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Historical Essay

by Susan Stryker


A poster from Finocchio's, date unknown.

One of the most interesting things I've done recently was prowl around the premises of Finocchio's, San Francisco's fabled female impersonator club, which closed November 27, 1999 after 63 years in the same location.

The club's history actually began back in the Roaring '20s, when founder Joe Finocchio opened a speakeasy on Stockton Street on the edge of the seedy Tenderloin District. The place featured female impersonation even then. The club went above-ground with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and moved to the trendy North Beach nightclub district in 1936. Most gay men and lesbians today don't think of professional female impersonator clubs as being particularly queer, but in the days before gay liberation they provided valuable semi-public social spaces for sexual minorities to congregate.

For decades, Finocchio's was a world-renowned venue. Hollywood stars frequented the club, flying up to San Francisco from Los Angeles to see themselves being impersonated -- as Tallulah Bankhead did in the accompanying photo. Ms. Bankhead is joined by members of the show, including Elton Paris (left) and Lucian Phelps (3rd from left). It's worth noting the mixed-race audience, a rarity in the era of segregation.

Well aware of its former glory, I was a bit sad to see Finocchio's look so down at the heels last week as GLBT Historical Society staff members carted away a truckload of memorabilia. The drag club business just ain't what it used to be, and it hasn't been for a good long time. It felt like a piece of old San Francisco -- and old gay life -- had quietly passed away. Joe Finocchio's second wife Eve, a feisty grand dame well into her 80s, sat in a chair in the middle of the room and watched her grandson, the club's manager, box up the liquor stock as we historians circled like buzzards around ratty dressing room fixtures, odd scraps of cast-off costumes, a pair of false eyelashes stored in an empty Premarin prescription bottle, and other detritus that had accumulated over more than half a century.

At one point, Eve Finocchio motioned for me to come to her. "Here, honey, why don't you take this, too," she said, handing me an exquisite ermine stole. "I once gave it to a queen who worked here, but he doesn't need it now. He's a Catholic priest. Anyway, I might as well donate it to history -- you just can't get away with wearing fur these days.

Check out the GLBT Historical Society for much more information on local queer history.

Lesbian Bar 1976

Pickup Scene c. 1930

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