Nightlife » Features

BARchive :: Mocambo

by Jim Stewart
Tuesday May 28, 2013

One night, shortly before Luc moved to New York, we decided to do something other than dine at an interesting little eatery and hang out at a gay bar.

"Here," Luc said. He waved the Chronicle's Pink Section in my face. "There's a dive on Polk doing cabaret. It's called Mocambo."

"Why do you think it's a dive?" I said.

"It's in the Tenderloin."

"What's the address on Polk," I said.

"It's at 1166 Polk," Luc said. "I think that's near Sutter."

"If it's near Sutter on Polk," I said, "it's in the Tendernob." We laughed.

"What the hell is the Tendernob," Luc said.

It's where the Tenderloin flirts with Nob Hill," I said.

"Let's go!" Luc said.

San Francisco's Tenderloin is roughly bounded by Market, Mason, Geary, and Van Ness. It has a rap sheet dating back to the Gold Rush. By the Roaring 1920s, it had become infamous for its nightlife, jazz clubs, and vice dens. Cheap rents and rooms by the hour increased its reputation and popularity.

Named for fugitive slave villages in colonial Brazil, there were once any number of Mocambo clubs. The most famous was in West Hollywood on Sunset Strip. Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich were once entertained there by such as Peggy Lee and Liberace. Same name but far different was the Mocambo on San Francisco's Polk Street in 1977.

This Mocambo was a hole in the wall needing paint, with wobbly chairs and a dozen tiny tables just big enough to hold drinks. Despite no cover, no minimum, the place was nearly empty when we arrived shortly before midnight on a Thursday. Our table was right next to the slightly raised stage. We ordered, ready to nurse our drinks through the first show. It was live music, some drag, no lip-synch. And the performers? As in Cabaret, "every one of them a virgin!"

The first act had finished when there was a flurry of activity behind us by the door. The manager was at our table.

"Gentlemen," he said, "a special guest and his party have just arrived."

I turned to look back at the door. Four figures loomed just outside the aureole of light from the stage.

"If you gentlemen would be willing to move to the table right over there," he nodded to another small table, further back from the stage but still in a good location, "your drinks will be on the house for the evening."

Drinks on the house for the night? I looked at Luc. He was already following the waiter. I glanced back. Four suits were seated at our tiny table. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. Stage light illuminated the faces of the "special guests."

I nudged Luc. "See anyone who looks familiar?" I said.

He turned. "The mayor!" Luc said.

"In the flesh." We had just given up our table at a hole-in-the-wall gay cabaret to Mayor George Moscone and three of his bodyguard-pals.

It was an open secret the mayor and his pals often prowled the seedy side of the City, looking for diversions of the night. In 1977 San Francisco was filled with secret nocturnal diversions, but by November 1978 Mayor Moscone would be dead, assassinated during broad daylight in his own office at City Hall. By 1979 the Mocambo we'd witnessed was closed.

Today, listed at 1160 Polk, the building's major tenant is the Vertigo Bar.

Copyright 2013 Jim Stewart. For further true gay adventures check out the award-winning Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970s SoMa and Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco by Jim Stewart.

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit


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