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    Tessie’s Generous Spirit Lives On in San Francisco

    For over 40 years, the all-volunteer organization Tenderloin Tessie has served free holiday meals to those in need. Each meal—whether on Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas—serves an average of a thousand people. All are welcome to enjoy the bountiful feasts.

    “Tessie” was the drag name of Perry Spink, a local performer/bartender who was very familiar with the people and character of the Tenderloin District in San Francisco during the 60s and 70s. Legend has it that on Thanksgiving in 1974, he received several turkeys and was inspired to cook and serve them to the local Tenderloin residents (with the help of less-than-sober bar buddies). It was a gesture that showed the San Francisco community that no matter who you were, there was someone who cared.

    The dinners continued on a monthly basis for a while. These meals, served on the last Thursdays of the month, garnered Tessie many honors and she earned the title of Empress 15 from the Imperial Court in 1980. Along with the dinners, Tessie started the tradition of giving gift bags along with the meals, a tradition that lives on today. These bags contain donated items such as toiletries, socks, gloves and an assortment of non-perishable food.

    Sadly, Tessie died in 1984, but the meals continued on an uneven basis. Three years later, the name Tenderloin Tessie Holiday Dinners was created and the meals became a holiday tradition. They were served at a church on the corner of Eddy and Gough and began focusing on the needs of the growing number of homeless throughout the city and those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

    The meals were a very satisfying way to help the community, but were becoming very large and were a great deal of work and stress for the few volunteers who loosely made up the board at the time. The program suffered a severe blow when the church burned to the ground in 1995. With the board in limbo and no place to stage the meals, many members felt it was time to move on.

    Thankfully, a new board came together and the meals were moved to the present location, the First Unitarian Universalist church on Franklin and Geary. Since that time, the organization has become a nonprofit and is stronger than ever and remains always mindful of the original mission of Tenderloin Tessie to help anyone in need.

    On Friday, November 30, the Tenderloin Tessie Christmas Cabaret Benefit will take place. Performers include organizer Vanessa Bousay and many more well-known personalities. The benefit will begin at 7 pm at the First Congregational Church of San Francisco, 1300 Polk Street.

    Volunteers are needed for this year’s Tenderloin Tessie Christmas Dinner, December 25, 1 pm–4 pm at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1187 Franklin Street. Call 415-584-3252 or e-mail

    For more information about Tenderloin Tessie: