Before RuPaul’s Drag Race, there was LGBTQ+ haven Finocchio’s Club in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — ABC7 is celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month with a look back at nightlife hotspots for generations of people. Long before RuPaul’s Drag Race, there was Finocchio in San Francisco. For visitors, it was an opportunity to see men dressed as women. For workers, it was a safe haven to express themselves in a time when being yourself was illegal.

At the corner of Broadway and Kearny in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, there are few signs of Finocchio’s former nightclub.

“It’s kind of emotional,” Holatta Tyme said.

For 63 years, Finocchio’s has been the place to see what we now call drag.

“Drag was not mainstream,” Tyme said. “So that’s where you came to see a drag queen and fabulous impersonators. We had jugglers and (a) ventriloquist and belly dancers and all kinds of craziness.”

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Holotta Tyme performed at Finocchio’s which dubbed itself “America’s quirkiest nightclub” until it closed in 1999.

The club started out as a speakeasy during prohibition.

“And there was a step in the back,” Eric Jorgensen said. “And there were comedians, singers, ventriloquists and other types of acts there.

He started working at Finocchio when he was 12 years old. His grandparents created the club.

“There was a guy who came and did a Sophie Tucker impersonation, he was a very famous comedian singer of the time,” Jorgensen said. “The crowd in the bar went crazy about it. And little by little the crowd got too crowded for this little place.”

In 1936, Finocchio picked up his wigs and moved to Broadway, the heart of the city’s nightlife.

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“It was a great place to bring your friends from out of town for a little shock value of a show,” Jorgensen said. “It was a good clean show. It lasted about an hour and 20 minutes. You could have a few drinks and while you enjoyed the show.”

The club has been packed with crowds for decades. A trip to the city by the bay was not complete without a visit to Finocchio. The shows were so popular that tour buses regularly dropped people off at its doorstep. The performers were occasional guests on local late-night talk shows due to the then risque nature of their routines.

“It was kind of shocking to see that this beautiful woman on stage that you’re looking at isn’t a woman, it’s a man dressed as a woman,” Jorgensen said. “But damn it, she’s a woman in my eyes.”

It was popular with sailors visiting San Francisco during World War II. I watched the Beatnik movement from its doors, I saw the Summer of Love, the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis come and go.

“The artists, for the most part, were gay,” Jorgensen said. “Many of them were married, had wives, but I think they may have been bisexual as well. A lot of the waiters were gay.”

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By the end of the last century, drag performances had grown in popularity. The old vaudeville-style shows created by Joesph Finocchio nearly seven decades earlier were no longer popular. His widow, Eve, decided it was time to close the club’s doors in 1999.

“I think I took it for granted,” Tyme said. “You know, when I left my dressing room and closed the door and walked out, I didn’t really think about it for quite a while. Now I realize how historic this space is and important.”

The Finocchios donated their lavish costumes, photos and programs to the GLBT Historical Society.

For much of Finocchio’s existence, performers had to be careful. The city enacted the cross-dressing law in 1863. It wasn’t repealed until 1974, meaning anyone leaving the club dressed as a woman could be arrested for indecency.

“We weren’t drag queens, we were impersonators,” Tyme said. “Or Eve Finocchio liked to say we were male actors. We were drag, but we weren’t drag queens.”

“If they walked out of the entertainment space, it would be considered public cross-dressing, which has been criminalized,” said historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker, who helped clear Finocchio. “It’s like they could exist in the spotlight, but they’ve been criminalized outside of the spotlight.”

Among the boxes of ephemera are clues to the lives of the performers. Items like pill boxes that once contained female hormones.

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“Some of these people were straight, some were gay,” Stryker said. “They all had a knack for so-called ‘feminine imitation’.”

Stryker helped clean Finocchio for the museum. She says the club’s history also includes trans women.

“But it only really started, I would say, in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and then over the decades,” she said. “Like in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. A lot of artists in that era were people we might call trans women.”

Jorgens adds: “I think we gave the people who made this entertainment, this art, a safe place for them to show their art and show their talent. We had a great run.”

“It’s an important part of our history, a very important part of our history, which I think gets lost a lot of time. I think very honestly, if it wasn’t for Finocchio, I’m not sure that we would have trolled or female impersonation on TV I mean, 63 years old, he still holds the record for the longest running female impersonation show in the world.

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