How the Black Cat Café Launched Gay San Francisco
710 Montgomery Street
"The Black Cat was by far the best place for a wild drunk that an adventurer could hope for, but the place changed hands and the new owner encouraged the fruit and the place went to hell."
— Henry Evans in Bohemian San Francisco (1955)
The Black Cat Café was a bar, a dance hall, and a revolutionary seed in the lumpy cultural soils of San Francisco. At a time when the Castro District was a blue-collar, family-oriented neighborhood, the legal right to operate a "gay business" was won for the first time right here at 710 Montgomery Street. The straight owner fought all the way to the California Supreme Court (1951) to keep his liquor license.
This is where the drag queen Imperial Court, still active today, was birthed. This is the Bohemian Bar in Kerouac's book On the Road. This is the place where writers and artists, bohemians and beatniks gathered, partied and schemed for thirty years.
The Black Cat Café opened in 1933 in the Canessa Printing Building, now home to Bocadillos with the Canessa Gallery Artists Resource upstairs (708 Montgomery).
In 1942, the number of homos suddenly increased in San Francisco, thanks to a new policy that men loving men is unacceptable in the armed forces. The ban was against men who "habitually or occasionally engaged in homosexual or other perverse sexual practices." And so it was that thousands of gays were discharged from service and put ashore here in San Francisco where the war economy was booming and the locals were generally welcoming—certainly more so than families back "home" across small town America.
This area, by contrast, was full of radicals. Many lived and worked across the street in the Montgomery Block building where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands. It was commonly known as "The Monkey Block." Meanwhile, next door, at 716–720 Montgomery, were the studios of artists Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Ralph and Peter Stackpole.
Truman Capote, while hanging out at The Black Cat, denied he was a writer with a drinking problem by explaining he was, “a drinker with a writing problem.”
José Sarria, a.k.a Madam Butterfly, Empress José, The Widow Norton
In the 1940's a waiter at the Black Cat, José Sarria, served up a series of flaming Sunday afternoon "drag operas" and "drag balls." Sarria performed for fifteen years to full houses of 250 or more, using his role as Madame Butterfly to sermonize about homosexual rights.
Sarria was the first openly gay man to run for City Supervisor, polling some 6,000 write-in votes (1961).
Sol Stoumen, proprietor
In 1949, Sol Stoumen, the straight man who owned the Black Cat, faced down a police attempt to close the bar on the grounds that it attracted gay people. The Supreme Court ruled that a bar could not be closed simply due to the clients it attracted.
Stoumen's San Francisco Tavern Guild was likely the first gay business association in the country, battling police harassment and ushering in the eventual acceptance of gay establishments throughout town.
The Black Cat flourished until 1963 when its liquor license was finally revoked by the state the morning before the bar's annual Halloween party. The boisterous Witches Night celebration was held anyway, with only fruit juice and soft drinks sold at the bar. The place closed down permanently the next day.
Within a week after the demise of The Black Cat, SF police had closed five other gay bars. By 1964 only eighteen remained of the 30 gay and lesbian bars that existed the previous year.
In 1964, after the bar's closing, José Sarria crowned himself Empress and Dowager Widow of the self-proclaimed Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.
caption: "God Save the Nelly Queens" being sung by Empress José Sarria and his fans.