By Ben Cartwright
Local musician has performed for the local LGBT community for decades
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part story.
A few decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon to find a gay piano bar, or at least a piano in several gay bars. Only a handful of these types of establishments still exist across the country, where people can come together for drinks in a low-key environment, while listening to live piano music and singing.
Los Angeles’ last gay piano bar, The Other Side, closed in 2012, but luckily LGBT San Diegans have at least two left: Martinis Above Fourth in Hillcrest and The Caliph in Bankers Hill.
While Martinis Above Fourth has expanded to include all sorts of live entertainment and ticketed shows some nights of the week, they still have live piano and vocal entertainment by community favorites, such as Don LeMaster, Ria Carey, Janice Edwards, Nathan Fry and Andy Anderson on select nights each week.
San Diego is also lucky to have an even more low-key bar, tucked away at the corner of Redwood Street and Fifth Avenue, The Caliph, that still lives up to the tradition of a true gay piano bar.
The Caliph, which opened in 1960 as a straight bar, began to transition in the late 1970s to a ‘straight by day, gay by night’ establishment, and solidified itself as a gay bar in the early 1980s. Since 1986, the bar — which current owner Sherman Mendoza calls “everyone’s bar” (welcoming “gay, straight, male, female, or orange with purple spots”) — has been home to piano entertainment most nights of the week. One such entertainer, Carol Curtis, “came home” to The Caliph last October for the Monday evening spot and hasn’t looked back since.
Curtis, 64, was born and raised in Riverside, California (a town that she wrote an original song about, “Riverside,” which we’ll discuss more later). She left home to study music at Cal State Fullerton, where she was recruited with a scholarship. While Curtis started taking piano lessons in the second grade, and began singing in the church choir in the fourth grade, it wasn’t until she got to college that she ever had formal voice coaching.
Howard Swan was Curtis’ first voice coach, and at the time, she didn’t realize that Swan was one of the premier master vocal coaches in the country.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t know much about him at the time, because if I realized what a legend he was, I would’ve been scared to death as his student,” Curtis said.
While guests at Curtis’ Monday night shows at The Caliph will primarily hear her singing and playing the piano with an occasional guitar, she said she has pretty much learned every instrument: drums, french horn, everything. She said her ex-husband even tried to school her on the trumpet.
Before she was just “Carol Curtis,” she got her performance start at the age of 16 in the all-girl trio named “Carol, Cheryl, and Jan,” with Cheryl Flood and Jan Ritzau. Curtis played guitar with the trio performed off and on for about a year at a restaurant and bar called The Yodler in Crestline, California.
On Curtis’ CD, “It’s About Time” (which can be purchased on her website pianowench.com), listeners can hear the first song Curtis ever wrote for the guitar in 1968, “You’re a Person.” Curtis said that she, Flood and Ritzau recorded the track in a restroom.
Curtis eventually found herself in Oklahoma during a time when she was mostly performing top 40 hits and had previously sworn that she’d never be caught doing country music. She soon became a standout in the Sooner State, because while most other bar performers had some amount of country music in their repertoire, Curtis was doing Broadway and top 40 in a region that had a heavy concentration of country fans.
Curtis eventually realized that she really loved performing country tunes, and that it may have served her well in Oklahoma. Today, she can be regularly heard singing tunes from Patsy Cline and other country stars during her sets.
Her original tune “Riverside” is primarily a tale of the culture shock she experienced in Oklahoma, and her longing for California. Several years ago, she presented the song to the City Council office in Riverside to see if the city would be interested in making it the civic anthem. While she said all of the women in the council office loved the song and wanted to be her backup singers, the city wasn’t particularly interested in it being the town’s anthem — Curtis thinks it’s likely because of the mention of “smog” and “traffic” in the line, “I’ll have your smog for breakfast … I’ll have your traffic for lunch … Sweet Riverside, oh I miss you so much!”
Eventually landing herself in El Cajon, Curtis began her decades-long connection to San Diego’s LGBT community.
Her first gig in San Diego County was at an El Cajon cowboy bar called Doc’s Landing, which was owned by David Wentworth and Richard Juras — who also were the third owners of The Caliph. But before Curtis learned about The Caliph, Wentworth and Juras bought The Library on Mission Gorge Road at Princess View Drive just east of Allied Gardens. This was around 1987 and Curtis called it “a mixed bar in an odd part of town for a mix of gay and straight people.” She further described the venue as “a wonderful place with books and conversation pits, and a horrible piano … but it did the job.”
She said The Library was eventually sold to new ownership and the bar started to go downhill. By total chance, one night Curtis was playing at The Library to “a nearly dead room” and two men named David Heiner and Ted Bettner were in the very small crowd. Heiner and Bettner invited Curtis to come perform at Bourbon Street — a gay bar in University Heights — and she immediately proclaimed “yes!” The two men kept reminding Curtis that the bar was gay, and she kept reminding them that her answer was “absolutely yes!”
In July 1989, Curtis began her residency at Bourbon Street.
She calls her first years at Bourbon Street an “immersion experience” into the community, and she played there regularly for eight years, before changing trends and tastes brought a new format to the popular bar, which closed in 2015. During her time at Bourbon Street, Curtis also played at another bar called WD’s, and began her very long residency at the former Inn at the Park around 1990.
In 1991, she began her first stint at The Caliph, which lasted for 10 years.
By the time she had finished her years at Bourbon Street, Curtis and her husband were engulfed in their work as owners of a courier company so most of her music gigs were put on hold — except for her Saturday nights at The Caliph. Curtis said that not only was music a “vocation” but also a “vacation” from her busy business schedule. The courier company was eventually sold to a business partner and music once again became her focus.
Catch up with the rest of Curtis’ storied career in the next issue of Gay San Diego, on the street and online Friday, Aug. 18.
—Ben Cartwright is a local LGBT activist, a monthly columnist for Gay San Diego, and a longtime fan of Carol Curtis. Reach him at email@example.com.