Wild Side West’s Wild Life
The Wild Side West story reads more like fiction than fact, a tale that includes flying toilets, rock star goddesses, beat poets, folk musicians, strippers and a band of merry pranksters that held the whole thing together. Of course, if you were to read the story in a novel you would never believe it, which makes the whole thing even more magical.
The story begins in Oakland, where Patricia Ramseyer and Nancy White opened the Wild Side (named for the Barbara Stanwyck film) in 1962. Back in the early days of the bar, Joan Baez would stop by with "Bobby Dylan" as Pat called him.
In 1964 they moved the bar to Broadway, in North Beach near the Broadway tunnel, and since it was on the west side of the bay it became Wild Side West. It was a great place to see and be seen. Janis Joplin hung out in the bar, both before and after her career broke with Big Brother.
The bar was popular with writers as well. Madeline Gleason, who organized the International Festival of Modern Poetry in San Francisco (in 1947, in the decade before the Beats) gave readings at the bar with her friend the experimental writer ruth weiss (who never capitalizes her name as a protest against law and order).
At the time, Weiss was a bartender for Wild Side West. The bar became a refuge for strippers in North Beach as well, and Ramseyer made sure they weren’t bothered by their patrons from their daily bump and grind.
At Ramseyer’s memorial in 2010, Billie Hayes, a longtime friend, caretaker and the current bar owner, noticed a number of older women. Upon asking, Hayes was told that they were the performers from North Beach coming one last time to pay respects to their dear old friend.
In 1976 Ramseyer and White bought a building at 424 Cortland which predates the 1906 earthquake and moved Wild Side West there. The reception of a lesbian bar in Bernal Heights was not exactly cordial. The front windows of the bar were shot up and bathroom fixtures were thrown through the front window and left in front of the building. Ramseyer’s response (recounted in her Bay Area Reporter obituary) was, "You will never run me out of here."
In the spirit of taking lemons and making lemonade, Pat and Nancy took the porcelain fixtures out back into the bar’s garden and used them as planters. Many of them can still be seen in the garden. Aside from the planters in the garden, the other holdover from the bad old days is the front of the bar, which has had the windows blocked out with wood panels since the 1970s.
The Wild Side boasts an amazingly eclectic collection of fascinating history and art. You could spend days looking through the fascinating collection, with the added plus that unlike most history collections or museums, you can do it with a drink in your hand.
The back and front bar were brought by Ramseyer from the Broadway location. Behind the bar you’ll notice a door with painted art nouveau decorations. This came from one of the brothels in North Beach and was reclaimed by Ramseyer for the Bernal Heights bar. There are also several original paintings by Ramseyer in the bar (and she painted the woman on the front door as well).
The interior of the bar features a fireplace which is still used frequently on cold summer nights, and a piano where you will sometimes find Todd Manley playing. Manley is also the gardener for the two back patios and has sculptures there as well. "This one is my daughter," he said as he posed with a masked beauty.
Creativity doesn’t stop with the décor of the bar. The patrons and the bartenders are quite talented as well. Bartender Mister Nancy plays bass with the band Fabulous Disaster and has been working in music venues around town since the days of Page Hodel and the Box.
Anita Ellis puts her graphic art skills to use on the bar’s chalkboard (she did a stunning tribute to Lou Reed), as well as mixing a mean pomegranate margarita or Bloody Mary. And most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm, jam sessions feature bar patrons on the downstairs patio. On the Sunday I stopped by, there were two guitarists, a keyboard player and a singer/trumpet player. They carry on the tradition of Ramseyer, who was a percussionist in the 1970s women’s band BeBe K’Roche. She started the tradition of jamming with musicians that stopped by the bar.
The bar, now owned by Hayes, has become quite the anchor of the neighborhood these days, a welcome change from the friction of past decades. They have featured benefits for the Bernal Library Art Project, the St. James Infirmary and Lyon Martin Health Services in the past, and are the annual site of the Benefit For The Boob, a fundraiser for the Breast Cancer Emergency Fund.
This year the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Russian River Sisters, Sister Sara and D. Love will present the seventh annual benefit on March 2 beginning at 5pm. On Wednesday nights Miss Kitty hosts a trivia round up which is quite lively. And local businesses products are featured in the drinks as well - Paulie’s Pickling, just a block away on Cortland, provides pickled green beans for the Bloody Marys, for example.
The overwhelming feeling you get from the bar is the feeling of community. I met a woman who used to come to the front door to ask if her moms were in the bar - now her moms come to ask if she is there. And I witnessed Mister Nancy slide a beer to a patron without even having to ask what he was drinking.
Hayes reflected on the mix of people, saying, "We get a lot of tourists, people from the East Bay and neighborhood people. I think of the bar as a refuge, as it was called in Nancy White’s obituary."
That passage in White’s obit is this:
"The Wild Side West is home to many regulars, gay and straight, male and female. The Wild Side has been a delightful non-judgmental place of refuge."
Equally appropriate in the city’s current climate is the message from Mister Nancy regarding LGBT participation in their historic spaces.
"Queers, take back your space. We’re getting run out of town. How many women’s bars were there back in the day? It’s sad in a city of this size."
One thing is certain; Wild Side West will be here for some time to come, and it will remain a welcoming space and a refuge. Plus, you can play pool on a table that Janis Joplin once played on (but be forewarned, the pool players at Wild Side West are serious about their game). If you need an easy way to get to the bar, the 24 Divisadero stops a block away. I know I’ll be back soon.
Wild Side West is at 424 Cortland Ave. 647-3099. www.wildsidewest.com