Klubstitute featured punk bands, drag queens and kings, spoken word and poetry readings, party games, protest marches, art exhibits, original videos, dance troupes, live theater, stand-up comedy, and bizarre performance art... often all on the same bill. Mixing scenes and cross-cultural pollination was part of the club's ethos, as was providing a space for people who didn't fit into the typical dance floor/meat-rack style of gay club.
Klubstitute spent its first year at the Crystal Pistol at 842 Valencia Street, after which it spent another year at Brave New World in the upper Haight. After that the club floated from place to place, making pit-stops at The 11th Hour, The End Up, The Stud, Studio 4, The Peter Pan (SF's last "rough trade" bar), Paula's Clubhouse, Thunder Bay (in Berkeley), and finally winding up at a Native-American themed Spanish Language gay bar called, La India Bonita.
Klubstitute drew anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred people every week for five years, a large percentage of whom were sexual deviates at a time when that was much less socially acceptable. The club acted as a sort of therapeutic balm for many people who spent their days on society's margins. Some of the gender-bending activities included facetious contests like Ms. Dina Fruit Fly's Fag Hag Beauty Pageant, Ruby Toosday’s Virgin Queen Contest for first time cross-dressers, and a Faux Queen contest for drag queens born in women’s bodies. Sociologist Judith Halberstam in her book Female Masculinities (Duke University Press Books 1998) notes a mock protest at Klubstitute during which drag queens marched through the club with signs reading “Sisterhood, not Misterhood,” “Wigs not Pigs,” “Bitch not Butch,” and “Fems against Macho Butch Privilege.”
Many in the Klubstitute crowd were struggling with AIDS and involved with activism around HIV, sex work, and queer visibility. All this contributed to an atmosphere totally different from the too-cool-for-school posturing usually found in "alternative" scenes. One really had to watch the shows and listen to one's friends because so many of them wouldn't be around much longer. Just for historical reference: during the years the club operated, from 1990 - '95 approximately 200,000 Americans died from AIDS.
Among the most popular performers to come out of the Klubstitute scene were The Sick & Twisted Players. The groups started when Tony Vaguely dragged a discarded Christmas tree in off the street for use as a prop in an impromptu recreation of the capsizing scene from the all-star 1970s nautical disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure. The show was such a success he went on to do Carrie, The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, and dozens more. These quickly evolved into full-scale productions with costumes, cardboard sets (notorious for falling down mid performance), and pre-recorded sound effects. shows were spoofs, but he always added clever twist that elevated them above mere parody. He put a brilliantly demonic “Danse Macabre” into The Exorcist, replaced cast members who failed to show up with inflatable sex dolls or puppets, handed out 3-D glasses so audience could see The Omen in “Satanivision,” and pioneered the theatrical mash-up with shows like A Very Brady Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw 90210, or The Fog starring the cast of Gilligan’s Island. Like the best drag, his shows mocked rigid gender divisions beloved by Hollywood with some roles played straight (you should pardon the expression), others done in comedic drag, and yet others performed by gender-deviants who didn’t mine their cross-dressing for shtick.
As the club's M.C. and booker, Diet Popstitute encouraged - or bullied - scores of people onto the stage, as well as rounding up already established acts. A few of the more renowned would include: Just Bond and Kenny Mellman (aka Kiki & Herb); transsexual chanteuse, Bambi Lake; queer-core faves Pansy Division, Tribe 8, and Comrades in Arms; The Sluts à Go-Go, stars of the drag-tacular movie, Vegas in Space; pioneering drag kings Elvis Herselvis, Lu Read, and The Bucktooth Varmits; writer, Steve Abbott (subject of the memoir, Fairyland); Hecklina, impresario behind the legendary Trannyshack, and way too many more to name.
When Diet died of AIDS in 1995, Klubstitute died with him. The drag portion of the club was reincarnated by Ruby Toosday (and friends) as Klubstitute: The Next Generation, but it never much resembled the eclectic mix of the original. The mainstreaming of queer culture, the waning of the AIDS crisis, and the gentrification of the city have all combined to make the sort of theatrical outsiderness that typified Klubstitute obsolete. The Klubstittue archives are now at Cornell University and I (Alvin Orloff, aka Alvin Popstitute) am writing a memoir of underground queer San Francisco during the height of the AIDS crisis in which Klubstitute features prominently.
About this Article
This article was originally created as part of SOMArts Cultural Center's Making a Scene: 50 Years of Alternative Bay Area Spaces. To learn how to add or edit content please visit the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism's online History Collection Lab.