Curtis Christy is a salty old club owner with a thick Baton Rouge accent, preserved through all 62 years that he's lived in the Bay Area. DJ Black (aka Mellanique Robicheaux) is a veteran of the LGBT scene who learned to spin records while living in Acorn Projects. Hae Yong Min is a Korean-born artist and fledgling event promoter. The three of them make an odd crowd.
And yet, they recently joined forces to produce one of the most improbable — and laudable — new social events in Oakland: Min's "Hella Gay Dance Party," set to happen each month at Christy's decades-old Continental Club. Min and Black tested the event out in June and drew a couple hundred people — still, they wanted to find a more permanent locale. They say the Continental Club is ideal, with its capacious dance floor, restaurant booths, glitzy chandeliers, and junior-prom disco balls. It's a historic landmark of sorts, launched at a time when African Americans were migrating to West Oakland to work in the shipbuilding industry. The promoters' only reservation, at first, was Mr. Christy's apparent removal from the "hella gay" community.
"I wanted to know right away how he felt about queer people," said Min. So when she and Black met Christy at his club a couple weeks ago, that was the first thing she asked him. Christy looked at her searchingly: "Say what?"
"He said 'What' because he didn't know what 'queer' meant," Black later explained. "I mean, he's still using words that I was like, 'I have to go back to my old-school dictionary to figure out what the hell you're saying to me right now.' I mean, you noticed his demeanor was so, like, ancient-era."
It turned out that Christy had no problem with a queer party once the term was defined for him. "That's all right, ain't got nothing against that," he said a few days later, sitting inside the Continental with long-time maintenance man Mills Smith, who grew up nearby and began working at the club as a teenager. "Now as long as everybody's over 21, there's no problem," said Christy. "And they all like to smoke that weed — what's that stuff they smoke, weed?" he asked, turning toward Smith, who nodded. Christy continued his bullet-point list of admonitions. He had reluctantly agreed to let Min stock the bar with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, although he worried that people might run across the street to a liquor store and sneak more beer into the club. ("They ain't got hip yet," Mills assured). "And then I don't want people standing outside, so we have to put a place in the back there so they can find some place there to smoke. 'Cause I know they'll wanna smoke. See, that's the type of party these people want."
Christy opened the building in 1947 with his late brother Ross. Originally it was a soul food restaurant called Christy's Grill, which lasted until about 1950. Then the brothers transformed it into the Rumboogie, a supper club with a little stage in back. ("Rumboogie," according to Smith, means "Get on down.") When a curmudgeonly neighbor moved out of the house next door, the Christies bought the deed, demolished the property, and built a larger performance area with a stage and dance floor. They rechristened their club "The Continental" and put on bigger, blow-out shows with all the royalty of Motown — everyone except Michael Jackson, according to Christy. "This place was the Apollo of Northern California," Smith said, as he and Christy rattled off the names of people who had graced its stage: Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Jackie Wilson, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Dells, Sammy Davis, the Supremes. "And — what's the name of that father-killer singer?" asked Christy. "Marvin Gaye," said Smith.
Although largely unheralded, the Continental Club has a remarkable sense of rootedness in West Oakland. It has withstood economic booms and busts, gentrification waves, and drastic changes in the neighborhood topography. The Christy brothers quietly kept their business afloat when BART and the post office arrived, razing property on 7th Street and squeezing out local residents. They changed with the times, too, heeding Oakland's new cabaret license laws and opening their 600-capacity club for weddings, Quinceañeras, and East Bay Dragon motorcycle club parties (which were too loud and ultimately had to be sent packing, said Christy).
But as the brothers got older, business got more and more difficult, with the combined hardship of new laws, police vigilance, and the decline of live music. Ross went back to Louisiana but Christy and Smith kept renting the Continental out for special events, and watched as the neighborhood continued to transform around them: At present, the Continental sits cheek-by-jowl with a "smart growth" development at the old train station. Among its new neighbors are hipster artists, yuppie loft owners, and, according to Black, a large LGBT population. Many of them — Black included — lived in West Oakland for years without a clue that the club even existed.
Black first stepped into the Continental Club to DJ a lesbian stripper party in May. It was astonishing, she said. "The first time I went into that space I was like, 'Ohhhh my God.' I could see burlesque parties here. ... I could imagine McClymonds High School doing their proms here."
Like Christy, Black is a Southern transplant, born in Houston, Texas. She came to West Oakland in 1989 and lived in Acorn Projects, near the BART tracks. "I wrote this thing — and I found it not too long ago — that said 'I'm coming to California to find music," said the 39-year-old DJ, whose mohawk and tattoos make her look like a teenager. (Ten years ago she might have been a grittier version of Afropunk singer Janelle Monae.) In the coming years she moved around San Francisco and Oakland, eventually resettling not too far from the Continental. She's currently saving her money and hoping to buy property of her own. In that respect, she sees Christy as a role model.
Black said that on the night of the stripper party she left her cell phone charger at the club, and had to pick it up from Mr. Christy a few days later. He gave it to her obligingly, but not without a stern tongue-lashing. "He said, 'You causin' a whole lotta ruckus over this charger.'" Black giggled as she remembered their second meeting. "After I got my charger I said, 'Mr. Christy, one day I'm gonna do a party here. Remember me.'"