Strip-Off: The Politics of (Go-Go) Dancing
The rumors of a "gentleman's nightclub" possibly opening at the former Diesel store (and former Hibernia Bank) at Castro and Market streets has out some people in the community in a tizzy, speculating just what the proposed new venue could, should - and shouldn't - be.
Whether or not this venue ever opens (speculatively to be run by the Randy Rooster, according to the group's website), I decided to check out some other bars, theatres and clubs where a hot show of male beefcake is readily available, and in various levels of audience participation.
Stripped, the monthly underwear dance night started by DJ Brian Maier, takes place each second Saturday. Get there early, as it get packed with lots of young men showing of their undershorts.
Down the street, patrons can strip down to their skivvies on some nights at 440, but Qbar includes gogo guys and dancing to tunes spun by the extra-cute Maier, who fortunately and frequently strips down to very little clothing himself.
"We get a nice cross section of people," said Maier. "People enjoy dancing in their underwear. We basically pack it every night. It's been a lot of fun." The bar's first Saturdays Homo Erectus also enjoys a similar sexy ambiance.
Maier admitted that the "very hot gogo boys" make "a hard time" for him to concentrate on his DJing, he said with a chuckle. "We typically get a whole bunch of guys giving performances throughout the night. They keep the crowd entertained."
Despite - or because of - its intimacy, Qbar transforms under Maier's production. "We offer a lot of different types of gogos, we have full-on visuals, you can watch a streaming video and fit it into the music. Every month at closing, we have a hard time getting people to leave."
Maier, who occasionally gogo dances himself, understands the line between teasing and too much. "Drunk people will tip more, but the closer you get to riding that nudity line, grabbing a bit, that's where it gets fuzzy."
But is that a cause for maintaining the statewide restrictions of alcohol and nudity?
"I don't know," said Maier. "Are they afraid of full-on sex happening? In a city that prides itself on being open-minded, with every type of street fair, it's odd that we still cling to the idea that mixing alcohol and nudity is bad."
While the proposed Randy Rooster would allegedly be a full-service bar and restaurant with "revue-type burlesque" shows, and a philanthropic financial focus, it seems a lofty goal to balance.
Maier said he's skeptical the proposed venue will ever pan out. "They're trying to make the whole community happy. It'll never work if they treat the Castro as a destination theme park."
As a co-owner of Qbar, John Bellemore has seen success by providing a more active series of dance and party nights.
"Done right, the notion of a male strip club could be healthy, especially for people who come from other towns who don't have that kind of thing. The more people, the better it is for business."
But as a business owner, Bellemore doesn't support that specific space being converted to a club. "With the very tight restrictions, with licensing and zoning, it may not be an appropriate location."
Bellemore and his fellow investors have revived several Castro bars, including The Edge and The Midnight Sun. "When we started buying the bars, we had to go through the proper channels," he said. He envisions something more organized and local as being a possibility.
But even gogo dancers or burlesque performers as the main focus might not work, he said. While certainly the young dancers at Qbar events are entertaining, they are only part of the full evening. "It's not the forefront of why you're going."
Full-frontal nudity will never happen, because of what Bellemore cited as "that curious mix of California blue and red politics. If there was some way to make this happen, someone would have done it already."
One place where nudity is amusingly presented is at the Hypnodrome, where "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma," the wacky Cockettes revue revived by Thrillpeddlers, continues its extended run through July.
Among the cast is the muscled tattooed performer Steven Satyricon, who can also be seen atop gogo stands at various nightclub events, whether pumped up at gay events, or glittered and glamorous in a see-through rhinestone-laden gown.
Almost immediately after moving to San Francisco in 2002, Satyricon was drafted into being a dancer for the drag cover band Pepperspray. He subsequently danced with the band when they opened for Cher and Scissor Sisters.
Since then, he's been an in-demand performer at shows where a little nudity is included, including Wilde Boys, Hot Greeks, and Pearls Over Shanghai, the Cockettes show that enjoyed a 22-month run.
Satyricon envisions a club like the proposed Randy Rooster as a perfect fit. "I can't imagine anything more appropriate; the flashy crazy gay nature of it. I imagine it as being something like the Cher film, "Burlesque;" a sort of supper club format. I feel like could be a vital idea if it were executed by the right people."
Asked about community concerns, Satyricon replied, "The idea of something that innocuous pushing the boundaries of good taste is absurd. Some of the Castro boys' gogo-dancing is more scandalous than anything a new club could get away with. The mere concept is riling so many people."
Satyricon said the feather-ruffling comes down to sex, or sexuality. "Like it or not, 'gay' is frequently about gays having sex," he said. "To try to sterilize that for straight people or tourists, or whomever you're trying to pander to, is absurd."
While he half-jokes that "I'm never one to turn down a bold proposition," he did question the potential problem of bachelorette parties. The idea of screaming women hooting for a bit of male butt-cheek seems to be the most annoying prospect for some. Like the (now closed) Lime bar, which had multiple complaints of what Satyricon called "gay zoo tourism," male burlesque shows could attract such patrons.
"These are women who are not of our community, who think, 'Let's go party with the gays!'" said Satyricon. "A part of me says 'Great! Welcome!' But on the other hand, there tends to be a lack of respect for the world they're stepping into."
