At the Casa Blanca: Mid-Century Gender-Bending Drag Shows in Glen Park
See the history of the Casa Blanca highlighted in the Bay Area Reporter in October 2023 for LGBTQ+ History Month, an article that was distributed and published by several LGBTQ+ news organizations across the country.
Those of us old enough to remember 1960s television can recall the frequency of cross-dressing undertaken by beloved comedians, including Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Flip Wilson, and others. Unlike today's more retrograde societal mores, no one then seemed to care much if a man dressed up like a woman.
Female impersonation in television and movies in the mid-20th century, from top left clockwise: Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Boris Karloff, Flip Wilson, Jonathan Winters, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon with a real-life Marilyn Monroe, and Oliver Hardy with Stan Laurel.
Transvestites and drag shows are really nothing new. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, "drag" is a type of entertainment in which people dress up and perform in highly stylized ways. The term, first used in the 19th century in the United Kingdom as a form of slang, described women's clothing worn by men. Yet, going back to Shakespearean times, and even further back to the era of Greeks and Romans, all theatrical roles had been played by men because those societies had viewed women as inferior. It wasn't until the late 19th century when women were finally able to break through the glass ceiling of acting.
After researching Glen Park history for more than a dozen years, you can imagine my surprise and excitement when I received a tip from Paula Lichtenberg, a cofounder of the GLBT Historical Society, that a drag venue called the Casa Blanca had once made a home in Glen Park. Before this news, I had come across at least one female impersonator, "Baby Troy," who had performed at Glen Park and the Mission Zoo in Glen Canyon in December 1899, but no other such history had ever bubbled up.
Until recently, we had become familiar with our early Glen Park saloonkeepers, including Walter Haack, Anton Dissmeyer, and August Straub, all three located on opposing corners of the intersection of Diamond and Chenery Streets, north of Bosworth Street.
Image, top left: Walter Haack being held up at the Gum Tree Saloon, site of today's Glen Park Cleaners, San Francisco Call, September 21, 1897; top left: August Straub in his saloon at the approximate site of today's Higher Grounds and the former L'Petit Laurent, SF Public Library Image Archive; and Anton Dissmeyer, located at today's Glen Park Cafe, SF Public Library Image Archive.
Yet, my subsequent research into the Casa Blanca opened new doors to the history of saloon-keeping on Diamond Street south of Bosworth Street, where Diamond now intersects with Monterey Boulevard, and long before the Casa Blanca came into existence. Below is a modern map of the location, and immediately below that is a 1938 aerial view of the same area with key landmarks highlighted. The red circle is the general location of the Casa Blanca and its predecessors. This post will describe the full history of the site and close with the history of Drag in Glen Park.
Image, top: OpenStreet map of Glen Park. Red circle denotes area of research, approximating the area of Cup Cafe on Monterey Boulevard to One Waan Thai Restaurant on Diamond Street, across the street from the Glen Park BART station. Lower: 1938 aerial view of the same area in Glen Park showing key landmarks, courtesy of David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.
A native of Alsace-Lorraine, France, and employed in San Francisco as a brewer, John Baptiste Michel was a contemporary of Haack, Straub, and Dissmeyer and had been a resident of Glen Park since 1897. He was first listed in the 1908 city directory as selling liquors at 2994 Diamond Street, located at what was then the intersection of Diamond Street at Joost Avenue where Circular Avenue ended, as shown in the Sanborn Fire Insurance map image below.
Sanborn Fire Insurance map courtesy of the San Francisco Planning Department.
Unfortunately, Michel's venture would be short-lived. In 1915, the city announced plans to "widen" Circular Avenue by 60 feet between Diamond Street & Sunnyside Avenue (today's Monterey Boulevard). Michel's son, John Michel, Jr, attended a hearing at City Hall to protest against the extension, stating his father had already spent a total of $10,750 (~$350,000 today) to buy the lots and construct 2 buildings, and that the widening would require the demolition of those structures.
The Michels were not alone in their protest. According to a report in the San Francisco Examiner, October 17, 1916, the widening was approved, “…over the protests of some apparently vocal women who attended the Board of Supervisors meeting. The women, who are unnamed, apparently were shouting what one supervisor claimed were ‘names that could not be repeated aloud ... Thereafter, it was ordered that a ‘burly policeman’ would be called every time women attending meetings about neighborhood issues. Located in the new City Hall building completed in 1915, the ‘maple carvings and other highly ornate decorations [were] supposed to invite serene thoughts and dispel strife." Clearly, these women had found their voice. We aren't certain who these women were but in 1912, the first election the women of San Francisco voted in approved the bond issue that would fund the construction of the new Beaux Arts civic center.
Sadly, Michel, Sr. passed away shortly after the Board of Supervisors approved the widening of Circular Avenue and his buildings were demolished.
Green bar represents the "widening" of Circular Avenue and how it would impact the Michel property. Image courtesy of the San Francisco Planning Department.
