Living in a long lost lesbian bar

Joan Howard (left) and Rebecca Longworth built a sign above their doorway to honor the surprising history of their home. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

This story is part of the Oakland Home Histories series, which explores residential buildings and the people who’ve lived in them. Want us to feature your home? Let us know.

What would you think if you learned there was a photo of your house hanging in a museum?

In 2019, Rebecca Longworth and Joan Howard were having dinner with some friends at their home, a live-work space they own on Bancroft Avenue. During the meal, their guests told them something surreal: they’d just been to the Queer California exhibit at the Oakland Museum, where they’d spotted a very large image of Longworth and Howard’s bright blue building.

The couple were stunned to hear about their friends’ discovery. But they had been noticing clues about their home’s past life since they’d bought the property in 2015. 

First off, there was the shiny dance floor that had taken up a good chunk of an upstairs room before they removed it. And there was the exit sign hanging in what’s now the kitchen. Occasionally, people would walk by the place and remark that they used to come party at a nightclub there in the 1980s.

Longworth and Howard took a trip to the museum themselves, and there they learned that their house used to be The Jubilee, a legendary lesbian bar that was open for decades in two different East Oakland locations. 

For the queer couple, who run a theater company out of their home, the revelation felt almost cosmic. 

 “It was an unexpected gift,” said Howard, who was overcome with “delight and joy” when they learned about The Jubilee.

“It feels really nice to be keeping this as a queer space in some way,” added Longworth. “It feels like we’re part of its history now, and maybe we’re supposed to be part of its history.”

“A total place of freedom”

This photograph was included in the Oakland Museum of California exhibit “Queer California.” Credit: Kaucyila Brooke, Bancroft Ave. and Fremont. (Formerly The Jubilee: Second Location), The Boy Mechanic/Oakland, chromogenic print, 40”X55”, 2019

Before it was a bar, the Bancroft Avenue property was a train station. 

Through the 1930s, a line of the Southern Pacific Railroad ran down Bancroft, then called Bond Street, and into the depot where Howard and Longworth’s home now stands. Around 1940, the train station closed and the current two-story building was constructed. It sits on its own little standalone parcel at Bancroft and 50th Avenue, described as an “island” by a former Jubilee regular.

Old newspaper clippings and city directories reveal that the property has spent most of its life as a watering hole. The tavern located there in 1943 got busted for serving alcohol to minors. From the ‘50s to the early ‘70s, it was a dual liquor store and bar known as Brad’s. Sometime in between, a well-known Oakland Oaks minor league player named Frank “Shorty” Perry appears to have called the property home.

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The Jubilee moved there in the mid-’70s, from its previous location on E. 14th Street (now International Boulevard). It quickly became a second home for a tight-knit community of lesbians, who formed their own softball team. 

Owned by Betty Arnesen and Velma Souza, The Jubilee was a working-class, no-nonsense establishment where women came to play pool and knock back a few. 

“You couldn’t just walk into The Jubilee,” recalled Barbara Hoke, an Oakland resident whose social life was centered at the bar for years. The doors stayed locked, and there was a peephole through which prospective customers were eyed warily. According to Hoke, that security system was established after an angry husband burst into E. 14th bar and murdered someone after discovering his wife was involved with a woman.

“On the other hand, it was just a total place of freedom,” Hoke told The Oaklandside.

Longworth and Howard demonstrate “joy collectivators” made by Howard. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The first time she stepped foot inside The Jubilee in the ‘70s, she made the faux-pas of ordering a glass of sherry. This was a beer-guzzling type of place. Nevertheless, the hardened bargoers embraced the newcomer into their world, where women took good care of one another. 

“They would throw an auction for any type of crisis a lesbian had,” Hoke said, even if someone’s cat needed surgery. That’s how she came into possession of a beautiful old ceiling fan that ran in her Oakland real estate office for decades. “It was such a symbol of the community created there,” she said.

The Jubilee, like Longworth and Howard’s home, had two levels. Downstairs, older women held court, listening to country-western music, said T. Davis, another Jubilee regular, in a 1991 interview conducted for the Wide Open Town History Project. “Upstairs we played Black music so there were a lot of Black girls there.” It was the only bar that somewhat catered to the Bay Area’s large Black lesbian community, said Davis, who added, “I met my last lover at The Jubilee. She was a disc jockey.”

The denizens of the two floors would sometimes play softball against each other, on teams called the Uppers (upstairs) and Downers, according to Hoke. The Jubilee also played regularly as one team against other lesbian bars.

“They never fucking lost. And in those days the loser had to go to the winning bar and pay,” remembered Rikki Streicher, a leader in the LGBTQ rights movement and owner of San Francisco lesbian bars Maud’s and Amelia’s, in another Wide Open Town History Project interview.

Nods to queer culture are found all over the home and adorning the fridge. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The camaraderie and sense of safety at The Jubilee was cultivated in large part by its owners, Arnesen and Souza, said Hoke. Arnesen was mysterious and super-smart, she said, and her ethos was that customers of any background were welcome, so long as they had cash for drinks. Souza, a native Hawaiian, was the more gregarious one.

