Ron Lanza, queer impressario, dies at 78

Photo by Dirk Alphin

Ron Lanza, a pioneer in San Francisco’s gay rights movement and an impressario who promoted queer arts through the worst of the AIDS crisis, has died after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 78.

Lanza, a Brooklyn native, was one of the leaders of Bay Area Gay Liberation in the 1970s, and, along with Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and the late activists Hank Wilson and Howard Wallace, was instrumental in building the LGBT movement in San Francisco.

He was the owner and operator of the Valencia Rose Café and later Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint, two groundbreaking queer performance venues that helpled launch the careers of  Whoopie Goldberg, Marga Gomez, and Margaret Cho.

“His vision came from looking at people and saying, ‘you have talent, you ought to try this,’ ” Ammiano, who performed as a comedian at Valencia Rose, told me.

“He was a giant in this city,” Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a performer and housing activist and the author of a book on the history of gay liberation, noted. “He created the foundation for what we now know as queer arts in San Francisco. He was really one of a kind.”

Lanza with Dennis Peron and Tom Ammiano

Marke B., our managing editor and a longtime follower of queer culture, put it this way:

“He dedicated his life to promoting theater and arts in San Francisco -- even if it sometimes meant playing hardball, but always with that super-charming, goofball smile. Every single drag queen, performance artist, comedian, and actor in the city owes Ron a memorial smoothie -- the Valencia Rose and Josie's Cabaret kept performing arts alive in this town through the worst years of AIDS and political artphobia.”

Lanza, a Navy veteran, arrived in San Francisco in the 1970s, and worked for a while as a teacher in Walnut Creek. “When he came out, he risked being fired, so he quite before they could fire him,” Ammiano said.

With Wilson, Lanza took over the Ambassador Hotel, a Tenderloin SRO with a large number of gay and transgender tenants. In the 1980s, the two helped create what would become the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center.

Lanza never liked the headlines; while his compatriots entered politics, ran for office, and organized on the streets, he stayed in the background, providing the cultural, moral, and financial support.

When Ammiano challenged then-Mayor Willie Brown in a legendary 1999 write-in campaign, Josie’s Cabaret and Juice Joint became the campaign headquarters. “He was so supportive,” Ammiano said. “He was a real San Francisco lefty. He only cared about money if he had to pay the bills.”

Gabriel Haaland, who helped run the Ammiano write-in, told me that “San Francisco is dimished. It’s such a heavy loss. There are people who are just magical, bright lights in the world, and he was one of them.”

Lanza was diagnosed with colon cancer in his 40s, but survived -- in part, probably, thanks to adopting a healthy lifestyle. “He didn’t smoke, he was a vegetarian, and back then we teased him about it,” Ammiano said.

But the cancer came back in his later years, and he quietly underwent a series of operations. “He called me a few weeks ago and said he was dying,” Ammiano said. “He wanted to have a good-bye dinner.”

A huge dog-lover, Lanza could often be seen running down Dolores Street with two or three rescue animals. One of his last wishes was for a trip East to leave the dogs with a relative. He’d been driving a limo for income, and one of his wealthy clients paid for the ticket.

“He was always handsome, always loyal,” Ammiano recalled. “There were times you wanted to kill him, but the love was always there.”

A memorial is pending.


He created the space not just for the entertainers but for the audiences as well. I remember "stumbling" across the Valencia Rose back in the early 80's to hear Romanovsky and Phillips as they launched themselves and later to Josie's to hear Afro Promo Homo. It felt both like going out on the town and being at "home" in the most important way.
I raise a glass!

Posted by CitiReport on Apr. 12, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

influence of this guy nobody has ever heard of will be following very soon, no doubt . .

Posted by Guest on Apr. 12, 2013 @ 7:55 pm
Posted by Guest on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 7:35 am

The terrorists hate us for our freedoms.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 8:37 am

Even tho all of us who knew and loved Ron are considering you an asshole, Ron is still smiling, nodding his head, and LAUGHING at you...

