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Lust, Laughter, and Legend...

Red Bulbs, Black Paint,
Back Rooms, & Public Sex

by Jack Fritscher


The feature was written on May 22, 1989 for Desmodus' Drummer.

Lust, Laughter, and Legend...

Red Bulbs, Black Paint, Back Rooms,
& Public Sex
by Jack Fritscher


In 1959, San Francisco-born Tony Tavarosi, was recruited by Certain Powers to head back to New York to check out the changing male bar scene. Ten years before Stonewall, bits and pieces of leather had begun appearing nightly as a quiet sex-statement that guys wanted to look like guys, and not like fags and drags.

            The gay “community” from the start has always been in process: dividing itself like an amoeba while defining new specific, and–for shame!–discriminatory identities under the genus homosexual. Thirty years later, as the 90’s arrive, go figure why the gay “community” at large, still wallowing in sadvocate Advocate ignorance, is embarrassed by, is afraid of, and discriminates against Leather Women and Leather Men into S&M. (See Jeff Drummond’s despicable feature article, “Of Inhuman Bondage: Why I Left the World of Sadomasochism,” The Advocate #517, January 31, 1989.)

            Tony, a true bar-marketing man, knew a cosmopolitan trend among a small elite when he saw it. Leather was a fetish step up to sexual intensity, just as Latex/Spandex is today. He encouraged the NYC movers and shakers to cater to the emerging Leather-n-Levi’s crowd.

            His was a simple formula: lease a sleazy straight bar in an industrial location, paint it black, screw in red light bulbs, and name it, with butch double entendre, something phallic like “The Rod” or anal like “The ‘Chute.” Tony Tavarosi could have taught Ronald MacDonald something about marketing and Architectural Digest a really ballsy thing or two about post-modern minimalism.


            If form follows function, then what better than the red and the black–bulbs and paint–to flatter leather cruising? Tony kept the bar ambience basic: cheap, indestructible, sleazy interiors where middle-class men could lose their daytime responsible realities and inhibitions, thus liberating them exotically into the psycho-dramatics inherent in leather. Men can’t role-play being tough guys in a vanilla bar. In a leather bar, men are encouraged to let loose their interior Freudian Id-Beast to become like the low-class, blue-collar tough guys they worship from afar.

            Factored to the max, those red-and-black decor-basics were two colors against which any man’s complexion, build, and leather all look hot. Black leather against black walls; male skin glowing lust-red. Tavarosi, whose bar-career influenced every South of Market saloon during his lifetime, brought the NYC-design back to SFO where its East Coast taste was twisted to West Coast wilding.


            The legendary Tavarosi, born in San Francisco’s Mission, nurtured by a wise Italian mother who quieted her infant by rubbing olive oil between the foreskin and head of his cock, making his prepuce one of the biggest in captivity, came out, he alleged, at the precocious age of twelve under the tables of the South China Cafe on 18th Street above Castro, when that cafe’s wooden booths were still draped with heavy curtains for privacy. Think of “Little Tony” the next time you sit down for sweet-n-sour chicken! [Tony Tavarossi and I were friend from 1970 until his death in 1981.]

            Always a leather S&M front-runner, he was first fisted while tied hanging drugless up side down from an El Lay motel shower-head as early as 1962. The fister was a Leatherneck Marine whose former adventuresome career had taught him some in-service initiation sex tricks when he served time with the French Foreign Legion in Morocco.

            Fisting, hardly a “new-gay” invention, is as ancient as dirt, common in the Legion, and as classic as Rome. Witness Malcolm McDowall handballing the bridegroom in Bob (Penthouse Magazine) Guccioni’s sex-epic Caligula which went where MGM’s Quo Vadis and Steve Reeves’ Hercules wouldn’t dare. In sex, there is nothing new under the sun.

            Again, ahead of his time, Tony died a two days after the famous August 1981 Folsom Street Fire, which destroyed the Barracks Baths and the studios of both the artist, Rex, and the photographer, Mark Chester. The doctor at SF General ICU told me she’d “never seen a patient so distressed by disease.” Little did she know she was looking at a personal face of AIDS before it had either media attention or a name.


            The point is a man has to do it to get it, and live it to the max to get it right. As Tavarosi did it, got it, and gave it to us, so do you do it, get it (even when other guys don’t), and thus further our leather future. Leather-Group history is an accumulation of personal leather experiences. Our history has no more memory than the remembrance we give it. Because we do not procreate, it is important to our group Leather Identity that your personal anecdotes be recorded so that our history does not evaporate and disappear into thin air. We all want our sex lives to be stories told in bed at night around the world, but if you don’t report them, they’re written on the wind, and not on the pages of history.


