Unsolved Arson: The Woods Resort – Hexagon House in Guerneville: End of an Era
[Edit 11-17-2013: Since posting this article, I have felt well enough to start posting some original content on other blogs. I copied and pasted this entire article in the event that it disappeared. It is possible that had this happened after the arrival of the internet, finding information about it would be easier. Still, it seemed odd that information was difficult to find.]
memories of the gay Russian River
by glen gertmenian, june 2005
It began quietly enough. For years, the beach at Waller Bridge had been a popular spot for gay men to swim in the cool waters of the Russian River and to get a good, all-over tan along its secluded banks. By the mid-1970’s, though, the crowds had began to grow and the area, down a long road with poor access and parking, became overwhelmed with sun worshippers.
Word of Waller Beach began to spread in the gay community of San Francisco and the crowds continued to grow. By 1976, the area’s landowner, actor Fred MacMurray, had had enough of the chaos on his property. Local police started enforcing trespassing, nudity and parking regulations which, of course, only added to the mystic of the area.
With the popularity of Waller Beach, there was clearly market demand for gay-oriented recreation in the area, and a group of three entrepreneurs finally responded. Just across from the Waller Road turn-off, on River Road, stood a dilapidated old farmhouse, with out-cabins and a pool, that had served as a B&B in the earlier glory days of the Russian River. The new owners slapped on a few coats of paint, scrubbed out the pool, and the areas first gay resort was in business. It was named, simply, the Russian River Lodge.
The new resort was a notorious party spot. The poolside was “clothing optional,” in the days when that used to be called “nude,” and the hiking trails, tree house and chicken coops, behind the property, were crowded with nature seekers 24 hours a day. (The resort at Waller Road is today the sheik and trendy . . and straight . . Farmhouse Inn).
All the men coming to the Russian River needed somewhere to eat, drink and dance, and the secluded area around Waller Road did not have the necessary amenities. The crowds began to move west, about fifteen miles, to the small, sleepy town of Guerneville.
Guerneville, since the 1960’s, had fallen on hard times. The glory days of family resorts and “big band era” clubs were long gone and an assortment of bikers and hippies had taken over the town. Then, in 1977, a wealthy Philadelphian named Peter Pender bought the old Murphy’s Ranch Resort, which the Murphy family had opened in 1905, along the river, at the edge of downtown.
Murphy’s Ranch was the largest resort in the area, with acres of meadows, dozens of charming cabins, a clubhouse and pool. It also had an air of mystery about it, with rumors of Murphy family intrigue and even of a murder on the property.
Peter Pender transformed Murphy’s into Fifes Resort, a full-service, beautifully landscaped, gay resort. The place was packed from the very beginning, with hunky cocktail waiters running drinks poolside, non-stop volley ball games in the meadow, canoe rentals at the beach, and a campground where campers competed to see who could produce the most elaborate camp decorations. There was even a bunkhouse, in the lower meadow, where less-affluent gay men could rent a bunk space for a mere $15 night. And, of course, there were evening nature trails.
Fifes grew much of it’s own produce, right on the property, and served outstanding, reasonably-priced meals. It even retained one of the original Murphy’s employees, a dour old man who acted as groundskeeper and, each evening, moved about the grounds lighting hundreds of gas lanterns. The boys loved to ask him about his reaction to the rather dramatic change in resort clientele and, of course, about the murder, but his response was usually an under-the-breath mutter.
Following Fifes, other resorts underwent similar transformations, adding disco-bars and clothing-optional hot tubs, and soon the Russian River was Northern California‘s answer to Cherry Grove on Fire Island and Provincetown on Cape Cod.
Just across from Fifes was, appropriately enough, “Drums,” a bar and pool resort, without lodging. (Drums, being located below flood level, had a hard time recovering, each season, from the winter floods). The Willows, The Highlands, Paradise Cove, the River Village, the Russian River Resort . . . the list went on and on.
The most popular of the new gay resorts was The Woods, located at the end of Armstrong Woods Road, just outside the state park. Once a conservatory of music, the main building was built entirely of wood, nearly 3 stories high, with an open, hexagon-shaped great room that boasted nearly perfect acoustics. Just off the great room was a small cabaret.
The Woods had previously been operated as the Hexagon House, its main attraction being its fine dining room. Aging stars often performed, to small audiences, in the cabaret. The last of these was the legendary, if not very talented, Mamie van Doren.
As a gay venue, The Woods was perfect. There were two pools, one clothing optional, a motel-style hotel building, several dozen cabins scattered through the trees, two dining areas and several bars. The great hexagon room was transformed into an incredible dance floor, with sound that reverberated in mellow tones from the rich wood walls and ceiling.
The Woods was always packed. On a holiday weekend, over 10,000 men and women would come through the front gates to party poolside, play volleyball or to relax in the notorious hot tub, secluded at the rear of the property. At night, masses of shirtless men would fill the dance floor, where every disco star of the day would perform. Sylvester was a regular. So were Angela Clemmons, Anita Ward and every other “one hit wonder” that you could name. The great Charles Pierce also performed regularly to sold-out audiences and local favorites, like Sharon McNight, often appeared in the cabaret.
