If you’ve lived around the San Francisco Bay Area, you are likely familiar with establishments such as Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, El Rio, or The Stud. Even if you haven’t stepped foot into the building, you’ve walked or driven past the exterior without realizing it. Did you know behind those doors holds so much history? These three bars are the main focus of director Drew De Pinto’s film, Last Call.
In under four minutes, Last Call pays tribute to the threat of historic queer bars closing their doors for the final time, including The Stud, the first worker-owned nightclub in the United States. As the film opens with the eulogy given during The Stud’s virtual funeral, the visuals speak volumes with views of empty bars that were once welcoming their doors to anyone and everyone.
We interviewed the director of Last Call, Drew De Pinto, to hear their thought process of creating this film, how they pushed filming during the 2020 pandemic lockdown, and dig into much more beyond Last Call.
What made you want to create a short film focusing on these three San Francisco spaces? Do you have any personal connections to any of these bars?
I shot Last Call in the fall of 2020, shortly after moving from Chicago to the Bay Area for grad school. Leaving Chicago only a few months into the pandemic, I realized I had no idea which of my favorite bars and venues would still be there when I returned. I was angry at how difficult it was for smaller independent venues to secure the government funding they desperately needed and the lack of support for the service and nightlife workers that depended on them.
It didn’t take much research on queer and trans communities in the Bay to come across the Stud. Everything I heard about it reminded me of the spaces I loved back in Chicago. I cried watching a live stream of the Stud funeral, even though I had never been there. It represented a world of radical queer community that I feared was dying all around me, particularly given its history as the first worker-owned nightclub in the country.
Through reaching out to the Stud Collective and other performers associated with the space, I learned about Aunt Charlie’s Lounge and El Rio, two similarly beloved and historic queer venues facing unknown fates. Even before the pandemic, the Stud, Aunt Charlie’s, and El Rio had long and storied histories of precarious survival.
Over the next few years, while editing and releasing Last Call, El Rio, in particular, became an essential place in my life and a central part of my experience of queer and trans community in SF.
The film itself is beautifully shot and well put together. When this idea came to mind, how did you initially foresee this film, and how had it changed over time?
Thanks so much for saying that. Last Call was actually the first film I made in my MFA program, with the stipulation that it be shot on 16mm black and white film with non-sync sound. I originally planned to focus the film entirely on the Stud and collaborate with Stud Collective members to restage an elaborate drag performance in the now-empty building. Unfortunately, we couldn’t access the space under the new ownership. With the constraints (I had only 15 minutes of film stock and a few days to shoot), the idea was pretty ambitious.
My MFA program was technically for documentary film, but I’ve always wanted to use documentary tools to build more experimental and expressionistic film languages. I decided to take a few different approaches, including observational, archival, and essayistic, and expand the film’s focus.
In my research, I also came across the High Fantasy Memory Index at the Tenderloin Museum, an extensive archive of an experimental drag show at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge. There was one video in particular that I fell in love with, the video of Beverly Chills dancing drenched in pink light that made it to the final cut. I decided to also pursue a pared-down version of my original idea based on this video, which eventually became the film’s climactic scene.
What is at a loss when a gay bar closes its doors?
Gay bars have been the primary way queer communities could exist for centuries, centers of culture and community where queer people could be openly queer. It’s a multifaceted legacy of police raids, violence, and addiction. Still, bars are a crucial part of queer history and culture in the U.S. All three bars in the film are significant sites of queer history in San Francisco. El Rio opened in 1978 as a gay Brazilian leather bar, and the Stud — the city’s oldest operating gay bar before its closure — opened over a decade earlier in 1966. Following the 1979 White Night riots in response to the minimal sentencing of Harvey Milk’s assassin, rioters congregated at the Stud.
Although Aunt Charlie’s Lounge technically opened with its current name and ownership in 1987, its roots can be traced back to the Old Crow, a gay “hustler dive” that opened in 1935 just two doors down from its current location. Today, Aunt Charlie’s is the last remaining queer bar in the Tenderloin, a historically queer and trans neighborhood and the site of the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.
Despite the many changes through the decades, it was queer clubs and the experimental trans drag and performance art shows I saw there that gave me the tools and imagination to understand my relationships to gender and sexuality better. Constantly reckoning with the disparity between how you are seen and how you see yourself can be demoralizing. Still, places like the Stud gave me a sense of history and solidarity that fueled my life and filmmaking. Often this connection to history manifests literally in the physical spaces themselves — the portrait of Vicki Marlane hanging near the stage at Aunt Charlie’s, for instance, that makes an appearance in the film.
The loss of queer bars is not only the loss of marginalized histories but of community centers, performance venues, and cultural archives that challenge and expand our understanding of what is possible for ourselves and our communities. That said, I think of the film as gesturing toward queer immortality. Despite the devastating losses of the past few years, I know radical queer spaces will always exist because radical queers will always create them.
Since this film takes place in the middle of the 2020 pandemic lockdown, what was it like for you to film during that unknown time?
The Fall of 2020 was a difficult time to make a documentary film. There wasn’t much going on in public, and it was a terrible time to meet new people, let alone build the relationships and trust between filmmakers and subjects that make for compelling films. Luckily, this idea lent itself well to social distancing, as I did most of the filming outside or in empty spaces with only one or two other people. It also helped that the primary emotional beats in the film come from the archival audio of the Stud funeral and the juxtaposition of the archival and present-day footage. That took some pressure off the shooting since we didn’t want to ask too much of the cast or crew, given the circumstances and our limited time and resources.
What’s the feeling of seeing your project entered in festivals and in the public, such as Cinequest?
I’m so grateful to Cinequest and all the festivals that have screened the film. It was formally a bit of a risk, and I don’t think it fits neatly into a genre category, so I was expecting that to be a bit of a hindrance for festival programming. But it has been so exciting to see the film reaching a broader range of audiences than I ever expected. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities to screen the film locally.
Mostly I hope the film feels like an adequate tribute for anyone who has a personal connection to these spaces and that it can communicate in a small way the feelings of inspiration, solidarity, and joy that have lived inside of them for decades. Although the film opens with a eulogy, the Stud collective lives on. I hope Last Call can commemorate one chapter in a storied legacy that will continue to grow and evolve through future generations, preserving the connection between queer histories and futures that can inspire us to imagine and fight for better worlds.
Last Call heads to the Cinequest Summer Festival on Friday, August 25, and Tuesday, August 29, during Shorts Program 6: DocuNation. Head to Cinequest’s website to purchase tickets: HERE.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.