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From Bauhaus to Funhouse: David J Will Play an Intimate Show in a Historic Hayes Valley Mansion 

Tuesday, Sep 16 2014
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As a member of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, and later as a solo musician, David J has haunted many of San Francisco's historic venues, from the Old Waldorf to the Cafe du Nord. But when he returns to San Francisco Sept. 21, the influential goth-rocker will perform in one of the city's most historic settings — an 1881 Hayes Valley Victorian nicknamed Finney's Funhouse.

Step past the crimson-painted door at 814 Grove, and it's easy to see why J — along with numerous troubadours, drag queens, and at least one former member of the Go-Gos — would want to play here. Just inside the front door, the shadowy foyer and grand staircase give way to a light-drenched front parlor, where a grand piano cozies up to the ornate gold-framed mirror and the statues along the walls are adorned with more than a little bling. In an alcove off the formal dining room lurks a hunched statue of a black cat: the former mascot of San Francisco's legendary Black Cat Bar. This is where J often camps when he's passing through town, and where he'll offer up material from his latest, stripped-down album, An Eclipse of Ships.

"Over the years I have had some distasteful experiences with dishonorable promoters, so the whole notion of bypassing the middleman is highly appealing," J says. "Also, at club shows these days there is the abominable distraction of cellphones, whereas at the house shows no one is texting or chatting; they are fully present in the moment, and that encourages me to give my all."

Finney's Funhouse is nicknamed for its present owner, Mike Finn, a lanky fortysomething whose warm face is fringed with whiskers. His light brown hair is frequently covered by a pointy knitted skullcap; Finn hosts a regular knitting circle at the Funhouse, often donating the output to local hospice organizations. A lifelong performer who grew up in a family of trick unicyclists, Finn's commitment to arts and culture has made him a spoke in the Bay Area creative wheel. While many of San Francisco's artists are being priced out of the city, Finn's is a story about someone who has been able to hang on.

Finn was working as an occupational therapist, helping patients recover from strokes and broken hips, when William Plath came under his care in 1992. Plath was his patient for just a few weeks, but the two hit it off. Together they sought out modern-dance performances and took in concerts by the San Francisco Symphony, both of which Plath loved. As Plath's health declined nearly a decade later, his attorneys asked Finn for his Social Security number so that he could be remembered in Plath's will.

"I crossed my fingers and hoped he'd leave me the black cat," Finn says. "But when the time came, he gave me everything [including the house and its contents] except the black cat," which will ultimately go to the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian History Museum.

It was a while before Finn worked out what to do with his inheritance. After hosting a couple of variety shows at the house, Finn staged the Funhouse's first play in 2007: two episodes of The Golden Girls, starring Trannyshack founder Heklina, Cookie Dough, and Pollo DelMar, with former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin in a supporting role. Finn played Clayton, Blanche Deveraux's gay brother. Not long after, an audience member reported that he'd attended other performances at the house when Plath and his housemates owned the place.

"I didn't know that they had been doing theater here. It seems like such continuity," Finn says.

Things snowballed following The Golden Girls. After performers Jer Ber Jones and Calpernia Addams brought their live cabaret show, Transfixed, to the Funhouse, Finn befriended Addams, the transgender activist who advised Jared Leto on his provocative and Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyer's Club. In 2013, Addams, who does bombshell glam and hippie chic with equal skill, brought her good friend, flamboyant English folk-rocker Patrick Wolf, to stay with Finn for a month last year so he could focus on writing his next album. To return the favor, Wolf played two house concerts in the parlor with Addams as the opening act.

Finn returned to the idea of staging classic sitcom episodes last year with Three's Company. He played Jack Tripper, D'Arcy Drollinger appeared as Christy Snow, and Wiedlin played Janet Wood. The role was especially apt for Wiedlin, who gained celebrity at the same time as — and was frequently mistaken for — Joyce DeWitt, the series' Janet, Finn says. Wiedlin returned to the Funhouse stage this year with Lady Robotika, a space opera based on the comic book she co-wrote with Futurama director Bill Morrison.

"It's sci-fi, it's girl power, it's funny, and the songs kick butt!" Wiedlin says. One of the shows was for friends and family, while the other was to tempt industry insiders to support a full production, which she's now developing. "Finney played several characters in the musical, and he is fantastic in it. I love working with him, and know that he can always be counted on to steal the show."

The Funhouse has also served as a backdrop for several film projects, including a History Channel program about vampires and director William Clift's campy 2010 film, Baby Jane?, Famed transgender model Amanda Lepore filmed her video Marilyn within its antique-papered walls.

"The film crews, the people with budgets — they help pay for the people who play here who don't have budgets," Finn says. They also help him cover the cost of keeping the elderly house in decent repair. "The best I can hope for is arrested decay; I don't want it to be like Gray Gardens with vines growing through the walls."

Despite the number of glamourpusses who have crossed the threshold at 814 Grove, Finn says he's still stunned by how his life has turned out. When asked whether there's anyone on his bucket list that he'd like to see perform in the parlor, he notes that some of the earliest records he bought were by Bauhaus and the Go-Gos. He's thankful for everything that's already gone down, but he's looking forward to offering more shows — mainly so he can share the house with others.

"It's so special, and the more people who can enjoy it, the better," he says. "It's a big, old house and I spend a lot of time in it alone. I love to see it filled with laughter. It would be such a waste of space, otherwise."

It's that sense of history — along with Finn's welcoming personality — that draws David J back to the house when he's in town. When he plays this weekend, he's looking forward to mingling with die-hard fans and curious newcomers: "It is great to really connect with people and some of those connections evolve into true and lasting friendships."

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Beth Winegarner

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