieÕs, which opened at 4130 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland circa 1980, was the last great Lesbian bar in Oakland. It closed in 1986. Ollie Oliveira, the owner, had bartended at The Bacchanal and her departure from there portended the BacchÕs demise. OllieÕs was everyoneÕs bar. All sorts of dykes went there. It was centrally located, had great parking and a huge building. Ollie and a stream of other savory Lesbians held court bartending. At one time there were three different woman-owned restaurants at OllieÕs. There were two large rooms at the front of the property – the entry area with a jukebox and a larger room to the side, where live music or a DJ spun records. Radcliffe Hall was a huge room at the rear of the building where live music, New Year Eve parties and all kinds of events occurred, including drag shows. All the great women singers performed there. Ollie was the first openly gay businessperson to be invited to join the venerable Temescal Business Association.
Women hanging out at OllieÕs mid 80Õs. The site of OllieÕs is now the East Bay Church of Religious Science.
á The Bench and Bar, located at 120 - 11th Street in Oakland, was once The Courthouse. It was a part of the transitional era that left the community with no primarily Lesbian bars. The B&B was a menÕs bar that welcomed women on Thursday nights. It was big, loud, served snacks and dinner, and featured women impersonators.
á JRÕs (for Just Rewards) opened on 2520 Camino Diablo, # 101 in a Walnut Creek business park, off Highway 24 circa 1988, which closed in the early 1990s. It was a big, decidedly middle class, attractive and large venue. It was divided into two areas, one a lounge and the other a dance floor. It was owned by two women, Marissie and Karen. There were lots of dressed up Lesbians there, dancing to a variety of pulsating music.
á The White Horse WomenÕs Night — The White Horse, at 6551 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, is one of the oldest gay bars in California. It began in the early 1970s, to have a packed womenÕs night, including a lot of newly-out Lesbian Feminists. The venue is broken into 3 discreet spaces with a fire pit in one of them. The bar has always had a neighborhood feeling to it and for years was the across-the-street neighbor of Mama Bears, a Lesbian Feminist bookstore spawned from A WomanÕs Place Bookstore. On WomenÕs Night, though, the bar was a place to see and be seen, with a healthy tradition of cruising and flirting.
ÒWomen Unite in Armed SnuggleÓ adorns the side of The White Horse shown here circa 1973.
(Photo by CathyCade.com, 1973)
á Grandma's House — 135 - 12th Street, Oakland, was a Gay and Lesbian restaurant and bar and predecessor of The Oasis. The Oasis continues to be the site of a variety of Gay and Lesbian events including BUTTA, a popular event for Lesbians of Color and Friends held the third Sunday of every month.
Sweet Chariot w/Sharon Russell performing at CamillaÕs. The former site of CamillaÕs, 1200 – 13th Ave. @ E. 12th.
á East Bay Girl Bar — Known as E.B.G.B. and located at ArtÕs, a restaurant at 4031 Broadway in Oakland (next to the former site A WomanÕs Place Bookstore,), E.B.G.B. had their grand opening on January 20th, 1990 and lasted briefly with a womenÕs night every Thursday hosted by Cindy.
á Bleu — Danville, CA, was a Lesbian bar that operated for one or two years circa 2002.
á CabelÕs Reef — 2272 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, operates as a gay bar that has existed in this location for over 30 years with a welcoming attitude and eclectic mix of lifestyles. Lesbians, drag queens, gay men and the people who love them get dressed up to see and be seen in a comfortable spot where they can drink and dance with friends without getting hassled or hustled.
á Neighborly Honorable Mention: The Savoy — 3546 Flora Vista Avenue, Santa Clara, has operated continuously as a Lesbian bar since 1969. For the past 7 years it has been owned by Barb Hecker. We honor the Savoy for its longevity and for being there to fill the gaps for her East Bay sisters.
The role of the bar in Lesbian life is a complicated one. The association of alcohol and drugs with bars and queers is in itself perhaps a metaphor for Gay alienation and marginalization. Why were we relegated to bars as the centers of our social lives? Many Lesbians and Gay Men participated in a huge Clean and Sober Movement beginning in the 1980s. To many of those queers, that movement saved their lives and in itself became a social alternate to the bar. Cathy Read, co-owner of The Driftwood, described a retinue of clean and sober patrons who regularly sat together at her end of the bar with her. She eventually sold her interest in the bar, because, in her words, ÒI was unable to continue to sell liquor to women.Ó
The era of freestanding Lesbian bars has since come to an end in the East Bay. Part of the demise was caused by the Clean and Sober Movement. Sipping a glass of water all evening hardly kept the lights on. Why did menÕs bars survive while womenÕs did not? In general, women have less disposal income than men. The expenses of operating the Lesbian bars were the same as the menÕs — without the moneyed clientele. All womenÕs institutions and businesses of that era suffered from the same economic reality.
Without a dedicated Lesbian bar in the East Bay to call our own, women were forced to find other means to socialize ushering in the next incarnation, which continues on to this day - weekly or monthly events produced by women for women utilizing existing venues. But thatÕs another storyÉ
Mary Alice OÕConnor