Minnie’s Can-Do Club

Portrait of Minnie Baker, 1973, by Nicola Lane

It was alive — very alive — for only five years at 1915 Fillmore Street, where Florio restaurant now stands. But Minnie’s Can-Do Club, the last of the old-time Fillmore joints, has become something of a legend.

The club itself is long gone. But Minnie Baker Thomas in 2007 is still among us. Until her recent move to Oakland, she lived at the Fillmore Center. At age 74 she’s still working, as she has for more than 20 years, as a merchant marine. She’s just back from China and four weeks at sea. And she says she plans to keep on shipping out. “Why not? — there’s no age limit,” she says.

She was back on Fillmore recently with friends from the glory days of the Can-Do Club, and they marveled at the force Minnie’s became almost from the day it opened.

“They all just came,” she says. “I was just sittin’ up there mindin’ my own business. My intent was just to sell beer.”

Minnie opened the club in 1969, and soon a group began to coalesce around her. Someone suggested music, so they got a piano. Someone else suggested poetry readings, and Tuesday became poetry night. They put a ping pong table in the back and had tournaments. One night the Chinese Olympic team stopped by to play.

“They busted me and said I needed an entertainment license,” Minnie recalls. “Somebody was always trying to shut me down. But too many people liked my place. And besides, what were we gonna do — dance ’em to death?”

The Redevelopment Agency had wiped out just about everything on Fillmore south of Bush Street, and the Summer of Love was over.

“There wasn’t too much going on back then,” Minnie recalls. “There was nothing to do on the other end of the street. And North Beach had died and was coming to Fillmore.”

“North Beach was, but Fillmore is,” wrote one of the poets.

And there was a party at the Can-Do Club every night. Minnie’s had “4,000 kinds of sanctified beer, and if you’re feeling athletic, they’ve got ping pong in the rear,” one singer sang.

“You know what? That place was something,” Minnie says. “Every day there was something. Every day there was a story.”

Back on Fillmore now, Minnie is warm and wise, her life an ongoing adventure. She laughs and tells stories about the Can-Do Club, but she does not pine for days gone by.

“I think of the good times,” she says. “And I know this is another time. The Can-Do was part of my highlights, but not all of it.”

Still, more than 30 years after it closed, the club is never far away. “There’s no way I can get away from it,” she says. “There’s always somebody somewhere. Even at sea, somebody comes up and says, ‘Didn’t you used to be on Fillmore?’ ”

Photograph of Minnie Baker in 2007 by Ed Brooks

  • Barbara Wyeth

    Marie, thanks for your kind words. Minnie’s was special and real…I’m glad my story brought back good memories of those funky good times!

  • Merrill Black

    loved this place

  • Liza

    Dear Nicola,
      My boyfriend and I lived with you and several other people in San Fransico when you were painting Minnie’s portrait. You read the Hobbit to me. I’ll never forget you.
    Liza

  • Steve Meltzer

    I’m delighted that Minnie’s has been immortalized in the form of these great memories. I share the sentiments–the place was unique. The great blues and boogie pianist Dave Alexander gave us the music most nights I was there. Just him, his piano, a standup bass and a drummer with pretty much one drum. And that was plenty to rock the house like nowhere I’ve been since. Best thing about it all was that it was a totally mixed crowd that left race, gender, politics and whatever else at the door. Utopian dream with a great boogie soundtrack. After hearing some years later that Dave Alexander had died, he turns up on NPR just a few months ago, back in his Texas hometown and treated with the proper reverence and respect. Will try to get a note to him next. Thanks, Minnie.

  • http://NotesFromMyLibrary.com/ Randal

    Fillmore Street was a wild smorgasbord in the early 70s. By day, the rich ladies from Pacific Heights were dropped off from their Mercedes Benz cars to shop in the antique shops. By day, Fillmore Street was Lower Pacific Heights. By night, however, it was “Upper Fillmore”; the black Cadillacs with their white sidewall tires cruised around Minny’s Can-Do. As a nerdy white guy commuting to Berkeley to get a master’s degree in engineering, I never ventured in. Too bad.

  • Barry Garelick

    I discovered Minnie’s in 1973. Someone took me there on poetry night and I decided to come there the next week. I don’t write poetry so I brought pieces of stories I wrote. She gave a free beer to everyone who read. It was always Hamms, on tap. I would ask for the dark Hamms, which was every bit as awful as the light Hamms, but it tasted great to me. It was the atmosphere of the place.I became one of the regulars who would read every week, and worked on my stories courtesy of an audience who was able to tell me what worked and what didn’t by their reactions. I had a soft voice, so Minnie would frequently come out and tell me to “Speak up, honey, you got something to say that they want to hear.”I remember the night Jack Micheline came in with a poem he had just written and had to read right then and there, so Minnie moved him to the head of the line and he read it. Then he ran back out into the night. I didn’t know who Jack was, but that’s the way it was. You learned who people were and they stuck with you.I was sad when Minnie’s closed. She was a valuable part of SF lore and history–she made the Fillmore the place to be once more.

