Queer Silicon Valley is proud to present an interview with one of the most influential people in the bar scene — Gail Chandler-Croll
Interview conducted by Ken Yeager
Author’s note:The interview with Gail Chandler-Croll, the owner of Mac’s Club, took place inside the bar on Post St. in the late morning of July 30. I had been wanting to interview her for a year as part of Queer Silicon Valley’s history of the bar scene. Standing behind the bar was longtime bar manager and friend Jim Michl, and off to the side was John Croll, Gail’s husband.
As Gail tells the story of Mac’s, she remarks that she is a straight woman who had never owned a bar, much less a gay one. She was looking for cash flow and the owner was looking for cash, so they struck a deal. That was in 1977. Soon later, she would also own Renegades from 1980 to 2006.
Gail referred to Mac’s as a sanctuary. “Through the years, people would come in to be with their friends, enjoy themselves, and be part of the community. It was a privilege to be part of that,” she said.
Harassment from the police was constant. There were ongoing raids, intimidations, and arrests, all without legitimate reason. Once, there was an undercover agent who pretended to be a patron – who later turn people in. Whenever the police cleared the bar, it had an obvious effect on business.
Then there were the years of AIDS when so many people were dying. She estimates she lost 40 friends to the disease. It got to the point where she could no longer attend funerals.
The drag queens and drag shows were always a highlight. “The outfits were beautiful, the make-up, the wigs. I never looked that good,” she laughed. “When we had the drag shows, everybody came.”
The old Mac’s had to close in 1998 due to changes in building codes from the Loma Prieta earthquake. The adjoining business in the building, Sal and Luigi’s pizza, also had the close. The building was later retrofitted and housed Brix’s gay bar and now the Continental bar.
She found a place for sale on Post St. in a 107-year-old building that she thought was intimate and similar to the old Mac’s. After they had bought the building, John Croll had gone to an auction and had bought the entire bar furnishing for $500. He was the only bidder.
Gail thinks the new location on Post St. has served the community well. She brags that it was there before Splash and before it was known as the Qmunity District. But now the time has come for her to sell the bar and move onto other projects.
Be sure to listen to two other interviews about the old and new Mac’s. One is with longtime bartender Rafael Hussin; the other from longtime manager Jim Michl. Listening to all three interviews will give people a picture of the bar scene that no longer exists today but which played an important role in creating a community for LGBTQ people in Silicon Valley. Much of that world has been lost as the number of gay bars has dwindled to three. Hopefully it doesn’t dwindle to two.
Thank you, Gail, for the interview and for the memories you gave to so many friends and patrons.
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.
From the Whiskey Gulch in East Palo Alto to the Stockton Strip in San Jose, the gay community was widespread in Silicon Valley. Whayne Herriford describes community life and the bars and clubs that the gay community coalesced around.
Kathy Wolfe, Founder and CEO of Wolfe Video, remembers a time when movies about our LGBTQ lives were not readily available through multiple media outlets.
Today’s LGBTQ+ younger community may not know that Kathy played a vital role in kickstarting the visibility of our community in media today.
But before the World Wide Web, Netflix, smart phones, Ellen DeGeneres, The L Word, and all the programming we take for granted today, Kathy Wolfe had a vision and took action.
In 1979, Kathy Wolfe saw the powerful documentary Word is Out at the Frameline Film Festival. “I was completely inspired by seeing that film,” remembers Kathy. “I immediately grasped the importance of bringing our stories to the public.”
For the next several years, Kathy honed her skills in producing, directing and editing lesbian documentaries, including The Changer and the Changed, an early history of Olivia Records. But she soon realized the need for distribution channels so that these movies could be seen outside of film festivals.
The technology of the day was VHS, so in 1985 Kathy formed a new company, Wolfe Video. Initially, Wolfe sold tapes directly to lesbians, many of whom were closeted and had no other way to see these movies.
From the outset, however, Kathy’s ultimate goal was wider than mail order. She wanted to spur acceptance of our community by getting these titles seen by both gay and straight audiences.
She worked tirelessly to overcome the almost automatic perception by homophobic wholesalers that lesbian and gay movies equal pornography. She made bold moves, such as cold-calling Lily Tomlin and asking to produce and distribute a VHS of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. This created a breakthrough into the giant mainstream video rental market.
Another bold move was acquiring the hit movie Big Eden, getting it rated PG (a first), and producing it as a double DVD (another first).
