ATK performs a pole routine at The Stud Bar's 50th anniversary party. (Rachel Garner/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A golden legacy among gay bars

The one-story hut at Ninth and Harrison streets is small, but it can’t be overlooked. Bright blue paint brings The Stud into plain sight, and it’s topped with rainbow flags, a stenciled leather daddy leans casually against the building, and colored lights point the way inside.

And The Stud’s interior has an even more bedazzled collection reflecting 50 years of history.

Glittering curtains, mirrors and at least five disco balls bounce rays of colored lights in every direction. Some patrons sit tucked away in nooks while others perform a wide spectrum of song, lip-sync, performance art, drag and pole dance — often in costumes that are beautifully handmade.

The Stud’s “golden anniversary” party on June 18 was golden on many facets. For the bar’s 50th birthday, performers from Stud shows took the stage. One pole dancer was enrobed in tiny gilded cutoffs and gold glitter, while the host VivvyAnne Forevermore, who hosts the drag night “Some Thing” every Friday, wore an enormous golden hoodie — and not much else.

The bar’s two rooms were sweltering and full of fabulous, freaky and fetish-loving patrons who have supported the bar and performance space for decades.

One unforgettable costume was a half-wedding gown, half-velvet suit worn by drag performer Chenille Stems with two-sided hair and makeup to match for a lip-sync to Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s dueling duet “Some Velvet Morning.”

And then a volcano erupted on Hollow Eve’s head to Bjork’s thunderous song “Mutual Core.”

“It was a real hoot,” owner Michael McElhaney said. He lovingly calls the place “a refugee bar.”

“A lot of the other nightclubs, or club nights, in The City that were forced out of where they were… have all ended up here. Because they feel like they can be comfortable here and do their thing,” he said.

Since he moved to San Francisco in 1989, McElhaney has noticed an outflow of artists from The City. Many of his friends and customers “who can’t afford to live here anymore” have moved away “in droves,” he said.

The newest show will be a burlesque night, migrating to The Stud from the Beatbox nearby on 11th Street when that club closes July 3. Other “refugees” include Karaoke Thursdays, the once-a-month disco oldies night Go Bang!, and the goth night Dark Room since it left Cafe Du Nord.

Other nights were born at The Stud, like every Tuesday night’s Meow Mix. “It is like an art cabaret-slash-drag,” McElhaney said. “It’s completely unique, it’s really strange. They’re a tight-knit community of performers that do our Tuesdays.”

McElhaney considers The Stud to be one of The City’s “Last bastions of freakdom… We’re a rare breed that’s disappearing.” One anniversary party guest was a sabertooth cat who stole the dancefloor. The owner knows him. “He’s a lovely freak,” McElhaney said.

The furry party Frolic, every second Saturday, is the only regularly-occurring furry party in San Francisco.

“I think people walk in and they’re just like, ‘Oh, I’m home, I’m here.’ They hear about an event we have going and they go, ‘Wow, this is totally different than any other gay bar I’ve been in,’” McElhaney said.

“The sign above our door says, ‘Everybody is welcome at The Stud.’ You can just be yourself… I think that’s something that’s vanishing in our city. My metaphor I’ve been saying lately is, ‘The City is going from an art gallery to a sports bar.’”

The Stud opened in its original location in 1966 where the Holy Cow is now, then moved to its present home in 1987. Funk has always been its motif.

“The entire place was full of tchotchke, tchotchke, antique mirrors and weird little things,” said McElhaney, who first took over the bar in 1996 with co-owner Benjamin “Fiesta” Guibord, who died in 2011.

“Way back in the day, in the ’60s, South of Market was mixed use, pretty heavily residential, industrial, a few metal fabrication shops… It was cheap. Our people lived down here because our people have never had a lot of money,” he said. “It was kinda gritty. Definitely gritty.”

But the funky little place is vulnerable, McElhaney said. “There are a lot of development pressures in the neighborhood.”

The bar’s neighbors, weekly LGBT newspaper The Bay Area Reporter, recently moved out from a spot next door after the building was bought by an adjacent hotel. Expansion of hotel rooms above the popular nightclub could lead to noise problems, McElhaney said.

“We are definitely worried. We are vulnerable. It’s a very uncertain time right now,” McElhaney said.

He hasn’t researched whether The Stud is eligible for preservation as a legacy business under Proposition J, which passed in 2015, though he says it’s “on his plate.” The ballot measure provides financial help to up to 300 neighborhood businesses per year that are at risk of displacement and have operated in San Francisco for more than 30 years.

At 50, the club still has patrons young and not-so-young, like Flame, who’s been around since the 1960s and works the door at every anniversary party.

“We’ve gone through generations,” McElhaney said.

That includes two generations of belly dancers who have owned the bar, McElhaney and one of the original owners. Though male dancers are rare in the sport, The Stud will highlight them in an all-male belly dancers’ showcase on Saturday, July 16 at 9 p.m. followed by a chance to dance the night away.
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