Founded in 1982, The Valencia Rose Cabaret was an ambitious project that housed the world’s first gay comedy club, a queer activist meeting center, a vegetarian eatery and more into a two-story Spanish style building with 3D camel sculptures jutting out of its walls.
It’s where I became who I am now. I had been bombing at open mics in San Francisco when I started in the 1980s. I would sometimes not mention my lesbianism in my act. As a new comic and a Latina, I could barely get any stage time as it was. One day I noticed a flier on a telephone pole about a “Gay Comedy Night” at The Valencia Rose.
I showed up that Monday in a red vintage dress. The room was full. I told my first gay joke which involved an old lady telling me, “It’s good to see dykes wearing dresses again.” They laughed and I got something I hadn’t experienced from any audience till then; love.
The Valencia Rose had the best audience a queer or queer-friendly comic could ever want. Donald Montwill, who became its artistic director in the second year, once said that queer audiences had been waiting for this place “where they could enjoy comedy and not be the butt of the joke, pun intended.”
The new Valencia Rose electrified the LGBT community of San Francisco almost four years after the loss of Harvey Milk and at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Hank Wilson, one of the founders of the Valencia Rose and a former school teacher, worked with Harvey Milk to defeat 1978’s Prop 6, which would have banned Gay teachers from public schools. Through his unbridled activism, Hank met former teachers Ron Lanza, who would become his business partner at the cabaret, and Tom Ammiano (now California Assemblyman) who would run the Gay Comedy shows and become widely known as the “Mother of Gay Comedy.”
So if it hadn’t been for gay teachers in the ’80s, we might not have the rich gay comedy scene we have today in San Francisco at Harvey’s, QComedy, Comedy Bodega and El Rio.
Writer/director F. Allen Sawyer was the first manager to work there. He said, “I got to know Ron Lanza when I managed the Castro Theater. He’d stop in almost every day with his dog and never watch the movie. He’d just buy popcorn for the dog. One day he convinced me to quit my job and run his new theater.”
Sawyer learned he’d have to help build it first. Wilson and Lanza eventually bought a defunct mortuary on 766 Valencia St. and enlisted everyone they knew to renovate it and paint it pink. The former embalming room became the vegetarian restaurant and the chapel became the stage. Because the building had specially built ramps and wide doorways to move caskets in and out, The Valencia Rose became one of the first wheelchair accessible venues in San Francisco.
Wilson focused on the finances and keeping the Valencia Rose politically active. Lanza was responsible for booking most shows and Ammiano performed and booked the wildly popular Gay Comedy Nights on Saturdays and Mondays.
Some of the most notable comedians to appear were Reno, Lea Delaria, musical duo Romanovsky and Phillips, Monica Palacios, Karen Ripley, Marilyn Pittman, Danny Williams and Doug Holsclaw. When Donald Montwill became Artistic Director in 1983, he incorporated his booking philosophy to include all politically enlightened performers.
Montwill believed that “being queer is about breaking rules, and fighting bigotry and not just who you sleep with.” Joining the crew of LGBT performers were queer friendly performers: satirist Paul Krassner, Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash, Rocker and Comic Jane Dornacker, and Whoopi Goldberg.
Whoopi was part of F. Allen Sawyer’s most magical memory of Valencia Rose. “Some of her friends got a little drunk at her show. They started talking to her, nice things, but loud. Whoopi had to end her show before doing her last character. After the show a few of us were hanging out by the kitchen and Whoopi was feeling terrible. She said she needed to release that last character or she wouldn’t be able to sleep. So I said why don’t you do it now?” And there at the kitchen of Valencia Rose for four people, Whoopi Goldberg gave her last San Francisco performance before becoming world famous.
This article first appeared in the Bay Area Reporter ‘Bar Tab’ in March ’12
Marga Gomez is a comic performer and producer of Comedy Bodega at Esta Noche. www.margagomez.com