Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is one-of-a-kind Tenderloin establishment that many patrons call a community center with alcohol. (Courtesy Marissa Patrice Leitman)

Bar patrons answer call to save Aunt Charlie’s

Fans of Tenderloin drag queen haven and neighborhood spot quickly donate

With nearly $70,000 raised in a crowd-funding effort in just five days, fans and supporters of Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in the Tenderloin are feeling optimistic that the beloved scrappy San Francisco drag bar will survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It really just shows how important this bar is. I’ve had so many people text me and say, ‘I don’t want to live in a world where there isn’t an Aunt Charlie’s,’” said Darwin Bell, a 20-year patron of the bar who admittedly initially was shocked by the overwhelming reply to the call for help.

Bell is among an eight-member collective working to save the establishment near the corner of Turk and Taylor streets, which opened in 1987 and has been shut since the quarantine began in March.

“It’s historic. It’s a place for queer people to go in the Tenderloin, since all the other bars are basically closed,” said Bell, who lives in the neighborhood and has attended Aunt Charlie’s Thursday night jam-packed Tubesteak Connection for 16 years. Billed as The City’s oldest queer dance party and run by DJ Bus Station John, Bell said, ““It’s old disco music. You feel like you’re going into a bar in 1976. It is so much fun.”

Bell, a photographer, also has documented the Hot Boxx Girls, the bar’s pioneering drag queens, in an exhibit at the Tenderloin Museum that’s among a recent series. (Another show was Marissa Leitman’s “There Will Always be Roses in San Francisco” about High Fantasy, a weekly drag nouveau event that ran from 2010-18.)

Katie Conry, executive director of the Tenderloin Museum, is another member of the group helping owner William Erkelens keep Aunt Charlie’s in business.

Having received only a fraction of what it costs to sustain it from a government loan and covering the rest of the bills himself, Conry said, “He was out of money and could not pay past Aug. 1.”

Drag performances are common, and beloved, at Aunt Charlie’s in the Tenderloin. (Courtesy Marissa Patrice Leitman)

While Aunt Charlie’s is a beacon for local LGBT culture, it’s also a working-class neighborhood spot, where no-frills drinks at happy hour served under a neon pink “Aunt Charlie’s” sign are $3.25 and $4.50 at other times.

“It’s one of those quirky places that could never be duplicated. There’s everyone there — every age, every color, every race. You just go in, and you just feel like you’re home,” said Bell, whose first experiences there were at Friday and Saturday night drag shows.

“I met my first trans person there. It’s almost educational,” said Bell. “And the queens would be so friendly and funny and give you s—- right away.

“You feel like you’re hanging out with your friends, even if you go in not knowing anyone,” said Bell, adding that many customers are activists who work at nonprofits in the neighborhood.

Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is known for its diverse array of customers. (Courtesy Marissa Patrice Leitman)

While Bell, whose go-to drink is a vodka cranberry, is pleased that Aunt Charlie’s likely will reopen when bars not serving food get the OK to do so, he has a few concerns.

“The only thing that’s worrisome is that people aren’t going to be rushing out. There’s still the pandemic going on. With The Stud closing, and all these bars closing that house our history, it’s important that we keep these places open, and once it’s safe to go out again, to go to them.”

At the same time, it will be difficult for drag queens to perform in masks, and the bar won’t likely be able to operate at the 100-person capacity it typically has on busy club nights.

“Maybe you’ll have to wait in line to get in from now on. It’ll be an exclusive kind of cheap cocktail,” said Bell.

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