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    My Heart…San Francisco!

    karenI am on a plane en route to the San Francisco Bay Area, the land that I love! I speak of San Francisco and Oakland with unabashed affection to whomever will listen to my many tales of queer comedy yore. I am often surprised that folks think that I could have started performing lesbian comedy anywhere else but the Gay Mecca of the World: San Francisco! With all due respect to the revolutionary Stonewallers of New York City, it was at the Valencia Rose and later Josie’s Juice Joint and Cabaret in the Castro that spawned the gayest group of comics.

    A little known fact: I was the first comic to perform at Josie’s. The club was still under construction, so that initial audience was slim. To make up for that night, club owner Donald Montwill told me that I could perform at Josie’s any time that I wanted, and I took him up on that offer many times over the next decade or so. Well, Donald is no longer with us, yet my fond memories of the cast of comics and crew of Josie’s will forever remain in my mind’s eye.

    I’d been a regular contestant at the Bay Area Black Comedy Competitions, and sharpened my laugh chops at local Oakland clubs like Sweet Jimmie’s and Club Martinique. Introduced to the world of lesbian comedy by my dear friend Marga Gomez — to whom I will forever by indebted for encouraging producers to hire me sight unseen — I performed at the San Francisco Gay Pride festivities at her request. Then I became a regular at the Baybrick Inn in San Francisco, Ollie’s in Oakland, and clubs in Walnut Creek and San Leandro. Later, I performed at Theater Rhinoceros in a comedy ensemble featuring Tom Ammiano, Karen Ripley and Jeanine Strobel in an annual holiday extravaganza. I was also in the sketch comedy group Global Riot, directed by Suzy Berger, who is now a well-known psychotherapist.

    The Great American Music Hall was where I was “discovered” by Olivia Records, now Olivia Travel, headquartered in San Francisco; I have been a featured entertainer for 23 years! Backstage at the Music Hall and at other comedy venues like The Other Cafe, Valencia Rose, Cafe Flore, and Josie’s, I hobnobbed with gay comics like Danny Williams and Scott Capurro; lesbian comics Karen Ripley, Linda Moakes, Marilyn Pittman, and Lisa Geduldig (of Kung Pao Comedy fame); allies Diane Amos and later, Margaret Cho. And of course, Mama Bears Bookstore in Oakland was also a great supporter of lesbian comics.

    The eighties and nineties were an exciting time in the Bay for gay and lesbian entertainers, particularly with the emergence of pride activities, HIV/AIDS benefits, and other causes that evoked activism on our part and much-needed dollars at various benefits for the San Francisco community. The annual Cable Car Awards honored lesbian and gay comic activists with recognition for our part in raising money for local organizations, and though I was nominated many times, I lost pridefully to Marga Gomez each year!

    While I was born and raised in New York City, my lesbian identity emerged and grew to fruition in my beloved San Francisco. Through the good graces of my Vulvalutionary comrade, Dorrie Lane, I was able to maintain a room in her home in the Castro and travel to San Francisco once a month for thirteen years after I’d relocated to the Greater Cleveland area. Some folks believe I still live in the Bay because I make appearances in the area so often.

    This time, I am on my way to perform with the Queer Queens of Qomedy — Poppy Champlin and Marilyn
    Pittman — in Point Arena, three plus hours north of San Francisco, in an area where I’ve never been. I am eagerly looking forward to experiencing the transcendent beauty of this region of California. Since I’ll be in the area for a few days, I look forward to seeing some friends and family. Yet, I know that I will not be able to resist driving through the Castro and letting my mind’s eye meander through the past to my joyful beginnings in the city of my heart… San Francisco!

    Karen Williams left her heart in San Francisco. If you find it, let her know at karen@sfbaytimes.com.