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Gay club owner Ron Lanza dies

by Cynthia Laird
Tuesday Apr 23, 2013

Ron Lanza, a longtime owner of two pioneering gay comedy clubs, died April 9 at the VA Hospital in San Francisco after a long fight against colon cancer. He was 76.

A former schoolteacher, Mr. Lanza was best known for starting the Valencia Rose Cafe and Cabaret, and later, Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint. Both clubs saw performances by gay stars before they were famous, and both served as unofficial gathering places for the LGBT community.

Valencia Rose, as it was commonly known, opened in the 1980s and was a restaurant, club, entertainment venue, and meeting space. Mr. Lanza's longtime friend, Dirk Alphin, said in a phone interview last week that the space had three floors and there was always a lot going on.

Alphin said that the others who were involved with Valencia Rose included himself after the first year; the late Hank Wilson; the late Donald Montwill, who served as booking manager; and Ward Smith, who was the main chef.

"There were large rooms for plays and meetings, including political meetings," Alphin said. "The meeting to discuss closing the bathhouses was held there."

Because the building, which had been a mortuary, had ramps and wide hallways, it was one of the first performance spaces to be accessible for those with disabilities, he added.

Many a career was started at Valencia Rose. It was a headquarters of sorts for the budding gay community. The same could be said of Josie's, which Mr. Lanza always admitted, was a bit small to hold all the performances he would have liked, said his longtime friend Perrin Samuels. But that did not stop him from merging his passions for healthy, organic eating, comedy, theater, and by its location in the heart of the Castro, support for the gay community.

"What was most important was that it was a venue for stand-up comics and had an LGBT emphasis," Alphin said, "not anti-gay, racist, sexist kind of stuff. We were all there promoting all the colors of the rainbow."

Valencia Rose closed in 1985 and several years later, in 1990, Mr. Lanza opened Josie's. The name paid homage to his grandmother and, rightly, set the expectation for something different, including a vegetarian restaurant, said Samuels.

Gay comedians such as Lea Delaria, Tom Ammiano, and Marga Gomez performed at Mr. Lanza's clubs.

Ammiano, now a state assemblyman, had Monday's session adjourned in Mr. Lanza's honor.

"Ron Lanza was both an activist and an important impresario in the queer culture of San Francisco," Ammiano said in an email Monday. "I first got up and did comedy at Valencia Rose, and I'll always be grateful for that club and Josie's. He was also a teacher and the best kind of lefty, so he was a big political support, too. More than that, though, he was a loyal friend. Today, I talked about Ron and all the things he was on the Assembly floor. He would've loved that. I'll miss him."

Mr. Lanza was born June 16, 1936 and raised in New York. He was an Air Force veteran.

At his core, Mr. Lanza was an entertainer. Friends said that he loved to make people smile. He had a song snippet, a line from a show tune, for everyone's name, Samuels said. He played the title roles in Macbeth , and Julius Caesar . He played the closeted gay lawyer in Angels in America. He was a member of the Screen Actor's Guild, the Actors' Equity Association, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He studied under Sandy Dennis in New York, and performed comedy and drama, on stage and film, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In his last performance, at the Victoria Theatre on 16th Street, he played the rival scientist, Dr. Everett V. Scott, as well as narrator, in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

"He sweated good ideas and was successful because he lacked the capacity to hear 'no,'" Samuels said.

Mr. Lanza liked to bring people together, and his interest didn't stop at entertainment. In the late 1970s he, along with Wilson, his longtime friend and fellow schoolteacher, helped found 32 Page and 330 Grove, two of the earliest gay community centers in San Francisco, the latter being the site of the first gay film festival in the city. Also with Wilson, he helped found the Gay Teacher's Coalition and, to protect members of the Castro community, the Butterfly Brigade, which became the Castro Street Safety Patrol. That was many years ago. More recently, he helped organize an effort to document Wilson's life and his cause for the dual purpose of honoring his dear friend and educating young people.

Alphin said that he was working on the film and may expand it to include Mr. Lanza.

"They operated together all those years," Alphin said.

After Josie's closed - the last show was December 31, 1999, Alphin said - Mr. Lanza, a car enthusiast, got a job driving a limo for Bauer's, which he did for a time. Eventually, he started his own livery service, at first using classic cars. It is from this business that he finally retired. He often volunteered to transport celebrities for the Help is on the Way benefits, Alphin said.

Mr. Lanza was one of the first public school teachers to come out to his students, when he taught at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord. Ammiano, also a former teacher, came out in San Francisco and later won election to the school board and the Board of Supervisors.

Always a dog lover, Mr. Lanza never met a stray dog he didn't like, Samuels said. He always had two or three of his own whom he loved more than life itself. His love for animals fit right in with his passion for healthy living through a diet free of meat, or as he called it, "dead animals."

In 2008, Mr. Lanza organized the Dolores Street Walk-a-thon. It was his own version of Gavin Newsom's Walk for Fitness program. With this project he fed into several passions at once, Samuels noted. He loved walking and running, especially with the dogs and on Dolores Street. He loved children and the idea of educating them on the benefits of healthy eating and regular exercise. He loved raising money for good causes, in this case the Doris Day Animal Foundation, the Cuerpo Sano Program at the Central American Resource Center, Seven Teepes, and Holy Family Day Home. And he loved organizing events and bringing people together. He even placed his red 1948 Cadillac at the end of the route to assure the world that anyone who likes walking and fitness and children and dogs, surely must, like himself, also like old cars.

Mr. Lanza is survived by his sister in Virginia, his niece and nephew in New York, where he was raised, and by countless members of his extended family in San Francisco, where he lived, and loved to live, most of his life.

At press time, memorial arrangements had not been announced.

Former comedy club owner Ron Lanza in a January 2011 photo.

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