Sal Accardi and the Watergarden

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In the Spotlight: Sal Accardi

By John Follesdal, Esq.

From South Bay Times, February 1989

Sal Accardi is the President of the Board of the Watergarden bathhouse in San Jose. Throughout the AIDS crises, his position on keeping the Watergarden open has raised controversy in our community. South Bay Times met with Sal to discuss his views on AIDS, bathhouse closings, and some of the other political issues he has been involved with.

Q: You are probably best known in our community as the President of the Board of the Watergarden. How has AIDS affected your business?

A: We started off with 64 investors when the Watergarden opened up. When AIDS hit a lot of them panicked and it was very difficult to try to make good their investments so quickly. But we set up payment schedules, and I can proudly say that no one has lost a dime; everyone has made a profit In the Watergarden.

Now It’s a smaller corporation, and that works out better, with less problems that I have to deal with. On the other hand, my ideal was to have a community bathhouse that was actually owned by the community. We’ve got people from literally all walks of life that have been and are investors In the Watergarden – business people, religious people, laymen, old and young.

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The Watergarden staff is presented with a certificate of recognition by the Santa Clara County Health Department for their efforts in STD prevention

I think the Watergarden has, through the employees, the managers, and the executives, developed an advertising program that has been tremendous, a whole promotional concept about how to deal with AIDS. We’ve spent $ 140,000 on safe sex advertising and programs.

I’m proud of the way we’ve dealt with AIDS as a community and the way the Watergarden has dealt with it… Some time ago, I came to a reckoning about the Watergarden and the AIDS crises, and it was clear to me that I was right on track. Something in my gut lead me in this direction, and I know we’re doing the right thing, there is no question in my mind.

AIDS is a tremendous crisis and setback for us… It’s been very difficult for me watching my friends die around me, but still I’m so proud that we’ve managed to survive the way we have. To me AIDS is eventually going to make a statement about life, not about death. It’s going to show how we are on a one-to-one basis and on a collective basis as a group.

People need love, they need compassion, and that’s not going to stop. There are many selfish, greedy people who think that they are going to stop us, or make us go back in the closet, but that’s not going to happen… When they find a cure, we’re going to be so much better for having gone through this, I’m convinced of it. We’ll have a perspective on ourselves that maybe we wouldn’t have had If we had not had the crises.

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San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes (center) and Sal Accardi (right)

O: Many cities have closed their bathhouses, haven’t they?

A: No, not many. That’s an impression that the politicians like to give. Initially, in the beginning of the crises, people were very frustrated. All they saw was the rising statistics of AIDS. And some politicians, especially Diane Feinstein who became obsessed with the issue, got on a vendetta and wanted the baths closed. Actually very few cities have followed suit, thank God.

I not only felt it was unwise – and I don’t mean that from a vested interest – it was downright threatening to the community because it was counter-productive. It was forcing people to go into environments where they were going to continue to have sex, but in a less safe environment with no options for cleanliness or for condom use or for safe sex consciousness raising. I thought It was ideal for the baths to be instrumental in being part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. But politicians want to grandstand, especially when they know homosexuality Is going on. They want to use it somehow…

I think gay people are more than sexual objects, but some of them choose to have a more limited persona. But to me, I’m convinced that the bottom line is not horniness or the desire to get laid. The bottom line Is a need for companionship and an affirmation of ourselves as human beings.

However, many people have learned to use sex as a means of getting attention and establishing human rapport. They get caught up in the superficial to the extent that they lose sight of their real goal – to become at one with themselves and with each other. I think that is the bottom line of human sexuality, and if that is true, we should try to foster environments that encourage people to express themselves in a variety of ways as long as they are not laying a trip on somebody else. That’s the philosophy of where I’m coming from with the Watergarden.

O:You’ve also been politically active for a long time?

A: Ironically, the first time I went to college, at Foothill College in the sixties, I was openly gay but conservative. I wasn’t for the Vietnam war, (but rather) for either winning it or getting out. I realize now that there was no chance of winning it, that it was an ignoble war.

