Elephant Walk Took Brunt of Police Attack in the Castro
By Fred Rogers – Owner of the Elephant Walk
A knock on the door awakened me. The room was unfamiliar. I recognized the voice of Guy, my host. He was sorry to awaken me, but there was a call. It was important.
Even in my sleepy fog I thought that odd. I had sneaked out of San Francisco the day before without telling anyone that my cute Okie lover, Arch, and I were taking a train trip to L.A. – a much-needed little getaway from the hubbub of running a tavern in the heart of the Castro District.
I made my way to the phone. It was my bartender (and old college gal pal), Patty. Her tone was urgent.
The story spilled out: Dan White. Manslaughter. Got away with murder. Riots. City Hall attacked. Police cars burned.
Enraged cops spoiling for revenge descended on the Castro. My place, the Elephant Walk, had been ransacked.
Employees and customers were battered by rampaging cops who had crashed through the front doors, screaming “banzai” and swinging batons.
“Come home,” she told me. “Now!”
Arch and I raced to Burbank to catch the next plane north. Back in S.F., when the taxi pulled up to 500 Castro Street – my glass-walled haven in Gay Mecca – I saw plywood boards covering the front doors where once lovely etched-glass panes had gleamed. Hastily written on the plywood in black marker was “Remember: 22 May 1979. Never again!”
Inside, my manager, Kevin Sullivan, a powerhouse who put the Buck in his native Buckeye state, recounted stories of the carnage. A tactical squad had charged the doors, smashing news cameras attempting to record the raid. Once inside they made a sweep from the front of the 1,800-square-foot room all the way to – and over – the bar, swinging their clubs at anything that moved. Or didn’t.
Brian, one of the bartenders, was sporting head bandages. He said that it all happened fast, without warning. There was no place to hide. Behind the bar I could see our industrial-strength, stainless-steel blender. It bore the deep imprint of a police baton, mute testimony to the fierceness of the assault.
My cocktail waitress, Paula, was just finishing her first week on the job when the assault began. Luckily, she found refuge behind a closed gate in the kitchen area. She said that she had not seen such police brutality since her days on the UC-Berkeley campus.
We sat there shell-shocked, speaking in hushed tones. I remembered the first time the notion of opening a bar in the Castro was floated. It evolved like one of those old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney “Andy Hardy” pictures. Patty Fields Rogers, my school pal and, for a time, wife, had followed me west during the gay migration of the early ’70s.
We bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t an attractive meeting place for gay men and lesbians to mix. Most taverns were dark and dreary throwbacks to an era of anonymity and they were strictly segregated.
We decided to find a good location and open our own establishment. Thus, in 1974, was born the Elephant Walk. Little did I know that the date – Nov. 27 – would one day become so significant in the lives of all San Franciscans.
The Grand Opening was my official coming out in The City and to my family and friends. Klieg lights bounced off the facades facing the intersection of Castro and 18th and shot into the night sky, beckoning all to come to the crossroads of the old Eureka Valley.
We were not the first glass-walled tavern in the neighborhood. That distinction belonged to the venerable, and still thriving, Twin Peaks on Market and 17th streets. But what I hoped to do was expand on the concept of openness by adding food and live music to the mix. As I look back at that time, I’m amazed that we were able – literally – to throw a 16-hour-a-day party, seven days a week, in the brazen breast of the country’s Queer Capital.
I can still hear Sylvester and the Two Tons ‘O Fun wailing out “Mighty Real” to a throng of ecstatic patrons who jammed the bar on Sunday afternoons for the free concerts. We didn’t make a lot of money but, man, we had a lot of fun. After the disco delirium settled, we’d screw the rail back onto the bar, carry down the tables and chairs that had been hastily stored in the upstairs kitchen, and light candles to create a mellow evening rendezvous mood.
The night after the riot, a street celebration of Harvey Milk’s birthday was planned and there were legitimate fears that more violence would occur. I remember a local newsman, Doug Murphy, asking me if I thought there would be trouble. All I could think to say was, “If you want there to be.”
But the neighborhood was still reeling from the trauma of the night before. There was little stomach for more.
The next day my attorney shot off a letter to President Jimmy Carter, advising him of the violation of our civil rights, and Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered a civil grand jury to find out who gave the orders to attack and why. For several weeks I had visits from representatives of the U.S. Attorney General’s office and the FBI.
Since there was no photographic record and scant eyewitness accounts, all of the ensuing investigations ended inconclusively. My insurance company refused to pay for property damages, maintaining that the police could not be “vandals.”
