|The Rainbow MC & the Old Lone Star
an interview with Pete Vafiades
by Ron Suresha
| “Bonsai Pete” Vafiades was born in the Bangor, Maine area. He left Maine at age twenty to seek a place where he could be more at peace with himself and to pursue his quest: “Homos and Hort” (horticulture). Friends gave him the nickname “Bonsai Pete” because of his love of the art of bonsai – the miniaturization of trees. At UCLA, he earned a degree in landscape architecture. While visiting the San Francisco Bay area, its magic cast a spell on him. In just a few short weeks after returning from vacation, he landed his first job over the phone working for a plant rental company, and moved to SF in 1979. Pete is now the manager of the Hole in the Wall Saloon in the South of Market (SOMA) area of San Francisco.
Part of the genesis of Bear identity – or at least of Bear commercialization that became “Bear Disney” – centers on the alliance of two Bears with ambitious Bear-based businesses in San Francisco in the late 1980s: Rick Redewill, the original owner of the Bear-bar Lone Star Saloon, and Richard Bulger, the publisher and cofounder (with photographer Chris Nelson doing business as Brahma Studios) of Bear magazine. Although it’s clear that gay Bears existed before this time, in some ways the friendship and business alliance between these two men formed a ground zero for Bears and Beardom as it’s known around the world.
I should point out here that San Francisco gay culture of that time embraced its bars as centers of gay men’s lives. The significance of the bars may not be easily perceived outside the context of the pleasure-seeking culture of 1980s gay bar life. It is important to understand, though, the way that gay men networked and formed attractions, friendships, business alliances, and communities inside these settings. Bar owners such as Rick Redewill were seen as community leaders. During that time – following the closure of all gay SF baths – the Lone Star functioned as a kind of Bear community center that attracted a wealth of creative gay men’s culture: visual arts, writing, music, sex, even sports. The fact that it served as a nexus for such a plethora of culture at perhaps the height of the onslaught of AIDS deaths is a matter of wonder.
There were certainly other cultural sources forming the mold of the early SF Bear identity, however, more than just these two men and their businesses. One, for example, was the Bear Hugs sex party scene, which Les Wright has written about extensively elsewhere. Another was the South of Market leather and biker crowd that fed both the Lone Star and Bear magazine scenes, both personally and professionally.
Luke Mauerman wrote an excellent history-of-sorts of Bear magazine for The Bear Book. My interview with RMC member and Drummer editor Jack Fritscher (chapter 6), as well as his foreword to The Bear Book 2 provides additional Bear magazine background, so I have tried not to chronicle much of that part of the story here. Likewise, I refer readers interested in discovering more about 1980s early-AIDS San Francisco to Geoff Mains’s Urban Aboriginals and Gentle Warriors, as well as Jack Fritscher’s Some Dance to Remember.
I arrived on the scene after both the bar and the magazine were underway (although still fledgling, the bar more so than the magazine). I’ve always associated the two businessmen with the biker-leathermen of SOMA. Undoubtedly the motorcycle club with members in closest proximity to both Redewill and Bulger was the Rainbow Motorcycle Club (MC).
Bonsai Pete was in the thick of this SOMA Bear soup, having worked at the Ambush, considered to be the Lone Star’s predecessor, and then bartending at the original and second Lone Star incarnations. As well, he’s been a Rainbow MC member for those many years. Although he knew many of the players at Brush Creek Media, the daddy organization owning Bear magazine, my conversation with Bonsai Pete focused primarily on the SOMA scene, the Rainbow MC, and the Lone Star.
This interview differs from most in that I have provided substantial personal information and views based on my own experiences in and around the Lone Star. I created graphics and promotional pieces for the Lone Star and rented out an apartment from Rick Redewill. Pete and I were good friends during much of the time I lived in SF, and this conversational style of interviewing seems entirely appropriate for what in actuality is two pals shooting the breeze about “the good old days.”
Ron: Where did the nickname “Bonsai Pete” come from?
Pete: Friends gave me that nickname because I was and still am into the art of Bonsai – the miniaturization of trees. It has been my business alias as well for a long time now.
Ron: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Pete: I was born in Bangor, Maine. I grew up in the Bangor area and along the central coastal region of Maine.
Ron: Do you still have family there? Is it a large or small family?
Pete: My family is very well known there. They’re still there and there are more of them than ever.
Ron: When did you leave Maine, and why?
Pete: I left Maine at age 20. I had an inner urge to seek out a place to live where I could be more at peace with myself and my contrasting interests. Homos and Hort[iculture] were my quest.
Ron: You came out at age 20? Or before that?
Pete: Shit, no! I was always out . . . never had a problem with sexuality. I just couldn’t meet others who were male or “homomasculine,” as we now know it.
Ron: Were you attracted to Bear-types even then? Or can you describe more exactly what you were looking for?
Pete: I was always on the hunt for men that were men: furry, hunky, virile, horny, masculine gay men.