There were theme nights. The Hurricane was always a favorite. The dance club would be strung with misters – the kind used poolside in Palm Springs or Phoenix – and gigantic fans would be set to blow through the room. Dancers would go, non-stop, in the midst of a huge storm.
The Woods, at it’s zenith, became so popular that cars would park, along Armstrong Woods Road, for nearly two miles, nearly back to Guerneville. The Woods even ran free shuttle service from town, to ease parking and to serve those who, after a night of party, should not be driving.
All the party people needed places to eat, and Guerneville also developed some great restaurants. Fifes served meals, as did The Woods, but there were other places to try, as well. The River Village, located just east of town, was very popular. Although it had a full resort, the dining room, situated poolside in a glass-roofed atrium, was why people came to the Village. The wait for a table, on a Saturday night, could stretch to two hours.
The Village Inn, across the river in Monte Rio, was another popular venue. Famed as the filming location for the movie “Holiday Inn,” the dining room was situated on the ground floor, in those days, with “tuck and roll” booths and plenty of atmosphere. Diners waited in the bar, before being seated, where they could fidget with a collection puzzles and toys while they downed margaritas. The dining room itself featured hearty food, with an Italian flair, and was run by a mother-son team. Mother, a traditional looking woman, was famed for her home-made deserts.
If you didn’t mind the effects that a little red cabbage would have on the dance floor, the charming Little Bavaria was located on Summer Crossing, at River Road, overlooking a deep creek bed. The restaurant was small, but absolutely charming, with the interior covered in deep glowing knotty pine, in the Swiss style, and decorated with German clocks and memorabilia of every kind. There was an outdoor dining area, as well, and some of the best German cuisine west of Frankfurt. Sadly, Little Bavaria was washed away, in a flood of the creek, and was eventually replaced by a non-descript building and a restaurant, Ina Bee, serving even more non-descript food.
Near Little Bavaria, set back from River Road on Old Cazedero, sat one of the areas most colorful eating and drinking venues, Molly Browns. Molly’s was little more than an old farm building, with a dusty dirt parking lot, and they capitalized on the country-western theme by covering the floor in layers of dirty saw-dust, which made most folks sneeze. It took forever to be served a meal, and the food was horrible, except for the fried chicken, which was fantastic but took even longer to receive, if you had the patience to order it. On the other hand, Molly Browns was FUN. It had a huge outdoor deck, that would be packed with shirtless men, and the music was great.
The contests at Molly Brown’s were a riot. On some nights, they sponsored a “Moon Over the River” event, where men would decorate their naked posteriors and display them, anonymously, through a “Punch and Judy” style theater set. On other evenings, patrons bet wildly on “chicken sh*t pool.” As the name implied, a huge “bingo type” numbered sheet would be spread on the floor, a live chicken would be placed on the sheet and covered by a cage, and then everyone would wait to see where the hapless creature made her first mess. . . . It was the perfect entertainment to have over a late dinner.
In town, there was Sweets, located next to the WestAmerica bank, with sidewalk dining and great food. Sweets was run by a husband and wife, who had come to Guerneville from New York City, hoping to find a quiet life and run a small little community deli. Before they knew it, they had lines down the street and a staff that must have numbered twenty-five. Disgusted with their own success, they eventually sold their “quaint little deli.”
Just down from Sweets, in a storefront that eventually became a series of taverns . . . River Business, the Russian River Eagle and, today, Liquid Sky . . . stood a little Mexican restaurant that had long served mediocre burritos and tacos to the locals. It was cheap, though, and – again seemingly overnight – it became one of the hot spots in town. The folks who ran the place, though, couldn’t keep up, and the space eventually turned over into River Business, the second of the gay bars to be located directly on the main street of town.
Burdon’s, on the eastern end of Guerneville, appealed to the more mature crowd. The food was well-served, if predictably bland, but the dining room provided a little spot of traditional elegance to the River. And, Burdon’s took reservations.
Without doubt, the finest food at the River was served at a country-French restaurant, located just across from Fifes, in a round wooden building. A French family ran the place and, as the crowds came, often served diners “family style.” The food, even the simple Coq au Vin and sumptuous spinach salad, was exquisite and the atmosphere, charmingly decorated in dim lighting and country settings, incredibly romantic. Prices were reasonable.
Unfortunately, the traditional French family, who operated the restaurant, had a young son. Apparently, as the boy reached his later teens, he took an interest in the goings-on across the street, at Fifes, and this did not set well with his family. Almost overnight, they sold the place and disappeared. Today, the space is a Mexican food joint.
Most of the nightlife took place at the major resorts, The Woods and Fifes in particular, but downtown Guerneville had it’s share of entertainments, as well. The Rainbow Cattle Company, in the middle of town, was the center of the bar scene, and still exists today.