Outraged by these developments, several of my injured customers and employees filed a class-action lawsuit. It was destined to travel a long, tedious path through a legal morass.
Time passed. Tempers calmed. The Castro grew gayer and gayer. Our annual Castro Street fair attracted over a quarter million people just on the two blocks between Market and 19th streets.
The homes on the surrounding streets took on a new patina and the rainbow palette appeared everywhere. Dan White may have gotten away with murder, but the legacy of those dark and violent events was the growing – and increasingly aggressive – gay power.
But little did we expect that at the time. On what was to be a fateful day – Nov. 27, 1978 – I was pulling out all the stops to celebrate the Elephant Walk’s fourth anniversary. I had hired friends to help festoon the establishment with a profusion of exotic tropical flora and accouterments.
No sooner had we opened our doors for lunch when the word of the murders at City Hall shot through the Castro like a cannon ball. The atmosphere inside the bar, perfumed with tropical gaiety, quickly turned heavy with horror. I sent everyone home.
I think everyone spent the next few hours in a numb disbelief. That night a candlelight march started out from the front doors of the Elephant Walk and flooded down Market Street to the steps of City Hall. That event is etched in my memory as one of the saddest yet most emotionally cathartic experiences of my life. The spontaneous expression of loss from The City at large was overwhelming, and a profound sense of unity emerged.
Ironically, it took events of such magnitude to get my establishment mentioned in Herb Caen’s column. He put me on the media map.
Overnight, the Elephant Walk became famous. Clusters of tourists would gather at the front doors, gesticulating as they discussed the raid, and caravans of fume-spewing Gray Line buses clogged the intersection of 18th and Castro streets, giving the gawkers-under-glass a glimpse of gay life before they made their way up to the top of Twin Peaks.
It seemed as if Dan White’s release from prison in 1984 came way too soon. I remember the gay community had been asked to go outdoors at the appointed hour and blow whistles, (those we carried for self-defense) to proclaim our protest. I joined countless others on the corner outside the bar, and the sound that rose was deafening. It felt good.
But a part of me was furious. Dan White got out of jail free. And my lawsuit against the thugs that trashed my bar and battered my staff, my friends and my customers was still twisting in the winds of the judicial process.
White must have been steamed that his actions – instead of squelching gay political power – had actually helped construct its foundation.
Immediately after the assassinations, another gay man, Harry Britt, was appointed by Mayor Feinstein to the Board of Supervisors, and one night, Jane Fonda came to my bar to demonstrate her support for him. (This surreal scene was captured in a painting by a local street artist titled “Waiting for Jane Fonda.”)
I could smell the power of celebrity as I watched the intersection swell with Britt supporters and Fonda fans, all of whom tried to squeeze through the doors into the Elephant Walk. I had just managed to get the new – and quite costly – etched panes of glass in the doors that day.
It would be almost six years before the parties responsible would pay that bill. City lawyers managed to thwart the action with endless maneuvering. They hoped to wear me down, and they did. I made several forays to City Hall, lobbying supervisors to approve a settlement.
Ultimately, two days after the case was scheduled for trial in May, 1984, The City settled – for a relative pittance. Frankly, I was glad to put that piece of business behind me.
I think the powers-that-be feared if my suit got a public airing and coverage by the news media, it would have reopened the civic wounds caused by the murders, the Twinkie Defense, the outrage at White’s judicial tap on the wrist and the police brutality after the White Night Riot. The $139,500 The City paid covered the personal-injury claims and damage to the bar.
But there wasn’t much satisfaction in it for me, and to be honest, the fun was gone. I was weary of the seven-day-a-week schedule. Rent and operating costs were spiraling ever higher. I had given ten years of my life to the Elephant Walk. It was unquestionably a wild and unpredictable journey, but I could see it was over. I sold my interest in the Elephant Walk. I figured it was time for someone else to safeguard the windows on the world’s everyday gay parade.
– Fred Rogers –
The Gay Pride 2000 web presentation by the San Francisco Examiner (newspaper) – is a series of essays by bay area residents on what it’s like to be – GAY BY THE BAY. This story written by Fred Rogers, owner of the Elephant Walk, is part of that collection.
Also in the Examiner Gay Pride 2000 display is a series of pictures by local photographer, DANIEL NICOLETTA. Dan joined Harvey Milk and Scott Smith in 1976 at Castro Camera.