Strike Up the Banda

Bench and Bar opens a second location in downtown Oakland.

The June demise of downtown Oakland’s Vibe Lounge didn’t augur well
for the LGBT community, whose ranks are large in Oakland despite a
dearth of entertainment venues. And Vibe was just one in a spate of
let-downs. Club Velvet, an on-again, off-again lesbian venue in the
Laurel district, appears to have gone straight — save for a few
sporadic drag king performances. (At present, the bar’s phone is
disconnected.) Nonetheless, one local gay bar has managed to surmount
the bad economy, and even expand its business. The 31-year-old Bench
and Bar, long known as a niche club for gay Latinos, recently opened a
second location at 510 17th Street — a prime piece of real estate
that used to house the hip-hop joint @17th. It’s a risky time for
development, the Bench and Bar owners admit. But they have high

“We were picked from a pool of eighteen organizations,” said Alex
Loera, who helps run the Bench and Bar corporation with his husband,
Charles Bisbee. Their love story roughly coincides with the club’s
business trajectory. They met in 1995, when Bisbee was managing the bar
for another owner. Loera, who originally hails from Mexico City, says
he used to drive all the way from Santa Rosa to catch Bench and Bar’s
Friday night event, “Latin Explosion.” At that time, the neighborhood
was still a little sketchy. It was certainly a long way from the posh
entertainment district that now houses Luka’s Taproom, the Uptown, and
the Fox. But Loera said that nothing bad ever befell him, and the trip
was worth the drive. He knew of only one similarly themed gay Latin
club in San Francisco’s Mission district, but it was smaller and more
insular. Parking was a lot better in Oakland, and the Bench and Bar
Club — which at that time was located at 11th and Franklin
streets — attracted a wider cross-section of people. Not to
mention the DJs played music that Loera listened to at home: a
mélange of Latin pop and banda, with some American hits
peppered in between.

“They have a real solid base,” said Kenny Kröll, a happy-hour
bartender who started working at Bench and Bar as a Cal student. “Gay
Latinos were the powerhouse behind it. The Latin gay community is
really really tight.” To this day, he says, patrons routinely drive
from as far as Santa Cruz or Modesto to catch the Saturday night
banda performances.

Having that customer base gave Bench and Bar a lot of extra mileage
in a scene that often defies the laws of supply and demand. Culturally,
Oakland has always been hella gay in comparison to other US cities (the
most famous phrase about the city was uttered by a lesbian author,
after all). Yet while San Francisco is awash in gay infrastructure,
Oakland’s record has always been pretty spotty. Venerable institutions
like the White Horse and Bench and Bar are few and far between. Other
clubs like Velvet and Vibe Lounge seemed to fizzle out within months of
arrival. In some cases, said local promoter Hae Yong Min, whose “Hella
Gay” party packs the Uptown Nightclub twice a month, club owners rely
on anachronistic images to market themselves. Min says she’s seen the
same flyer over and over again: “A dude who’s half naked with his chest
out, and a chick who looks like she’s straight. It’s like, really? We
haven’t changed after twenty years?”

Bench and Bar certainly doesn’t suffer for any lack of half-naked
dudes. In fact, there’s a half-naked dude plastered across the home
page of the venue’s web site. But the club also has name recognition
and longevity. Launched 31 years ago by a judge and lawyer (hence the
name), Bench and Bar has seen several iterations since its inception.
Current president Bisbee started there as a doorman and worked his way
up the ranks. He purchased the club back in 2000 with longtime Bench
and Bar DJ Keith Hobbs as a business partner. Kröll started going
there on Friday nights as soon as he turned 21, and Hobbs hired him to
barback a couple of shifts at the Thursday night lesbian party. (“They
drug me through the dirt,” said Kröll, who was relatively
unschooled in the wherefores of drink-mixing.) Vice President Frank
Moore joined in 2002, a couple of years before the club moved from its
11th Street locale to another space on Franklin Street, at the top of a
long flight of stairs. A few years ago, Moore and Loera became official
partners in the corporation, and Kröll, no longer a novice,
returned to man the happy-hour crowd.

It took several months to seal the deal at 510 17th Street, a huge
club with a wraparound bar, mezzanine VIP area, and largely air-tight
smoking section (in what used to be the “cigar room”). The new club
fits 660 people, a mammoth addition to the 420-capacity venue on
Franklin St. (which Bench and Bar has rechristened Club 21). It’s a
much better place to do business, said Loera, who prefers being
street-level and wheelchair accessible. Leading an impromptu tour on
the day before last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, he showed off all
the amenities at 510 17th Street: a newly installed dance floor and
go-go stage with lights underneath; the smoking room with its high
ceiling and lounge chairs; a vending machine that served junk food and
cigarette packs; a dummy bar with empty bottles of Moët,
Courvoisier, and Hornitos. Chairs, tables, and a flat-screen TV in the
VIP section were all salvaged from the old hip-hop club.

Even faced with one of the worst recessions in collective memory,
Moore and Loera remain sanguine about their expanded business. They’ve
taken steps to amplify the Bench and Bar brand identity, which for
years catered to Latino men six nights a week, with one night,
“Coochielicious” (now called “Tasty”) allocated for women. Now they
have a house-music night on Thursdays that’s extremely popular in the
African-American LGBT crowd (they’ve hired such DJs as Dedan, who used
to spin regularly at Air Lounge and Luka’s). Saturdays go to Club
Rimshot, a popular men’s hip-hop event run by longtime Oakland promoter
Joe Hawkins. Regular beauty pageants, vaquero contests, and a
monthly “bear” event — for the gay subculture whose members tend
to be burly and bearded — will round off the newly diversified

For a niche business, Bench and Bar appears to be prospering, and a
lot of its success derives from having the market cornered on multiple
fronts. It is, after all, the East Bay’s only gay Latino establishment,
and now it’s one of the only house-music venues to boot. Loera said
straight people are certainly welcome, too, although the bar did take
pains to hang a rainbow flag in front — so that no one confuses
it with the hip-hop club @17th. For now, no one’s worried about
catching the bad-economy blues. “The community is out there and the
people are out there,” said Loera. “Whether it’s a recession or 9-11,
we noticed that a lot of people come out and drink.”


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