‘I don’t think Bambi could’ve become a star anywhere but in San Francisco,” said author Alvin Orloff, biographer of performer Bambi Lake.
Lake, a chanteuse and hard luck lady, died last month at the age of 70 from cancer but she left a legacy of unforgettable cabaret appearances and recordings that take in countercultural San Francisco sweeping from the hippie and punk movements to the radical queer era. Though Lake’s outsize personality and personal demons would on and off become too much for the people within the communities she inhabited, The City embraced her.
“I don’t think other cities would’ve indulged her the way San Francisco did,” said Orloff, who helped Lake tell-all in their collaboration, “The Unsinkable Bambi Lake,” published over 20 years ago, and recently reprinted in a new edition.
“It was loads of fun working with her. We had similar literary sensibilities,” said Orloff, who started writing in earnest in his 30s and in short order has published several novels and his own memoir, “Disasterama,” in 2019.
“We both write for the punchline and are interested in entertaining, more than wanting to get every last historical detail down. More like a yarn,” said Orloff.
Orloff and Lake share Bay Area roots and both came to San Francisco seeking gay adventure; their respective time on an action-packed strip of Polk Street, once the epicenter of gay male life in town, makes it into both of their books, their lived experiences and firsthand accounts serving as windows on San Francisco’s queer and trans history.
Orloff was from Berkeley, a little shy and awkward but looking for love. Lake was from Woodside and Redwood City and also a romantic. She picked up her stagecraft as a youth, appearing in performances at the Circle Star Theatre, the Vegas-style showroom in San Carlos, its marquee announcing Sammy Davis, Jr. and Charo visible to travelers on 101.
“Bambi was amazingly erudite when it came to theater,” said Orloff. “She could quote Shakespeare and knew a lot about obscure theatrical singers and people of the early 20th century.”
Those elements and others, like Weimar-style cabaret, show tunes and contemporary rock ’n’ roll, all made it into her act. Also formative in Lake’s experience was her time with the legendary experimental/queer performance troupes the Cockettes and Angels of Light.
Orloff first met Lake at the end of that period: He was a 17-year-old punk rocker and she was developing her Marlene Dietrich-in-leather-jacket act at the North Beach nightclub, Mabuhay Gardens. Punk performer Jennifer Blowdryer was a mutual friend and she introduced him to Lake and Ginger Coyote, the club’s most visible trans regulars, their underground notoriety akin to Andy Warhol’s superstars in New York.
“I’d never met a trans person before moving to San Francisco,” said Orloff, though he’d heard of the celebrated sex reassignment of Christine Jorgensen, mostly in the form of nasty jokes.
“I moved to The City and met Bambi and people like her who were so matter of fact, as time went on, I was almost surprised the rest of the country didn’t know about trans issues.”
Orloff went back to Berkeley to study at UC while Bambi continued to hone her presentation on and off stage. By the time he returned, the gay community had veered from Polk Street to Castro and the club scene was centered South of Market and Lake moved with it. So did AIDS, which terrorized and decimated the community here throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The Plague as it was called by the well-read, politicized, irreverent circle of AIDS activists and club kids like Orloff, colored everything. As The City lost her generation, Lake’s style was to laugh to keep from crying.
“That’s when I really got to know Bambi,” said Orloff, who was reintroduced to Lake at the SoMa club night, Klubstitute.
“She was one of the people instrumental in mixing indie rock and show tunes, songs from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s all together in the same set — amazingly eclectic.”
One night at closing time, Lake was talking about herself, as she often did, and someone in the party said, “Oh Bambi, you should write a book.”
Orloff offered to help, and beyond everyone’s expectations, they settled into the work of completing a manuscript.
“We would argue over the fine points of grammar in a sentence,” he said. “People who only knew her when her mental illness took hold wouldn’t believe it.”
In the middle of the project, Orloff lost his best friend, Diet Popstitute, organizer of Klubstitute and the performing ensemble the Popstitutes, of which Orloff was a member.
“We had to take a big break when Diet died,” said Orloff, but he and Lake ultimately finished the job and in 1996, local press, Manic D, took a chance on them.
“I don’t think anyone had published a trans memoir yet. It was tough going,” said Orloff, as was Lake’s life, which was starting to unravel.
“She took more than her fair share of abuse just being on the street,” he said. “The verbal and physical intimidation she had to deal with on a daily basis. For a large part of her life she lived in sketchy neighborhoods. Her mental health problem can be partly attributed to that. It wears you down.”
After publication, Orloff and Lake retreated to separate corners, Orloff to pursue the writing life and Lake in and out of circulation, but there’s a happy ending: “The Unsinkable Bambi Lake” was reprinted in a new edition and her triumphant comeback shows “The Golden Age of Bambi Lake” cemented her status as an underground legend.
“Last time I saw her in person was at one of her comeback shows at the Oasis,” remembered Orloff. “She was in high spirits, pushing 70, and everybody was floored by her talent. She was still doing this great show. I mean it’s nothing for Cher and Chita. Rivera, but for most people it’s hard to do that later in life.”
Orloff is working on his next book, a fourth novel, inspired by “The San Francisco of yesteryear, as is most of my writing,” he said. “It’s set in in the 1990s just as gentrification started erasing it,” he said.
As manager of Dog Eared Books on Castro, the district’s last remaining bookstore, Orloff is frequently reminded of the disappearing city, of its people and places.
“People come in and ask, ‘Who’s Harvey Milk?’ and we try to steer them to the right books,” said Orloff, part of the distinguished family of bookseller authors who the store has sprung. They include Andrea Lawlor, author of “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl” and Marcus Ewert, a prolific children’s book writer. But the store, like other small businesses, has been negatively impacted by the pandemic as well as the age of digitization and online delivery systems. Books are among our remaining links to The City’s history, and in Dog Eared’s case, the neighborhood’s LGBTQ stories.
“That’s just one reason it’s important the bookstore stay here,” said Orloff.
While much of the San Francisco in which he and Lake came of age is gone, Orloff is still very much in touch with its spirit on his walks across town. “I don’t need to bring anything back because it never goes away.” He has made his pandemic project a mission to discover our hidden parks.
“I’ve been loving the spectacular views,” offered at Lakeview/Ashton mini-park, Brooks Park and San Bruno Mountain State Park, he said, as he tries to practice what he learned from Michelle Carter at his master’s of fine arts writing program at San Francisco State.
“Go places where you don’t belong, with people you don’t know,” he said. “It’s great advice for writing and for life.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.