Someone bought the deserted River Theater, renovated the place, and opened a huge dance club that would be packed late at night, and well into after-hours. “Ziggurat” had the look of a sophisticated city venue, with tall columns, giant potted palm trees and Egyptian statues, incredible stage decoration and lighting, and an elaborate, sleek bar, lined with video monitors. There were nooks and cranny’s everywhere, for quiet conversation.
Just west of town, in the space now occupied by the water company, was a raunchier bar, called the Mineshaft, after the legendary New York City venue of the day. The interior was done to resemble the interior of a mine, or cave, and the lighting was just as dim as you would expect. The Mineshaft attracted what, in later days, became known as the “leather crowd.”
There was also River Business, opened just across the street from the Rainbow Cattle Company. River Business came on the scene late and, with its sleek bar and highly polished canoe sculpture, appealed to the trendier River crowd. (It was eventually replaced by the Russian River Eagle and, coming full circle, by the metrosexual Liquid Sky, in 2005.)
Every Sunday afternoon, after the weekend play at the resorts, restaurants and bars, every visitor had to make one final stop, on the way back to San Francisco. Well east on River Road, at the intersection of Champs de Elysee, in Forestville, stood a run-down shack of a place called The Rusty Nail.
The Rusty Nail was not much of a bar, but it had a huge outdoor patio and, every Sunday afternoon, it would be filled with hundreds of half-naked men, comparing notes on their weekends, and making one last attempt at meeting someone new and perhaps setting up a liaison for the coming week in the City.
The smoke from chicken and burgers, cooking on the barbeque, filled the air, the sun beat down, and the Rusty Nail, with its festive atmosphere, provided the last meal of what was always a fantastic weekend on the Russian River.
The End of the Era
It happened so quickly, and yet so subtly, that no one seemed to notice it happening.
By the late 1980’s, the Aids epidemic had taken its toll on the Russian River and the visiting summer crowds began to diminish.
The Woods, a major attraction, had been fighting with neighbors, for years, over the crowds and noise. The neighbors argued, with some justification, that The Woods was still operating under the original cabaret license, from the Hexagon House days, and that 5,000 partying men were a far cry from the original venue and constituted a material change of use. There had been years of hearings on this issue and a final hearing, with an unfavorable ruling expected, had been scheduled. Just days before, over a crowded Fourth of July weekend, The Woods experienced a mysterious kitchen fire, and burned to the ground.
The next winter, the theater/dance club, Ziggurat, had a major river flood and was damaged beyond a trivial repair job. The same thing happened to Drums. They both closed down and the buildings sat empty for years.
The owners of the Mineshaft were rumored to have squandered their success on drugs, and it closed.
Peter Pender, the founder of Fifes Resort, passed away and, eventually, the property was sold. The new owners, who made major investments in the property, were of a different sensibility and had a reputation for being difficult hosts. Prices rose substantially and, while the resort remained a success, it catered to a more subdued gay crowd.
One by one, the restaurants disappeared. The French place was gone. Little Bavaria washed away. Sweets became a drug store. Molly Brown’s and Burdon’s closed. The Russian River Village opened under several new names, the last being the ambitious but failed Friar Tuck’s, and eventually was converted to temporary housing for migrant vineyard workers. Even the charming Village Inn, in Monte Rio, underwent a transformation, completely remodeling and catering to the suburban bed & breakfast crowd.
The turn of the Century
By the mid-1990’s, the Russian River was still a great place to relax, but the boisterous days were gone. The area appealed to a more regular crowd, many of whom had fond memories of their earlier days and had now purchased their own vacation homes. At the same time, the younger crowds from the City had no history with Guerneville and tended to visit only on the big holiday weekends, if at all. Local business owners, their numbers diminished, did not have the resources to vigorously promote the region.
The Russian River Resort, on Fourth Street downtown, became “ground zero” for the gay scene and kept things vibrant with comedy competitions, karaoke and a series of special events, barbeques and celebrity performances. The Rainbow Cattle Company and the Eagle provided additional nightlife, the theater eventually reopened as Club Fab, and Fifes continued as the upscale venue. Several other resorts remained, and offered both room and camping accommodation.
Finally, after an extended hiatus, major promoters began to schedule planned, well organized, theme events at the River. Lazy Bear and Sundance were predominant among these, appealing to distinctly different clientele.
Early in the 2000’s, the River finally began to experience a resurgence in gay popularity. Fifes was sold, and substantially upgraded, and a new resort, located on 4th Street, was opened, reviving the now-legendary name of The Woods. The always popular Russian River Resort, (RRR), also sold, with the new owners making a substantial investment in the property. And, the Eagle became “Liquid Sky,” a trendy watering hole and dance club that appealed to the younger, hipper crowd.
By Memorial Day of 2005, the Russian River was starting to look and feel more like it did in the great gay days of the 80’s. With the new generation of gay business owners, and skyrocketing property values, the Russian River may finally find itself a truly venerable place to party.