Owner nixes gay plan
for SOMA club
by Matthew S. Bajko
A mostly gay group of individuals seeking to operate a vacant nightlife space in San Francisco's South of Market district had their proposal rejected and are now seeking a new venue.
Led by drag queen Heklina, the creative force behind the Trannyshack parties and drag takeoffs of television shows like Sex and the City and The Golden Girls , and consultant Geoff Benjamin, a gay married father of two, the quartet of business partners had put in a bid for the former Paradise Lounge club space at the corner of 11th and Folsom streets.
Once known as the Miracle Mile for its plethora of leather bars, the vicinity is now home to just five gay bars. The Paradise space at 1501 Folsom Street had been the site of the first leather bar to open on Folsom, called Febe's, that operated from 1966 to 1986.
"The building has real resonance to our community," said Benjamin. "If you look at the number of bars that were historically in SOMA, it was the city's second gay neighborhood. If you look at the number of gay bars there today, it is a fraction of what it was."
Their vision for the space included a 125-seat cabaret theater for weeknights, headliner acts Fridays, and the revival of Trannyshack as a weekly party on Saturday nights.
Benjamin described the vibe as "Brooklyn meets Berlin in an edgy way, fabulous, fierce, over-the-top glitter with a little rock-and-roll grunge or grit, sort of industrial edge."
But the Friday prior to Labor Day the group was informed that the building's owner, San Mateo resident John A. Andreini, had decided to go with a different proposal, believed to be a bid from a group of straight club promoters.
"I was able to speak to ownership and after reviewing both offers, they have decided to move forward with the other group. The decision was based on more than just the economics of the deal," wrote Jaclyn Brander, a broker with McLellan Commercial Real Estate, in an email to Benjamin that the Bay Area Reporter obtained from a third party with knowledge of the lease talks. "I appreciate your patience in all of this and wish I had better news."
Andreini did not respond to the B.A.R. 's requests for an interview this week. Reached Tuesday, Brander declined to comment further on the reasoning behind Andreini's decision other than to say an owner can choose to accept or reject an offer "based on a number of things."
Nor could she divulge the identity of the other group, she said, as lease negotiations are ongoing for the 6,500 square foot club space, which includes a ground floor and second floor mezzanine space. According to the listing for the building, the monthly lease would be $8,435.
Benjamin, 41, told the B.A.R. that the news their proposal had been nixed was "very disappointing" and described the lease talks as "curious" and "very odd."
"We in the end made five or six different offers to them," he said. "We sweetened the deal, met all their requirements, and they came back and said it is not economic. I don't know what that means then."
Heklina, whose given name is Stefan Grygelko, also expressed disappointment by Andreini's decision. She had fallen in love with the space and was eager to revive Trannyshack and its infamous drag acts to a weekly event. Formerly held Tuesday nights at the nearby Stud, it ended its run in 2008 and now occurs infrequently.
"I don't really know what was behind the decision to go with the other party," said Heklina. "I am trying to give them the benefit of the doubt and not think it was homophobia."
She surmised it may have had to do with the fact that none of the four have ever owned a bar or club before, despite her years of experience running drag shows and dance parties at numerous bars and clubs around town.
"I want to believe they were erring on the side of caution," Heklina said.
The two other members of the group are straight bartender Jason Beebout, lead singer of punk group Samiam, and local actor and choreographer D'Arcy Drollinger, who has performed alongside Heklina in several of the TV drag spoofs.
They had secured letters of endorsement from various civic leaders, such as Entertainment Commissioner Glendon Hyde, also known by his drag persona Anna Conda, and gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener.
"Given Mr. Grygelko's long and successful track record of producing fun, safe, and well-managed events, I have no doubt this new nightclub will be a success for Mr. Grygelko, for you, and for our community," wrote Wiener, who has made entertainment issues a top concern of his at City Hall.
Due to his involvement, Hyde had informed the group he would have to recuse himself from voting on any permit issues should it come before the commission. In an interview with the B.A.R. class=st>, he raised concerns about their proposal being rejected.
"I would hope there wasn't discrimination going on," said Hyde, who has taken particular interest in protecting nightlife businesses along the 11th Street corridor from encroaching residential development. "It would be very sad, especially with the burgeoning resurgences of queer nightlife in SOMA, to have that happen."
When it appeared that the nearby Eagle Tavern, long a gay bar, would be operated by straight bar owners, Hyde and Wiener joined in efforts to ensure the space instead went to gay operators.
It is unclear if a similar fight would be waged should it be revealed that a group of straight operators seek permits for the former Paradise space.
"My support for Heklina was just that: support. That support doesn't mean that I would oppose other uses for the space," Wiener told the B.A.R.
Nor are Benjamin or Heklina looking to wage a fight. Rather, they are committed to finding another venue that works for their nightlife plans. They had thought of buying the club space Rebel on Market Street at Valencia, where the drag TV shows are held, but that building is expected to be put on the market soon and redeveloped into new housing with retail along the ground floor.
"I know it is just a matter of time," said Benjamin about securing a space. "It is not dead in the water; we are still looking."