Ron Lanza, queer impressario, dies at 78

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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.

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