            Tony Tavarosi, nurturing nascent Leather, knew that Leather studs, like zesty mushrooms, flourish best in the dark. Stephen Sondheim wrote, very gayly, in A Little Night Music: “My body’s alright, but not in perspective and not in the light.” Tony knew that angle instinctively. His leather ambience starkly enhanced perspective with light long before hippies at the Fillmores East and West zapped acid trippers with psychedelic light shows. He knew how to make men look good! Tony Tavarosi was the Ziegfield of Leathermen. As Ziegfield had glorified the American chorus girl on Broadway, Tony produced the bar “stage-sets” that incubated the glorification of the “ordinary” Leatherman. What mystique Tony quietly had seeded, the visionary artist, and Broadway showman, Chuck Arnett took to full harvest with Mecca’s First Leather Temple, The Tool Box.


            Long before the 80’s, when many “formula” leather bars look like a cloned MacFranchise, a commercial money-making formula–the Tavarosi Touch–emerged: if the crowd wants leather in a kickass environment, then expand the action to the back room. Early on, a few back rooms were already in existence, but they were furtive hideaways. Tony brought the leather back room out of the closet. Bar entrepreneurs caught on fast: cheap beer, sleazy decor, and on-site sex. They followed the formula in their own way, the same as straight biker bars cater to formula for Harley hounds.


            Parallel to the gay leather-bike bar, straight bike bars by their very appealing existence have always reinforced homomasculine leather bars. But who imitated whom? Just for comparison, consider the Rock Store (founded 1963), hidden away in the Santa Monica mountains north of El Lay. It is, in its own mom-and-pop attitude, without the sex, to straights what The Tool Box (founded 1963) was to gays.

            Currently, at the Rock Store on weekends, up roar the Harleys of Jay Leno, Billy Idol, Hulk Hogan, Robert Blake, cigar-chomping Arnold Schwarzenetc (the “Man Who Would Be Senator”) with his Gold’s Gym muscle-biker entourage, plus a large Sunday percentage of off-duty motorcops. All these fame-names follow in the footsteps of former customer-cyclist, Steve McQueen, whose Great Escape poster hung in every gay leather bar in the 60’s.

            When you’re in El Lay, if you want an adventure into straight leather-biker bardom, roar up to the Rock Store for a Biker Burger ($3.50) and a “reality check” while you escape from the gay ghetto and tip an elbow on the patio out back. If you can pass, you’re not a gay Uncle Tom; you’re just another biker--which is what you are anyway, except for that one little sparkling difference of sexual preference.


            With Tavarosi’s formula in place, leather barkeeps had bigger crowds, fascinated with the novelty of leather, standing out in the night on the sidewalk (pre-cursing the NYC-pretentious Studio 54/Saint gay-and-yuppie pecking-order melees) clamoring, begging, and bribing the doorman to get inside with the SRO “A-Group.”


            In days of yore, a leather bar without a back room was no leather bar (except, of course, in then-Police Czar Ed Davis’ El Lay). Girding one’s loins up in leather, bought at an authentic biker shop, such as Taubers in SFO–which was far different, the first Leather Daddies say, than buying gay designer leather in a backbar leather shop--was an erotic at-home ritual that meant a man was heading out ready for action! On the spot! In the bar! Suddenly, because same-gender sex had been so long closeted, the essence of masculine sex became PUBLIC SEX. Turned out in leather, post-Outlaw Brando, and cutting out the archetype that became the rebellious “Road Warrior,” men, armored in their leather felt empowered to spit publicly in the face of their straight, and worse, gay-vanilla oppressors.


            Leather is as much a political hardon as it is sexual. Ask any dyke on a bike. Leather ladies know these things.

            Such immediate, primal leatherhide lust, co-opting straight biker leather “to fuck the Forbidden Fuck with men,” was a “sexual outlaw” turn on! Men, who were “Suits” by day, dared become “Leather” by night. All dressed up with someplace to go, leather no longer looked stupid even under the flourescent lights of a bus or subway at 3 AM. Initial ridicule of leather as macho-overcompensation gave way to grudging acknowledgement of leather’s inherent threat which homomasculine men learned to exploit as well as any Hell’s Angel.

            Once the leather bars were in place to give context to costume, they attracted a free-spending, sex-hungry crowd who expected, somewhere behind the bar stools, to find “the toilet” whose much-desired–Oh Lawdy, Mizz Claudy–public action evolved into “The Back Room” where feeding-frenzy sex could orgy till closing time, then move on to the “after hours” mazes of hot meat packed in black leather.

            Casual sex in a “nasty,” neutral, anonymous public place was the sexual draw. Leathermen, dressed to kill, were the first to bring sex-n-games from the bedroom into public--a revolutionary act somewhat akin to the Boston Tea(room) Party. Besides, even more practically, if not cynically, no man had to take a trick home and chance being stuck with a dud and a mess.

            Leather Sex exploded like a terrorist pipebomb from the bars to the back rooms to the streets. And those horses Queen Victoria warned men-on-men not to scare? Well, let me tell you about my friend, Flicka, and the famous SFO doctor who....ah, but that’s another leather story!


            The Political Statement of Leather was simple.

