SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- ABC7 celebrates LGBTQ+ History month with a look back at nightlife hotspot for generations of people. Long before RuPaul's Drag Race there was Finocchio's in San Francisco. For visitors, it was a chance to see men dressed like women. For the workers, it was a safe haven for self-expression at a time when being yourself was illegal.
At the corner of Broadway and Kearny in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood there are few signs of the former Finocchio's nightclub.
"It's a little emotional," said Holatta Tyme.
For 63 years, Finocchio's was the place to see what we now call drag.
"Drag was not mainstream," Tyme said. "So this is where you came to see a drag queen and fabulous female impersonators. We had jugglers and (a) ventriloquist and belly dancers and all kinds of zaniness."
Holotta Tyme performed at Finocchio's which dubbed itself as "America's most unusual nightclub" until it closed in 1999.
The club started as a speakeasy during prohibition.
"And there was a stage in the back," said Eric Jorgensen. "And there were comedians, singers, ventriloquist, and other kinds of acts there.
He started working at Finocchio's when he was 12. His grandparents started the club.
"There was a fella who came up and did an impersonation of Sophie Tucker, she was a very famous comedic singer of the time," Jorgensen said. "The crowd in the bar went crazy for it. And little by little, the crowd kind of grew to be too crowded for this little location."
In 1936, Finocchio's picked up its wigs and moved to Broadway, the heart of the city's nightlife.
"It was a great place to bring your out of town friends for a little shock value of a show," Jorgensen said. "It was good clean show. It lasted approximately an hour and 20 minutes. You could get a couple of nice drinks and while you were enjoying the show."
The club packed in the crowds for decades. A trip to the city by the Bay wasn't complete without a visit to Finocchio's. The shows were so popular, tour buses regularly dropped people off at its doorstep. The entertainers were occasional guests on local late night talk shows because of the then-risqué nature of their routines.
"It was kind of shocking to see that this beautiful woman up on stage that you are looking at, is not a woman, it's a man dressed as a woman," said Jorgensen. "But gosh darn, that's a woman in my eyes."
It was popular with sailors visiting San Francisco during World War II. Watched the Beatnik movement from its doorsteps, saw the Summer of Love, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS crisis all come and go.
"The performers, for the most part, were gay," Jorgensen said. "Several of them were married, had wives, but I think they may have been bisexual as well. A lot of the wait staff was gay."
By the end of the last century, drag performances had grown in popularity. The old vaudeville style shows created by Joesph Finocchio nearly seven decades earlier were no longer popular. His widow, Eve, decided it was time to close the club's doors in 1999.
"I think I took it for granted," Tyme said. "You know, when I left my dressing room and I shut the door and I walked out, I didn't really think about it for quite a while. Now I realize how historical and important this space is."
Finocchio's donated their lavish costumes, photos and programs to the GLBT Historical Society.
For much of Finocchio's existence, performers had to be careful. The city enacted s cross-dressing law in 1863. It wasn't repealed until 1974, meaning anyone leaving the club dressed as a woman could be arrested for indecency.
"We were not drag queens, we were female impersonators," Tyme said. "Or Eve Finocchio liked to say that we were male actresses. We were in drag, but we weren't drag queens."
"If they stepped out of the entertainment space, that would be considered public cross dressing, which was criminalized," said historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker, who helped clear Finocchio's out. "It's like they could exist in the spotlight, but they were criminalized outside the spotlight."
Among the boxes of ephemera are clues about the lives of the performers. Items like pill containers that once contained female hormones.
"Some of those people were straight, some of them were gay," Stryker said. "They all had a talent for so-called 'female impersonation.'"
Stryker helped clear out Finocchio's for the museum. She says the history of the club includes transwomen as well.
"But that really didn't start until, I'd say, the late 50s early 1960 and then as the decades go on," she said. "Like into the 1970s and '80s, and '90s. A lot of the performers by that time were people that we might call trasnwomen."
Jorgens adds, "I think we gave people that did that entertainment, artistry, a place that was safe for them to be able to show their art and showcase their talent. We had a great run."
"It's an important part of our history, a really important part of our history, that I think gets lost a lot of time. I think quite honestly, if it weren't for Finocchio's, I am not sure that we would have drag or female impersonation on TV. I mean, 63 years, it still holds the record as the longest running female impersonations show in the world."