Behind Men Behind Bars
a BARchive extra
by Mark Abramson
In the winter of 1983-84, Jim Cvitanich had an idea to put on an AIDS benefit variety show featuring area bartenders, since so many of them were frustrated performers. Divine had been in town with a play called Women Behind Bars at the Alcazar Theatre, so Jim decided we should call our show Men Behind Bars. He told me that ever since we had worked together on the Mr. Drummer contests at the Russian River, he thought I'd be the perfect person to help him put together this one-night show, and we decided to make it a benefit for Shanti. Somehow that one night turned into ten years of my life.
"But to have no talent is not enough!" is a line from Gypsy, Jim's favorite musical. He decided to use that as part of the show, so we rewrote the lyrics to "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" and put together a take-off on the song with himself and two other sexy bartenders demonstrating what made their bartending skills special.
Our original plan was to use only bartenders in the show, but we soon added others—friends of bartenders, bar owners, cocktail waiters, bar backs, bouncers, and basically anyone who had ever set foot inside a bar. Then we invited the San Francisco Tap Troupe to give the show some class.
The Bay Area Reporter's leather columnist, Mister Marcus, agreed to emcee the production, a virtual guarantee that he would promote the hell out of it in his column, and I suggested getting a guest star for the finale. By 1984, Val Diamond was the star of Beach Blanket Babylon in North Beach, but they were dark on Mondays. When I called her, she told me that she'd thought about doing an AIDS benefit ever since the original Mr. Peanut, the tap dancing Planter's Peanut Man in Beach Blanket Babylon , died of AIDS. We got Scumbly Koldewyn of Cockettes fame to play the piano. I played tenor sax. Though I don't recall all the other musicians, I do remember that we sounded pretty good.
A group of bartenders from The Ambush did a hilarious bellydancing act years before big hairy men were called "bears." These guys showed off their bellies dressed in beads and lace with lots of jewelry and finger cymbals. At least one of the bartenders at the Pilsner—Ron Brewer—was a member of the Barbary Coast Cloggers, so he got them to perform in our show. The touring company of Dreamgirls was in town and someone called to offer us its star, Linda Leilani Brown, as long as she didn't perform anything from the Broadway show.
Ed Stark put together a Swan Lake number he dubbed "Le Grande Ballet de Nothing Special" with some of his bartenders from his bar on Castro Street. The story goes that he and his lover Jack South rode their motorcycles from Kansas to San Francisco in the late 1960s and discovered a hippie/biker bar on Castro Street called the Club Unique. It had beaded curtains, fake Tiffany lamps above the bar with mismatched mirrors framed and scattered across the walls and the ubiquitous smells of stale beer and cigarette smoke.
The Castro was just over the hill from the Haight, and the old-timers said that Janis Joplin used to hang out there drinking Southern Comfort. When Ed saw the bar for the first time, he took one look around and said, "Club Unique? There's nothing special about this place." He and Jack bought the bar and renamed it The Nothing Special.
In the first Men Behind Bars show, we set some precedents that we followed in the years to come. Although most of the show was live, we ended the first act with a medley of lip-sync hits of the 1960s. Three black drag queens did The Supremes. One of them was Empress Connie and maybe the other two were contestants for royal titles that year. All the years we produced Men Behind Bars shows, we tried to include as much royalty as we could find. Drag queens, like bartenders, had friends who would buy tickets to come and see them. Some of the title holders were bartenders too.
Pat Montclaire wouldn't become Empress of San Francisco for a few more years, but she was a bartender, and we used her in the first Men Behind Bars. Her lip-sync to Lesley Gore in the first act finale was lousy, but she was well-loved, and her transformation was amazing. She was also one of the sweetest people in the world, at least to me.
Another part of that first act finale was a group of four bartenders from Castro Station and the Brig. They called themselves The Foreskins and did a medley of boy-group songs from the 1960s that included "Rama Lama Ding Dong" and "Blue Moon," at the end of which they mooned the audience to thunderous applause.
Each year's second act finale featured The Follies Men. The major prerequisite for being a Follies Man was a gym membership, the ability to learn a few basic dance steps, and the willingness to appear on stage in little-to-no clothing. Val Diamond's big closing number in that finale was "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with the Follies Men supporting her. Our one rehearsal with Val was on the Saturday afternoon prior to the show in a warehouse space down an alley South of Market. I knew Val would never find the rehearsal space on her own, so I gave her directions to the Ramrod and told her to meet me there.
Since we only had that one rehearsal with Val, the band, and the dancers, we ran the number two or three times and decided we were good to go. That first year's show was only a one-night performance on a Monday in January. We had no idea it would be a sell-out, much less the beginning of a tradition. In the finale, Val flubbed a couple of the lyrics and some of the bare-chested back-up boys might have missed a few dance steps, but nobody cared. By that point, the audience was so wound up, not to mention drunk, they were willing to forgive anything. We were ecstatic!
Looking back at the videotape—we didn't have DVDs in those days—I remember the wild reaction from the audience. They were so excited to see their bartender friends on stage that it wouldn't have mattered if the acts were horrible. In truth, some weren't too good, but some were great. The sold-out crowd at the Victoria Theatre screamed and cheered and hooted and hollered and rose to their feet time and again, from the front row orchestra seats to the top of the balcony.
I called Val a week or so after the show to rehash the evening, and she relayed to me a scene I had missed. There were rest rooms in the lobby, of course, but they were always crowded with audience members. Val told me that in their tiny dressing room, the only room on the basement level that had plumbing, she and Miss Brown had a steady stream of muscle boys and drag queens squeezing behind their make-up chairs to pull down their dance belts or lift up their skirts in order to pee in the sink in the corner. Val said she'd seen a lot worse conditions and chalked it up to show business, but Linda Leilani Brown appeared to be rather shocked. Val and I had a good laugh over that.
The Victoria Theatre only seated five hundred, but people talked about the show for weeks afterward. Word spread quickly, especially through the gay bar community. The people who missed it didn't dare admit they hadn't been there, and those who saw it insisted that you had to have seen it to believe it. That was true enough. There had been gay shows before in San Francisco, of course. The Cockettes had caused a sensation in the late '60s with their midnight shows at the Palace Theatre on Broadway, but they were a troupe.
Our show was a collective of people coming together to raise money for a good cause. It was unique at the time. There was nothing but love in that theatre that night, and that warmth was a welcome feeling in a time when more and more of our friends were getting sick.
When all was said and done, our one-night stand at the Victoria Theatre, Men Behind Bars was able to donate a little more than ten thousand dollars to the Shanti Project. The local gay papers wrote glowingly about the event, and Jim and I were full of ideas for another show next year—bigger, better, brasher and with even more performance dates. It was just as easy to rehearse for two or three nights of shows as for one, and the possibilities for even greater fundraising and exposure were obvious. There was no stopping us.
Excerpted from Mark Abramson's new memoir, 'For My Brothers,' which is now available in ebook, and soon in print, by Wilde City Press. For information, go to www.wildecity.com
For information on Mark's other books, the bestselling Beach Reading series, visit www.beachreading.net