T O A D H A L L
482 Castro Street, San Francisco
1971 – 1979
Toad Hall was one of the most popular bars on Castro Street, definitely a major 1970’s social institution and an exciting part of our neighborhood story. In fact, it may have had a significant influence on the influx of gays to the Castro. The bar was a trendsetter. The management was creative and innovative. TOAD HALL was the first dance bar in the Castro and was one of the first bars anywhere to use taped music instead of a jukebox, not just taped music but well-planned programs of songs that flowed into each other seamlessly. When the other bars began to catch up, TOAD HALL installed a booth and hired a DJ; another major step in providing the best entertainment for the patrons. At that time, most gay bars were governed by greed. Gays were happy to have ANY place to meet and were at the mercy of slumlords who would accept them. We learned to put up with rundown places in seedy locations, run by people who didn’t care about us and were unwilling to make repairs and improvements. TOAD HALL welcomed us with a warm friendly smile into a clean, well-decorated establishment. So it is not unrealistic to think that gays would flock to the Castro from all over the City (and beyond) to visit TOAD HALL, and in doing so would become charmed by the beauty of the neighborhood.
The spring of 1971 was a time when the sense of GAY PRIDE was infecting gays throughout the City, encouraging cooperation, unity, and a sense of family. Although our goals were idealistic and seemed overly optimistic, enthusiasm was on our side. Several gay establishments had already moved into Eureka Valley, as the Castro was then called, and the area was beginning to have a definite gay flavor. This was the environment into which TOAD HALL was born. The bar opened on May 28, 1971, Memorial Day weekend. Financial success was certainly a goal of the people involved in creating the bar, but the desire to participate in and contribute to the success of this fledgling cultural experiment was equally important. There was an obvious intention to cater to the patrons. The energy behind this new bar came from Ron Estes and David Monroe of THE LION PUB, a very popular bar at Sacramento and Divisadero, and Tom Sanford and Sam Hall (no relation to TOAD). Sam was a close friend and confidant to Marjorie Deremer (died: April 26, 2000, in Redwood City), a well-to-do senior citizen. She funded a major portion of the venture.
Tom Sanford, who was known to many by the nickname “Sally”, had a metal statue of a Nun in his yard and wanted to call the bar “THE IRON NUN”. A pharmacist named EUGENE LONGINOTTI who worked at STAR PHARMACY and was part owner of the building, refused to allow the name. He was a fair-minded but conservative man as well as a Catholic. He was willing to allow a gay bar in his building, but he knew that the good priests at MOST HOLY REDEEMER, the church around the corner, would not tolerate a bar named THE IRON NUN! So the bar was named TOAD HALL after the home of TOAD in the children’s story, WIND IN THE WILLOWS, written by Kenneth Grahame in 1908. TOAD was a charming and respectable but wayward frog; a misfit who didn’t quite fit into the community of quiet, hard-working, rural creatures, nor could he handle the fast-paced, hectic role of a city dweller. A large mural which attempted to illustrate the story of TOAD, was painted on one of the walls of the bar by JASON PHILLIPS, a talented local artist. He also painted the characters that decorate the walls of the GRUBSTAKE on Pine at Polk. The Toad mural was covered with steel panels when the bar became DJ’s in 1979.
Within a few months, TOAD HALL started to happen, thanks to the right combination of people and energy. The LION lost many of its patrons to the new bar in the heart of the Castro. Almost everyone who checked out TOAD HALL liked the trendy high energy and friendly atmosphere they found there. This was the first bar on the block that allowed dancing. In spite of the solid black walls and dayglo frog décor, it became a social center for many. A sense of family developed and the ‘regulars’ became extremely loyal to the bar, its employees, and the other patrons.
Eventually, the authorities discovered that the bar did not have a dance permit and ordered an end to one of the bar’s major attractions, dancing. However, many patrons had already developed bonds with the staff and other patrons and the bar didn’t suffer much more than a temporary slump. The dayglo and black décor and the primitive light show gave way to a fern bar with tasteful mirrors, a generous amount of distressed wood, and wooden shingles on the wall behind the bar. Again, TOAD HALL was setting the style by being the first fern bar in the City. A macramé hanger supported a fish bowl and the new mascot, a goldfish named “Mark Spits”!
About a year after opening, STAN WALKER, who had been left behind to run the LION, was invited to manage TOAD HALL. He accepted, and continued as manager until the bar closed. As was the style at that time, Stan had long hair, and often found time to go to the beach. Soon after Stan started managing the bar, a series of four fires occurred over a short period of time. Contrary to a statement made in the 1997 KQED production THE CASTRO, Stan says that none of the fires was due to arson.
Stan Walker was very helpful in preparing this article. He provided the majority of the information and some of the graphics shown here.
Behind the bar was a mountain of wax that formed from the remnants of hundreds of votive candles. As individual candles died, new ones were stuck into the soft wax and lit. One night in the spring of the second year a candle was inadvertently left burning when the bar closed. Somehow it ignited the wooden shingles on the wall which burned rapidly and in no time the entire wall was in flames. Although it looked major, the damage was mostly confined to the shingles and the bar re-opened as usual in the morning. Stan contacted DAVID SWAIN, a remarkable carpenter, and David went to work immediately with the morning regulars, “THE BREAKFAST CLUB”, looking on. Tom Sanford was so impressed with the repairs that he asked David to keep going and do the entire bar. David, who had created the beautiful bar top at the LION, eventually did four complete and different interiors for Toad Hall. He also created a memorable aluminum foil motif for the MIDNIGHT SUN when it was on Castro Street.
