The Lion Pub and other lost gay dens
by Michael Flanagan
Visitors to Pacific Heights could be excused these days for thinking there is little gay about it, save for the gay colors on Victorians like the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square. But this was not always the case.
From the 1970s through the middle of last decade, there were three watering holes and one hotel with a saloon that were specifically geared toward gay patrons. The rise and fall of those establishments relates to much of San Francisco history – some familiar and some not.
The three bars in Pacific Heights were the Lion Pub (2062 Divisidero), the Alta Plaza (2301 Fillmore) and J.J.'s Piano Bar (2225 Fillmore).
In the nearby Western Addition was the Alamo Square Saloon (600 Fillmore). The saloon was housed in Hotel Casa Loma (610 Fillmore), which for a time advertised itself as a gay hotel in the Bay Area Reporter.
The Painted Ladies provide a clue to the history of the neighborhood. Gay historian Gerard Koskovich related that in his research he discovered "there was a gay residential enclave from the late 1950s into the mid-1990s in the Alamo Square area." He pointed me to Will Fellows book A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture. In an interview in that book, Richard Reutlinger confirms Gerard's observation:
"A lot of gay people down this way and all around Alamo Square had established the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association in the early 1960s."
The first bar in the neighborhood was the Lion Pub. In an August 1989 B.A.R. article, then owner Kelley Ellis said, "The Lion has gone through a lot of changes since its opening 20 years ago. We've gone from preppy bar to a dance bar to a hippie bar to leather and back to preppy."
I remember it as being very preppy when I visited in the bar in the '80s. It was then the domain of that now rare commodity known as the sweater queen.
I asked Ron Williams, author of San Francisco's Native Sissy Son for his memories on the bar.
"I was in the Lion Pub on many occasions in the early '70s and remember the owner, very horny and handsome. The bar had a rough start because of the competition that was going on in the Castro at the time. They advertised a lot. The Lion poster became a very popular icon. A few short blocks away was another popular neighborhood bar, Club Dori on Presidio just off California Street."
I had wondered for some time about the artist for that poster (a copy of which hangs on the wall of The Cinch). It's credited as "Dale Hall." After many dead-end searches, I asked Ron's friends online if any of them knew the artist.
Longtime San Francisco resident Tom Libby responded, "It's Richard Roesener, who was the chief scientific illustrator for the Field Museum in Chicago, before moving to San Francisco to pursue his own artistic career. He was a dear friend, and extremely talented." Libby and Roesener had known each other both in Chicago and in San Francisco, where Roesener moved in 1977, the same year that an entire series of Lion Pub ads appeared in the B.A.R. (they continued through 1979).
A slight mystery remains as to why Roesener used the pseudonym Dale Hall, but it may have simply been to distinguish his commercial art from his scientific and professional art. A native of Kokomo, Indiana who moved to Chicago in 1969, Roesener had articles on his erotic art in both Blueboy and In Touch for Men magazines and had a one man show in New York as far back as 1975. He was a lead twirler for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps for several years before his death from AIDS on July 23, 1985.
Alta Plaza Bar joined the neighborhood in 1977. In an August 1990 B.A.R. article, then manager Manuel Lago said, "We started a bar and restaurant for friends and it just took off and got popular." The bar opened a second level in the '80s.
Alamo Square Saloon and Casa Loma Hotel opened in 1980. J.J's Piano Bar was the last addition to the neighborhood, opening in 1987. In an article from 1990, there are hints of the future of the neighborhood. The B.A.R. reported that on Thursday and Fridays there was a larger percentage of straight visitors (even though the same article reports that it drew a large number of show people as well – from Beach Blanket Babylon and Les Miserables, which was playing in town at the time).
The decline of the gayborhood in Pacific Heights and environs was remarkably swift. Alamo Square Saloon closed in 1991. Hotel Casa Loma changed hands (the current owners were unaware when I contacted them that it had ever been a gay hotel). Alta Plaza had become distant enough from the community that when it changed hands (in May 1999) there wasn't even an article about it in the gay press. It was The San Francisco Chronicle that reported that it was becoming a noodle bar.
The last of the bars to go was the Lion Pub. They continued to have listings in Damron's guides until 2005. It exists to this day, but the clientele has changed.
And the story of Richard Roesener may give us a clue to the demise of this section of gay San Francisco. Many men who went to these bars died, and those left either stopped going or moved from town.
We should remember these bars and their time, for as Ron Williams told me, "Neighborhood bars like the Lion Pub and Club Dori were important, since many gay men lived in this part of the city and didn't always have to go to the Castro, Polk or South of Market during week nights."