For Heklina—actor, alternative drag star and co-owner of 11th Street cabaret and nightclub venue Oasis—the most memorable moment of the past year was New Year's Eve 2014, which she spent in preparation for the club's grand opening celebration that evening.
"In the middle of the afternoon that day, there was still a pile of garbage in the middle of the floor. There was sawdust everywhere. I was just having a panic attack," Heklina (a.k.a. Stefan Grygelko) said. "We put balloons everywhere and opened for New Year's Eve—and it still smelled like paint and sawdust."
But once the dust settled, Oasis quickly became a favorite for cabaret shows, ranging from drag parodies like Sex and The City Live and Star Trek Live to upscale striptease show Man Francisco and biweekly drag show Mother. Then there were the dance parties, often lasting until 3am.
Star Trek Live at Oasis.
While Heklina hadn't run a nightclub before opening Oasis, she spent 20 years working in clubs in SF and across the globe as the host of the acclaimed Trannyshack drag shows (which rebranded as Mother last January, out of regard to changing mores around the use of the word "tranny").
This is also the first time she's had a team of business partners. "I've always been used to being the boss. The only boss. So I've had to learn a lot this year to agree with other people," she said. Having distinctive roles for each partner helps: she and D'Arcy Drollinger book the club, while Geoff Benjamin handles business matters and Jason Beebout manages the bar.
The initial plan was to set up shop in the Castro, not SoMa, but the hunt for the perfect cabaret venue ultimately led the team to 11th Street. "We looked at a lot of venues in the Castro, but one thing we always knew in our mind was we had to have a place that was good for performance," Heklina explained.
"Every time somebody opens a club in the Castro, they always say there's a great stage and people can perform—but when they open, there's really no stage. Me and D'Arcy come from a performance background, and we knew a large feature of the club had to be performance. There were just no venues in the Castro that were right for us."
"The great thing about Oasis is it has that big, open room, which lends itself to both cabaret and nightclub," Heklina added. "We knew that the formula of only providing cabaret would never survive in San Francisco." (For more on Heklina's background in drag and cabaret, check out this 15-minute KQED documentary.)
So far, the combined strategy is paying off. "It was a hit right straight out of the box," Heklina said of Oasis. "People do love the space, and it's almost cliche to say this at this point, 'cause everyone keeps saying it, but everyone says it's very much needed in San Francisco at this time."
"I'm in New York City right now, and the city is completely gone from the New York that I knew 20 years ago. It's completely bland. And it would be so sad to see San Francisco go completely in that direction."
Looking toward the future, Heklina is continuing to focus her efforts on booking solid performances. "I'm just trying to bring in quality nightclubs and bring in quality cabaret programming, and that's all I can really do."
"I've talked to other business owners and they say, 'Oh, you know, it gets easier after the first five years.' And I'm like, 'Oh my god! After the first five years!' I guess I'm just taking it one day at a time."
This week, all hands are on deck as Oasis prepares for its one-year anniversary party on New Year's Eve. Heklina and D'Arcy will kick off a series of performances at 11:30pm; after the New Year's countdown, the party will continue until 3am.
"People know when they come to a production that D'Arcy and I do that it's gonna be a big show, it's gonna be great music ... That's what people can expect," Heklina said.
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