David Swain took almost a year, working part-time, to complete the redecoration of the entire bar. Early one morning about a week later, he was driving over the hill toward the Castro and saw fire engines everywhere. This time the bar was completely gutted. Everything was destroyed. Stan says the jukebox had melted into a piece of artwork and was “something to behold!” This was in 1974, about two weeks before the Gay Parade. One favorite story of Stan’s is that the beer delivery truck drivers were threatening to strike and so he ordered as much beer as he could. The beer was delivered on the day before the fire. Cases were stacked ten feet high along two walls by the pool table toward the back of the bar. The fire burned away the cardboard cases leaving the bottles standing in place with nothing but the bottles below to support them. The people tearing out the charred remains of the bar drank as much of the beer as they could. Eventually the Board of Health ordered them to take the rest of the beer to the dumps and bury it.
Stan put in a call to Sunset Scavenger and said “I want you to bring me a dumpster every hour on the hour until I say stop!” As the employees came in, they were told “You’ve got a new job! Grab a shovel or a pickax and get to work. Anything that’s black goes into the dumpster.” Curious friends, neighbors, and patrons walked in to view the damage. Many of them, in the spirit that was the Castro, picked up a tool and helped with the restoration project. An army of volunteers worked day and night for two weeks to have the bar ready to re-open by Gay Parade weekend. Bob, the owner of the CASTRO CAFE next door, a generous and wonderful man, sent over free sandwiches and coffee during the entire remodeling period. He also allowed an extension cord to be run through the back doors to provide electricity. During this period Marjorie Deremer paid all expenses out of her pocket. Two years passed before the insurance company paid the claim.
The third fire at TOAD HALL was a minor one. It happened just a few days before the bar reopened. The electrician had installed new wiring which was working, but was not complete. At one point someone, while moving a ladder, hit some exposed wires near the ceiling. They touched and arced and ignited some construction materials. After an initial panic, the crew managed to put out the fire themselves. They all sat down and smoked a joint and then went back to work! What a rush that must have been!
By the summer of 1974, the Castro community was making noticeable progress and we were beginning to realize the power we have when we work together and care about each other and ourselves. Our street was busy day and night. At certain times there were pedestrian traffic jams on the sidewalks, especially on warm sunny weekend afternoons and, predictably, when the bars closed. The Castro is the only place where I’ve seen a 2 AM rush hour seven nights a week. On the night that TOAD HALL reopened, the unity, the pride, the joy in our community was acutely evident. On friday, the last weekend in June, word went out that TOAD HALL was ready to reopen. Always ready to celebrate, the faithful came from every corner of the City. Thousands of visitors were in town for the gay day activities, and many of them were also on the street that night.
By 8 PM the bar was packed and a festive crowd gathered outside patiently waiting. The party on the sidewalk was almost as fun as the one inside would be. The staff had been working at a feverish pace for two weeks to have the bar ready to open. They were thoroughly exhausted, and they weren’t really ready to open. The sheetrock on the walls had been painted black, and some of it was still wet. Drawings and markings on the bare walls proclaimed “This is a Mirror” or some other virtual item. There were no refrigerators. Tons of ice had been brought in. Beer was chilled in large buckets. A home stereo was being used for music. Installing bar lighting was a simple task. All the bulbs in the temporary fixtures were replaced with red bulbs! There wasn’t room in the bar for one more person when the unthinkable happened . . .
STAN: “This queen fights her way through the crowd to get to the bar. I thought she wanted a drink, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Then I heard her say “I THINK THERE’S A FIRE IN THE BACK!” Right then the sound went off and all the lights went out! It got kind of quiet and I yelled “EVERYBODY, PLEASE LEAVE THE BAR. THERE’S NO PROBLEM!” Everyone left in an orderly manner and stood outside watching and waiting. I couldn’t find a flashlight but I managed to make my way to the back of the bar. When I opened the steel office door, seven-foot-high flames leapt out. I went out back and dragged in a garden hose from the Castro Café.”
By the time the fire department arrived, the crowd outside had doubled in size. They cheered wildly for the firemen who were approaching from every direction. Amid hoots and whistles and applause, the crowd cleared a path and the firemen went to work. What an incredible scene! I wonder if the firemen got hazardous duty pay. They did an admirable job and had the fire out in a few minutes. To the delight of all, the street was completely blocked to traffic. The fire trucks had trouble leaving the block as we cheered the heroes onboard. It was another unofficial block party! The office and the bathrooms were totally trashed. The crew was at this point totally exhausted, having had little sleep in two weeks. “What are we going to do?”, said Stan. Someone pulled the extension cord back in and got the lights going again, and a roar of approval rose from the crowd outside. Bob from the Castro Café offered use of his bathrooms, and the local beat cop said “The fire’s out! Let them back in!” So they threw out all the drinks, cleaned up a bit, turned on the stereo and opened the doors. The crowd went wild. Free drinks replaced the trashed ones. The ones that couldn’t get in that night had just as much fun partying in the street. Against all odds, it was another exciting success story for the Castro.
A huge thank you to Stan Walker for sharing much of this story. Without his help, this page would be nearly blank. But then, without my help, this page would be completely blank! Thank you, also, Stan, for your patience with my endless questions.