Posted by Guest on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 9:47 am

All of us who knew, and loved Ron think you are an asshole, he is still smiling, nodding his head, and laughing at your stupidity. When you die, I can tell, there will be nobody to say anything good about you, if there is anyone.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 9:51 am

Don't go all Margaret Thatcher on us and abandon all compassion on those of lesser "means" than you, lest you give them power over you.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 9:58 am
Posted by anon on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 11:26 am

Which is why your pathetic ass is reduced to being mean to people who you oppose politically on a progressive website hiding behind anonymity.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

Ron Lanza was my landlord, my friend, and a compassionate, helpful human being to everyone who crossed his path even in the worst of times. I personally saw Ron help so many struggling people (gay or straight), artists of all ages, people even ostracized by the mainstream LGBT community, and even homeless people. This man had a very real effect on the lives of many of us, and all through one simple thing: COMPASSION. When you or Maggy can claim that, you can speak. Until then, shut the hell up.

Posted by Mike Mercede on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

Holy shit!!! 'Even homeless people'???? Now that's way over the line rite there!

Posted by pete moss on Apr. 29, 2013 @ 10:57 am

Ron was stellar and was a hero to many San Franciscans. He made this city a better place for all. He lived his life true to his convictions, and deserves to be honored, he will be missed by many.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

Ron was stellar and was a hero to many San Franciscans. He made this city a better place for all. He lived his life true to his convictions, and deserves to be honored, he will be missed by many.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

Ron Lanza: beautiful soul and an amazing human being. He always had a smile and loving way about him that made everyone around him feel good. He will be missed.
Aaron Peskin

Posted by Guest on Apr. 12, 2013 @ 9:10 pm

A well-deserved tribute to one of San Francisco's grand queer culture-makers. One thing I would add: Ron also was an important supporter of the early gay and lesbian public history movement.

The Valencia Rose didn't just present entertainers; it also hosted talks on queer history by many of the independent and community-based scholars of the era. I presented there in 1984 on the history of gay life in Paris. And at Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint, the "Late Night With Joan Jett Blakk" show also made room for guests discussing LGBT history; I was once invited to do an informal slide chat on the cover art for trashy queer paperback originals of the 1960s.

Ron also made sure that the history he helped make was documented, donating the records of Valencia Rose and Josie's to the archives of The GLBT Historical Society; for details, enter "Ron Lanza" in the archives search field at

Posted by Gerard Koskovich on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 7:13 am

The BF and I enjoyed many shows and meals and laffs at his old joint, and totally appreciate all the work and support he did over the decades for gay liberation. Would be great if we could use public property at Milk Plaza to honor Ron's life and work with a simple flag lowering for an afternoon.

That said, this story is an example of the Guardian's law about any queer story.

(Was it Gore Vidal who said the NY Times approach to the news was "U.S. government said. Period. End of story."?)

For the Guardian it's "Avicolli-Mecca, Haaland and Ammiano said. Period. End of story."

The Guardian ever so slightly got out of its comfort zone in this case by seeking out a quote from . . . a colleague.

Posted by MPetrelis on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 11:32 am

I was a classmate of Ron's, the summer of 1982. He was so handsome & a kind caring man. He hired me to be a waiter at Valencia Rose Carfe, s formere mortuary . I got spooked in the back rooms and ramps. He laughed at me. He is gone, my boyfriend from then, Mike Hippler is gone, my wonderful ACT teacher & friend is gone. The City cannot be filled with their wonderful spirits of light. I am so sad!! Godspeed Ron!!!

Posted by tim dahlberg on Apr. 13, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

Ron taught at Ygnacio Valley High School in Walnut Creek for many years. He touched the lives and opened the minds of thousands of students. He was faculty adviser for student ecological and student political groups at a time when many of us at Ygnacio Valley High were organizing against the Viet Nam war. He helped introduce us to the world at large. When he came out as the first openly gay high school teacher in California many of us went back to Walnut Creek and YVHS to support him. The world is a better place for his having been here among us.

