During the 1960s most LGBTQ nightlife in San Francisco was centered in the northern neighborhoods of the city. Gay bars could be found along Polk Street, in the Tenderloin, and the South of Market neighborhood.
In the heart of the city, the late lesbian couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin hosted private gatherings for queer women in their Noe Valley home. They had been doing so ever since buying their Duncan Street cottage in 1955.
A short drive away in the city’s Glen Park neighborhood, albeit for a brief period of time, one could enjoy female impersonators performing at a restaurant location with a storied past dating back to the 1900s. An account of their opening night at the Casa Blanca Lounge in an October 1964 edition of Citizens News, a defunct early LGBTQ newspaper, described it as “something that should have been seen.”
The writer noted, “The addition of tacos to female impersonators is welcome to the jaded appetites.” One of the performers, referred to only as Terry, was reported to have taken “so many curtain calls that he was embarrassed and when you can embarrass that one you have done something.”
An ad had appeared in one of the newspaper’s September issues touting that the eatery, located at 2972 Diamond Street, would be featuring “San Francisco’s Finest Impersonators” Wednesdays through Sundays starting on September 16. It highlighted the performers as being “Terry, Jay, Jamie & Chris” and noted that “Mexican Dinners” would be served.
The existence of what was essentially a precursor to today’s drag shows would likely have been lost to history were it not for a post on the website Nextdoor inquiring if there had been a bar in Glen Park that presented female impersonators. It had come to the attention of Paula Lichtenberg, a founding member of the San Francisco-based GLBT Historical Society.
In 2021, she reached out to Evelyn Rose, the founder in 2014 of the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project, to inquire if she knew anything about such an establishment. The idea that there would be a venue for drag in the area came as a bit of a shock, Rose told the Bay Area Reporter during an interview at the Cup Cafe coffeehouse located near where Casa Blanca had once stood.
She has lived in the vicinity for 35 years and moved into her current Glen Park home with her wife 19 years ago. As she works in medical communications and had other history projects to finish, Rose told the B.A.R. it wasn’t until this past January that she was able to start looking into the history of Casa Blanca. It didn’t take long before she began unearthing archival evidence about the long forgotten LGBTQ gathering place.
“It was quite a surprise because I wasn’t expecting to find something like that,” said Rose, who in 2012 began writing about San Francisco history on her website www.TrampsofSanFrancisco.com. (http://www.trampsofsanfrancisco.com/)
She also asked around to see if there was anyone still residing in her neighborhood who would have frequented the Casa Blanca or seen one of the female impersonator shows. Sadly, most residents from that time have since died, noted Rose, who so far has only been able to speak with one individual who recalled running into the restaurant to buy cigarettes when they were 15 years old.
“We’ve lost the generation with that legacy memory,” said Rose.
She turned to various online archives to see what she could find about the Casa Blanca. It led her to discovering that there were historical ties between Glen Park and the Bohemian denizens across town in North Beach, famous for its role in the birth of the Beatniks.
An obituary she located in the January 28, 1954 edition of the San Francisco Examiner for Angelo Pelligrino, the proprietor of an eponymously named restaurant that preceded Casa Blanca in the 1940s, described it as a gathering place for the city’s Bohemians.
“To learn there was a tavern or bar operating in Glen Park since the 1930s that was Bohemian or kind of avant-garde was surprising and exciting. It was surprising because I didn’t think people thought of Glen Park that way,” said Rose, explaining that the neighborhood was more known as “a bucolic backwater” near former farmland.
It began attracting more residential development following the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated downtown San Francisco. Its remoteness became an advantage for saloon owners during the Prohibition era.
Over the decades a number of owners had operated bars and restaurants in Casa Blanca’s building, with the first reference Rose found of it being called Casa Blanca dated 1944. She suspects it took its name from the structure’s facade being painted white based on old photographs she was able to find.
By the 1950s “it was already a hip place. It seems it was known by folks in North Beach,” said Rose. “It was a place for the counterculture to get together basically.”
In 1959, brothers Andrew and John Tomasello had taken over ownership of the restaurant. Five years later, perhaps to drum up business, the siblings decided to feature female impersonators.
“I don’t know why they started it,” said Rose, though she noted seeing men dressed as women was a frequent aspect of pop culture back then. “In the 1960s, we were just overloaded with examples of cross-dressing on TV.”
According to the Citizens News there would be two shows a night at the Casa Blanca. It described the stage as being near a fireplace in the middle of the room perfect “for an indoor picnic.” It not only raved about the Mexican food being served as “delicious” but also “very reasonably priced,” with patrons able to order for $1.50 a combination plate with a taco, enchilada, Spanish rice, and Frijole refritos.
Due to its rather hidden away location, the paper also provided readers with directions for Casa Blanca whether they were coming by car or city bus.
“This is a new type bar for San Francisco, since it is not only off the beaten path, but is also offering an impersonator show almost every night of the week,” noted the paper.
Rose, using a clue from one of the write-ups that referred to the person running the shows as Charlie, was able to track down his niece, who informed her that her uncle had died in 2010. The niece said her uncle never discussed with her the Casa Blanca, but she did divulge he had emigrated from Mexico and had been somewhat estranged from some of his family members.
“It is probably how they started serving Mexican food,” surmised Rose, as it had previously been known as a place for Italian food.
Unfortunately, Rose has not been able to learn anything about the female impersonators who appeared at Casa Blanca or discover any photos of them performing at the restaurant. Her archival research went cold after finding the last ad for the venue in a March 1965 edition of the Citizens News.
By 1966, it was no longer listed in the city’s phone directory, said Rose. The following year construction began on the station and trackway for the regional BART transit line. It necessitated the tearing down of Casa Blanca’s building.
Digging through various archives Rose did locate a reference to an even older female impersonation performance offered in Glen Park. An advertisement in the December 11, 1899 edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper promoted female impersonations performed by Baby Troy at the zoo that had been located within Glen Canyon, which is now a city park.
“Cross-dressing and female impersonation dates back quite far in San Francisco and Glen Park,” noted Rose, adding that such performances have been “around for centuries if not millennia,” with men in early theatrical groups playing all the female roles.
In June, for Pride Month, Rose presented her research into the Casa Blanca, as well as the history of saloons in Glen Park and the neighborhood’s Bohemian connections, at the Glen Park Branch Library. She hopes as more people learn about the venue, someone will come forward with their personal recollections of watching the female impersonators perform there or someone may have ephemera for it left to them by a relative or friend.
“I would be surprised if the neighborhood didn’t have knowledge of what Casa Blanca was,” said Rose. “Maybe they didn’t talk about it, but they also didn’t talk down about it either, to my knowledge. That is my impression anyway.”
By unearthing the history about Casa Blanca and its presenting drag shows, Rose hopes it provides a counterbalance to the recent wave of legislation against, and protests of, drag shows and performers. After all, it is evidence that drag culture has long been a part of the American story.
“I just don’t get it, people who don’t want to open their minds or experience different ways of life and different ways of living,” said Rose. “I just don’t get it. Hopefully, we can galvanize and push back.”
To learn more about Rose’s work documenting Glen Park’s history, and for information on how to contact her, visit www.GlenParkHistory.org (https://www.glenparkhistory.org/)
Matthew S. Bajko is an assistant editor at the Bay Area Reporter.
The old Pelligrino building in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco preceded Casa Blanca, where female impersonators performed. Photo: Courtesy Open SF History
The first ad for Casa Blanca, top right, appeared in the Police and Peace Officers’ Journal in February 1945. Image via Internet Archive