not in drag
What was the Black Cat?
There were no gay bars in San Francisco then.
The Black Cat was a fine and quiet Bohemian Bar. It was situated
in the Barbary Coast area, which was the port area of the city.
You could simply have drink there, sing a song or recite a poem.
In the Black Cat artist exhibited their paintings that made
the Black Cat famous! Then came the war. Suddenly there were five
men to each woman. The military authorities became nervous about
homosexuality and one of the first things they did was to set up
street lighting in the parks.
So that the customers would not be molested by the military police(MPs),
Stuman put up a notice: No admission for military personnel. Then
if someone in a uniform came, he sent them home and told them to
come back in civvies. Then, if MPs came, he pointed at the sign
and said The others are not allowed in. Neither are
Since the original owner of the Black Cat was a German with the
name of Habenichts, and he was not a US-Citizen, and was not allowed
to own a bar, Saul Stuman, - his bookkeeper - took over the licence.
C.M-S.: You said that you performed mini
operas in the Black Cat
At the beginning I was simply a customer. Then I met
a young man the bar-boy and we had a relationship for nine
year. I was the cocktail waiter and welcomed the people as they
came into the bar. So Saul said to me, You can be the hostess
of the Black Cat.
In the Black Cat artist would exhibit their paintings and
that made the Black Cat famous!. At that time you could buy a painting
for five Dollars. Or sometimes an artist would come in, lay his
pictures out, and Id say perhaps, Come, Have a drink
on me!, and the artist would say, Take that picture
The picture, which is hanging in, the exhibition here in Berlin
is from Alex Anderson. He was as gay as a nut and fruitcake. He
worked for some time on Broadway by the early musical shows with
Lerner. He was
a stage and costume designer.
Empress complete with make-up
C.M-S.: But weve wandered off the
José.: I began doing the operas in 1955,
and really read the riot act to the customers too. During the day
they were neatly dressed as Mr. Jones in creased trousers
with a case and worked in the banks, and at night they were Mary
Smith. Everyone could see Thats a queen. Only they
believed that no-one noticed it. I only did what they would also
liked to have done, but they didnt have the courage.
Then a new department was set up in the city, the Alcoholic Beverage
Control (= ABC) Unit. What they decided was the law. Saul Stuman
resisted them to the point of court proceedings sometimes
he even one the cases. However, he often had to appeal. The truth
is that the ABC had declared war on Stuman.
We had a small network which linked the few existing bars. I would
get a call: He is tall, small specs, is wearing a raincoat,
and is from the ABC. So when I saw him coming to the door
I would say Hazel, We have a visitor! Play something nice!
and she played ,,When the saints come marching in!"
Of course, everyone turned round to see who it was. The ABC hated
On one occasion I was so mad with the ABC, that I said, Hazel,
Play the National Anthem!
Everyone stood up and saluted. The official was naturally very
angry and said, I'll have your ass! To which I replied,
And it will be the best ass you ever had! He turned
round and flounced out.
The potted operas (Aida in 30 minutes with a gay content!
C.M-S) were performed on Sundays in order to pull the people into
the bar. In this way we raised the money for the defence in the
I got only 5 dollars for each performance. One day an entertainer
told me, You should be in the labor union! So I joined
the Actors Club. My pay shot up from five to 150 dollars for each
performance. Saul said to me, Get out! Go where they will
pay you such money! Which I did. However, customers
came to the Black Cat and demanded to know where I was. He
doesnt work here any more! So the people left. After
one month Saul came to where I was working and said, Ill
pay you the money! Just come back, dammit! You are the Black Cat.!
I went back to work there and stayed until it closed down.
C.M-S.: You mentioned court cases. What
were they about ?
José: Around 1959 they tried to introduce
a new regulation, according to which it was illegal to serve alcohol
to homosexuals. But how do you tell who to serve and who not? What
does a gay look like?
Saul took up the fight in court again. Our lawyer was a Jewish
Gentleman named LeMorris Lowenthal who could talk like Clarence
He hit on the idea of inviting the judge to decide which person
should be served and which not. We had already told those who couldnt
control their wrists to sit on their hands. In addition,
we had agreed in the Black Cat to appear in normal clothes.