During the whole period of the flower children and the consciousness raising and the encounters and the gestalt, I got very actively involved in psychology and transactional analysis. I was very much into that. It was my rebellion, I guess, against the times when I considered myself conservative, I went from conservative fascist to hippie to being a left-wing entrepreneur.

O: You grew up in Santa Clara County. Were you born here also?

A: No. I was born In Brooklyn, New York. I came out to California in 1959, when I was thirteen years old, and I learned three things in that year: I learned how to ride the bicycle, I learned how to masturbate, and I learned that most people weren’t Italian or Jewish. I had lived in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood and all the people I knew were family people or neighbors that were Jewish. I never understood why we had a Protestant president. The whole world seemed to me to be Irish, Jewish, or Italian.

I got in touch with my homosexuality at a very personal level – I had to confront It -when I was seventeen. I grew quite attached to a fellow at Los Altos High School in my Junior year, and I had sort of a mini-breakdown because It was scary. I got all sick. But I got over that period and went to the other extreme. I became vociferous in my gayness. At the time it was not so much political but a psychological reinforcement for myself. The more I talked about it, the more comfortable I was. It was a way to stir people, and it worked.

I was very popular in high school, in the sense that even though I was openly gay, I was very successful as an actor. I was very popular even with the football team – we used to play poker games on Fridays and Saturdays at my house.

I came from a very loving supportive family, so It was easy for me to come out… My grandmother’s philosophy was – and she was the head of the household – she said “You were given a special kind of love, and therefore you need to be loved in a special kind of way.” And then she told my family that If anyone didn’t accept my “situation” they could get out, and that anybody that I loved would be loved and respected in our home.

It was as simple as that, and from then on my homosexuality, I feel, has been an advantage to me. I like to deal with the issue. It gives me a way to confront society and shake up society. But If I hadn’t been homosexual, I probably would have been rebelling on some other issue.

Q: You went to college here also, right?

A: Yes. I went to Foothill and San Jose State. While I was going to San Jose State I worked In a third-rate health club/bath house in Redwood City, and that’s when I got Interested In the baths environment. I was a Jack-of-all trades -It was a small operation -I was a receptionist, I was a laundry person, etc.

While l was going to San Jose State I also started coming out socially In the gay world. Up until then I had had a lover for five years. It was a very closed, quiet, paranoid, uptight relationship. He was unhappy and I was unhappy for the last two years of that relationship. We were too afraid to be ourselves, and I didn’t know anything else.

After we broke up I was forced to find my first bar, the Locker Room, and I paced for two hours up and down the street before I had the courage to walk In. As soon as I walked in the bartender said “Oh. This must be the first time you’re in a gay bar.He had spotted me!

After that I thought the best way to get involved, and a more comfortable way to get involved than by being a patron, was to become a cocktail waiter… I could be the person In control, I could limit it, and I could be less inhibited. I didn’t have to be rejected or repudiated as easily, and that helped me to come out…

During my time at San Jose State I also co-founded the gay student union there. That was in 74- ’75. There was a lesbian friend of mine in the drama department, and we wanted to make some waves. It was done almost for fun at first, but then we realized that there was a need there. We started having semesterly elections, and so on. A lot of people wanted to get Involved for social reasons; I was Into It for political reasons, to make a statement.

Q: What other organizations have you been involved with?

A: I kind of regret it now, but when I was a kid, when I was thirteen, I was captain of the Young Republicans in Los Altos. Later on I was actively involved with Richard Nixon’s first campaign against Kennedy. I regret that now, but I was politically active from early on.

I’ve found a need, certainly through the Watergarden, to remain vigilant as to the possibility that homophobic people would want to moralize or use the Watergarden as some kind of football. I see the Watergarden as a cause, not just a business. There was a need for a bathhouse when I opened It, and It was a political statement.

We have a lot of business dealings and we try to spend our money within the gay community to keep other businesses going. And that’s been a philosophy of mine. Sometimes I pay a little more for that, and sometimes I have no choice – we suffer discrimination. When the AIDS crises hit contractors wouldn’t work for us because they were afraid to get AIDS.

