He opened a speakeasy in 1929 at 406 Stockton St, which he managed with his wife Marjorie. Initially the show was a female impersonator paired with a exotic dancer – hula or Chinese.
In 1933 with the repeal of Prohibition, it became legal, and Joe hired more dancers and expended the floor show. In 1936 the police raided the club and arrested five female impersonators, including Walter Hart and Carroll Davis, and the owners for employing entertainers on a percentage basis. Police Chief Quinn ‘declared war’ on female impersonators, and also revoked the permit of the 201 Club.
After the raid, Finocchio’s moved to a larger location at 506 Broadway, and hired more impersonators. Marjorie planned the entertainment on a grand scale. She booked the finest entertainers, supervised and planned elaborate productions. The club was allowed to exist because it became a tourist attraction, a symbol of the city’s sophistication. Joe had to promise the police that the entertainers would not mingle with the customers. Tourist magazines billed Finocchio’s as ‘America’s most unusual night club’. This was reinforced during the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco.
The club always included ethnic impersonators. Li-Kar did a Geisha dance; Billy Herrero recreated Hedy Lamarr in the film Algiers, 1938; in 1940 the club developed an Argentine feature; later Juan Jose did a flamenco dance; Reene de Carlo a hula dance; Bobby de Castro did a striptease in a gorilla costume (this was supposed to be Cuban).
There was little trouble at the club over the years, though military authorities declared Finocchio's "off limits" for selling liquor to WWII military personnel outside of authorized hours. That temporary sanction was lifted New Year's Eve 1943 after Joe Finocchio and other bar owners signed an agreement to limit liquor sales to military personnel to between 5 p.m and midnight. Beer could, however, be sold between 10 a.m. and midnight. The future Tony Midnight, who was working in munitions during the war, snuck into Finocchio’s using fake ID.
In 1945 there was a rumor that Errol Flynn, David Niven and two others had taken Pussy Katt and friends back to a hotel suite at the Fairmont for a night of ‘debauchery’. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons heard this, but couldn’t use it. Howard Hughes who had first met Katt when he escorted Ava Gardner to Finocchio’s, returned for another meeting, and became her lover.
Evelyn Hooker enjoyed a visit to Finocchio’s in the mid 1950s before starting her research that showed that gay men are no less socialized that other men.
Joe Finocchio died in 1986, aged 88. Eve Finocchio, his widow, decided to close the club in late 1999 because of a major rent increase and dwindling attendance. The club closed November 27, 1999. Eve died 2007.
Other artists who performed there include: Rae Bourbon, David de Alba, Libby Reynolds, Katherine Marlow, Aleshia Brevard, Lavern Cummings, Bambi Lake, Carroll Wallace, Holly White, Russell Reed, Val DeVere, Ted Hendrix, Harvey Lee, Nicki Gallucci, Francis Stillman, Lestra La Mont, Jeri-Lane, Jackie Maye, Frank Doran, Jackie Philips, Bobby Johnson, Francis Blair, John Lonas, Vaughn Auldon, Johnny Mangum, Del LeRoy, Milton La Maire, Ray Francis, Karyl Norman, Francis David, Paul La Ray, Mike Michelle, Bobby Belle, William Stoffler, Pussy Katt,
*’finocchio’ is Italian for fennel and by extention a negative word for gay. Some say that this is because its bulb looks like male genitals, but the corresponding word in Portuguese, ‘fanchono’ would seem to be cognate.
Rachel Harlow was also born with the Finocchio name.
- Les Wright. “San Francisco”. In David Higgs (ed). Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600. London: Routledge, 1999: 171-2.
- Nan Alamilla Boyd. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. University of California Press 2003: 49,52-6,187.
- D.J. Doyle. “Finochio’s”. Queer Musical Heritage. http://www.queermusicheritage.us/oct2002f.html.
- David de Alba on Finocchio's. www.david-de-alba.com/david4.htm. www.david-de-alba.com/david5.htm.