Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Red Dora's Bearded Lady

Bearded Lady owners Lori Hartman,
Harry Dodge, and Silas Howard
Red Dora's Bearded Lady

Location: 485 14th Street, San Francisco, California, USA

Opened: Early 1990s?

Closed: Early 2000s?

This description of Red Dora's Bearded Lady is from a much longer piece by Rachel Swan at SF Weekly on the disappearance of urban lesbian space in San Francisco.  Escalating rents are forcing lesbians into cheaper suburban areas, a trend which is seen in many cities. So much for the "gayborhood"--which was traditionally male-dominated, and has only become increasingly so.

When Harry Dodge moved to San Francisco in 1985, he was what you might call a typical Midwestern transplant: Nineteen years old, footloose, gay, and ready for a change — a biological woman who would eventually take testosterone, grow a goatee, and characterize himself with "he" pronouns. He was, at that time, prone to fantasies about opening "an anarchist performance space with wrestling mats."

"There was something in me that always identified with San Francisco," Dodge says, decades later. "It had this sheen of being a gay mecca. That was sublimated for me, at that point, but clearly the things were intertwined."

Dodge found a one-bedroom apartment at 21st and Valencia streets for $275 a month, a deal forged with a wizened landlord who hadn't fixed anything in a long time. He began consorting with the bike messenger and punk crowds, dabbling in classes at San Francisco State University (where tuition was $286.50 a semester) and City College (where tuition was considerably lower, he says), and flitting through the city's seven or eight lesbian bars, which all seemed to have female names with a possessive apostrophe ("Amelia's," "Clementina's").

He also entertained ideas of opening his own venue, which at that time didn't seem like a pipe dream. The Mission harbored a fervent lesbian bohemia (including many women who, like Dodge, would later describe themselves as "gender-queer" or "gender-fluid"), and several of Dodge's friends had already launched their own bootstrap enterprises. Rents were cheap, and empty storefronts were there for the taking.

One such building, a rundown, turquoise-and-black tiled shell at 14th and Guerrero, caught Dodge's eye. He'd already teamed up with Silas Howard, bass player for the lesbian punk band Tribe 8, to launch a roving open mic called the Whiptail Lizard Lounge; once they set eyes on the 14th Street storefront, the two scrounged up $1500 for the security deposit, and hoped for the best. "We were rigid with panic, signing the lease," Dodge recalls. "We were already out of money."

Friends came in to paint the walls and scrape debris off the floor. A plumber acquaintance smoothed dirt all over the drains to make them look old, so that a health inspector would grandfather the place without imposing new regulations. An electrician friend rigged the wiring so that it bypassed the PG&E meter — allowing Dodge and Howard to pirate their electricity for the next seven years. They scrounged up enough money for a toaster oven and began serving beans and rice and black coffee. They hosted puppet shows, spoken-word nights, piano performances by the drag cabaret duo Kiki and Herb (who now tour Broadway, but were then a Mission District fixture). They christened the place Red Dora's Bearded Lady.

"I went there every single day," spoken word poet and author Michelle Tea remembers. "Everyone was always on the back patio smoking pot and drinking coffee. ... At night they'd change the lighting and people would sit on the counter and do performance."

Twenty years later, the Bearded Lady is long gone, as is the Mission District lesbian neighborhood that helped birth it. Dodge and Howard moved to New York and Los Angeles, respectively, to pursue artistic careers; their friends dispersed throughout the country. The storefront at 485 14th St. is still gay-owned, and still has turquoise tile on its facade — but it now houses an architecture firm.

Though still not sure when it closed, Red Dora's was still open when it is mentioned in another SF Weekly article from 2001 which states that the original owners had sold Red Dora's. Notice that by now, Red Dora's is increasingly identified as a "queer space" and not as a "lesbian space":

Michelle Tea
Another appeal of "Wicked Awesome" is Red Dora's itself -- the popular lesbian Mission District café opened by artist Harriet Dodge (John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented") in the early '90s. Though it recently changed hands, new owner Len Plass wants to continue to promote local lesbian culture. Tiny Red Dora's is intimate -- no stage, no podium -- with the writers and audience in close proximity. Lack of space may mean squeezing into one of the bright red booths with people you haven't met but may soon know very well, another aspect of the event's charm.

[Michelle] Tea, co-founder of the legendary all-girl, all-queer spoken word group Sister Spit, said that "Wicked Awesome" includes a different range of performers than her earlier group, which was formed in reaction to the very straight, very male slam scene of the early '90s. "With these shows ["Wicked Awesome"] I bring in anybody whose writing I like -- straight boys, gay boys, straight girls, queer girls, tranny girls," Tea said. "It's all mixed up."

SF Weekly cover (July 2008)
The audiences are also different, according to Tea. Though mostly lesbian, "Wicked Awesome" fans are more ethnically diverse and include a noticeable minority of gay men and youth. "It brings out a slightly different crowd," Tea explained. "It's all ages and there aren't a ton of all-ages events in the city ... And it's not a big bar scene. I actually love performing in bars but it's totally a nice change. ..."

Then there is this recollection from Michelle Rosenbaum:

Red Dora's Bearded Lady [was] a closet-sized cafe and performance space near the notoriously sketchy Valencia Gardens housing projects. Red Dora's was where Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson started Sister Spit, with their weekly writers squeezed up against the muffin counter reading to sweaty overflow crowds. It would get so hot in there that I remember asking the crowd one night if they'd mind if I stripped off my shirt and read just wearing a bra.

And finally, here is a touching review/epitaph from Yelp.

I used to work here.

If I ever had 10 million dollars, I open this place back up.

But with less bugs living in the TV.

RIP Bearded

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