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Midnight at the Oasis 

Wednesday, Jun 17 2015
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The woman ahead of me is 7 feet tall. I'm in the restroom queue at Oasis on a packed Saturday night, during the intermission for a party called Mother. It's Madonna night. Sue Casa is performing to "How High," a deep cut off Confessions on a Dance Floor. There are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, women with impeccably dapper haircuts, muscle-bears with glittery beards, Millennials of indeterminate gender, and some respectable-looking nine-to-fivers all intermingling like molecules in a glass of water.

Mother is the follow-up to the former Trannyshack, San Francisco drag legend Heklina's long-running drag show, which had been popping up around town since 1996. Ultimately, Heklina opted to change the name after changing social mores around transgender issues gave "Trannyshack" a slight whiff of insensitivity, but a revamp was likely in order anyway, as Trannyshack was monthly while Mother happens every Saturday night.

That's because Oasis is Heklina's baby. Along with drag queen-choreographer-playwright D'Arcy Drollinger and several other partners, she opened Oasis on New Year's Eve 2014 mere hours after crews of friends and fans finished assembling it. In less than six months, it has upended San Francisco's nightlife, through regular parties like Mother, Polyglamorous, and Red Hot Burlesque; Drollinger's bawdy original musicals (Shit and Champagne, and its forthcoming sequel, Champagne White and the Temple of Poon); and line-for-line drag queen re-enactments of classic TV shows like Sex and the City and The Facts of Life. Oasis has created a home for local talent as well as a landing spot for out-of-town acts that might otherwise never come to San Francisco.

This is particularly notable because, in spite of being a boomtown in nearly every other way, S.F. has been hemorrhaging LGBT spaces. In the last year, the Mission lost two of its three gay bars (Esta Noche and the Lexington Club) while the third (Truck) has announced its impending demise. The city is also losing performance venues — gay, straight, or otherwise. Marlena's is gone. Café du Nord has been on hiatus. Yoshi's, 222 Hyde, the Red Devil Lounge, and others have all disappeared in the last couple of years.

Against this wave, the only other success stories of Oasis' ilk would be the near-miraculous 2013 resurrection of the Eagle and the emergence of Hi Tops, which also opened in 2013, in the Castro. But the Eagle is a sui generis leather bar, and Hi Tops has a kitchen that churns out solidly excellent pub fare, making it an anomaly among sports bars even before considering that it's a gay sports bar. So Oasis is, even by San Francisco standards, unique. And for all its hipness and the avant-garde performances and the crowds that it draws, it could be said to be way off-trend. Oasis didn't merely buck the trend of atrophying nightlife, but tore off its wig, ripped off all 10 of its fake nails, and told that trend to get the hell off its stage.


The weeks leading up to Oasis' New Year's Eve opening weren't entirely auspicious, however. At the T-minus 10 days stage, Heklina and Drollinger — along with their partners, Geoff Benjamin and Jason Beebout — realized they were in way over their heads.

"The architect was saying, 'No way, not going to happen for at least another month,'" Drollinger said. "And we'd sold out for New Year's! It was that moment when we had to go to friends in higher places for help."

"We had upholsterers standing there with sewing machines in the lounge putting together the booths at 7 p.m. on the day we opened," Beebout said. At one point, they were reduced to pantomiming the act of getting up to code in order to satisfy the minders, but everything that needed to get done got done, and Oasis rang in 2015 like a glitter cannon that exploded at the speed of sound.

The space had been a gay club in the '90s, and later became a Latino club called Caliente, but lay moribund for about five years before the current ownership. Drollinger had been to the old Oasis, and Heklina had even hosted a night there when there was a Plexiglass floor over a swimming pool and a retractable roof. After 20 years at the top of the city's nightlife, she's a commanding presence, and her booming laugh carries onstage as much as in a booth. Drollinger, whose background is in theater, is a bit more sugary and measured in her remarks, and the two of them frequently finish each other's sentences. The other two partners — Benjamin, who is gay but not a drag queen, and Beebout, who is straight — may be less visible to the casual patron but are no less vital to the club's operation. And it's hard work. When Heklina plays the theme to The Muppet Show in the run-up to Mother, it's pure self-deprecation.

While all four principals have solid experience in nightlife and entertainment, none had owned a club, and they were outbid several times before landing a space. There have been a few mishaps during the many 17-hour days spent learning aspects of club management on the fly, such as the realization that more than just the dressing room would need air conditioning.

"That was the one element we overlooked," Heklina said, with deliberate understatement, then grabbed my recording device. "This has all been a nightmare, the biggest mistake of my life," she laughed, glaring at me. "Don't put that in there!"

"It was January," added Beebout, referring to the AC omission. He goes on to compare Oasis to the cult sci-fi film Dark City, where every time you enter, the place has morphed almost unrecognizably into something else: One night it's a cabaret, another night it's set up for a punk show.

Overall, most errors have been prosaic — Beebout recalls his impression of opening night's aftermath as, "That's a lot of trash, what are we going to do with it?" — although a bar that runs out of ice and a patron who trips on the steps are only prosaic if you're not the one clamoring for a vodka soda or falling on your ass in a club.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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