I’m temperamentally suited to politics in an activist way. I’m not a moderate type person. I’m very theatrical, and my theatricalism plus my political interest plus my homosexuality and my Italian background created who I am. But I’m more Italian than I am gay. I think of myself as very Italian. I’m very proud of my heritage, the language. the food, the culture, everything. And for the public record, I am not a member of any Mafia organization, even though I am three quarters Sicilian!

Q: How about social activities and hobbies?

A: I love food, as you can see. I love to eat, and every now and then I love to cook. It’s very relaxing to me, but because of my Job – I travel a lot – I eat a lot at restaurants. Predominantly Italian restaurants.

I’m not an outgoing sportsman/activist type person. I like to read a lot, magazines and books, mostly biographies, be they political biographies, historical biographies, or Hollywood-type biographies. I love movies, and I like television. To the disappointment of my lover I can look forward to a whole weekend of going home on Friday evening when I get out of work, taking off my clothes, and literally staying In bed for three days, reading, watching television, and from time to time petting my cat.

Occasionally I go out to the bars, but I don’t party as much as I used to. I also like the peace and tranquility of going to the Russian river or going fishing, and I like theatre a lot – I go to New York usually every year. I’m not into hiking or boating; I’m not into sports, but I do like looking at the guys who are. They seem to be better developed than me. I wonder if there is a correlation between that? I don’t know which came first, their bodies or their physical activity!

Bartending at Mac’s with Rafael

rafael sf pride 1988

Rafael Cuilan was a very popular bartender at both Mac’s Club and later Renegades. Rafael was always great with faces and drinks, so no matter how long it had been since you’d been in the bar, he’d remember your drink and be busy mixing it up before you even sat down.

Mac’s was a kind of “gay family” bar, and Rafael, Skip, and Rich treated their customers like family. It was always great to sit down at Mac’s and enjoy a drag show and conversation with everyone sitting around you.

Rafael moved to Germany in 1994 but he’s back now and enjoying his retirement by getting deeply involved in helping elect progressive politicians. 

Claudia and the Savoy

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For more than twenty years Claudia Thomas was the house DJ at The Savoy, a women’s bar located in Santa Clara. In addition, during the 1990s Claudia played at several of the mobile clubs for women including the G Spot  in San Francisco and The Office in San Jose.

Claudia was always willing to lend her talents to community fundraisers and  the Gay Pride celebration.

Note: Photo taken in  1992 during a Gay Cruise on the San Francisco Bay

An Insight Into the Bar Scene With Darlene

darlene lutz profile

Known throughout the gay community for her signature “beehive” hairdo and fundraising skills, Darlene Lutz Montalbano became a member of the San Jose area LGBTQ community in 1969. She began working as a bartender for Mom and Pop, the original owners of The Savoy  (women’s bar) in 1972. Over the years she worked as a bartender at Toyon Bar, continued working for Toyon when it moved from Cupertino to The Alameda in San Jose, and then went back to Savoy for a short time in 1984. Darlene then found an opportunity to open her own bar, Dar’s Hideaway in the old Silver Fox bar in Cupertino.

Darlene was also one of the first women to be accepted into Casa de San Jose, San Jose’s gay court/fundraising organization.  Darlene was the first woman Empress of CASA. She raised a great deal of money, organized many successful picnics and other events, and brought the men and women of the gay community together.

She assisted in some capacity with CASA for years after her reign, and then worked with the IRLM (Imperial Royal Lion Monarchy, another gay court), to continue organizing events and raising money for various causes.

During the AIDS crisis in Santa Clara County, she rallied the women of the community to support individuals diagnosed with AIDS with many fundraising events, hosting spaghetti dinners, gay cruises on the San Francisco Bay, and lending any support needed.

She feels the younger LGBTQ generation doesn’t have the same opportunities these days to connect:

“The younger community doesn’t have guidance from somebody who is my age or someone who is willing to get out there and get people connected. I miss that myself. It was a joy to be able to do stuff for other people.”