Posted by Guest Brian Grey on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 7:43 am

It was 1982 or 1983. My lover Pat and I met for a first date at Valencia Rose when dinner was still being served there. Ron was our waiter, emerging in tie and tails with the white towel over his arm. Pat and I have been "divorced" for decades but still share fond memories of the Rose and Josie's. What a fabulous space for gay entertainers, and so central to the development of our San Francisco culture. Ron Lanza presente!

Posted by Molly Martin on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 8:04 am

Thank you all for the kinds words. Ron was my uncle and we will miss him dearly. We were lucky to have him as our Uncle and we got to spend a few days with him here in NY about a month ago. Love and miss you Uncle Ronny. Rest in peace.

Posted by Guest Jacquie Johnson on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

Hi Jacquie,

I was so sad when I opened an old copy of the Examiner and saw your uncle's face and the headline that he was gone. About a week prior I had been thinking that I needed to call Ron Lanza.

I felt lost, like I wanted to talk with someone about this loss and I had no one since our time had been limited and not all social so we did not have common friends.

I called Ron out of the blue about 5 years ago. I was working with a club at the Hotel Nikko call the Rrazz Room. We needed a driver to pick up our celebrities and someone gave me your uncles name.

He was so kind and eager to assist us. Then for the next 4 years we asked if he could help with our annual benefit and drive celebrities from their hotel to the club for rehearsals and then the show...of course he was more that happy to work with us.

I have not met too many people in this world like your uncle...kind and eager to help others!

He was a kind person and full of life...what a laugh, what a smile.

I will miss him and just wanted you to know that you indeed were lucky to have him as an Uncle.

He was SO understated...I had no idea that he had achieved the things that he achieved.

Posted by Guest Thom Ward on Apr. 29, 2013 @ 9:02 am

I’ll never forget meeting Ron 5 years ago when I moved into the neighborhood. He always had a smile and greeting when you’d see him on the street walking the 3 rescue dogs that he cared for. He still had an opinion about politics and he still worked to support the arts right to the end. He had a great heart and cared for so many here in San Francisco. I will miss him. Love you Ron!!!

Posted by Rodney Kerr on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 7:34 am

Can't believe it took us a month to find out; I guess because none of us lives in San Francisco anymore. The Kinsey Sicks are now celebrating our 20th year. We wouldn't have had a third year without Ron taking the chance of putting us up on stage at Josie's. And I remember our nights performing at Josie's so viscerally. There was no dressing room. So we'd change elsewhere. Then we would sneak in and the four of us would hide in the tiny offstage bathroom. But Josie's wasn't about production values but about people. The audience felt like friends; there was an excitement about everybody being there together. And Ron would sit, eyes sparkling, and laugh the hardest.

Posted by Irwin Keller and the Kinsey Sicks on May. 20, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

I was telling a friend about the Valencia Rose - a former funeral home with these incredible internal ramps - last time I saw Ron in SF I stayed there, he came to see the quilt in DC last time I saw him years ago. Asked my friend to Google and see if it was still there and came upon this sad news - now months old. I so regret not being able to see him again in this life. My friend Bobby and I were his 'houseguests' the summer of 1974 in the Bernal Heights. 2 straight boys traveling out West and living in their step-van, he picked us up at the Golden Gate Beach where we were bathing, walking his dogs and offered us a place to stay in turn we worked on his house renovations, took part-time jobs and entertained his guests. We used to make incredible fruit salads for his events which delighted him and he charmed us continuously to reappraise our directions and nascent life views. An organizer par excellence, (I still have my BAGL tee shirt from the Castro Street Festival bagel stand we built!) I met an incredible assortment of people in his home - Harvey Milk, Margo St. James, etc. and to find out Patty Hearst was hiding out not far away at the same time. We had such laughs, I have great stories and memories - as many of you who knew him had I'm sure. His dogs at the time - all rescues - clumsy Brand the Irish Wolfhound, Patrick & Michael the sheepdogs at each others throats constantly, and Tramp who kept getting caught in the middle of their fights.......they lived in the hallway, we tiptoed past them in our whitewear on the way to the bathroom so as not to disturb Ron's slumber? funny. What a great guy, a great human being. We should all be so blessed.

Posted by doug friddle on Jan. 22, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

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