  • Emmie Cox

    I certainly remember Minnie’s – we had some great times there. I specifically remember the Sunday afternoon that she opened the place for us.  A friend of ours had died unexpectedly and left behind his wife (& two young children) with very little. We organized a benefit with music, and my then husband John and I cooked up massive amounts of spaghetti & meatballs for the event. Karena was just a baby, and slept through the whole thing in her stroller. Wish I had pictures…

  • Ronald Hobbs

    As I recollect, I arrived in San Francisco on September 1, 1970. I met Minnie Baker six months later. I walked into the Can-Do Club because there wasn’t any acceptable bar on Fillmore. There was the Hillcrest, which wasn’t acceptable. It was a good drinking bar, but I didn’t meet the kind of people I enjoyed. The Hideaway was alright, but it was a little older and it was just “salt and pepper,” which wasn’t good enough somehow at the time. I walked into Minnie’s and she asked my name and that was the beginning of a long and stormy romance. Romance in a generic sense, mind you.

    This area from California to Sutter was sort of a DMZ. Blacks and whites mingled, but it was touch and go except at Minnie’s.

    And then, see, I was keeping shop and my shop wasn’t really doing well and I ran up a bar bill I couldn’t pay. I had a small coffee shop at Pine and Fillmore. I sold imported coffees and body lotions under my own label. The shop was way ahead of its time. And in order for Minnie to get her money back, she thought she had to hire me. I was the bartender. Everybody knew Sunshein, my street name. I started keeping the bar with Aaron, Minnie’s son, and Felita, Minnie’s daughter.

    The ambiance made it special, but you can’t use words like ambiance for a bar that was terrifying to look at in some respects. Silver all over the walls. It was a multi-cultural place in a very true sense. At that time we had 25 to 30 Japanese kids living in a commune up the street. They were artists and many of those artists established international reputations at galleries in London, Paris and Tokyo.

    At that time, Mr. Takahashi was around. He was a Samurai and wore the traditional clothing and carried a sword. Mr. Takahashi spoke very little English, but he owned one of the most beautiful art galleries in the Japan Center. Occasionally Mr. Takahashi came in for a beer while I was bartending. On one particular occasion, a young, strapping man started making jibes at Mr. Takahashi and making fun of his “dress.” In a couple of moments this young man became vociferous and challenging … at which point Mr. Takahashi smiled and bowed and walked to the dance floor and removed his sword from its sheath. After about three minutes of expert swordsman’s demonstration, Mr. Takahashi bowed and put the sword back in its sheath. He came back and sat down at the same bar stool. The young man left hastily.

    Blacks and whites came in and we had some Apaches on occasion. It was a people’s bar and exchange center. The music was great and Minnie was Minnie’s Can-Do. There were straight people and gay people and upside down people. Richard Hongisto, who was the sheriff at the time, was a regular there. Cops on the street were congenial.

    About that time, 1972 or ’73, there was local opposition to Minnie being granted a cabaret license, which would mean she could have live music. So 30 of us loaded up in cars and trucks to go to the permit board to get her license. I think a few locals were afraid of the loud music and rip-off that had to ensue. But the rip-off didn’t ensue. Minnie got the license.

    There was a ping pong table, so at lunch time a lot of the fellows from the telephone company would come. The bar attracted a lot of young French people from the local French newspaper.

    I started the poetry readings, I think in ’72. Minnie and I were talking one particularly slow night and I said, “Let’s have a poetry reading one night a week.”

    “It’ll never work,” she replied.

    We looked at each other and both of us said at the same time, “Fine, let’s do it.”

    I remember the first two or three nights of the poetry readings. I was a little brassier then, and I would go to the bar and tell people to shut up. But then folks got into it in a big way. At Christmas we had poem trees where the poets would come from all over the city to hang their poems written on a piece of paper on the tree, and we would read them. Minnie’s mother would read from the Bible.

    After about nine months I turned the poetry over to ruth weiss, an important American poet. ruth and I worked hand in hand and then when ruth got tired of it, Max Schwartz and Charles Storey took it over. We had a three year anniversary party of the poetry readings. The anniversary party was typical of most of the readings. It was wall to wall people and you had to climb over them to get to the bathrooms.

    SunDance magazine came on the scene and one day there were some people from the magazine in Minnie’s. I was there, just sitting and listening to the jukebox. Minnie was excited and she called me over and said, “I have some people here that I want you to meet.” And she said, “This is John and this is Yoko.” And I said, “Hello, very nice to meet you.” They replied in kind and I went back and sat down and continued to listen to the jukebox and drink my beer. That was the one and only time I met John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

    One night Minnie and I were in our cups and she said, “Sunshein, get my piece and put it in my purse. Come with me. You’re going to have a Black Studies program.” When Minnie Baker goes out, nobody messes with her. So we went out that night to a lot of clubs in the Fillmore that were still very colorful and it wouldn’t be good for a honky to go in alone. I got to see a different life than I’d seen before.

