Arts

What’s going on with the Armory?

10 years ago, an almost unbelievable, incredibly San Francisco thing was happening.

A thriving online BDSM/fetish empire, Kink.com, was taking over the 200,000-square-foot San Francisco Armory, its owner Peter Acworth transforming the century-old fortress into the ground-zero of the streaming porn revolution. Enormous leather and gay pride flags flew from the top of the turreted beauty, and where once the National Guard armed themselves to violently put down 1934 Longshoremen Strikers, gleaming eroto-bots and costumed Kinksters now pleasured multiple genders on any one of dozens of online channels like WiredPussy.com, BoundGods.com, and, most interestingly in a city feeling the hot squeeze of tech “disruption,” Fucking Machines.    

This glorious fairy tale may not have been meant to last, but it certainly was magical for a time, lewd and jaw-dropping in a moment of growing conformity and toothless civility. Like the naked men of the Castro, before they were cock-socked into oblivion by Scott Wiener, the Kink Armory became a tourist favorite and a point of pride—something good-natured, naughty-feeling yet civic-minded: a thing that stuck out. 

Kink impressario peter Acworth all tied up on the cover of the Bay Guardian in 2008.

Trouble started around 2013—by then the gusher of free porn and amateur sites on the Internet were carving into Kink’s subscription model. (A clever gambit at a potential pivot was the opening of the swanky Armory Club bar nearby, with an eye towards franchise.) But legal battles against porn were raging, with fusty old orgs like the AIDS Health Foundation fighting stale battles against studio-made porn with the force of some new Moral Majority. In Los Angeles a mandated porn-condom law was voted in, and AHF and others aimed to make it statewide. That failed, but the damage against an already panicking industry had begun. Most porn companies fled to Nevada, where the laws were looser, the costs way down, and a population of eager young actors springing up. 

A sign that Kink was succumbing to economic pressure was when owner Acworth attempted to transform the Armory to hold more office space (which required the expensive Proposition X on the SF ballot), and again when Acworth announced that Kink would no longer be producing porn at the building, turning its immense drill court, once the site of sprawling Public Disgrace bondage exhibitions, into a party and concert venue. 

I visited the drill court a couple years ago, as it was going through the incredibly costly process of soundproofing. (I also saw some astounding shows there, including Black Watch.) Legendary promoter Audrey Joseph of 177 Townsend fame and her team had taken over production of Armory events, which included huge corporate events and all-night raves. As she notes with her typical homey bluntness, “The Armory is the only 4,000-seat venue in the city besides Fort Mason, and that’s in God’s country.”

One of the massive parties in the Armory.

Now, the Armory saga seems to be taking yet another turn. Rumors ran rampant in November that posh member’s only club and hotel chain Soho House was buying the place, but those were vociferously quashed by insiders. It turns out the rumors were truth-adjacent, however. Reports surfaced Tuesday afternoon that the Armory had sold for $65 million and that the purchaser was a Chicago-based developer closely associated with Soho House

“All I know is that the Armory has been sold to a developer and I and my team are out,” Joseph told me over the phone Tuesday afternoon. I had arranged to call her a couple days ago because a flurry of bondage events had been posted to the Armory’s Faceboook, including one called “Our last days at the Armory” and I wanted to know what was up. The news that the Armory had been sold actually broke while we were on the phone together.

“It’s strange because we have huge events coming up here,” Joseph said. “Lil Uzi Vert, Erykah Badu on Valentine’s Day, the Opel party, a bunch of corporate events. We’re working our asses off. So really, I cannot say I know anything exactly that’s going on, other than the last week of March we’re out. 

“There may be a large concert promotion company angling to take over the space,” Joseph then added mysteriously. “I can’t say who it is, but they have definitely been around. But for very specific reasons, they would only be able to contract the Armory for a year. I just cannot say who.”

Joseph can’t say, but I can guess: LA-based music promoter giant Goldenvoice is producing at least two major shows there. Goldenvoice is growing, recently “partnering” with Slim’s and Great American Music Hall, which program Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, much to at least one outspoken club owner’s dismay over the growing corporatization of the local music scene.

An alliance between Goldenvoice, despite the rightwing associations of its parent company AEG, and Soho House (basically an upscale globe-trotter hostel) in the Armory might mean a slick, crowd-friendly venue rather than more luxury condos or dreary start-up incubators. But it would certainly mean a different kind of chain rattling around the Armory.  

PS The Cats of the Castle need a home! Audrey Joseph and her team will land on their feet when they depart the Armory, but Rudy and Lala, the bodega cats of the Kink Armory, need a home. “They’re a bonded pair and delicious and wonderfully loving,” Joseph told me. “They’re 11 years old and fabulous. If you are the lucky winner of these cats, you’ll get a year’s supply of cat litter and food, and a discount card for Pet Food Express. You may have to let our employees come pet them.”  If you can take the Cats of the Castle, please email Audrey at [email protected]

Rudy and Lala

What does marriage sound like?

One couple, two times: Will Marchetti, Carla Spindt, Andrew Pastides, and Zoë Winters in 'Reel to Reel'

ONSTAGE John Kolvenbach wanted to tell the intimate story of a long marriage. So in his latest play at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, Reel to Reel (through February 25), he used the most intimate medium—sound.

“Sound is meant to be a conveyance to portray a relationship and really get at what it’s like to be inside that thing,” said Kolvenbach, who is also directing the play. “I’m leaving rehearsal now and it’s crazy what we’re doing. We’ve got plungers dipped in glue and hammers breaking things inside a pail. It’s fun. Or right now, it’s kind of a pain in the ass, but it’s going to be fun.”

In the play, which uses recorded conversations, arguments, and household noises, all four of the actors will be on stage the whole time, portraying a couple at 27 and 42 (Zoë Winters and Andrew Pastides) and in their 80s and 90s (Will Marchetti and Carla Spindt). All of them have worked at the Magic before: Marchetti has a particular long history with the theater, having appeared in some of Sam Shepard’s plays there, including the 1983 premiere of Fool for Love. He and Spindt have played each other spouses and adversaries, as have Winters and Pastides, which Kolvenbach, who wrote and directs Reel to Reel, thinks adds to the feeling of intimacy.

Like the actors, Kolvenbach has a relationship with the Magic and artistic director Loretta Greco. Reel to Reel is his fourth play there, following Goldfish, Mrs. Whitney, and Sister Play, in the last 10 years.

For this play, Kolvenbach started with the idea that you can never really know what anyone else’s marriage is like. He remembers hearing people say that during the ’90s about the Clintons when Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky was in the news. And it made sense for him personally as well. His dad is from Wisconsin and his mom is from Minnesota, and Kolvenbach thinks maybe it was their midwestern reserve that meant their marriage seemed totally private and not something they talked about.

‘Reel to Reel’ playwright John Kolvenbach

“I have five sisters, and we all never understood their relationship,” he says. “There was the kid world and the adult world, of course, but we had no idea what was going on in their relationship.”

Kolvenbach says Walter and Maggie, the characters in Reel to Reel are not based on his parents or anyone else he knows. In the play, Walter and Maggie have both work as artists their whole lives, and Kolvenbach says he wanted to explore that—the idea of artists being able to get a crappy, affordable loft downtown—something that is disappearing in New York, as well as a lot of other cities, he says.

The relationship between Maggie and Walter starts in 1995 and goes into the future to 2050 but doesn’t unfold sequentially in the play.

“We get a taste of what they are when they’re together,” Kolvenbach said. “We get a peek into when they first met and see how they are connected, and what parts stayed and what evolved.”

What he’s trying to do, Kolvenbach says, is make the private life of a couple manifest—and to do it without relying on plot devices like affairs. He describes the play as a sort of collage and said when he first did a reading of it with some friends at his apartment in New York, he wondered if it would work. At Magic’s Virgin Play series it came together, and he looks forward to it being produced there with these actors.

“It will be a little bit of a mystery. It’s not all laid out for you. We’re not going to take you by the hand,” he said. “We’re just going to fill the theater with this one relationship and hopefully, these people’s hearts and souls.”

REEL TO REEL
Through February 25
$35-$80 

Magic Theatre, SF.
Tickets and more info here