“Val and Betty were very shrewd business-women,” Hoke said, “and both of them had really good hearts.” 

Documenting a lost era of lesbian bars

Kaucyila Brooke began photographing lesbian bars past and present in San Diego in 1996.

In the years since, her project “The Boy Mechanic” has taken her to Los Angeles; San Francisco; Cologne, Germany—and Oakland.

“San Francisco was incredibly well-documented; there was a list in the public library of all the gay and lesbian businesses,” Brooke, a CalArts professor, told The Oaklandside. “In Oakland, it’s not as self-consciously a queer city.” She had to ask around for location suggestions, and heard about The Jubilee. 

Longworth and Howard’s home was a great photography subject. 

“Because of where it sits at this intersection, there’s nothing around it,” the artist said. “It’s just a big old rectangle, like a monument or something. The blue color I really like, with the blue sky.” 

Making these unassuming buildings “monumental” is part of Brooke’s project. Many are “not archived, and not ‘important’ spaces in a mainstream kind of way,” she said. In her artist’s statement she notes that lesbian bars are “so often anonymous or mute, and now waning.”

Gay men’s bars have always far outnumbered lesbian bars in most places, Brooke said. Sometimes there would be a “women’s night” on the least popular evening. “Women thought, ‘We should have something too,’” she said.

In Oakland they had a few such places, most active between the 1970s and ‘90s. There was Camilla’s on 13th Avenue and Ollie’s on Telegraph in Temescal. Nearby Albany had The Bacchanal on Solano Avenue, and Hayward had The Driftwood. (Hoke wrote an article honoring these spots, packed with hilarious anecdotes.) In Berkeley, a feminist collective ran the Brick Hut Café

The first Jubilee location on E. 14th Street. Credit: Kaucyila Brooke, 4712 East International Blvd. ( Formerly The Jubilee: First Location), The Boy Mechanic/Oakland, chromogenic print, 40”X55”, 2019

And before all those places opened, there was Mary’s First and Last Chance in the 1950’s, a Telegraph Avenue bar that had its liquor license revoked after police went undercover “disguised as lesbians.” The bar appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court—and won.

In 2004, Oakland was home to more lesbian couples per capita than any other large U.S. city, according to news reports citing census data. But by then, most of the lesbian bars had closed.

Hoke said establishments struggled economically, in large part because women made less money than men. A sobriety movement had also taken hold in the community, she recalled, and serving seltzers didn’t pay the bars’ bills. In the years since, it has become tougher for any small business to survive, let alone those owned by, or serving, members of marginalized communities and those at higher risk of displacement.

But The Jubilee didn’t close out of necessity, as Hoke recalls it. Sometime in the mid-to-late ‘80s, the owners decided the bar’s days were done, and threw a “wonderful party at the end.”

The potential of a boxy blue building

Longworth and Howard selected items that fit the mid-century origins and aesthetic of the building, like this stove. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Howard and Longworth have enjoyed digging up what they can about their home’s history.

“What I love so much is that it was really local—a bar firmly rooted in a working neighborhood,” said Howard. “It was integrated into the community in a way that’s hard for queer spaces in general.”

By the time the couple purchased the building, it had been foreclosed on and there were remnants of its recent use as a cannabis grow-house. Out of necessity and desire, the new owners renovated extensively, but they preserved and repurposed what they could. Countertops are made from doors they removed. In one doorway, a type of lumber that hasn’t been in use since WWII is still visible. But the ugly beige exterior got a new coat of blue paint.

Three-legged cat Gilly, one of two felines in the home, lounges in the kitchen. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

They’ve also added touches meant to evoke the era when the building was constructed, like ‘50s-style drawers and an old-fashioned stove. The most obvious homage to history hangs outside, above the doorway. Using metal lettering sourced from the Alameda flea market, they’ve created a colorful sign that says “Jubilee.” 

While nobody is getting down on the dance floor anymore, the creative spirit is alive and well in that room. It’s the rehearsal space for their theater company The Peripatetic Players, an office, and a costume room all in one. 

A housemate lives downstairs, and that’s also where Howard has her wood shop. Howard is a prop-maker, set-designer, and clown, while Longworth is a director and high school English teacher, among other roles they both hold. The pair met 10 years ago, performing in a play on Angel Island.

They were originally attracted to how much space the building offered for their artistic endeavors. 

And while “boxiness” is not typically a real estate selling point, it was a draw for this couple.

“I make art pieces that often involve things that come out of boxes,” Howard said. “I have a thing for the potential of a box, and what can come out of it.”

It appears the two staircases inside used to connect the floors such that one could make a complete circuit around the space. Sometimes they imagine themselves reveling at The Jubilee, floating between the rich upstairs and downstairs scenes.

What would they order if they were customers there? For Longworth, a “femme-y cocktail, like a French 75.” For Howard, something perhaps more in keeping with the bar’s culture: “straight-up beer in a bottle.”

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