Having been groped a few times as a dancer, Satyricon said, "There's a very tangible difference between being a dancer in a club or bar than being a performer. It's understood that unless the performer approaches you, don't touch him." But at a club, "alcohol makes people think they can touch you, you're part of the furniture," he said.
But given a bit of a theatrical distance, could such a concept work? "You can have pole dancing and still have it be classy," he said, "sometimes bawdy, or even tasteless, but classy; fun in a way that elevates the sexuality, in a way that makes it artistic and self-aware."
Having moved to San Francisco from Atlanta, where clubs like Swinging Richard's feature fully nude dancers, Satyricon said a balance could be found. "There are a lot of regulations about what kind of flesh can be displayed," he said. "I personally feel like, given that structure, if I as a patron were going to a club knowing there were meals served, that doesn't compute to me. I don't feel like being aroused while I'm eating a salad!"
Boy, Oh Boys
The balance between the erotic and performative is maintained with style by SF Boylesque performers. Now in their seventh year, SF Boylesquers are not only pioneers in the male burlesque phenomenon. They're also creating and showcasing new work regularly.
Maximus Ziegler Barnaby-Krause, a co-creator of the ensemble, states one of the standard rules of burlesque up front: "It's bad business to give away penis."
As appropriate such a troupe could be for a potential employer, their plans seem to remain vague. "One-Eyed Jacks in Los Angeles tried to do a similar event space, but it was dead within six months," warned Barnaby-Krause.
"The one thing that makes me nervous about the arrival of [Randy Rooster] is that nobody that I have spoken to within the burlesque/boylesque communities was aware of their intentions until the press release was issued," he said. "Furthermore, none of the contacts that we have made with them has resulted in a conversation."
Along with the licensing and other hurdles such a business would face, like others, Barnaby-Krause sees this as a wider philosophical conundrum for the community.
"It seems like a fear of the unknown," he said. "The Castro has become a global icon over the past decades. For many throughout the world, it represents freedom to actualize our true self; freedom from oppression, freedom from judgment, freedom of expression, sexual freedom, freedom of liberation."
And yet, the place itself, with new restrictions of all kinds, gave him pause. "Some of the negative comments that I've heard in response to the possibility of the arrival of [such a venue] have focused around questions of taste, of judgment, of sexuality," he said. "It's as if, at some point, the gay liberation movement has made concessions over what they will sacrifice, in exchange for mainstream acceptance."
Yet, he said, "Embracing an upscale gentlemen's club is a fine step in reclaiming our sexuality, and a much-needed step in welcoming our gay-liberation movement into middle age. By welcoming the Rusty Rooster into our community, holding them to be a good neighbor, they may eventually grow to be a pillar in our community. Who knows? Maybe one day they will be know as the crown jewel in the tiara that is the Castro."
But to stay classy in burlesque, you need to leave them wanting more. So, as per Boylesque advice, don't give away the crown jewels.
The Fuller Monty
For those who want a bit, or in some cases, a lot more, in terms of a jewel show, the historic Nob Hill Theatre has been providing patrons with fully nude male performances for decades. What the male strip shows may lack in subtlety they compensate with a full and often interactive show.
Gary Luce, manager of The Nob Hill Theatre, takes pride in being one of few such gay-owned strip joints in America, if not the world. As for a less sexual venue for 'male burlesque,' Luce said he's curious and hopeful.
"If they did it right, they wouldn't have to worry, but it would need a heck of a lot of money they'd have to put into it. I wish them luck, but it's gonna take a lot of effort."
And since the Nob Hill is not only in a different neighborhood, but a different form of male entertainment, Luce said he doesn't see such a venue as competition.
And he doesn't see his talent crossing over. With their recent addition of name porn performers on the bill, some of the weekend acts include live sex duo shows. July's performers include Rafael Alencar (July 12 & 13) and Derek Parker and Shane Frost for Dore Alley Weekend (July 26 & 27). The performers, who work the audience while naked, set their own boundaries as to how intimate a patron with a handful of cash tips can go.
And yes, the venerable strip joint has been occasionally invaded by all-female bachelorette parties, but Luce deftly manages their presence. With a stripper pole in the back lounge area, performers dance and gyrate almost but not fully nude, making for a sexy time. "That's where we kind of 'contain' the bachelorette parties," said Luce, who admitted that the gals sometimes get rowdy, although they make up a very small portion of his patrons.
"It's mostly alcohol-related," he said of their drinking beforehand elsewhere. "They're looking for 'Magic Mike' or 'Thunder From Down Under' (the Australian Chippendales-style revue). We tell them, 'It's not a review; it's a solo performer.' For the most part it works out. There are some guys who like to perform in front of women, so they do well with tips."
Mostly, the regular and guest-star performers are the draw, for men. Yet, Luce said he would be interested to see a club open with a balance, like one of the straight North Beach strip clubs that offer food, drinks, and female pole dancers.
"Getting more venues might saturate the market," he conjectured. And despite being in a highly residential area, the Nob Hill Theatre remains a good neighbor.
"Ours just happened to survive in this neighborhood," said Luce. "Would the Castro be the wrong place to introduce a strip club? If the neighbors don't endorse it, it's not gonna work."