Historic Punk Venue ‘Mabuhay Gardens’ Becoming Underground Comedy Hotspot
By Lee Wyatt
The Bay Area is well known for its rich history in the arts… as a local comedian, I sometimes find myself humbled, getting to perform on a stage, or in a room where you can almost feel the presence of performances that have long been over, a lingering energy that intoxicates and lets you know, this place… is sacred.
At 435-443 on Broadway in North Beach’s famous red-light district, I found myself in such a place, Fame Venue at Broadway Studios, once known as Mabuhay Gardens, one of the most important venues of the Punk era, also featuring future legendary comedians like Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg during its tenure as ‘The Fab Mab.’
Originally called Garibaldi Hall, an Italian Men’s Club, built in 1919 by Filipino immigrants has seen its fair share of changes over the years… none, however, may be quite as infamous as its run as one of the most important venues of the Punk era. In the mid-seventies, owner Ness Aquino’s Filipino restaurant Mabuhay Garden was not generating business. By the end of 1976 Aquino brought in promoter Jerry Paulsen, who also published one of the first Punk Magazines, Psyclone Magazine.
Bringing in SF locals The Nuns, and throwing the first Burlesque Punk Show, at ‘The Mab’ as it would come to be known. The scene quickly became popular and with the help of the “pope of punk”, Dirk Dirksen, soon they were booking 2 shows a night, 7 days a week. In the first 3 months alone putting on shows including local favorites like Crime, Screamers, The Avengers as well as what many consider the East Bay’s first punk band, The Street Punks who opened for Blondie. By ’77 ‘The Fab Mab’ became a hotspot for Punk and New Wave music on the West Coast.
Mabuhay Gardens – The Mab
Dirksen, nephew of Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, is credited with connecting the UK and US Punk scenes, by creating an exchange program for punk bands to play shows in their respective cities. The Damned was the first group from the UK to play ‘The Mab’. In honor of Dirksen’s contributions to the scene, the alley next to the building bears his name. Before Mabuhay Gardens closed its doors in 1987, this old theatre and nightclub introduced bands like the Dead Kennedys, Devo, and Black Flag to the world. The Sex Pistols played one of their last shows there before breaking up in San Francisco.
The Comedic Future:
Current owner Francesca Valdez, who proudly tells me she is, “the last Filipino property owner in North Beach!” has a long history with the building. At the age of 20 she came to America as a mail-order bride in 1974. She escaped an abusive relationship and educated herself while working various jobs. In 1976 Francesca first crossed paths with then owner, Ness Aquino while modeling at ‘The Mab’ for Filipino-American designer Thomas West. They wouldn’t cross paths again until 1989 when the landlord of the building asked her to go clean the building and kick out delinquent tenants, Ness being one of them. She continued cleaning the building while continuing work in modeling and getting her real estate license. In 2001 the landlord wanted to sell, so Francesca and her financial partner Karl Preskot bought the building now known as Broadway Studios.
It soon became a premier event space in San Francisco, HULU and Netflix filming specials there, comedians like George Lopez and Dave Chappelle who filmed some of his HBO Comedy Half Hour in the upstairs theatre. FAME (Fashion, Art, Music, Events) Venue downstairs opened in 2012 as a nightclub, currently a space for special events.
Valdez, a cancer survivor, is now turning her focus to give back to the local comedy community. “I won’t be here forever,” she tells me… “and if I don’t do it now, no one will…” She’s assembled a team of comics and producers to help her make FAME Venue a top spot for local comedy. With a Punk DIY attitude, Francesca and her crew are putting together a space for the underground comics to thrive. The professional sound and lighting create a great atmosphere and with Eric Roach from YourReel Productions manning multiple cameras, editing to make it easy for comics to get clips.
If you need an excuse to check this historic venue out, Thursday March 31st Broadway Studios and Fame Venue will be holding an Open House event from 3-9 pm to celebrate 33 years in business. There will be a comedy show at 6 pm showcasing local talent to various events coordinators and producers and guests. Artist Jeremy Sutton will be doing live painting and music with local band The Freshmakers.
Is this the beginning of the next historic chapter for this iconic SF venue? Only time will tell but maybe someday, 40 years down the road or so, people will look back in wonder of all that happened within those sacred walls.
Event Industry Open House
Fame Venue at Broadway Studios
RSVP recommended but no necessary