"Oh, no, I was, uh ...," says a confused man who was just, uh, leaving. No one wants to crash a wake, and from the look on nearby barflies' faces, it's easy to believe that that's what's going on here, but it's not. What is going on is a silent auction and a party (if you could call it that), for regular patrons and friends of the saloon, thrown by the bar's outgoing tenant, Joanna Karlinski. For all any of us know, it could be one of the last parties the Utah will ever have.
On sale throughout the bar are the various doodads, knickknacks, and whatchamacallits that give the place its old-timey feel: a tin sign that says "Dad's Root Beer," antique movie posters, an upright piano, a panoramic photo of San Francisco shot just after the earthquake of 1906. "I think that was taken by some guy in a hot air balloon or something," says a dude standing next to me with mutton-chop sideburns the size of gerbils.
These trinkets are going to the highest bidders, with one caveat (as noted on the auction's bidding sheets): If the bar ends up in the hands of the "good guys," Karlinski will sell these precious things -- not to mention useful items like the refrigerator, the beer taps, and all the kitchen equipment -- to them. If the new tenants turn out to be "bad guys," Karlinski will hand the stuff over to the winning bidders.
"I'm hoping to end up with that," says longtime bartender Damian Samuel of the earthquake photo. Samuel's comment is loaded: He's not just bidding on the picture, he's bidding to rent and run the bar itself, and -- according to many in the music community -- he's one of the good guys. With luck (and the right business plan), Samuel could find himself the Utah's next head honcho. Or the building's new owners could decide to rent the place to someone else, someone with more money and more experience -- someone who might decide to do God-knows-what to this nearly 100-year-old San Francisco institution. All of this remains to be seen. What is certain at this point is that the Hotel Utah closed its doors to the public on Tuesday, Dec. 2, and no one knows when it might be reopened or by whom.
While many discovered the Utah as a live music venue in the '90s, the building's story goes back much further. Built in 1908, it served as a local watering hole for a rogues' gallery of characters: "Gamblers, thieves, ladies up to no good, politicians, hustlers, friends of opium, goldseekers, godseekers, charlatans, police, fancy miscreants," according to the bar's Web site. In 1966, a guy named Al Opatz bought the building and christened the joint Al's Transbay Tavern. According to Guy Carson, who now co-owns and operates Cafe Du Nord, and who was the Utah's general manager and booker throughout the '90s (and who's considered by many to be an expert on the place), Al's Transbay was a favorite hangout of everyone from Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to nearby dockworkers. And Al was their perfect host.
"[Al] was kind of the quintessential San Francisco bartender," says Carson. "He would cut your tie off when you walked into the place and nail it up above the bar, so the place was wall-to-wall ties."
Slowly but surely, however, the bar fell into disrepair, acquiring an increasingly seedy reputation. By the end of the '70s it was beyond a dive, sitting in the heart of what was then considered Skid Row. It had no windows. "The actual show room used to be a bookie joint," says Carson. "It was just a box."
But in 1978, using money he'd earned from the sale of his screenplay The Electric Horseman (made into a 1979 movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda), a man named Paul Gaer -- who died of a heart attack at his home in London on Nov. 16 -- bought the building, renamed it the Hotel Utah, and converted the saloon into the performance venue it is today. As Carson tells it, "[Gaer] built the windows, he put in the mezzanine, he put in the show room, and he basically turned it into a community art center. In those days he would go around and literally pull people off the street and put them in the club."
"Originally it was more performance-oriented," adds Carson. "Cabaret, circus stuff, comedy. And slowly it evolved -- some would say devolved -- into a music venue, around about '84." In 1990 Gaer brought Carson in, and together they turned the Utah into one of the city's best live music venues. Some of the bands that got their start at the Utah include cheeky altrockers Cake and everyone's favorite vixen-poet, Jewel; bigger names like PJ Harvey, Frank Black, the Counting Crows, American Music Club, and Train made stops there as well.
