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For the Los Angeles bar of the same name, see Black Cat Tavern.

The Black Cat Bar or Black Cat Café was a bar in San Francisco, California. It opened in 1906 and closed in 1921. The Black Cat re-opened in 1933 and operated for another 30 years. During its second run of operation it was a hangout for Beats and bohemians but over time began attracting more and more of a gay clientele.

Because it catered to gays, the bar became a flashpoint for the nascent homophile movement. The Black Cat was at the center of a legal fight that was one of the earliest court cases that established legal protections for gay people in the United States. Despite this victory, continued pressure from law enforcement agencies eventually forced the bar's closure in 1963.

The original Black CatEdit

The Black Cat opened in 1906, shortly after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. When Charles Ridley acquired the bar in 1911, he turned it into a showplace for vaudeville-style acts. Over the next several years, Ridley and the Black Cat came under increased police scrutiny as a possible center of prostitution activity. In 1921, the bar lost its dance permit and closed down.[1]

Beats and bohemiansEdit

With the repeal of Prohibition, the Black Cat re-opened in 1933 at 710 Montgomery Street[2] again under Ridley's proprietorship.[1] Sol Stoumen bought the bar in the 1940s.[3] In the early years of Stoumen's ownership, the Black Cat was a center for the bohemian and Beat crowd. William Saroyan and John Steinbeck were known to frequent the establishment, and part of Jack Kerouac's seminal Beat novel On the Road is set in the bar.[4]

Growing gay clienteleEdit

While the Beats would continue to congregate at the Black Cat into the 1950s, in the years following World War II more and more gay people began patronizing it. The varied crowds mixed, and gay Beat poet Allen Ginsberg described the Black Cat as "the best gay bar in America. It was totally open, bohemian, San Francisco...and everybody went there, heterosexual and homosexual....All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen. All the poets went there."[5] By 1951, the bar was placed on the Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board's list of establishments from which military personnel were forbidden.[3]

The bar featured live entertainers, the best known of whom was José Sarria. Sarria, who began as a waiter, wore drag and entertained the crowd by singing parodies of popular torch songs. Eventually he performed three to four shows a night, along with a regular Sunday afternoon show, with Sarria performing full arias. His specialty was a re-working of Bizet's opera Carmen, set in modern-day San Francisco. Sarria as Carmen would prowl through popular cruising area Union Square. The audience cheered "Carmen" on as she dodged the vice squad and made her escape.[5]

Sarria encouraged patrons to be as open and honest as possible, exhorting the clientele, "There's nothing wrong with being gay -- the crime is getting caught," and "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one."[6] At closing time he would lead patrons in singing "God Save Us Nelly Queens" to the tune of God Save the Queen. Sometimes he would take the crowd outside to sing the final verse to the men across the street in jail, who had been arrested in raids earlier in the night.[6] Speaking of this ritual in the film Word is Out, gay journalist George Mendenhall said:

"It sounds silly, but if you lived at that time and had the oppression coming down from the police department and from society, there was nowhere to turn...and to be able to put your arms around other gay men and to be able to stand up and sing 'God Save Us Nelly Queens'...we were really not saying 'God Save Us Nelly Queens.' We were saying 'We have our rights, too.'"[7]

Sarria became the first openly gay candidate in the United States to run for public office, running in 1961 for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.[8] Sarria almost won by default. On the last day for candidates to file petitions, city officials realized that there were fewer than five candidates running for the five open seats. By the end of the day, 34 candidates had filed.[9] Sarria garnered some 6,000 votes,[8] shocking political pundits and setting in motion the idea that a gay voting bloc could wield real power in city politics.[10]

Police harassmentEdit

In 1948, the San Francisco Police Department and the Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, in response to the Black Cat's increasing homosexual clientele, began a campaign of harassment against the bar and its patrons. Bar owner Stoumen was charged with such crimes as "keeping a disorderly house" and the State Board of Equalization suspended the bar's liquor license indefinitely. In response and on principle, Stoumen, who was heterosexual, took the state to court. In 1951, the California Supreme Court, in Stoumen v. Reilly (37 Cal.2d 713) ruled that "[i]n order to establish 'good cause' for suspension of plaintiff's license, something more must be shown than that many of his patrons were homosexuals and that they used his restaurant and bar as a meeting place." This was one of the earliest legal affirmations of the rights of gay people in the United States. The court qualified its opinion, however, by stating that ABC might still close gay bars with "proof of the commission of illegal or immoral acts on the premises."[11]

In response to this legal victory and based on the "illegal or immoral acts" language of the opinion, the state passed a constitutional amendment creating the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). The California State Assembly in 1955 passed a law authorizing broad powers for the ABC to shut down any "resort [for] sexual perverts." The Black Cat was shut down under this authority, along with a number of other establishments. However, in a test case involving an Oakland bar, Valerga v. Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the supreme court struck down this new law as unconstitional. This decision was not a complete victory, as the court noted that had the ABC's revocation been based on "reports of women dancing with other women and women kissing other women" it might have upheld the law. So homosexuals had won the right to assemble but only if they agreed not to touch.[11]

Police and city officials responded to the increasing visibility of the Black Cat and other gay bars in the city, and the Black Cat's success in court, by increasingly cracking down, staging more frequent raids and mass arrests. One favorite tactic was to arrest drag queens, since impersonating a member of the opposite sex was at the time a crime. Sarria responded by passing out labels for the drag queens to wear reading "I am a boy" so it couldn't be claimed they were impersonating women.[12]

ClosureEdit

By 1963, following some 15 years of unrelenting pressure from the police and the ABC, Stoumen decided he was no longer able to sustain the battle financially. The cost of his long legal battle was more than $38,000.[5] Sarria tried to enlist the owners of the city's other gay bars to help Stoumen pay his legal bills, but none offered any assistance. The ABC lifted the bar's liquor license the night before its annual Halloween party. After a final defiant Halloween celebration (at which only non-alcoholic beverages were served), the Black Cat closed down for good.[13]

The site is now the location of Bocadillos, a tapas-style restaurant. On December 15, 2007, a plaque commemorating the Black Cat and its place in San Francisco history was placed at the site.[2]

NotesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 Boyd p. 56
  2. 2.0 2.1 Laird, Cynthia. "News in brief: Legendary gay bar to be remembered", The Bay Area Reporter Online, 2007-12-15. Retrieved on 2008-06-22. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Boyd p. 57
  4. Miller p. 346
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 D'Emilio p. 187
  6. 6.0 6.1 Shilts p. 52
  7. Quoted in Miller p. 347
  8. 8.0 8.1 Miller p. 347
  9. Witt, et. al. p. 8
  10. Shilts pp. 56-7
  11. 11.0 11.1 Eskridge p. 94
  12. Shilts p. 53
  13. Shilts p. 57

ReferencesEdit

  • Boyd, Nan Alamilla (2003). Wide-open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. University of California Press. ISBN 0520204158.
  • D'Emilio, John (1983). Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226142655.
  • Eskridge, Jr., William (2002). Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet. Boston, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674008049.
  • Miller, Neil (1995). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York, Vintage Books. ISBN 0099576910.
  • Shilts, Randy (1982). The Mayor of Castro Street. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312523319.
  • Witt, Lynn, Sherry Thomas & Eric Marcus (1995). Out in All Directions: The Almanac of Gay and Lesbian America. New York, Warner Books. ISBN 0446672378.

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