So we got ourselves up fine, borrowed serious clothing, sat their
looking like the all-American College-boy with short haircuts. The
judge decided it was impossible to decide who was gay and who not
therefore it was impossible to operate the law it
could not be carried out. We danced for joy in the court-room. Then
we went back to the Black Cat to celebrate.
Almost without noticing it, I became a leader of the Gay Community.
The officials in City Hall turned to us in order to communicate
with the gay community. My step-parents, who brought me up, belonged
to a very old Californian family of early settlers. The name of
Sarria was well-known. When I put up for the post of Member of the
Board of Supervisors, I was already not an unknown factor. I adopted
the election slogan United well win, divided theyll
get us one after the other ! And if the community had
stuck together I would have won the election. I almost did it anyway.
C.M-S: When was that ?
José: The ABC created a regulation that
said if you applied for a licence you had to give up the one you
had, during the application. But how can you earn money to carry
on the fight, when youve had to surrender the licence? At
the same time, we were tired of fighting for people who didnt
give us much support. The apathy was enormous. The Black Cat shut
down at Halloween, and in November five others closed down.
Gay bars I mean. In the Golden Period around 1955 to the
early sixties -, there were 150 Gay Bars in San Francisco, 25 Bath-houses
and 15 Sex-Shops
C.M-S: So what happened
José: The people all went their own ways
In the meantime, a group of bar owners and workers had founded
the Tavern-Gild organisation. At their second Ball (1965) the decided
to honour me fore the work that I had done in the past years, and
I was named the Ballroom Queen. I called myself the Empress José,
the Widow Norton and as such I founded the System of Courts.
The people saw that we worked hard and collected money for charity
purposes and they wanted to do so too. The first model court
following mine, was set up in British Columbia, in Vancouver. Today
there are 75 courts and they are the biggest collector for gay
Charity Funding Organisations. In New York they bring in a lot of
money for the community centre. They also collect money for the
Aids-Hospice to be able to offer a stipend. They were also the first
who helped the Aids victims in San Francisco
José: I lived in Phoenix Arizona, (presumably
later - C.M-S) in a very swanky area with lots of old wealthy queens.
I was notorious.
At that time they had a man running for Governor who was an asshole.
I would have gone out and campaigned against him. Later he embezzled
money out of savings and loans. He was a crook.
I went to a cocktail party with lots of queens everyone
greeted me the man from San Francisco. I asked what they
were trying to do to get M. impeached. Oh, were not doing
anything about that. Hell go a way. I said to them youre
like a bunch of ostriches. Youve got your head in the sand,
your ass in the air, and youre all gonna get f-cked! I was
never invited to such a party again.
Nevertheless, it was a gay entrepreneur who started the move to
get a re-call and he was having a lot of problems and had
to go into the background and let it be taken over by a straight
C.M-S: How do you assess the developments
José: I was quite offended
in America when they said that everything began with the Stonewall
But that upsets many Europeans !
José: ... because that is not true. Gays
have existed since the time of Christ except that they werent
militant fighting for rights. I finally conceded that in
1969 - in America not in Europe - homosexuality
was recognised as being there. It was the first time they talked
about it on the television, - that they mentioned the word. Otherwise,
they never mentioned the word. Stonewall - that got news coverage
and that was started with a few drag queens.
In San Francisco we had already fought. But I didnt
fight that way. I fought with the law, I read the law and worked
around the law. We had already achieved much in San Francisco
long before Stonewall.
That the drag queens fought with the police (at Stonewall) was
Such meetings as we have had here, and the writing down of (our)
history is good because you must remember
that the youth
dont remember that at one time you couldnt go to a (gay)
bar because they didnt exist.
C. de la Motte-Sherman
 Presumably of Lerner & Lowe who wrote the musicals
Gigi and Brigadoon.
 A US-human rights and labor union lawyer in active
in the first half of the 20th century