A continuing challenge has been keeping up with the very rapidly changing technology, but Kathy has adapted. Besides adding Blu-ray as a format for physical sales, in 2012 she launched WolfeOnDemand.com, the first digital LGBTQ platform. She also licenses Wolfe films to streaming outlets all over the world.
Ironically, large companies such as Netflix are now both customers and competitors of Wolfe’s for quality LGBTQ films. Kathy is philosophical about this. “These days our films can be streamed all over the world or purchased on DVD for guaranteed rewatching. I take pride in knowing we helped make a difference for our community. We now see ourselves – and are seen – in a much truer light.”
Both the LGBTQ and mainstream community recognize her impact and Kathy has received multiple awards over the years including: Cinequest’s “Maverick Spirit Award;” NCLR’s “Community Partner Award;” the San Francisco Board of Supervisors “Certificate of Honor,” and the National Organization of Women’s “Excellence in Media Award.”
Whayne was one of four founders of the South Bay Times (SBT) newspaper in 1988. SBT covered all the local LGBT news and covered the local events and social life. Unfortunately due to personal issues and the death of one of the founders, SBT was only published for two years, but was a wonderful community resource during that time.
When the South Bay Leather Uniform Group (SLUG) disbanded in the mid-1990s, the Santa Clara County Leather Association stepped in to take its place.
The SCCLA is a pansexual social and educational club, where folks can find connection, mentorship and community in leather. Renegades – San Jose’s only leather and bear club – became the group’s hub for weekend nights, Sunday brunches, movie nights and meetings of the San Jose Brotherhood.
Members stitched SCCLA’s triangle patch onto leather vests and jackets, which were often worn to annual formal dinners and leather weekends, where the dress code was, “Leather in uniforms are admired but not required.” These socials attracted people across Northern California, from San Francisco, Sonoma and Sacramento.
“We had fun, did good things, raised money for charity – I had a blast,” said Frank La, who first joined SCCLA in 2012. “I was becoming my leather self, and I was understanding what leather was about: not what’s worn on the outside but kind of inside in the heart. I loved it and took into it like a duck to water.”
The organization also hosted Mr. and Ms. Santa Clara Leather contests, whose title holders become ambassadors for the community, helping connect and educate folks in and outside of the LGBTQ community.
Frank – who earned the title of Mr. Santa Clara County Leather 2014 – said being an ambassador was one of the highlights of his life.
“I got to meet and spend some time with leaders in the leather community that, unfortunately, are no longer with us today,” Frank said. “I got the opportunity to sit down one-on-one to discuss history of where they’ve been, where they came from, where they are today and where the leather community is today. The title holding experience is just unbelievable.”
Growing out of the post WWII biker culture, leather promoted images of masculine independence that resonated with men and women who were dissatisfied with mainstream culture, especially dispelling the myth that all homosexual men were effeminate.
Gay leather became a practical way to symbolize open exploration of kink and S&M for some, while others adopted it as an entire lifestyle. In the 1960s, San Francisco became a hub for leather subculture in the gay community, which exploded internationally in the 1970s and 80s.
According to the Leather Archives, the SCCLA was founded in 1997 by Kevin Roche and Miranda von Stockhausen – who were Mr. and Ms. South Bay-San Jose Leather 1996, respectively. SCCLA represented the merger of the South Bay Leather and San Jose Leather groups.
Locally, Gabrielle Antolovich, the DeFrank Center’s president, earned the title of International Ms. Leather and International Ms. Bootblack in 1990, while Lance Moore is known as “Member #1” of the SCCLA. Moore is a Silicon Valley technical writer, Billy DeFrank Center board member and Mr. Santa Clara County Leather in 2000.
The SCCLA was spoiled; master craftsmen Tony and Dave Coronza founded Leather Masters in 1989 from their garage – in true Silicon Valley fashion.
“We would go into Mr. S (Leather in San Francisco) and some other stores and say, ‘Oh, I can make that,’ and ‘I can do that much cheaper,’” Carranza told the Dallas Voice in 2020. “I was a stockbroker at the time, and I didn’t want to wear a suit and tie to work. I said, ‘Hey, let’s go into business.’ And then we bought a sewing machine.”
Leather Masters emphasized providing correct, accessible information for people interested in the lifestyle, on top of providing the local LGBT and straight communities with high-quality leather products during the rise in popularity of the subculture’s style.