The next phase of the site began in 1918 when the property immediately adjacent to Michel's former saloon would become the site that would eventually include the Casa Blanca. Angelo Pellegrino, born in Palermo, Italy, in 1880, emigrated to America with his mother at the age of 10 to join his father in Buffalo, New York. By 1910, he was working as a waiter and wine clerk in Buffalo at The Lafayette Hotel. Despite being married and with an infant daughter at home, Pellegrino ran off with one of the hotel's housekeepers, Charlotte "Lottie" Hartlieb. They married in Vancouver, Washington in 1916, and by 1917 had settled in San Francisco. In 1918, Angelo was listed in the directory as a saloonkeeper at 2983 Diamond Street (note: the address would change several times until the final address of 2972 Diamond Street was assigned in 1923). The image below shows the location of Pellegrino's establishment that featured Italian fare. It was adjacent to a service station that faced the new oblique angle of Circular Avenue between Joost Avenue and Diamond Street.
Site of Pellegrino's establishment, the future location of the Casa Blanca Tavern. A gas and oil station is to the left of the building. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1935, from the San Francisco Planning Department.
Of course, 1918 was also the first year of Prohibition. While they advertised the sale of "soft drinks," it seems Angelo and Lottie also continued to sell hard liquor that was stored (and/or made) in a storage shed they owned across the street. In 1922, they were arrested by federal agents for selling liquor, and in 1923, Angelo was fined $200 ($3500 today) for selling a federal prohibition agent a drink. Both times, Lottie did everything she could to destroy the evidence, apparently to no avail, as shown in the news reports below:
Charlotte "Lottie" Pellegrino interactions with federal prohibition agents. From the San Francisco Call, December 25, 1922 and the San Francisco Chronicle, December 25 1922.
These arrests failed to deter the Pellegrinos from selling hard liquor. At one point, a federal abatement was placed on the restaurant and when it expired, Angelo wasted no time getting back in business. Another report in the February 27, 1927 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle claimed the Pellegrinos had made, “Illicit beverages an important sideline” that was proven when federal agents again found a “large assortment of liquor” on the premises. By 1928, another violation of Prohibition led the feds to seek closure of the Pellegrino's “Monterey Restaurant” for 1 year. For several years after that, the Pellegrinos leased the restaurant and semi-retired to Los Gatos in Santa Clara County.
After leasing the restaurant to a series of managers, in 1939 they returned to active management of the restaurant and renamed it the Pellegrino Restaurant, offering Italian and French dinners. Images of the restaurant in 1940 and the neighboring service station, by then a Union 76, are found below, courtesy of OpenSFHistory.org (Pellegrino's would be the same structure that would later house the Casa Blanca Tavern).
In 1940, the Pellegrinos announced they were selling the bar and restaurant "due to sickness." In Angelo's obituary 14 years later, it was said that, "For many years he operated a restaurant at 2972 Diamond Street...known as a gathering place for San Francisco bohemians [emphasis added]. Bohemians were in Glen Park?
San Francisco was the birthplace of bohemianism on the West coast, a movement that ultimately resulted in the birth of the Beat movement in North Beach. In the 1880s, counter-culture-themed restaurants had appeared in Paris that encouraged patrons to draw art on the walls, sometimes in designs that bordered on the macabre. By the early 1900s in San Francisco, Coppa’s in North Beach had become a gathering spot for Bohemians and was famous for its murals: “The artists, along with poets and writers, contributed puzzling sayings and quotations that adorned the walls, fascinating – and insulting – customers (“Philistines”) who came to gawk at the bohemians.”
Image from Unna W, The Coppa Murals, 1952, Library of Congress.
Italian fare had gained in popularity by the 1920s and 1930s. Kenneth Rexroth, Godfather of the Beats, recalled, "The Casa Begine in its best days was a genuine artists’ and writers’ restaurant where people lingered long after splendid dinners in passionate discussions or intense chess games, and after many glasses of wine ended up singing until after midnight." Separately, Rexroth shared that, "San Francisco’s Bohemia, between the two world wars, may have been provincial, but in those days there was no question whatever that the laissez faire and dolce far niente of la vie méditerranée was stronger and lasted longer here than anywhere on that tideless inland sea itself.”
So was this the "beat" that could also be found at the Monterey Restaurant and its second iteration, the Pellegrino Restaurant? Glen Park seems a far cry and more than a stone's throw from Bohemian North Beach, but it seems Angelo may have had a knack for attracting such a niche clientele. Moreover, Glen Park in the 1930s and 1940s was still a more rural, out-of-the-way locale in San Francisco and more distant from the draconian raids being coordinated and conducted by the San Francisco Police Department, military police, and the State of California Alcoholic Beverage Control agents, especially after World War II. The legacy of Angelo's more forward-thinking and liberal attitudes that were shared after his passing may have helped set the stage for the future Casa Blanca Lounge.
Image from Police and Peace Officers' Journal of the State of California (Volume Feb. 1945-Dec. 1945), Feb 1945, Archive.org.
