By Archives Staff | Out of the Archives
One of the most frequent requests we receive at Lambda Archives is for information about the early gay and lesbian bars.
Some are casual inquiries, “my friends and I were trying to remember the name of the bar that was there before Bourbon Street — do you know, or could I look at some old newspapers to find a list?” and others are more scholarly inquiries.
Professor Paul Detwiler is working on a documentary about the bars for KPBS and has compiled a list of bars. So far it has some 156 entries, although some are listed more than once.
For instance, the Brass Rail (now called simply The Rail) is listed at each of its three locations. Some of those bars lasted less than a year.
Others, like the Brass Rail, have endured for decades, although the precise date when that bar went from being a restaurant/catering with a primarily straight clientele to primarily a bar catering to gay men — especially Navy men — is hard to pin down.
For the documentary, Detwiler has been tracking down some of the people who owned and worked in the bar industry. He is sharing many of his findings with Lambda Archives to add to our store of knowledge and materials.
Among the things he uncovered were a box of photographs — in slide format — taken at West Coast Production Company. WCPC was in the three-story space located on Hancock Street just west of Interstate 5, later occupied by Club Montage and currently home to Spin Nightclub.
The slides have since been donated by Chris Shaw, the previous owner of WCPC, who now owns the four bars that comprise MO’s Universe.
San Diego State scanned a few of the slides for Detwiler and eventually the Archives will scan the rest to add them in digital form to our collection of thousands of photos.
Detwiler was also located photos taken inside Peacock Alley. Peacock Alley was a bar on University Avenue in the mid-to-late 1980s frequented by gay men, and African-American gay men in particular. The space is now occupied by The Merrow. Those photos will also be digitized and added to the Archives’ collection.
The Spartacus Guide for 1986 lists 40 bars open in San Diego at that time — compared to half that many today — making that year the high water mark for the bars.
Whether the rapid decline in the quantity of bars was due to the brunt of the AIDS epidemic hitting the community or that the region just reached its saturation point for bars, is hard to say.
There were never nearly as many bars catering to women.
At their peak, there were only three lesbian-focused bars open simultaneously; The Flame on Park Boulevard, Club Bombay (now Starlite) on India Street, and Bella’s (now PECS) on University Avenue.
One of the most popular lesbian bars was The Flame. It began life as The Garden of Allah in 1946, which was destroyed by a fire in 1954.
In January 1955, the building was remodeled and renamed the Flame Supper Club — ironically after the fire, it had nothing to do with “gay flames” — and that’s when it got its iconic neon sign.
The restaurant closed in 1980, but in 1984 The Flame opened as a lesbian bar and operated until 2004. Then it went through various permutations before finally closing in June 2013.The new owner of the building said he plans to preserve the neon sign and façade when he remodels.
Many of the area’s bars have left behind pieces of their past; we have matchbooks from many defunct bars and T-shirts from various bars and their sports teams.
One of the more eye-catching pieces in our collection is the stained-glass window from Bacchus House (now Seven Grand on University Avenue in North Park).
Recently, Will Widick and his friend Matt Clark cleaned and reframed the window and we’ll soon be hanging it at the Archives.
We also have a complete collection of the various LGBT newspapers and they hold a host of information about the bars — ads, pool league scores, maps, articles about special events and more.
When the new owners took over Bourbon Street, they found a closet full of photos, plaques and awards, and donated them to the Archives.
We also have Nicky Awards, AIDS Walk awards and numerous other pieces of our community’s bars.
The bars served a special role in LGBTQ life. Before there were LGBT centers, Pride and coming out groups, there were the bars.
They were meeting places and centers of civic engagement. It is no coincidence that the event that is usually regarded as the birthplace of LGBT liberation — the Stonewall Riots — started in a bar.
And that special connection to the bars is what made the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida especially painful to the LGBTQ community.
In June, Lambda Archives will present one of its Out at the Archives events with a special nod to Pulse Nightclub and the role of the bars in making our world what it is.
On March 19, at 11 a.m., Lambda Archives will resume its popular Hillcrest walking tours, and many bar locations and bar stories will figure prominently on that tour.
For tickets visit lambda-archives.ticketleap.com.
By the way, the bar that preceded Bourbon Street in that space was called Stagecoach.
—Lambda Archives, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to collecting, preserving and teaching the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in San Diego and the Northern Baja California region, is located at 4545 Park Blvd., in University Heights. To learn more, stop in or visit their website at lambdaarchives.org.