Their storefront on Park Avenue opened in 1991 in San Jose’s St Leo’s neighborhood, an emerging LGBT hub, where they not only sold custom leather jackets, vests, boots, chaps and harnesses, but also tailored garments specifically to customers’ bodies.
“To have that in San Jose – whatever you wanted – they had or would make for you, that was just priceless,” Frank La said. “It takes a true craftsmen to make those things.”
The store eventually closed in 2016, a few years after Tony Coronza passed away from complications of a stroke. Dave Coronza moved down to Dallas. The South Bay’s nearest leather shops remain in San Francisco, which can vary in price and quality.
The number of events held by the SCCLA started declining in 2019, as core members were busy with life, moving out of the Bay Area or even passing away. The SCCLA isn’t intending to shut down, but the Covid-19 pandemic really pumped the breaks on gatherings and events in 2020.
A one-of-a-kind LGBTQ Latinx Theater ensemble located in San Jose. The plays produced are inspired by the queer Latinx experience. Rodrigo García and Ugho Badú direct the ensemble in addition to writing the plays that the ensemble performs. Every year the ensemble performs an originally written Christmas play that performs at the Mexican Heritage Plaza, Billy Defrank Center, and in Watsonville. In 2016, they produced a four-episode web series titled “SiemPrE Por Ti” funded by the Health Trust as part of the Getting to Zero strategy. Another project funded by Getting to Zero is “Canción de Cuna para Un Niño Herido/Lullaby for a Wounded Boy” which was met with great success. For three consecutive years, Teatro Alebrijes produced “Carlota” an original play by members of the ensemble, which performed to sold-out audiences that included English-speaking folks who attended despite the fact that the play was spoken in Spanish, but had subtitles projected on a screen in English. In 2019, Teatro Alebrijes was invited to perform at the historic El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista for its Day of the Dead celebration. The ensemble used to rehearse 2-4 days a week at the School of Arts & Culture, and it’s now holding virtual rehearsals through the Zoom platform.
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.
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.
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!
Square Dance calls to “Do-Si-Do,” “Promenade” and “Roll Away To A Half Sashay” became a welcome pastime for the LGBTQ community to socialize, stay active and sometimes even find love.
The El Camino Reelers is a modern Western Square Dance club in the South Bay, formed in Palo Alto in September 1985 by lesbians and gay men looking to have fun and meet open-minded people.
More than three decades later, members continue to square dance to country music and traditional folk, as well as soul, disco and show tunes inside St. Andrews United Methodist Church, 20 minutes west of San Jose.
Tickets to attend the smoke-free and alcohol-free environment never require a partner, fancy outfit, coordination or knowledge about dancing. Members don’t even need to be part of the LGBTQ community.
This is far from an isolated phenomenon in the South Bay.
El Camino Reelers were part of a wave of LGBTQ square dancing clubs that popped up nationwide, after intramural social “teams” first organized in Miami in January 1977. That same year, square dancing found its way 3,000 miles west in San Francisco, and three GLBTQ square dance clubs had formed by 1981.
Eventually, two members of San Francisco’s Western Star Dancers — Marilyn Martinyak and Patricia Dixon — started El Camino Reelers as an alternative to the clubs an hour away in the city. Marilyn and Pat were together for 27 years before marrying in Sunnyvale in 2008.
Early membership was comprised of mostly women during initial classes, but attendance grew through word of mouth and advertisements in newsletters of LGBTQ organizations, including High Tech Gays.
Within a year of its inception, El Camino Reelers became a member of the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs. As of 2021, the IAGSDC includes more than 80 clubs – primarily in the United States and Canada – and hosts an annual convention that brings together more than 1,000 dancers.
The El Camino Reelers became well-known as a “geek repository” due to its location in Silicon Valley, and members who worked at Adobe, Sun, Google, and Yahoo. The club lived up to that reputation in 2005, when they hosted more than 800 attendees at the 22nd annual convention, dubbed “Star Thru The Silicon Galaxy,” at the Marriott Santa Clara. Several smaller weekend gatherings, called “fly-ins,” were held every fews years in Cupertino, Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Jose from 1995 to 2010.
The El Camino Reelers are one of a dozens of clubs across the Bay Area, but remain the sole LGBTQ-specific organization in Santa Clara County.
The last live club night was Wednesday, March 11, before the Covid-19 pandemic halted in-person gatherings and activities. Virtual club nights resumed on April 14, hosted through Zoom every other week.