In 2000, however, Gaer decided it was time to hang it up. At the height of the dot-com frenzy, he sold the building for what is widely considered to be an exorbitant sum to a duo of ambitious entrepreneurs from Marin, Cliff Perotti and John Le Roy. In 2001, Perotti and Le Roy sought to lease the bar to a new operator. From a host of potential lessees -- including bartender Damian Samuel, who made his first bid on the place at that time -- they chose Joanna Karlinski, who had a track record as owner of the once-popular (and now closed) fine dining restaurant the Meetinghouse. The story of what went wrong on Karlinski's watch is all too familiar.
"I signed a lease two weeks before 9/11," she says. "And I took over two weeks after 9/11. So I had basically what's called the worst possible timing for a business of this caliber in this neighborhood. Obviously, we all know what happened to South of Market. Every day we saw U-Hauls taking people and their belongings away."
In June of this year, Perotti and Le Roy sold the building to its current owner, an investment firm called Prana Eight. The circumstances surrounding Karlinski's eviction are subject to debate: She says she had a verbal arrangement with the former owners to pay a lower rent than what was on the written agreement, which the new owners refused to honor. Jim Skrip, Prana Eight's "asset manager," who oversaw the case, says simply, "We came to an agreement whereby she gave up the space so that we took over control of it." The bottom line is that on Nov. 17, a judge determined that Karlinski had two weeks to close shop, and five more days to move out entirely. Following the decision, the current owners began their search for an "operator" to replace her. That's when Jocelyn Kane, acting director of S.F.'s 6-month-old Entertainment Commission, stepped in.
When I talked to her on Wednesday of last week, Kane was frantically trying to reach the building's owner to lobby that the Utah remain a live music venue rather than become a T.G.I. Friday's or some other monstrosity. According to Kane, "The issue is trying to figure out whether these owners want to keep this a live music venue and to help them understand that if they don't, they're making a decision that affects a tremendous amount of people in the city, not just themselves, not just a few neighbors. ... I want to impress upon these owners that this is a decision that they're making that has pretty big consequences. And it's not financial, it's psychic."
By Thursday, Kane had reached Prana Eight and I'd heard from Skrip. Kane and I were assured that, in Skrip's words, "We're looking for it to be the exact same concept. A bar, restaurant, cabaret, live music venue -- the exact same thing, just a new operator there that will be able to go forward."
So, no T.G.I. Friday's?
"No, no. None whatsoever. No chains are coming in, or anything like that. We're just looking for an operator to come in and build a good business and hopefully be successful." (Skrip was the man who called me back promptly -- a little too promptly -- each time I phoned Prana Eight asking for someone else. While Skrip claims his company, which has offices here and in NYC, "doesn't use titles," he, in addition to being an "asset manager" (whatever that means), is very clearly its press liaison, and a sly one at that.)
Among the parties interested in taking over the saloon, many people's favorite -- including Karlinski's and Carson's -- is Samuel. If the Hotel Utah were Cheers, Samuel would be its Woody. A friendly guy originally hired more than a decade ago by Paul Gaer himself, he arguably knows more than anyone about the nuts-and-bolts running of the saloon. He's even made a feature-length documentary about the place, 86'd, which he's looking to release in a few months. Samuel sees his lack of experience at the helm of a bar/restaurant/music venue as his biggest disadvantage, but he's hoping the team of bookers he's put together, the community support he's received, and his polished business proposal will make him a strong candidate.
Regardless of whether Samuel becomes the new operator, the hope of a lot of people -- including the many musicians and patrons who sent me e-mails last week -- is that the bar reopen quickly. Luckily, Skrip shares this hope. "We don't want to see the space go dark for very long," he says, "so we're trying to get someone in there as soon as we can."
My hope is that that someone will be Samuel. As anyone who has frequented the Utah knows, it is a place alive with -- pardon the hippie-speak -- a certain energy. Its ideal owner will be not just financially suited for the job, but spiritually suited as well. Regardless of who the other prospective tenants are, I doubt they can bring what Samuel brings to the equation. I agree with Carson: "The place is pretty magical in its own way, something I found out when I was there. It has its own history. ... Damian knows what it is and honors it, he's sensitive to it -- he's an artist in his own right. My thinking is he deserves a shot, and we'll see if he can pull it off."