Ron: Can you say, if you know, why you always were drawn to that type of guy?
Pete: Can’t say – just a feeling from deep inside the bone.
Ron: The “bone” – yeah, right.
Pete: You got it.
Ron: So where did you move to get your itch scratched?
Pete: I began with the obvious: south to Portland, Maine, then on to Boston, south to Florida (yuck!), then west to New Orleans, to Texas, and then to Los Angeles, where I settled for two years and attended UCLA.
Ron: At UCLA, did you study horticulture?
Pete: Yes, I earned a degree in landscape architecture. The Bay area and its magic cast a spell on me and I was unable to focus on anything other than moving to the City. In just a few short weeks after returning from vacation, I began searching for work in SF. I landed my first job over the phone working for a Plant Rental Company.
Ron: What year did you move to SF?
Ron: Can you describe gay life in SF back then? Were you finally able to find the kind of men you were searching for?
Pete: Oh yeah. So many . . . so very many . . . I was in heaven and realized it. Every night was like a Saturday night then. The alleys and streets were always full of nothing but gay, homomasculine, tough-dude types.
Ron: Please describe the SOMA scene back then.
Pete: The term SOMA had not yet been introduced. The South of Market, or South of the Slot district, as we called it then, was much less inhabited in those days. The daytime was mostly active with warehouse workers and truck drivers. A few restaurants and no retail anything at all. The nighttime was a different scene altogether. The bars were filled from early evening on until 2am. The men came from everywhere and there were twice as many gay establishments.
Ron: Had the leather scene already established its “center” there?
Pete: Yes, totally, but with no realization by the straight world.
Ron: Where did you hang out most in the early ’80s?
Pete: The Ambush; the Eagle on Sundays; the Brig on weekend nights; and Bootcamp after hours.
Ron: Where did the bikers hang out?
Pete: All bars had bikers hanging out, the way I remember it.
Ron: Sounds good. Did you own a ride then?
Pete: Oh yeah! I had a Honda 650 – nothing much of an image or icon but it looked and ran real well and I spent many hours maintaining and keeping it repaired myself.
Ron: When and how did you first connect with the Rainbow MC?
Pete: One Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1981, I was out cruising on the Eagle terrace, and noticed this group of bros [brothers] who were sucking down brews and passing around joints. They were by far the most animated and seductive bunch of men I’d ever seen. As I listened and hung out with them I became aware that these guys were not of the regular type homosexual – or even of the regular type homo sapiens. In fact, as I came to know them better, I found out that they all were actually artists of every sort.
Ron: Such as…
Pete: Ronald Johnson was the poet who wrote “Ark,” which is the longest poem in history. Jack Sharpless was another published poet. Peter Hartman was a music composer and choreographer, and was responsible for 544 Natoma, a cutting-edge performance arts studio for the most unusual and gripping sex/art performances. There were several artists who expressed through brush and canvas – Jimbo and Mario and Hoot and Billy and Kenny. Kenny Davis, the founder of the RMC, wasn’t there then that first time. Also not present was the very well known writer Jack Fritscher, who undoubtedly wrote the definition of if not even invented the word homomasculine. I met both Kenny and Jack another time, though.
Ron: How did the group get started?
Pete: The RMC was started as a mock, gay, Hells Angels kind of club, in 1972, I think. The original members were fed up with the typical gay bike club scene with its officers, dues, meetings, and pressed and starched uniforms: rules, rules, and more rules. The Rainbows’ idea was to loosely form a club of tough guys who looked the part and to show up at all the other bike club events and kinda make fun of the sissy clubs. They tried to make some kind of scene everywhere they gathered – always in good fun, though, never harmful in a physical sense. Their very presence always drew attention to their circle and the fooling around in the circle was always hot, with pissing on everything and everyone a main event, as well as other perverted acts of debauchery and so forth.
Ron: One thing I remember about the Rainbows was their fondness for golden showers [pissing]. There’s even a picture in Geoff Mains’s book, Urban Aboriginals, prefacing the chapter on golden showers, of guys standing around an RMC jacket.
Pete: Theoretically, or supposedly, the Rainbows were into that, yeah. That’s what became like the public image, but some of ‘em were into it and some of ‘em weren’t!
Ron: Didn’t they have buttons made up, saying, “Let us spray”?
Pete: Yes, but the buttons had less to do with pissing than the fact that we made five or six new members all at once at a Satyrs’ [MC] Run. During the year previous to those buttons, five or six members died, and we had what we called “a litter” – and so the “let us spray” button referred to our bringing in all those new members at once.
Ron: Was pissing on new pledges or their jackets part of the initiation?
Pete: There certainly always was an area set aside for that, if they wanted to be, yes.
Ron: Maybe not by rules so much as by tradition.
Pete: Yeah, it became a tradition, and it definitely still is.
Ron: What sort of events did the Rainbows have?
Pete: They didn’t do anything other than have a few parties, mostly at the Brig – actually, it was the No Name then, when the Rainbows first started. The parties were notorious for being outrageously sexually liberated and sleazy and nasty. The Rainbows always crashed everybody else’s parties: that way they didn’t have to organize to the degree of having a president, treasurer, a bank account, or anything like that. They let other people organize the parties and then stepped in on those! But they were always welcome, and always a crowd magnet. Still are.
Ron: Tell me more about the Satyrs Motorcycle Run. The Satyrs MC is a gay motorcycle club, right?
Pete: Yes, Satyrs is the oldest gay motorcycle club – over forty years old – based out of LA. The Satyrs Run was absolutely the Rainbows’ main event, held in the Sierras, about 8,000 feet up, in a really beautiful spot. Mostly, but not only, bikes would come; between 150 and 300 people would show up. The Satyrs MC had the main camp, with the kitchen, all the utilities and supplies, and everything. The Rainbows sorta supplied the party. We had our own camping area adjacent to theirs, and it would become the run within the run, and we’d get our rainbow flag up there.
Ron: But you interacted with the rest of the run participants, right?
Pete: Oh yeah, completely. The whole purpose of the Rainbows being there was to spread camaraderie, contrary to popular belief.
Ron: Why do you say “contrary to popular belief”?
Pete: When I first started going twenty years ago, it seemed like the Rainbows were the scourge of the whole event. Everybody acted afraid of them, or talked badly of them, but as the years went on attitudes all changed to the point that Satyrs have become Rainbows and Rainbows have become Satyrs, now. Totally different feel to the event.
Ron: In its heyday, about how many members did the Rainbows have?
Pete: The Rainbows have always maintained a steady 13 to 16 member base, and that’s where we still are.
Ron: So you must be one of the long-standing members of the Rainbows. Who else has been around as long as you?
Pete: Just Jack Fritscher, John Frizzell, and Jim Housley, as far as I can remember.
Ron: So that leads us up into the time of the Ambush, which a lot of people consider to be the Lone Star’s predecessor.
Pete: Right. The Ambush was located across the street from the current location of the Lone Star on Harrison Street. They had only a beer and wine license; it wasn’t a full liquor bar. The first floor had a pool table in the main bar, and art shows that would change regularly, like every other week or every month, for local artists to show and sell their work. On the second floor was a restaurant and card tables, and the third floor had a little store, which sold various sundry items such as tobacco, and a tattoo parlor.
I worked at the Ambush for about two weeks before it closed in ’87. They hired me to help clean, actually. I did a couple of art shows there, too, with my bonsai, which was kind of different for that place.
Ron: What did you and the other Ambush men do when it closed? To my understanding, there was a kind of diaspora of the Ambush people. Some went to My Place and some to the Powerhouse and some to the Eagle.
Pete: Most of the core group moved to My Place, which was called Folsom New World at the time. A few people also went to the Watering Hole at Hallam Place and Folsom Street, but definitely the core group from the Ambush and everybody who eventually went to the Lone Star went to the My Place bar.
Ron: So sometime in there you met Rick Redewill, the original owner of the Lone Star. How did you meet?
Pete: Some basement, somewhere. [Ron laughs.] I was looking for work when I met him at the Slot Hotel, and he was looking for somebody to paint apartments in this building he’d just bought. I did that for him, and we just got to be good friends from then on. But when he started the Lone Star Saloon he asked me to bartend for him.
Ron: Rick had a talent for spotting and hiring bartenders that fit the image of the bar that he wanted. He often picked from among his friends.
Pete: Exactly, he tried to pick working-class, blue-collar guys, not real show-bunnies, so to speak.
Ron: Right, men like the Rainbows. So Rick had been looking for a place, and then he found and rented the space at 1098 Howard.
Pete: Seventh Street and Howard, yeah.
Ron: Did you help Rick fix the place up? I’m curious because by the time I first went to the bar, there was already all of this hardware and stuff on the walls.
Pete: Yes, I helped decorate that. It all came together really quick because Rick said, “We don’t have enough things, we don’t have enough stuff!” So we put the word out and in no time there was an overabundance of things. People were really willing to help with that.
Ron: So the fledgling community in a sense really helped to create the atmosphere of the bar. What was it like at the beginning?
Pete: It was very exciting. We had a couple of pre-opening parties, and the first one was quite small and intimate.
Ron: Small and intimate – meaning dark and sleazy, of course. Do you recall when that was?
Pete: The first pre-opening party was about June 30th. Then the “official” opening of the bar was July Fourth week, as I recall.
The next event must have been Dore Alley Street Fair. I went out soliciting for business in public. I made a giant star-shaped sign on a pole and just wrote “LONE STAR SALOON” and the address on one side, and then on the other side, “ROCK & ROLL,” and put on my best garb and went out. And it was like the Pied Piper or whatever: when I came back, there were a zillion people behind me! The place was crammed, bodies everywhere. God, it was just jammed. It was great fun.
Of course, the Rainbows also had a giant 17th anniversary party there. We called it an “anniversary riot.” There were just too many people for the place to fit ‘em all in. And I remember that party was when everybody made “the noise” that could be heard for blocks around, everybody was just screaming, to the point where you could go two blocks away and still hear the hum from the place. It was really weird.
Ron: The Man-buzz.
Pete: That was kind of like the Rainbow’s send-off for Rick – or maybe more like a get-off-the-ground party. It really helped to establish the Lone Star.
Ron: A bar-warming, maybe.
Pete: Next we had a cigar party. We decided to be the host for the cigar club, The Hot Ash Club, on Thursday nights. That was certainly a heyday for them as well. I recall the first Hot Ash party was outrageous. The Fire Department came, the smoke was billowing out of the bar so thick. People had to step outside to breathe, the smoke was just too overpowering. That was fun.
Ron: I remember showing up for one of those nights – the smoke was unbearable. It wasn’t a big space to begin with. Of course, there was the Lone Star slogan, or cheer, maybe: “Close the Fuckin’ Door.”
Pete: Right, which was on the back of the first t-shirt. That saying was due to the fact the bar was a few feet down; when you walked in the door you had to come down a few steps. The door faced west-southwest, and so if you were in the bar and you would open that door and the sun would just glare in your face.
Ron: In the afternoon during Happy Hour. Was that a double door?
Pete: Yeah, it was. The door didn’t close itself, either. It opened and would stay open. So everybody would scream, “Close the fuckin’ door,” and that became the motto.
Ron: It was so hard to try to enter the bar without falling down the stairs, because if you came in from that bright sunlight you needed at least a minute for your eyes to adjust!
Pete: Nothing like making an entrance. Those doors had no mercy for anyone, inside or out.
Ron: A guy named Sal, who as it turned out was working in a type shop where I later got a job, did the first t-shirts. Neither Sal nor Rick could find the artwork, so I had to redesign it when Rick wanted them reprinted.
Pete: Yeah, I remember that.
Ron: I also painted the star on the front of the building.
Pete: That’s right, I remember that too. Remember the star that we did first? Rick wanted the star on the building and I and (I guess) Lyn Light, did it with fake blood, stage blood. The next day there was this trail of ants carrying the star away down the sidewalk. Rick was not amused, if I recall, but we thought it was hilarious. Then you came and painted the real one.
Ron: I had a part-time job in the City at the time and was living in Emeryville. I heard about the Lone Star from a guy I met at the Pilsner Inn [bar near the Castro] named Roger, who told me, “You should definitely check the Lone Star out because the kind of guys that you like will be there.” And he was completely correct.
When I met Rick I asked him if he needed any help in terms of ads or graphics and the like, and he said, “Well, can you paint this star?” It seemed easy, but it took me several tries to get the proportions and angles right.
Pete: Stars aren’t as easy as they would appear. Something odd about a star.
Ron: Sure is. You mentioned Lyn Light. Was he working there at the time?
Pete: Yeah, Lyn Light, and JoeBear was probably there by then. JoeBear Golina. And Ron Brewer.
Ron: Right. Ron eventually won a major leather title, right?
Pete: Yeah, and then he moved to Arizona.
Ron: And then we lost him to AIDS. When I started coming to the bar regularly, I was very quiet and just sit by myself most times. Ron was an outrageous provocateur and he would throw handfuls of ice across the bar at me, trying to get me roused up.
Pete: Who else was around in those days? There was Rick’s lover then, Ken Stanley, who didn’t really work at the bar, but he certainly helped with setting it up.
Ron: Was there a separate manager then?
Pete: No, Rick was pretty much proprietor, manager, whatever.
Ron: It was still a pretty small place. There was just one pool table and not much room around it.
Pete: Actually, it was a downsized pool table. The cellar door was fun too: a trapdoor in the back part of the bar. Down there was liquor storage and other supplies and Rick’s office. You had to make everybody get off to open it. Then you’d sort of drop straight down into it and pray that nobody fell in.
Ron: How much time was there before the big earthquake?
Pete: It was just three months. Or three and a half months, perhaps.
Ron: Were there theme parties at the old place?
Pete: The one theme party was a Friday the Thirteenth party in October, and the theme for it was “Macabre,” so to speak, getting ready for Halloween. We decorated the whole place in sheets and surgical gloves. I don’t know what the point was behind all of this exactly, but it was just weird enough.
Ron: So that Friday the Thirteenth party was just a few days before the earthquake, which took place the following Tuesday, October 17th, 1989. I’d just turned 31.
Pete: I remember that even before the earthquake, Rick was becoming “over it” already. Right before the earthquake, he was saying, “Well, what are we going to do? There’s not enough space and we need a full liquor license.” His attitude was, “What are we going to do? This place is already a success and I’m bored.” He wanted more.
Ron: So then we get to the Loma Prieta earthquake, which rocked through the SF Bay area, severely damaging the Lone Star building. Within days the building was condemned.
Pete: When I got there hours after the quake hit, the police wouldn’t let anyone in. The funny thing was that they had no clue that anybody was in there. So we hung around there until, eventually, the cops left. When we got in there, it was just like being in a movie. The whole scene was . . .
Ron: Surreal. Kind of like The Poseidon Adventure, with everything upside-down.
Pete: Yeah! A hole had opened up in the middle of the floor, and the cooler was tipped over and half-sunk into the basement. All the beer in the cooler had been retrieved, and Rick was saying, “Well, just drink it! Drink it! Drink it all! Because that’s all we can do with it.” After a while, we started moving things out of the bar as quickly as possible because the cops were supposed to return and we knew they would not let us in there any more.
Ron: It was very dangerous for you guys to stay in there.
Pete: I guess, but that building sat there for another month or two afterward, and I was in and out of it 100 times, but, you’re right, theoretically, it was dangerous. [Both laugh.]
Ron: I guess danger is relative. Especially if you have a cooler full of beer you have to drink.
Pete: Exactly. I remember the apartments upstairs, which each had a very short clawfoot bathtub. They were really cool little tubs. After the quake, when we were walking through the whole building, I remember seeing that the plumbing had stayed where it should have have been. All the bathtubs were floating up in the air, on their drainpipes, because the whole building had settled several feet, but all the plumbing was intact. That was so weird looking, that was really strange.
Ron: What was salvaged?
Pete: Pretty much everything. We couldn’t get the cooler out but we got out the pool table, the cash registers, the decorations, and all the important things. We moved all the stuff over to the basement of Rick’s house.
Ron: Over the next six months, Rick took me to look at several prospective spaces. A few of the spaces seemed promising, and he tried to acquire them, but they kept falling through for one or another reasons. He looked at the old Ambush space, I think. And then there was a sewing shop.
Pete: That’s the one he got, finally, the summer after that October. We were open for business in July or August of the following year, 1990.
Ron: So, that would make it about ten months. I think he was really pushing to have it up and open by the time of the summer street fairs. In the meantime, though, he had the build-out. They first built the front bar, which, initially I think, was very simple. And then they built a small room used for a store.
Pete: Yeah, we called it the Cotton Gin because it was full of cotton t-shirts.
Ron: Rick was really getting into the whole idea of “tourist product sales” of Lone Star items like t-shirts and belts and posters at that point. I remember his eyes widening with excitement as he described how much merchandising profit Bear magazine was making – and he wanted to carve out a piece of that for himself. I think he realized then that there was a real promotional opportunity, and I think he was also encouraged at that point by Richard Bulger.
Pete: Richard Bulger, the publisher of Bear magazine. That whole thing was coinciding, definitely.
Ron: Let’s talk about the friendship between Rick and Richard. Do you know how the two of them met?
Pete: Richard came into the old bar and asked if he could sell his magazines there, as I recall.
Ron: They also had friends in common and were roughly the same age, I believe. Richard started the magazine in ’87 and put out about half a dozen issues before the old bar opened.
Ron: The alliance between them wasn’t just professional, however; they had palled around and partied together.
Pete: When the earthquake hit, Richard felt terrible that the Lone Star was gone – not only for Rick in that he didn’t have a business, but also because we didn’t have a place to hang out anymore. Rick had just printed all those t-shirts and felt like they were useless. Then Richard offered to run an ad in the magazine. It was almost like “contribute to the Lone Star Fund” charity or something.
Ron: There was a short article in issue #11, which showed Bear icon “Jack Radcliffe” on the cover for the first time. There also was a display ad that was pretty outrageous, when you think about it:
They were making out to be like some sort of charity!
Pete: That was what really brought the place to legendary status, so to speak.
Ron: You’re absolutely right, Pete. The back cover of that issue also had Chris Nelson’s classic picture of the group in front of the quaked-out Lone Star. Chris later made that the lead image in his book, The Bear Cult. It shows Joe Banks and John Gardiner, Terry, and JoeBear. You’re shown monkeying around on the scaffolding. Steve Kasper, a Rainbow and a Bear magazine coverman, whom I worked for on and off doing gardening, is holding up Buddy’s IV bag – I guess Steve had sprung Buddy from the hospital. And there’s some other guys as well. The morning of the photo, Kasper had called to tell me it was happening, but it was drizzling and I didn’t want to ride my motorcycle all the way around the bay (I was in the East Bay and the Bay Bridge was closed) just for the photo.
But that photo is evocative of nothing so much as a group of orphans standing in the rain in the shadow of their irreparably damaged orphanage.
Pete: And so lots and lots of orders for t-shirts came through the mail and people were in touch all the time wanting to know, because the article also mentioned that the new one would be opening, but nobody knew exactly when or where.
Ron: The new bar got a national reputation due to its exposure in Bear magazine. After it opened Rick asked me to put together a newsletter. He told me that he had already a mailing list of several hundred, mostly outside the Bay area. I also think he got names from Richard’s magazine’s list, too.
Pete: The reopening of the bar seemed very connected with the Bear thing, I guess, because Bear magazine was the main source of news about it.
Ron: A lot of this “significant coincident” has to do with Rick’s friendship with Richard. Rick was trying to create the image of the nasty little biker bar with an international reputation, and his shrewd alliance with Richard made that happen. If they hadn’t been friends or even friendly, I doubt the Lone Star could have hitched its wagon to the magazine’s star.
On the other hand, the earthquake event provided the magazine’s first real news, the first editorial content that addressed a community of men who identified as or with Bears. Not only was there an identifiable group of these Bear-men, they had a cause! They’d suffered displacement in the earthquake – although it’s kind of silly to think of these middle-aged hairy homos as some sort of deprived orphans in need of, like you said, a charitable fund so they could have a place to drink and carouse. Bar life in the City (and elsewhere) was important in the way that gay men form community – which is not so much the case in gay life today – and the earthquake was the adversity out of which this first Bear community was forged.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch – even before the new Lone Star was open to the public, Rick held several pre-opening parties, by invitation.
Pete: Basically it was Rick’s way of keeping his old patrons and friends in touch.
Ron: Other than bartending, you did other work around the bar, right?
Pete: Decorative type of stuff, like non-flower flower arrangements.
Ron: Industrial and very cutting-edge. Describe some of those things that you did, Pete.
Pete: Very industrial, lots of rust and odd metal objects. Rick gave me the center spot behind the bar, which had a nice spotlight. That became my space. I did a spring arrangement in the springtime, which was all these coil springs from the front-ends of cars welded onto stakes and put in a metal bucket. That was a joke that everybody got and thought was cool. The one with the coils was one of my favorites.
Ron: I always was amazed by your mechanico-floral centerpieces behind the bar. Always the sublime counterpoised with the mundane. In particular, I remember one Valentine’s Day you had a prominent black leather heart with a rusty chainsaw “arrowed” through it, hung over a (tastefully dripped) pool of red. And what else were you doing at the new bar?
Pete: Decorating the patio was one of the things that I liked. I used to get these huge junky hunks of metal, like gears and booms and hooks and stuff like that, and drag them out to that patio.
Ron: Rick was great in that way: he’d let the creative people like yourself and Steve Stafford and, to a much lesser extent, myself, do our thing that way. He was creative to the extent of recognizing other people’s talents.
Pete: Rick always maintained that he did not have any creative talent himself, although I think certainly he overlooked the fact that he was the major engineer himself of the whole thing. He was able to pick the people, and he was more than willing to let other people do their thing to create a cool atmosphere. For instance, the Lone Star also did art shows like the Ambush had done.
Ron: Over the years dozens of people have exhibited there. It’s remarkable, if you think about it, that we’re talking about a bar, not an art gallery. Plus there was the SHADES Project, which Willie Watson, Richard Carron, and Tucker Finn began, which had professional and amateur artists alike create images on windowshades, which would then be auctioned off to benefit the AIDS Emergency Fund.
Ron: When did Steve Stafford pop onto the scene? He was a Rainbow, right?
Pete: He became a Rainbow the last year he was alive. Steve met Rick just before the new bar opened, and from there he drew the first poster for the Lone Star.
Ron: Featuring the guy with the anvil – the “Second Opening” poster.
Pete: The whole Russian thing.
Ron: Rick even had shirts made with the name of the bar in Cyrillic. Then Steve started to design t-shirts and other promotional stuff. He also came on bartending, too, at some point.
Pete: Later on he did. He didn’t want to at first, but then Rick convinced him. Then the got the job at Bear, which was a good thing.
Ron: He was first the art director, then the managing editor there, after Frank Strona. But back at the bar in the first year, Rick tried hard to create, in a sense, programming for the bar, so that every day there was something going on. On the weekends we started the beer busts, which were almost always benefits right from the outset.
Pete: The receptions for the art shows were Wednesday nights.
Ron: Thursday nights were The Simpsons, and the last Thursday of each month was Cigar Night.
Pete: Tuesday night was pool league. And we always had a softball team.
Ron: Right, what was the name of the team?
Pete: The Cockstars. That didn’t happen until after Rick’s second bar, Cocktails, was open, or at least I don’t recall there being a softball team prior to that. But Cocktails was not for long, either.
Ron: As soon as Rick had finished building the back bar on the patio at the Lone Star, he started looking around for a new venue. Why was that? Why wasn’t one bar enough for him?
Pete: Rick had realized he was ill at that point – but he developed what they call the “Sarah Winchester syndrome.” [Sarah Winchester was an eccentric woman who believed she would stay alive as long as she continued to renovate her house.] You just keep building and building and building, thinking that you’ll never die. So he was definitely looking for something, and he was now ready for something a little more active along the lines of . . .
Ron: Something mainstream?
Pete: He wanted to do something after-hours, too, which he couldn’t do at the Lone Star.
Ron: Let’s get back to the staffing changes at the Lone Star. Who was the first manager at the Lone Star?
Pete: Originally, it was JoeBear Golini, who was managing a bar in the Haight. Rick had no experience whatsoever with liquor, and he wanted JoeBear’s experience with the liquor distributors and setting up the bar. JoeBear did a very good job with all that, and with all of us. Many of us weren’t really bartenders; some had never even bartended.
JoeBear stayed there through all of it, though, doing the day shift and sneering, “I hate people.” His shift had dwindled down to nothing because he could care less. There was quite an alienation thing going on there for quite a while.
After I returned, business picked up again and everything was going well. Or so it seemed. But Lyn had become ill by then, so he was not up to capacity any more. So it was more or less like Rick was doing all the work himself again.
Ron: Yeah, he was. Lyn got sick earlier than Rick, as I recall. But I think Rick had already been in the hospital, at least once.
Pete: Yeah, he had.
Ron: I visited him in the hospital and told him, “I admire your ambition and all, Rick, but look, you’ve got a life-threatening disease here, and your first priority has to be to take care of yourself.” And he replied, “uh, yeah” – in one ear and out the other. But even after he got back from the hospital, he kept partying. I remember this one party when I ran into Rick just as I was coming from the upstairs. He was thoroughly plastered and looked terrible. He grabbed hold of my arm to steady himself and asked me, “Are the guys getting raunchy and nasty up there?” “Uh, yeah.” “Good.” And then he launched himself elsewhere in the bar.
Pete: In the meantime all that had gone on, part of the reason why things were coming unglued at the Lone Star was because Rick was at Cocktails. Just prior to his becoming ill, he was at Cocktails and he was just showing no strength. Anyways, all of a sudden, he realized that the Lone Star, the place that was on autopilot and was paying all the bills, was having a problem.
Ron: So he wasn’t paying much attention to business at the Lone Star, and Cocktails did look promising, but it didn’t pan out, and by then he’d expended his energy and resources.
Pete: So then the focus came back on the Lone Star, real quick, and I had been there, in part, for that. He brought me back for that. It definitely picked up again, and had sort of like a second wave.
Ron: A second surge, which was mostly due to your effort. But the real creative energies left. I became less involved. Steve Stafford was around but he working full-time for Richard Bulger at Brush Creek at that point. As Rick became more and more ill, Mike started to take things over.
Pete: Yeah, Mike was in there at that point, kinda sorta. On an invisible level.
We have to mention the parade that you helped with.
Ron: Oh no. Do we really have to?
Pete: We have to. I mean, that was just too significant – that was the culmination of my whole career at the Lone Star, as far as I’m concerned!
Ron: It was a major turning point, I think. It just seemed so symbolic, too.
Pete: The new owners had already taken over, but the planning had begun months and months before, before Rick died, so there was no stopping it, but boy, they would’ve stopped it if they could have, I’ll tell you that. They just didn’t want to deal with the parade float. Steve Stafford was originally supposed to do the art for the float, or choose the theme, and he’d decided on some big easy chair with some men, a Bear couple, watching TV, and I don’t know, but it all sounded pretty boring to me.
Ron: Or there were going to be several couplings on the float.
Pete: Steve Stafford was supposed to organize the float, but then the AIDS Emergency Fund asked him to do their float. That was bigger and more in the limelight for him, so he took it. And that left no one to do anything about the float for the Lone Star. So I said I would do the float. But there was no money, there was no budget, not a dime. Other than the fact that the float and the flatbed truck and the parade permits had already been paid for.
Ron: The bar had won a Cable Car award for best float the year before, right?
Pete: Right. They won the award twice before.
Ron: That was really quite something. What were the previous floats, again?
Pete: The first year it was gear and clock theme, like the New Year’s party.
Ron: The techno-industrial look.
Pete: Yeah, both times it was had that industrial look. That third year, when you and I did it, I really never understood Steve’s concept. I had purposely said I didn’t want to deal with it or work with it when Steve had mentioned it before. I thought, “Easy chairs and televisions? I don’t get it.” I still don’t. But whatever. And some Bear figures sitting there watching TV. What’s that got to do with a bar? It’s about going out to a bar, it’s not about sitting home and watching TV. And his point was like, “It’s so that you’ll relate coming to the bar – it’s just as comfortable.”
Ron: It’s just as homey, comfy, or something.
Pete: Whatever. Well, they certainly didn’t get that result!
Ron: So instead you did a live version of Steve’s “Dump” poster, which shows a Bear in a jockstrap on a rubbish pile.