            The biker clubs, wearing leather for roadwear protection, were the first gay group to show the world that gay men were not all sissy-boys and that they, as masculine queers, had strength in numbers. What had started out as a couple of guys on bikes turned into a socio-sexual American pop phenomenon. The original hardcore butch bikers, sort of the “Founding Daddies,” greeted the commercialized opening up of their private bike-n-bar subculture with mixed emotions. What had started as secret buddyship became big business with lots of looky-loos and groupies infiltrating the leather bar scene.

            “The greatest treason,” T. S. Eliot wrote in his drama, Murder in the Cathedral, “is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

            But what’s right or wrong? Tonight’s slumming Sweater Queen out to trip on “those silly leather guys” sometimes finds a switch tripped in himself and shows up a month later, truly transmorphed into the Leatherman he had no clue was hidden inside him. That’s how some men get caught up into a history their psyches will not let them avert. (That is a seductive process against which The Advocate’s Jeff Drummond protests a bit too much).

            Men, I think, if they’re lucky, have not one, but two or more comings out. First, into male-male sex. Second, into leather-style and/or bikes. Third, into S&M (which can be both and either Sadism and Masochism or Sensuality and Mutuality).

            No matter the retro-theories, what happened historically to establish the worldwide, worldclass Leather Identity is all that matters.


            Leather bike bars established early on that gays, no more than any other subclass in the USA, could be catagorized into one dismissible lump as ball-less, noncombatant sissy victims. Suddenly the straight world, still reeling from the bold statistics of the British Wolfenden Report and the American Kinsey Report, (more about Kinsey when author Phil Andros/Sam Steward, the “Father of Modern Gay Writing,” comes up), had to face a new breed: masculine homosexuals. Butch behavior became a recognizeable gay style at long last. Cops, and the public, were forced to begin to change their stereotyped attitudes that they could push queers around. Guys burned their sweaters, opening up the way, a decade latter for their sisters to burn their bras. The objective was the same: Freedom!


            The really positive point is that the Big-City, romantic, tough, leather image of a few bold homosexuals on motorcycles ran so counter to the timid image many small-town queers had of themselves as sissies that imitation became, in one wonderful sense, a means to realize they could break the suffocating sissy-boy stereotype forced on them in Keokuk and assert themselves as masculine Don’t-Fuck-With-Me types.

            Unfortunately, every war, every movement, has its camp followers. Pun intended. But, as the Latins say, abusus non tollit usus: the abuse of a thing should not take away the use of a thing. For instance, just because some people abuse cars and alcohol does not mean the use of cars and alcohol should be prohibited. A queen donning a leather jacket does not vitiate the validity of leather, nor does a woman’s wearing of leather, nor does a group of leathermen camping it up at a show on a run.

            So it goes with the whole litany of bikes, bars, clubs, and runs. Leather, like Chubbies, has chasers. A second bike bar opens to compete for the bucks. A second club is formed because of internal politics. Runs that started out as genuine Sierra camp-outs evolve into leather-gentlemen’s Butch-Elegant catered affairs in Victorian flats, sometimes, ugh, attended by S&M (Stand & Model) guys who would never let anything dirty as bike grease touch their tailored leather.


            Scum that I am, one night in SFO’s infamous NO NAME bar, in the Golden Age, when poppers and bar-strolling jerkoff were in vogue, I spied a knockout blond muscleman in full leather leaning his butt against the pool table, splendid in his aloof isolation. Several other guys were also eyeing him, all of us staying our distance, hungry as a school of piranha, hitting our popper and spitting on our dicks. This, remember, was accepted No Name protocol. The Leather Blond was a Colt vision! When I couldn’t take the tease anymore, I hit my popper, and, ready to cum, walked right up to him and shot on his thick leather thigh. He stood bolt upright and screamed: “You can’t do that!...I’m from El Lay!” And he ran from the bar, leaving the crowd of us guffawing on the floor. Some guys just can’t take a compliment.

            The point of that True Confession is not to “down” El Lay. Rather it is to illustrate that the history of leather, its use and abuse, like the history of any movement, takes all kinds. What nonleather types think about the supposed cliquish conformity of leather-style is sharply contradicted by very independent leather people who very much assert their individuality within the leather context. There are, quite possibly, more psychic-creative leather-gear variations available to leatherwearers within the wide scope of leather-style-and-fetish than there are to nonleather types in their own self-identified varieties of group drag.


            International Leather History positively swoons with lust, laughter, and legend. Every sexual anecdote, bar opening/closing, bike run, poster, button, calendar fact, and public/private personalities are grist for the International History of Leather, because all of us, being our own best creation, are, as we live and breathe, our very own history in the making.

EDITOR’S NOTE. So confess, you fuckers. If Fritscher tells it like it was for him, he does so to encourage you to tell it like it was for you. Go down in history. Contact DRUMMER. We can interview you either in person or on the phone if you don’t, won’t, can’t write down your dates and tales as well as you can tell them.


Blue Bar
Copyright Jack Fritscher, Ph.D. & Mark Hemry - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED