Heklina is not one for overwrought, mawkish goodbyes. After twelve years running the show Tranny Shack, the now-internationally-famous drag party held every Tuesday night at San Francisco’s Stud Bar, he’s ready to move on. Not pass the torch per se, since he’s keeping the Tranny Shack brand name and will continue throwing giant pageants in the vein of August 23’s “Kiss-Off” party at the Regency Center. But as for the Stud Bar … well, he’s a little bored. “When I first started Tranny Shack it was very punk rock, covering myself with blood, just being very chaotic,” said Heklina (né Stefan Grygelko), who launched the party as a 28-year-old ex-heavy metal singer who was “dabbling in drag,” and still didn’t know how to style a wig or put on fake eyelashes. “Now that I’m older I want better production values,” he said. “The Tuesday night thing has become increasingly a chore.”
Production values were not necessarily characteristic of Tranny Shack in its early days. Heklina got the idea for a weekly punk rock drag party while working as a bartender at the Stud, a gay watering hole in the SOMA district that looks like a Gold Rush-era saloon for which Dame Edna has been hired as the interior decorator (i.e., lots of vintage bric-a-brac). Tuesday was traditionally the slowest night of the week, and in his brief tenure at the Stud Heklina had already seen four or five events start up on that night and then fizzle out. At that time, his résumé included several successful gay enterprises. Before moving to San Francisco in 1991 he opened one of the first LGBT clubs in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he lived for three years. He then resettled in the Bay Area, joined the gay heavy metal band Helot Revolt, and took on drag roles with the underground theater group the Sick and Twisted Players. By the time Grygelko landed the Stud gig he had already cameoed in various pageants under the alias “Heklina,” a derivation of the Icelandic “Hekla.” (Grygelko is Icelandic on his mother’s side.) “And the Stud kind of saw that I knew a lot of colorful people, or whatever,” he recalled. “They asked me if I’d be interested in trying to start a weekly party.”
You couldn’t plan something like Tranny Shack to become an institution. “I never sat down and said something like, ‘I’m gonna be a drag megastar,'” Heklina assured, adding that in the beginning, Tranny Shack was a party for people in the know, and an answer to San Francisco’s apparent dearth of underground drag venues. “When I first moved to San Francisco I was so enthralled by the underground drag scene here, and then around 1995 all the people who first influenced me died of AIDS — all in the same year. So in 1996 when I started Tranny Shack there was really no venue for nontraditional punk rock performers.” There were, of course, more decorous drag parties at Divas Nightclub and Marlena’s, which required performers to be a little more glamorous and follow more rules. “And I never really felt like I fit in with that,” said Heklina, who never worked a nine to five and was never good with authority. “It wasn’t really my scene.”
In the beginning, he said, there were no rules. “We would have explosions on the stage, we would light things on fire, we would cover ourselves with blood, we would cover ourselves in all forms of — just, whatever. You know, I would come home covered in stuff. People would inject themselves with needles [so they could draw enough blood to fill a syringe]. People would hang themselves through hooks. They would stick things up their butts, pull things from their butts. There’s really nothing that hasn’t been done at Tranny Shack except somebody committing suicide onstage.”
If you could stomach all the blood and nastiness, Tranny Shack was actually a really kick-ass party — especially when it got a little more toned down. Each event featured a series of performers doing everything from torch songs to Bollywood dance numbers to parodies of a crack-addled Whitney Houston. It was never the type of drag show where any random person could put on women’s clothing and prance around the stage; Heklina vetted all the performers to make sure everyone actually had talent. He kept lasting relationships with four or five DJs who spun a mix of punk, disco, and electro rarities — the kind of soundtrack you’d hear in an Almodóvar film. He was so good at quality control that pretty soon, outsiders started coming just to see the performances. Celebrities would pop in when they came to town, said Heklina, listing off a few stars who’d come to Tranny Shack over the years: Gwen Stefani, Woody Harrelson, Michael Stipe, Sofia Coppola, the B-52s, Alan Cumming, Clive Barker, Pink. Spanish diva Charo judged a Charo look-alike contest at Tranny Shack in 2005. Margaret Cho performed there a few weeks ago.
Now Tranny Shack is more of a spectator thing — as in, fewer participants, more observers — and Heklina is such a well-known personality that she’ll no longer put a wig on unless she’s getting paid to do it (or knows it’s for a good cause). By day she’s still Stefan Grygelko, a chilled-out, 41-year-old man who wears cargo shorts and shell-toed Adidas, and will pause in mid-conversation to identify which Kraftwerk sample he hears playing on a cafe stereo. (“Computer Love,” rearranged for the song “Talk” by Coldplay, he concludes.) He admits there’s a disconnect between the understated Grygelko and the unabashedly campy Heklina, and that a few years ago he even suffered an identity crisis, wondering if people only wanted him as Heklina. He’s since learned to accept the character’s appeal and fully inhabit her onstage.
Less than one week from the last Tranny Shack at Stud Bar, Grygelko is sanguine. “I feel like it’s something that’s been very important to me and very important to San Francisco, but I feel like I shouldn’t be doing it if I’m not into it anymore,” he said. He wants someone else to take on the mantle of Tranny Shack, and he’s seen several imitators around the Bay Area — but none have the heady, independent spirit that gave Tranny Shack such enormous staying power. Over the years Tranny Shack has evolved from being an incubator for left-field or “conceptual” drag performers, to an overseas export, inspiring a derivative Tranny Shack club in London. “It’s fantastic,” said drag queen Justin Bond, who’s patronized the British joint several times. “But it’s not San Francisco. It’s a lot more bourgie.”