    • Barry Garelick

      I seem to recall you when I was a regular at the Minnie’s poetry readings.  Of course, I remember ruth weiss also.  Those were magic nights. I remember a large black man who was very quiet and kept to himself but when he read his poems they erupted into the anger that was seething inside him: “Nigger, nigger! Wake up!” was the first line of one of his poems. 

      I remember the feeling of a DMZ there at Minnie’s.  People of all stripes sitting together listening to what we had to say.  Thank you Ron, thank you Minnie, thank you everyone who was there!

  • Phyllis Holliday

    “Minnie’s Can-Do Club needs women!” 

    The voice of John Ross, a pied piper of poetry in the early 1970s, rang in the small room at 17 Columbus Avenue, where our raffish poetry group met. My first thought was of that cheapo sci-fi movie, “Mars Needs Women.” Then I gulped. “I’m one of those. Where is it?” I took Muni, which let me off one block away from California & Fillmore. I knew this neighborhood. At that time the Goodwill was right across the street.

    As I entered, it was dim. A row of working men at the bar all turned their heads and watched me politely, but with curiosity. I wore a long flowery dress, boots, and had really long hair. Maybe I am on Mars, I thought. Sunshein, the organizer, greeted me pleasantly and had me sign up on the list of poets. I looked around and saw the only other woman there was our benefactor, Minnie Baker. I wish I could remember which poems I read. Total blank there. Nice sound of applause from other poets and even the men at the bar.

    Looking at my old calendar, I see I did not go every Wednesday for a while. But soon it was necessary. Almost instantly it  became a rip-roaring, nonstop wonder, everything from Beat to the at first timid, then more powerful, voices of women, gays, people of all colors — from sonnets to the kind of rap people did then, extemporaneous, sometimes angry, wildly inventive, sometimes sweet, jazzy and all about love. After a while ruth weiss took over as emcee. We formed a friendship that has lasted to this day.

    Minnie offered opportunities to the gifted and the unknown. Some may remember Sylvester, a flashy performer of disco, first black and openly, quite deliriously happily gay. After his debut at Minnie’s he went on to a fame too brief, dying of AIDS among that first tragic wave of that sad plague.

    About that story of John Lennon and Yoko Ono visiting Minnie’s: There’s a little controversy there. We all heard how Yoko had banished John to California in the company of May Pang, who looked mysteriously glum in all the photos. If Yoko did show up at Minnie’s, it was under the radar of common gossip.

    On occasion Minnie would put on a feast, with scrumptious food from a nearby West Indian cafe — big pots of steaming spicy island food. Goat? Maybe.

    As Minnie said, it was all about the dancing. We read to jazz groups dancing, some on stage. After the readings, I remember boogying with men, women, short, tall, gay and straight, a rainbow of dancers, our bodies another kind of poetry.

    Minnie let me do a solo reading once. It was probably my best ever. What an audience! I still see their faces, hear them calling out for this or that poem. We all had such a good time. Years later, 1998 or so, riding to my swing shift job at a hotel, I heard a voice I thought at first to be a man shouting to himself. “These women dance, oh these women dance …” It sounded familiar. I turned and saw one of the poets from Minnie’s, Jerry Ferraz the troubadour, with his ever-present guitar. He was reciting one of my poems from Minnie’s.

    I almost wept. Minnie’s never dies.

  • Tim R.

    Does anyone remember a piano player there that played the “Rattlesnake Blues”? I’ve been trying to think of his name but can’t recall it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.rennie1 Mark E. Rennie

    Long live Minnie! An artist friend took me to meet Minnie and hang out for the first time around 1971. I was stunned. It was the best crowd I had ever experienced in my life: artists, punks, musicians, poets, cops, and young guys from the ‘hood. Totally mixed races, genders, backgrounds, nationalities. How could this be? Everyone smiling and friendly and grooving under Minnie’s spell. Honky-tonk piano, live jazz, and booze long-long into the night— after-hours permits be damned.
    I don’t think they had yet demolished most of the old Fillmore, which ended up as block after block of vacant land and scarred landscape. Gone were 500 or so beautiful/rundown victorian buildings, and the most vibrant african-american community west of Harlem. Minnie’ Can-Do was a future echo of a world that was yet to be. Thank you, Minnie for some beatiful memories and a real education in tolerance, respect and enlightenment.

  • Wayne Basso

    Thank you Minnie & your son I think his name is Arron for having such a warm & inviting club I used to go there in 72-73 with a friend named Gerald Felix & always had a fun time oh yeah the tamales were the best

  • Ross Portugeis

    This brings back memories. Don’t know how I found Minnie’s Can-Do club in my early 20′s but am really glad I did. What a fun and welcoming place it was.

  • Howard Johnston

    I was just an anonymous customer, fairly new to SF, who you welcomed in to your world. I felt the friendship and camaraderie that was Minnie. I appreciated both your tough and friendly sides.

    Minnie, you would never remember me, but I was a left-handed Taurus and I always felt at home in your club. Thank you very much — hope all is well.

    hj