Juanita More, activist, community leader, DJ, party promoter, and philanthropist, had to excuse herself to let Ronnie in to comb out her wig.
“I’ve been working with Ronnie for 12, 15 years,” she said. “And I’m lucky because everyone else has to go to him, but for me, he comes to my apartment.”
More has hosted a legendary Pride Party in San Francisco for the last 18 years. Last year, she organized the People’s March & Rally — Unite to Fight! with drag king and activist Alex U. Inn, meant to bring Pride back to its protest roots.
But now, with about 70 percent of San Franciscans vaccinated, More’s glad to be back at 620 Jones with three indoor bars and an outside space. Along with DJs, drag performances and music, her parties include surprises, she says—like high-school students coming in off the street playing drums. In 2016, More herself was surprised after reading the names of the 49 victims murdered in a shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
“We released butterflies, and they all flew up into the air and then came back and landed on me,” More said. “That was really special.”
Beneficiaries of ticket sales this year include SF Bay Area Queer Nightlife Fund and the Imperial Council of San Francisco, where More was recently named Empress. (“We had a meeting, and I asked everyone to stand up, and then I said, ‘Now, please bow.’”)
“I want it to feel like we’re coming home,” More said. “It feels different this year in a couple ways—we’re still physically and emotionally coming out of the pandemic, and we’re still sensitive to being around people. Hopefully, we can all let it go.”
The party spirit is reviving throughout San Francisco. People have been letting it go at the Madrone Art Bar, says owner Spike Krause. After a few smaller events with masks and social distancing, the bar, consistently rated one of the best in San Francisco, is fully open. The Madrone hosts events like Phat Tuesday, open mics, and Motown on Mondays (MOM), which started at the Madrone and has spread to 45 cities around the world, including Stockholm, Sao Paolo and Manila, and bills itself as the world’s largest weekly dance party.
Donovan Hall, the founder, started the event in 2009. He says the music has universal appeal, and he had people in the music industry in mind, to hear something different from what they’d been playing over the weekend.
Hall, based in San Francisco and San Jose, has played around the world, and says the crowd at MOM is all ages.
“We do a lot of remixes and also play originals,” he said. “I’ve been DJing in San Francisco for 20 plus years, and it’s a really mixed group age wise and race wise.”
Throughout the shutdown, Hall had dance parties on Twitch and fundraised for different groups, including Know Your Rights and Minnesota Freedom Fund. Now after months of lockdown, with washing down his groceries a distant memory, he’s looking forward to being on a crowded dance floor.
“I’m used to seeing a lot of regulars, who I call family,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how we made it through to the other side.”
The Saint Joseph’s Arts Society and Foundation, near many of San Francisco’s clubs in the South of Market neighborhood, also offers opportunities for parties. Designer Ken Fulk was determined to save the 22,000-foot former church from becoming another downtown office building, and to create a non-profit to support artists. The space is now used for concerts, performances and art openings, with memberships ranging from $50 to 25,000.
Sarah Lynch, who works with Fulk, says smaller events, capped at 100 people such as jazz shows and a discussion of the current art exhibit with curator Erica Deeman, have come back in June. In the fall they plan on going back to the larger parties they’ve had with hundreds of people.
One pre-pandemic event was “Heavenly Bodies,” a performance by six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald with café tables and an accordion player in the courtyard before the show. Afterwards, it turned into a disco with a DJ and someone playing the bongos, Lynch said.
The space is also available for private events. One that stands out, Lynch says, was the wedding of Michelin-starred chef Mourad Lahlou to Mathilde Froustey, a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet.
“That was the best sort of private event,” Lynch said. “They had confetti cannons and food trucks outside and her ballerina friends performed. It was incredible, and it turned into a crazy late-night party.”
As well as clubs, museums are starting to get back to hosting parties. Both the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and the Exploratorium on the Embarcadero had Thursday night parties after work before the pandemic. The Academy has started again, with restrictions like only 30 percent capacity and food and drinks outside, and the Exploratorium will start hosting their public events again in July.
But Amy Adkins, whose oversees renting out the museum, says she’s been getting a lot of calls from people interested in holding parties and weddings at the science museum on the water, where guests can explore exhibits like “Colored Shadows.”
At the Academy, guests can also walk around a museum at night, looking at the aquariums full of fish, the rainforest exhibit and Claude, the crowd-pleasing albino alligator. Later, the museum plans to resume talks by scientists, performances, and indoor bars.
The Midway is a multi-use venue which, assistant general manager Andrea Kirk says, is at the “intersection of art, tech, food and lifestyle.” As they open back up, Kirk says most people are ready to get back to the gallery, where the artists in residence show their work, concerts, events with robotics, and themed dinners, like “A Taste of California.”
“There’s a lot of pent-up energy, and things are selling out much quicker than in previous years,” she said. “I think we’re all so excited to find some semblance of normalcy.”
At the Oasis, known for its drag shows and cabaret, opening fully with no masks at the end of June is thrilling—and a little odd, says front of house manager Carissa Hatchel.
“We’re super excited and there’s this sense of relief that we’re nearing the end of this,” she said. “But we’re constantly unsure, and now there’s this mad dash after we sat on our hands for 14 months anxiously awaiting reopening.”
Projectors on the club’s stage mean patrons can go into the front room or up on the roof and watch the show, which she says will ease the minds of patrons a little leery of being in a crowd of sweaty strangers.
Rob Ready, the artistic director of PianoFight in San Francisco, says they’ll resume events in July. Ready, who cheerfully asks on his outgoing voice message for you to leave a reason why he’s incredibly sexy, says the club is unique in that it’s almost entirely local acts.
“Shakespeare can eat one,” he said. “We have three stages, and we have improv and magic and music and video game tournaments and plays and all the things. In the past, we had 1,200 to 1,400 performances a year.”
Ready plays in PianoFight’s house band, and sometimes does stand up. He looks forward to being to being back in a crowded club.
“I’m personally excited about getting on a stage and making people feel things and laugh and sing and dance,” he said. “And I’m excited to be in an audience and do those things as well.”
It’s not just nightlife coming back. There’s Daybreaker, which hosts sunrise parties complete with breakfast, yoga, DJs, MCs and a horn section, which Eli Clark-Davis, the co-founder, calls “dance parties and a hub for joy.” The first post-pandemic event in San Francisco happens in early July. Clark-Davis says Daybreaker, which went online for the first time during the pandemic, was started as an alternative to nightlife.
“Imagine a Venn diagram with one side safety and one mystery,” he said. “We aim to be right in the middle.”
Radha Agrawal, the founder of Daybreaker, says the early-morning parties are a great way to connect with others.
“Sometimes an underground space can be an escape from ourselves rather than a return to ourselves,” she said. “When we return to ourselves, finding community is so much easier.”
But others say they see kinship at nightclubs—like Hatchel, who says Oasis is still standing because patrons contributed $270,000 in a fundraiser.
“Oasis is a magical place,” she said. “It’s kind of like Cheers where everyone there knows each other.”
And More says she has always had a knack for connecting people.
“I create community,” she said. “As big as they are and as many people as these parties have, it doesn’t feel like a rave. It feels intimate, like you’re connected to me and to one another.”