Endangered Eagle may still have hope

Last-minute talks could save SF queer institution

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Supporters of the Eagle Tavern protest its planned closure outside City Hall on April 12
PHOTO BY EMILY APPELBAUM

news@sfbg.com

An important community institution never truly dies. It remains in the hearts and minds of everyone it has touched — a fact that that patrons who have lived and loved (sometimes literally) in the Eagle Tavern understand. But that doesn't mean they're ready to loosen their talons and let go.

With the help of San Francisco's supervisors, some seriously committed community energy — and maybe even a Dallas cowboy who likes his leather — they may not have to.

For the past week, patrons of one of San Francisco's oldest and boldest gay leather bars have been rallying to save their stomping ground from uncertain fate. It started when they found that rumors swirling since early in the year were true: the Eagle was slated to close at the end of April and faced a May 1 eviction.

Since then, defenders of the 12th Street space have scraped together emergency meetings and impromptu marches, a surprise leather night at the Skylark Bar (owned by a believed-to-be buyer), and a demonstration on the steps of City Hall. Letters were sent to the Board of Supervisors, petitions signed, and pink tent campouts planned as vigils.

Through it all, the message carrying most clearly was that the Eagle Tavern is far more than a swingin' hot spot. "It's our history and it's our culture," said organizer Kyle DeVries at a rally on the steps of City Hall last Tuesday. "And we're proud of what we've given to this city."

That "what" includes more than $1 million raised through the years at popular Sunday beer busts supporting everything from breast cancer research to AIDS awareness. But it also includes providing a safe haven and sense of belonging for San Francisco's queer community for more than three decades.

And now, patrons have learned they will eek out another month. Thanks to the huge outpouring of support from Eagle denizens, and political pressure from three San Francisco supervisors, the end-of-April plan to fly the coop has been delayed at least until the end of May, Eagle manager Ron Hennis said.

But since the issue first exploded April 11, efforts to save the sacred space haven't slowed down. At press time, supporters were planning an April 19 "Tuesday roost" at the Eagle in hopes of pumping energy and cash back into the tavern on a night known to be quiet.

Sup. Scott Wiener, along with Sups. David Campos and Jane Kim, sent a letter to the San Francisco Police Department that reviews liquor license sales in connection with the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control. The letter reviewed the Eagle's importance in SF's queer community and stated that its authors are "adamantly opposed to any sale that would result in the Eagle's destruction."

The supervisors urged the SFPD to "closely scrutinize, consistent with applicable legal standards, any requested liquor license transfer relating to the Eagle to ensure that any such transfer will not harm the LGBT community by putting an end to the Eagle."

So far, these efforts have been promising for Eagle patrons. In a phone interview, Wiener told us that Skylark owner Steve Englebrecht has pulled out of negotiations to buy the place. But the situation remains complex.

Eagle manager Ron Hennis explained that current owners John Gardiner and Joe Banks decided to sell the Eagle a year ago to focus on their other SoMa leather bar, Hole in the Wall Saloon, which has been plagued with high-cost property battles of its own.

Gardiner and Banks didn't respond to our e-mails. But Hennis said they intended to sell the business — which includes the Eagle name, equipment, and liquor license — to people they felt would maintain the existing spirit of the bar: Hennis, Eagle entertainment coordinator Doug Hilsinger, and Lila Thirkield, owner of the Lexington Club.

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