The Pandemic Has Been a Drag, But Community Kept One Local Gay Bar Afloat


Christina Carasis, Staff

For the past 45 years, a small, unassuming bar in Walnut Creek called Club 1220, named for its street address at 1220 Pine Street, has been a fixture of the Contra Costa gay community. While 18 months of pandemic-related restrictions have created challenges that threatened to shutter the bar, owners and patrons say a “strong sense of community” is what continues to pull it through.

A recent study showed that 37 percent of gay bars in the U.S. closed their doors between 2007 and 2019, and major LGBTQ+ landmarks like The Stud in San Francisco and Rage Nightclub in Los Angeles went under during the pandemic shutdown. For this reason, say locals, keeping spaces like Club 1220 alive is more important now than ever.

Co-owners Holotta Tymes and her husband, who chose to be referred to simply as Robert, told The Inquirer that despite what seemed like insurmountable setbacks in 2020, the bar is coming back stronger than ever.

Tymes – who used her drag performance name – said she had worked for the bar for more than 30 years in different capacities before she finally put in an offer to buy the business in early 2020.

“Our offer was accepted March 5, right before COVID,” Tymes said. “We were told businesses would close for three weeks, and even though we knew it would likely be longer, we continued to move forward. We still only thought it would be a couple of months, at most.”

But that’s not the way it worked out, she recalled.

“We quickly realized that things were going to be much more difficult as everything shut down – buying a business that requires a liquor license with no county offices open, for example,” she said.

Robert and Tymes said they knew early on that if their business was going to survive the pandemic, it had to get creative and it had to lean on the community it had built up over so many years. “If we didn’t have the support of the community we would not have been able to do it,” Tymes said.

Beginning in April 2020, the bar began hosting virtual drag shows and dance parties over Facebook and Instagram Live, where patrons could tip the performers, donate to the bar staff via Venmo, or to a GoFundMe to keep the bar’s general bills paid. The weekly events not only boosted the spirits of patrons stuck at home, but helped keep the bar alive during the many months of strict closure.

Times were still tough, however, even with the virtual fundraisers. “We didn’t even qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program loans because the previous owner had already received them.” They did receive a California small business grant, but only after jumping through “a ton of extra hoops.”

Then, in September 2020, when Club 1220 got the green light to open but could only offer to-go service because it didn’t sell food, Robert and Tymes developed another creative, community-based solution: they partnered with a neighboring restaurant, House of Sake, to allow patrons to buy drinks from 1220 and consume them on the restaurant’s outdoor patio while dining there.

The arrangement built up a sense of local community growing even stronger, and helped House of Sake find new customers as well. Despite being in an out-of-the-way location, loyal customers stopped by frequently to support the bar and catch a passing glimpse of old friends.

“I bought a $5 slushie drink and tipped $50,” said long-time patron Tonya Makowski. “You have to support the queer community!”

She went on, “It’s such a small community here, but that’s what makes it really strong. Maybe you don’t know them, maybe you aren’t friends, but you’re friendly and chat with them just because they are at 1220.”

Another patron, Clark MacKinnon, agreed. “1220 is a very special bar,” he said, “and through the hard times, the staff was able to provide a safe environment for all of us to still enjoy.”

“I’m happy 1220 survived through all of this,” he added. “It’s important to have a gay bar in the East Bay that is welcoming to everyone.”

Robert and Tymes say that they’ve always focused on community, so it was no surprise that people felt so passionately about supporting the bar through the pandemic.

“It’s not like the city,” Tymes said. “We may not have the best dance lighting, the largest dance floor. But one thing we have always had going for us is the community aspect and the community support.”

Tymes continued, “We have one of the longest running drag shows in all of the Bay Area. We have done so many fundraisers – for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Camp Sunshine, various AIDS organizations – and the entertainment has always been drag.”

The bar even held a fundraiser for AIDS Lifecycle during the pandemic shutdowns. The ride itself, which usually draws over 2,000 cyclists in a ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, was canceled in 2020. So Tymes and her team borrowed stationary bicycles from the Diablo Valley College athletic department and had alternating riders switch off duringa 12-hour marathon while they collected donations for the organization.

This year was the bar’s ninth year supporting AIDS Lifecycle  as donors, and both Robert and Tymes have cycled in the event themselves for seven years.

Tymes said, “1220 is more than just a bar, and there is still really a need for safe spaces – for safe queer spaces.”

“It’s nice that we now have things like better representation on TV,” Tymes said about LGBTQ+ portrayals in mainstream culture, “but I don’t know that until you see a realistic gay community in person, you know it’s possible to have a good life.”

Robert added, “To go into a space where there aren’t assumptions, that’s important.  You are allowed to just be whatever, to not have to explain, not be stared at, not be gawked at.”

Tymes concurred. “I’m determined that this will always be a gay bar,” she said, “and I hope that in 10 years this is just a little blip – I hope that we are thriving, that we have a lot of community things taking place, so that we still have a queer space.”

Club 1220 is now open with both indoor and outdoor seating Wednesdays through Sundays, including for Sunday night drag shows, which are back with in-person performances. Indoor patrons are required by the Contra Costa County Health Department to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test in the past 72 hours, as well as to wear a mask at all times except when eating or drinking.

The bar is open to all guests ages 21 and up, and the owners emphasize they welcome people from all walks of life. As Tymes put it, “Come hang out, have a date night, and support our community.”