Tenderloin exhibition series to celebrate Aunt Charlie's Lounge, neighborhood drag culture

Tenderloin exhibition series to celebrate Aunt Charlie's Lounge, neighborhood drag culture
Photos: James Hosking/Beautiful by Night
By Carrie Sisto - Published on July 30, 2019.

Over the course of 2019, the Tenderloin Museum will play host to a months-long series of exhibitions and events paying homage to Aunt Charlie's Lounge, the decades-old Tenderloin gay bar known for its drag shows. 

The first exhibit in the series, Tim Snyder's multimedia portraits of the Grand Ducal Council, is currently winding down, and this Thursday, August 1, the museum will launch photographer James Hosking’s first solo exhibit, "Beautiful by Night: Photographs of Aunt Charlie’s Lounge."

Hosking's interest in Aunt Charlie's drag shows began in 2009, when he attended one of the final performances by Aunt Charlie's fixture Vicki Marlane. (Marlane, who died in 2011, was a notable transgender activist, and the block on which the bar stands was ultimately named for her in 2014.)

"I fell in love with the [perfomers'] diversity… all the various ages, races, and etcetera," he said, noting that it directly reflects the diversity of the neighborhood.

The 100 block of Turk Street was renamed for Vicki Marlane in 2014. | PHOTO: BEYONDCHRON

In the wake of Marlane's passing, Hosking set out to capture three regular performers at the bar's Friday- and Saturday-night Hot Boxxx Girls shows — Donna Personna, Olivia Hart, and Collette LeGrande.

Influenced by Christer Strömholm’s "Les Amies de Place Blanche" and Susan Meiselas’s "Carnival Strippers,"  Hosking's images capture a day in the life of an Aunt Charlie's performer: getting ready at home, traveling to the bar, gearing up backstage, and at the show itself. 

The images use mirrors and reflection to encourage the viewer to consider "the act of looking and the inherent voyeurism of portraiture," he explained.

Olivia Hart getting ready for a show.

The exhibit at the Tenderloin Museum will feature 17 prints, including Hosking’s first time printing on silk. While many of the photographs in the show have previously published, Hosking said he “really dug into the negatives” and will be presenting some new images. 

"The photos are in various formats and stocks, from flamboyant color to high-grain black-and-white," Hosking said. 

In addition to the photographs, Hosking made a 2014 companion documentary about the Hot Boxxx Girls, also entitled Beautiful by Night. For the exhibition's opening night, it will play on a loop; visitors can also view it on a tablet. 

The exhibit is sequenced to follow the stages of the Hot Boxxx Girls' days, from pre-show to backstage to performance time.

Hosking has been a longtime contributor to the Tenderloin Museum, which also hosted "Even in Darkness," his documentary about the San Francisco Night Ministry, in 2017. Though he recently moved with his partner to Chicago, he still feels connected to the Tenderloin, he said. 

"In a San Francisco dominated by rapid gentrification and a worsening housing crisis, my hope is that this show serves as a reminder of what drew generations of gender-variant people to the city," Hosking said.

The opening of his first solo exhibition will be complimented by performances by Personna and LeGrande, both of whom also participated in the museum’s reenactment of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.

Donna Personna performing at Aunt Charlie's.

In September, Hosking’s show will be followed by another show about the Hot Boxxx Girls, created by the museum’s lead volunteer Darwin Bell, and featuring more recent images of the performers.

The final two shows of the series, in October and November, will focus on Aunt Charlie’s Tuesday night High Fantasy drag shows, which draw a darker, more experimental crowd from the Hot Boxxx Girls, Conry said. The October show will feature photos from Marissa Leitman, while work from Raphael Villet will appear in November.

Beyond being a retrospective of the bar’s contribution to the neighborhood’s history, the Aunt Charlie's exhibits are a call to action for preservation, said museum director Katie Conry. With the housing crisis threatening the Tenderloin’s historically low-income LGBTQ community, she explained, spaces like Aunt Charlie's are more important than ever.

The museum's goal is to use all the exhibits as the foundation of a book about Aunt Charlie’s, full of historical research, oral histories, and artwork celebrating the performers. 

The book will be divided into days of the week, similar to the bar’s schedule, with an introduction by Susan Stryker, a longtime neighborhood historian who produced a documentary about Marlane.

Olivia Hart after a performance at Aunt Charlie's, from the film Beautiful By Night.

Hosking’s photo exhibit launches will launch this Thursday, August 1 at 6 p.m., as part of the Tenderloin/Lower Polk first Thursday Art Walk.

To support the exhibit, the Tenderloin Museum is screening Stryker’s documentary "Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria" on Thursday, August 8.

A full schedule of upcoming events focused on Aunt Charlie's and the Tenderloin's drag culture can be found on the museum’s Facebook page