Pete: Right. That was a Bear magazine illustration that had nothing to do with the Lone Star, and it was actually titled, “The Dump.” The original actually hangs in the Hole in the Wall Saloon; it’s framed, and belongs to Steve Soule.
Ron: Steve Soule used to work at the Lone Star, too.
Pete: In fact, I’m sitting here looking at a framed print of that picture right now. In any case, back then I was trying to figure out what to do about the float. With no money and nothing else to do, I was looking at that “Dump” poster. “Dump dump dump” – and then I thought, “Wow, there sure is a lot of stuff and trash and rubbish out in the steets!”
Ron: And of course you used to love picking up scraps of stuff – I went with you a couple times when we picked up cool trash in the middle of the night.
Pete: We just started collecting broken toilets and tires and anything we could find. And then you did the sign on the truck, which was one of Rick’s favorite lines –
Ron: Right. The story behind that was that someone had doctored up one of the small signs behind the bar to say, “We reserve the right to serve refuse -”
Both: . . . to anyone.” [Both laugh.]
Pete: Instead of the standard saying, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” That was always one of Rick’s favorite things, so we did that. I remember you did that lettering, because I thought, “Oh no, I can’t draw, I can’t do that.” And we couldn’t find stick-on letters big enough. And that was really a big undertaking for you too. That was so cool that you did that. It really needed that to make something gel, at least in my mind. It had to say something.
Ron: Fourteen-inch letters in one line across a 20-foot roll of paper. I remember being zipped and just rolling that paper out across one of the benches in the main bar that morning, laying out the letters, and inking it all in – in less than two hours. And then we had the other Lynn who worked at the bar – that big gorilla who was a Bear coverman too.
Pete: Oh right, Lynn O—.
Ron: Anyway, so we got him to lounge around on top of the flatbed, just hanging out in a jockstrap, like in the poster. But I remember hearing someone who didn’t know what it was based on, who apparently didn’t read the magazine, and said he didn’t get it.
Pete: No, most people didn’t get it. Well, there was nothing I could do about that. What can I say? It was better than an empty float rolling the street. What were we supposed to do, put two or three people there and just have them stand and wave? There was a great amount of energy that we put into it as it was. I didn’t care. I didn’t give a shit who got the award. Basically, it was the scourge of the parade judging booth – they didn’t even want to take a picture of it! That right there was what just totally made it worth it, then, to me. We didn’t get a Cable Car award, or even a nomination that year.
Ron: In any case, finally, Rick passed away on April 14, 1993, just days after he signed a deal to sell the bar. Lyn Light died only a couple of months later. Steve Stafford died a year after Rick, I believe, and then Richard Bulger sold Brush Creek Media at the end of ’94. Rick Redewill’s death signalled the end of an era. It was a very sad time, probably the height at which we were losing people to AIDS. The Rainbows had also lost several guys.
Pete: Yes, there was Michael Martin, Hoot Jenkins, Jack Sharpless, Steve Kasper, and my former lover, Gary Bell – all about the same time.
Ron: After Rick died, the bar went into purgatory.
Pete: Kevin Owens, who’s from a great big Texas family company, owns it now. Kevin took over about two years after Rick died.
Ron: In the meantime, what happened with the theme nights, and all the other stuff? Was all that forgotten?
Pete: No, I don’t think it was all forgotten but they certainly don’t do them like we used to. And they have certainly concentrated on the Bear thing, now. It’s totally a Bear-bar, 100 percent. During the big IBR [International Bear Rendezvous] in February, the Lone Star is at the epicenter of that event.
One of Rick’s wants was to develop the retail thing, and Kevin has done that fully. They have a full Lone Star merchandise store upstairs and go all over the country to different Bear events to sell their merchandise.
Ron: They have a little cottage industry going on. Or not so little, as the case may be.
Pete: Totally. I think there’s an online store, too.
Ron: Yes, there is. They’ve really developed that aspect of the business, which is, well, enterprising of them. As my friend Mike calls it, it’s like “Bear Disneyland.” Does the Lone Star still attract the motorcycle crowd?
Pete: There are always bikes out there, absolutely, but you’ll find bikes in front of all the bars still.
Ron: Well, the Lone Star sure isn’t the same place it was when we were there. When I was in SF for IBR 2000, I didn’t go to the Lone Star at night, when it was packed tits to ass. I went in the afternoons and on the Monday night following IBR. They still have the sign that I painted with Steve Stafford out there on the back patio wall. The place felt familiar and comfortable as ever, but it no longer felt magical in the same way at all.
Pete: Well, an awful lot of energy has been drained out of there. Still, I hope that younger people, or ones just getting into the life, can find the kind of niche that we once had. The best that you can have is memories that you’re fond of, from one time or another. Those memories and times certainly are some of my fondest.
Reprinted from Bears on Bears: Interviews & Discussions.
As reprinted in the 2004 Folsom Street Fair Guide, http://www.folsomstreetfair.com/fair-info.php.