5 San Francisco Places Crucial to Drag Legend Doris Fish
By Brendan McHugh
Craig Seligman’s new biography of San Francisco Drag Icon and legend, Doris Fish, arrives at an auspicious moment in drag history. A deep dive on an endlessly fascinating individual as well as a treasure trove of San Francisco’s vast queer past, Who Does That Bitch Think She Is?, was released on February 28. It lands amidst rising violence from conservatives/right wing fascists and unprecedented anti-drag and anti-trans legislation. If ever there was a time for Australian legend Doris Fish and her circle’s story to be told, it is now.
Fish, the stage persona of Phillip Mills, moved to San Francisco in 1976. His (according to Seligman’s book and Fish’s friends, he used he/him/his pronouns) drag performances, and the troupe Sluts-a-Go-Go, filled a gap made by the exit of The Cockettes and Charles Pierce in the 1970s. Seligman’s book is a portrait of a community struck by the 1980s AIDS crisis. Instead of a typical book review, here are five nightlife and cultural sites crucial to Doris Fish’s time in San Francisco:
North Beach’s Bimbo’s, and its chic vintage interiors, has a long storied history. The 1970s saw the emergence of a new performance and rock-vaudeville troupe sky rocket through San Francisco’s orbit: The Tubes. Doris Fish’s first set of performances was with the avant garde theatrical troupe. Tubes’ member Jane Dornacker went on to collaborate with Doris and Sluts-a-go-go in Blonde Sin. When Dornacker tragically died in a TV helicopter accident in 1986, Fish and the Sluts performed (performance starts around the 40 minute mark) at The Warfield alongside The Tubes and Grateful Dead in Dornacker’s honor.
181 Eddy street’s most recent incarnation was The Citadel until August 2020. During the 1980s, the storied space was called Club 181 and served as a mixed queer and straight scene with Sluts-a-Go-Go captivating audiences with performances in their “Happy Hours.” They joined up with a team of other actors under the direction of Marc Heustis. Known as The Alexis Carrington Colby Players, “Naked Brunch” was a soap opera performed before a live audience, that filtered Dynasty level dramatics through the lens of drag, and crossed with musical parody. It was a hit and the sold out performances were often so jam packed, patrons sometimes fainted.
Doris Fish’s connection with Theater Rhinoceros (America’s longest running queer theater) includes stints as a performer. She was also the emcee for Rhino founder and director Chuck Solomon’s infamous 40th birthday. Three hundred and fifty of Solomon’s nearest and dearest friends and family gathered at The California Club to say happy birthday, and goodbye, for Solomon was dying of AIDS. In 2002, Theater Rhinoceros staged a one act play, written by Fish collaborator and friend Phillip Ford – the only non-drag member of Sluts-a-Go-Go – paying tribute to Phillip Mills’ life and work as Doris Fish. Titled Simply Stunning, Ford drew his material from Fish’s columns written for The San Francisco Sentinel between 1989 and 1990. It was a fitting tribute to a queen who bridged the camps of “funny” and “stunning.” Ford also drew from remarks that Doris Fish made at her final public performance in 1989.
Doris’s final onstage performance and benefit concert was at the Victoria Theater and included a knockout lipsync to Shirley Bassey’s “This is my life.” Wearing a white, almost “blank” looking dress, as Doris leaned into the rising dramatics of Bassey’s tale, images from Doris’ career and performances were projected onto her dress. It was standing room only and dozens of people had to be turned away from the door. Clips of this performance can be found on Youtube.
The Castro Theater
Vegas in Space, directed by Phillip Ford, was Doris Fish’s magnum opus. She had major creative control over costumes, sets, and the script. The space-bound murder mystery finally had its premiere in May 1991 at the The Castro Theater. Kate Bornstein called it “The Most Glamorous Opening of the Decade” in the Bay Area Reporter. Sadly, Fish died before Vegas in Space was released. It can be streamed online. The fate of The Castro Theater, however, continues to be debated since its purchase by APE and receiving Landmark status early in February of this year. #Savetheseats
Seligman’s biography has received glowing reviews. Alongside the book’s notices, rich profiles of Doris Fish have been published, including a remembrance by Mick LaSalle. Doris Fish’s story now will, hopefully, extend beyond our seven by seven city with the publication of this vital piece of history.