In 1944, Mary and Thomas Mitchell purchased Pellegrino's and renamed it the Casa Blanca Cafe. They sold it in 1947 to a former amateur golfing ace, Johnny Finetti, who in 1952 sold it to Regina Righetti. In 1954, the facade of the Casa Blanca was described in a non-newsy column by Dick Friendlich in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled, "It's News to Me": “The Casa Blanca, a bar on Diamond street, has a redwood front with brown trim. This information is valuable if you understand that in Spanish, Casa Blanca means White House.” For a brief time in 1957, Zudora Marsal, the widow of a restauranteur who had owned the Versailles French restaurant in North Beach, owned the Casa Blanca and held a dance for organized labor. Yet when she was unable to secure a liquor license, she sold it that same year to Glen Park residents Andrew and Beatrice Tomasello, who continued serving drinks and Italian fare.
Prior to this point, Andrew had been the owner of the Andy and Frank Service Station on Mission Street. It may never be known what the spark was that would lead the Tomasellos to change the theme of the restaurant to serve a completely different clientele - perhaps it was a familiarity with the site's Bohemian legacy or recognition of the business opportunity presented by the burgeoning homosexual rights movement - but in 1964 the Tomasellos enabled the arrival of female impersonation in Glen Park.
Citizens News was a newspaper for homosexuals that had first appeared in 1964 as an outgrowth of the League for Civil Education (LCE) News. The LCE had been chartered in 1961 as a California nonprofit corporation "to further the fight for civil rights among social variants." Based in San Francisco, the editor of Citizens News was Guy Strait, and the associate editor was Harry d’Turk. The first ad for the Casa Blanca appeared in Citizens News in September 1964:
Citizens News, September 1964, Digital Assets UC Berkeley.
Image from Citizens News, January 1965, Digital Assets UC Berkeley.
An associated article in Citizen News included the Casa Blanca among "all the major places in San Francisco...a new type bar for San Francisco…not only off the beaten path, but is also offering an impersonator show almost every night of the week...To get there, …take the freeway south… to the Monterey Street off-ramp…you will see a neon sign on your left, CASA BLANCA...And sure enough the bar is painted white.”
In the following issue of Citizens News, it was reported that, "Opening night of the Casa Blanca was something that should have been seen...Terry took so many curtain calls that he was embarrassed...The place is big, but not so large as to make it look like a gym.. there is a stage and fireplace in middle of room…a fine place for an indoor picnic." With the Tomasellos having changed the fare from Italian to Mexican, the article furthered that, "The addition of tacos to female impersonators is welcome to the jaded appetites…The Mexican food served…is not only delicious but very reasonably priced...$1.50 for a combination plate including taco, enchilada, Spanish rice and Frijole refritos.” In another description of how to get to the Casa Blanca, “You catch the #26 in front of the Old Mint…You catch something else in front of the New Mint and it is best treated at 33 Hunt St" (note: the latter address was the location of the city's venereal disease clinic).
Sadly, the names of all of the performers mentioned in the ads never included last names so it is impossible to identify who they were. However, the host at the Casa Blanca Lounge, a man named Charlie, is the only one whose last name was revealed in print. I was able to locate a descendant of Charlie, who shared he had passed away in 2010. She added that Charlie was a native a Mexico (perhaps he had crafted the Mexican menu) but had never mentioned the Casa Blanca Lounge to her, though she added he had owned a bar in the Financial district in 1970. She requested that his full name not be shared, which is being respected here.
Image from Citizens News, December 1964, Digital Assets UC Berkeley.
Image from Citizens News, October 1964, Digital Assets UC Berkeley.
In addition to no last names, we also have no images of the interior or exterior of the Casa Blanca Lounge. Nor, after much searching, do we have any known images of the female impersonators who performed at the Casa Blanca. The closest we have are still shots from a video conserved in the archives of the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society of a performance of female impersonation in the mid-1960s at an unknown San Francisco venue. The vibe at the Casa Blanca was likely similar:
Images of a female impersonation performance in San Francisco in the mid-1960s at an unknown location, courtesy of the San Francisco GLBT Historical Association Archives.
Ads for the Casa Blanca Lounge continued to appear in Citizens News until March 1965. The last ad to be found anywhere was in the San Francisco Chronicle in April and May, 1966 promoting the Sadle-ites, described elsewhere as "an exciting vocal and instrumental group." The Casa Blanca also featured dancing every Friday and Saturday night. It seems that, for reasons unknown, the Tomasellos had stopped featuring female impersonation.
Shortly after that, construction of the new Glen Park BART Station would be the death knell for the Casa Blanca, leading to the demolition of most of the businesses and residences on Diamond between Bosworth Street and Monterey Boulevard (as shown in the following images; the BART station opened in 1970):
OpenStreet map of Glen Park. Hashed lines show the route of the BART underground tunnel.
Left: The former Bank of America and GIen Park Branch Library buildings before being demolished for BART construction, located on the southeast corner of Diamond and Bosworth Streets.; right: the "big dig" in Glen Park, showing construction of the BART tunnel and station, circa 1968 to 1970. Images from the Glen Park Folder, SF Public Library.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) has said this about drag: "Drag is an Art; Drag is Culture; Drag is Dancing; Drag is Creative; Drag is Comedy, Drag is not a Crime." As we've discovered over the years, Glen Park has a rich and varied history. Now, with the discovery that our district once featured Bohemians and later, female impersonators, the richness of our Glen Park history has been elevated even further.