The Shoulders I Stand Upon
by: Big Mike Phillips
I’m very pleased and excited to be asked by this publication to share my history as I witnessed and lived it. As of August 18, 2023, it will be 34 years since moving to and living in San Diego, creating amazing friendships and a loving family.
When I first moved to San Diego in 1989, I did not know anyone, except my best friend Tino Graziano, who had moved to San Diego for HIV/AIDS health care.
I needed a job, so I went out and applied at every gay bar in town for employment but had no luck. It was a bit overwhelming, I must say. Moving from San Antonio, Texas, where everyone knew me, to San Diego, where I was just another face in the crowd, was truly challenging and scary for me. About a month before Tino died, I finally did get a part-time job working at Embassy Suites Hotel downtown as a banquet server for the Christmas holidays.
It just so happened that the manager at Embassy Suites who hired me was also gay, and shortly after I started working there, I became his roommate. One day after a long shift, he invited me to join him and a couple of his friends to have a beer at The Brass Rail. I was hesitant at first, because every time I had walked by, it seemed to have a very dark and depressing atmosphere, but I decided to go anyway. I have to say, I am very glad that I did.
Jason, the bartender who was on duty that day, was flirting with me; you must remember that I was still young, thin, and desirable, lol, at least I thought I was. I decided I better take the opportunity to ask him if the bar had any openings for a bartender. Jason leaned over the bar and whispered in my ear, “If you have sex with me, I will get you a job here.”
Now mind you, Jason was a handsome man, had done porn in the past, and I needed a secure job, so I whispered back in his ear, “Ok, but you will have to get me the job first, then I will have sex with you.”
I felt weird at first, but I also took it as a compliment that he would take the time to help me just to have sex with me.
Well, Jason came through and I started working at The Brass Rail on Tuesday, December 25, 1989. It was the best Christmas gift I had ever had. Yes, I did keep my promise to Jason; unfortunately it was not enjoyable at all, the sex was boring, but I was always grateful to him for helping me get the job and we remained friends until he died a few years later of AIDS.
A little history
Back in 1958, The Brass Rail was located downtown, and it was purchased by Lou Arko, who converted it to a predominantly gay-customer-based bar. In 1963, the building was sold to make way for a new high-rise and Lou moved to the northwest corner of Fifth and Robinson avenues in Hillcrest, the site of today’s Chase Bank.
The new location was smaller and no longer had a restaurant, but back then it was mostly men who made their new home around its piano bar. Without even realizing it at the time, this straight man had started what is now the San Diego “gayborhood” in Hillcrest.
Ten years later, in 1967, Lou was again forced to move the business due to redevelopment, and he moved across the street to its current location. The bar was half the size it is now, but still it prospered. Lou met his wife Carol (who would later own Number One on Fifth) in 1976, and the couple acquired the Brass Rail property in 1992 (in addition to the bar).
In 1993, Art Cunningham bought the property and began expanding the bar’s footprint, buying up neighboring storefronts. One housed Finest City Properties and another was Hillcrest Travel. When Art passed away, his daughter, Gayle Santillan, took the reins and later oversaw an extensive remodel in 2016, giving it a “prohibition-time feel,” and she rebranded the bar as The Rail.
Gail recently sold The Rail to Urbano Pelicano (a prior manager at Numbers) and his business partner, Isaac Vargas. I think it safe to say we all wish them a huge success in keeping this historical institution alive and prosperous.
The Brass Rail opened the door for me and gave me a place to belong in San Diego. It was here where I found my new family and met so many people in my community. Back in those early days before computers, the bars were a place we gathered, they were our community centers, but add the fact that they also served liquor and had dancing, and they became our escape.
An Ode to Mother Hal
I’ve been fortunate to have met some great people in my life, many who are still in my life to this day; individuals who have left their mark on my personality, abilities, commitment, and loyalty, and influenced me to become a better person. Hal Frost was one of these few people. He changed my life.
Many of you may not know him, but for many in San Diego, he was simply known as “Mother Hal,” a title he loved to be called over the years. Many of his employees, of which I was one, considered him caring and loving. Sometimes strict but in the right way, he was thoughtful and very giving. He loved his food, and loved cooking, especially when he could feed all of us.
I remember our first meeting as if it were yesterday. The day after New Year’s Eve, Lou Arco (the owner of the bar) called a meeting with all the staff to introduce us to the new general manager, Hal Frost. Hal took full control and told us right out front that most of us would be replaced. Scared that I was going to lose my job after just being hired the week before, I asked to talk to Hal in the office.
We went in, I introduced myself and told him that I had just been hired on Christmas Day and to please just give me a chance to prove myself. I told him that I’d been living in San Diego since August and was finally happy to find an opportunity to work in a gay bar.
Hal said, “I will give you the Monday through Friday day shifts.” He gave me three months to prove myself, and if I did good, I could keep the shift.
I had to find a way to let people know who I was and that I was the new day bartender at The Brass Rail. In my mind, there was only one way to do this; I decided to go out every single night to every bar on their busiest nights, those designated as “the place to be,” and I would introduce myself to everyone. I’m not afraid to talk to people, thank God.
The cool thing is that Hal gave me 100 “buy one drink get the second one free” cards to help me get people in to see me. The cards were only good for my shift and had an expiration date. They worked well, I must add, it gave me the opportunity to build a day crowd, and the rest is history.
Hal had a good sense of judging people; so many of us – like Nigel Mayer, Joey Arruda, Michael Mack, Michael Lunsford, Charlie Gaffey (RIP), Fernando Lara (Miss FiFi), and Sandy Davis, who already worked at the Brass Rail before Hal took over – we were just a small group of guys who got our start at The Brass Rail and were able to move forward in many great ways that benefited our community. We all still do our best to stay in touch and consider each other family.
It was even then I met and became great friends with Nicole Murray Ramirez, who started the DreamGirls Review. I grew up watching Hunter, Marilyn, Miss FiFi, and so many girls from those early days. I also witnessed the first ever performance of Chad Michael on the Brass Rail stage. Chad would go on to win the first RuPaul’s All Stars and has become a San Diego icon in her own right. I am blessed to have a wonderful and loving friendship with both Chad and his amazing husband Adam to this very day.
It was because of Hal’s love for our community that he always encouraged an open-door policy to welcome groups, especially the Imperial Court de San Diego, to host charity events in the bar. Over the 15 years that Hal managed the bar, it raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, most of which went to AIDS causes. He was very proud that The Brass Rail had such a positive reputation and was known for hosting so many benefits to help give back.
Hal always considered that the bars would be a safe place to be in those early days of all the hate and discrimination. Sadly, nowadays we are going backwards in our country, with all the hate and discrimination as if it never changed.
Hal never got the credit for a lot of the chances he took back in those early days, but then he never looked to be praised, his reward was seeing a full bar, people having a great time, and a successful evening.
Few people know this, but Hal started the first Wet and Wild at Peacock Alley. When he took over The Brass Rail, it was Hal who started the first Latino Night, with the support and encouragement of Franko Guillen (aka Francesa); then Hal started the first Hip Hop Night, and both nights had lines down the block. Of course, then the other bars started doing the same nights that Hal had created. It makes my heart feel good to tell Hal’s story and all the good he did.
Hal quietly passed away peacefully in his sleep a couple hours after he was released from the hospital for heart problems. I had picked him up and drove him home, and I remember walking him inside his house, giving him a big hug, and saying I love you. Hal in return said: “Thank you and I love you too.” I told him I’d call him in the morning before I came over to visit, to see if he needed anything. A few hours later, his brother called to tell me that he had gone in to check on Hal and discovered he was at peace and no longer in pain. That was June 22, 2016, and I lost one of my favorite human beings in life.
I miss my dear friend, he was my family, he always had my back. He was amazing, loving, caring, loyal and all the bars he managed were very successful.
Thank you, Hal, for being a trailblazer and part of the fabric of our community for over 25 years, and creating a new kind of gay and lesbian nightlife. In my mind and heart, and I’m sure in many others’ as well, Hal will always be remembered as the architect who helped change the nightlife and the way we partied in San Diego. Happy Mother’s Day, forever, Hal. I will always love and appreciate your dedication to our community, your friendship, support, loyalty, and most of all your love. I love and miss you.
These are the shoulders I stand upon. For more insight on our community’s bar history, take time to Google “San Diego Gay Bar History” and watch this wonderful documentary.
A personal note: I am and will always be grateful to all who have pushed me, allowed me to cry on their shoulders, listened to me, and laughed and joked with me. I will forever be in their debt. In return cannot move forward without believing and supporting those who have supported me. I believe working together, and listening to each other is how and why we have come as far as we have already.
In my heart, I feel we all want to be loved, as we share our love for those who matter most in our lives, to be there not only for our successes, but also the times that just did not work out the way we may have wanted.
I’m honored to have this platform to share my history, along with those that helped make a difference in my life, as well as the chance to honor those who joined the cause by caring for our community. I pray this may also enlighten the curious young people and young leaders to understand that we are all human beings and without each other we may never have gotten where we are now.
One day, you as younger community members will have your own history to share, and I pray the new generation that follows you will understand how coming together makes a huge and positive difference.
–Big Mike Phillips is a local photographer, bartender, and longtime LGBT activist and fundraiser. You can reach him at [email protected].