Folsom Street Fair

Resilient While Vulnerable
The tenacity and resiliency of the leather community came to its own rescue. Vallaire and Valerio headed up a group of individuals who realized the importance of the fairs and the events that had come into connection with them and how critical it was to carry them on through the burnout and deaths. They realized this could only occur if energies were conserved and used as efficiently as possible. These events and the two fairs needed not only to give people a reason to celebrate and feel good collectively as a community, but they also needed to raise—and not lose—critical monies. As Vallaire noted at the time, “Since production costs, like everything else, keep going up, it is important to have sponsors from the corporate level down to the individual. There are so many charities in need and the need for the charities is getting greater every day. Individuals, as much as they want to help, get tapped out financially very quickly….By merging the Up Your Alley and Folsom Street fairs to form SMMILE…our strength is in our numbers and in our unity and in everyone pitching in and helping us by volunteering to offer whatever money or services that they can…This has been my commitment for the last six years and for however long it takes to wipe out AIDS and homophobia. I hope there are many others out there  that feel the same way…don’t tell me about burnout or how busy you are with your personal life, go to a hospital and tell it to an AIDS patient…After all the 90s are for coming together and caring for your fellow man and planet. The I/Me decade is over, so move into the 90s. Get involved.”

So, in March 1990, SCAN and Up Your Alley, Inc., formally dissolved and reunited as a newly merged SMMILE, South of Market Merchants’ and Individuals’ Lifestyles Events, the nonprofit that to this day produces both the Up Your Alley and Folsom Street fairs. Valerio was its first president and Vallaire its first vice-president. (In the early 90s the nonprofit also produced the Castro Christmas Tree, a pet project of Vallaire). The name “SMMILE” says much about the complex  origins and purpose that lie behind its formation—the power of humor and feeling good about oneself in the face of AIDS; the celebration of SM/leather/fetish lifestyles; and the idea of community economic empowerment that came from the South of Market Alliance years. Peter Austin wrote the founding mission statement:

“SMMILE (South of Market Merchants’ and Individuals’ Lifestyle Events) is a non-profit, public benefit corporation founded to develop ties between the South of Market community and the institutions which affect social welfare and quality of life by producing and facilitating fund-raising events that enhance the community in the areas of health services, social services, housing services, education and recreation in this community’s tradition of tolerance of lifestyles and acceptance of the individual.”

Within a year of its formation, Vallaire needed to step down, being too ill from AIDS-related complications to continue. He died in 1993, the same year that Patrick Toner passed away from AIDS-related illnesses. Salinger retired after an uninterrupted stint of many years working with Valerio. Very ill, Michael Valerio joined Connell in Washington, D.C. for the March On Washington. This was to be his last big trip away from his home on Langton Street. He continued his involvement a while longer until he too was claimed by AIDS in 1995.

In 1992, David Dysart took over as president of SMMILE and the vision of Valerio and Vallaire held true. While the both the fairs did not experience real growth in terms of attendance or money raised in the early ’90s, they both continued on and managed consistently to return approximately $30–$40,000 each year to local AIDS-related charities.

Protease Reprieve: SMMILE Regroups
In 1995, Paul Lester joined the board of SMMILE. He remembers an organization marked by infighting, occasional spats at board meetings, and a general feeling of volunteer burnout. He took it upon himself to assume leadership in this vacuum and return the management of the fairs to the level of professionalization and community spirit in which they had begun. One clear marker for him of the disorganization was that all the gay “high holidays” at that time had dates that fluctuated from year to year. The SF Pride Parade bobbed and weaved in June of each year with LA Pride to avoid scheduling the events on the same weekend. The Up Your Alley Fair in Dore Alley could occur any time, as early as late July and as late as the weekend prior to Folsom. Folsom moved with the autumnal equinox. Lester remembers that one year in particular drove home to him and others on the board the impossibility of the situation. They had first to fight with the Castro Street Fair to not have it and Folsom Street Fair on the same Sunday. The Up Your Alley Fair that year fell only two weeks prior to Folsom. Getting through both the fairs became a logistical nightmare and left the clear message, “Never Again!”

Lester took it upon himself to get into communication with the organizers of SF Pride and the Castro Street Fair and to establish set dates that remain today: SF Pride is the last Sunday in June, Up Your Alley the last Sunday in July, Folsom the last Sunday in September and Castro Street Fair the first Sunday in October. Lester recalls that this was not only in the interest of the event organizers, almost all of whom were volunteers doing this work in their spare time. It was also appreciated by the travel agency and hotel industries who could now rely on regular annual bookings.

Lester became the center of a new, energized board of directors of SMMILE, one which not coincidentally arose at the same time as the appearance of the cocktail of protease inhibitors to treat HIV and AIDS. Taking advantage of this second license on life, the board of SMMILE aggressively refined and expanded the model of doing both fairs. They innovated the idea of setting up gates into the fair and asking for donations upon entry. These donations were rewarded with a sticker that earned a dollar discount on all beverages purchased during the day from charity-run beer and alcohol and water booths. The board then collaborated with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to staff the gates with the right kind of volunteers able to solicit as many donations as possible from entering fairgoers. This model has since been copied by other events, most notably the Castro Street Fair, the Pride Parade Celebration site and the Halloween celebration both at Civic Center and in the Castro.

SMMILE under the guiding hand of Lester has also been able to court additional corporate sponsors and to increase the numbers of for-profit and nonprofit booths, bringing in that much more money. From 1995–1997, the amount of money raised each year began to double (1995, $63,000; 1996, $95,000; 1997, $150,000). The amounts raised in 1998 and 1999 went up less dramatically but still increased, moving toward $175,00. But in 2000, the fundraising capability spiked again, producing the incredible sum of $250,000 from the two one-day street fairs and the sale of the Bare Chest Calendar. During this time, SMMILE had been able to expand its tradition of supporting two to three beneficiaries to the present eight, increased the number of beverage booths run by nonprofits who receive a profit share for their work at either Up Your Alley or Folsom, disbursed further monies to charities through money given to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, gave money to designated charities for the SFPD and SFFD, provided money for the Bessie Carmichael elementary school, used funds raised through the Bare Chest Calendar to fund the AIDS Emergency Fund and the Positive Resource Center, and routinely hired individuals from the Positive Resource Center and Episcopal Community Services and St. Joseph’s (the latter two SOMA homeless shelters and rehab clinics) to help with fair set-up and clean-up.

While Lester stepped off the board at the end of 2000, having met his personal goal of raising a quarter of a million dollars, Bob Goldfarb, the new president, has been carrying on with the dynamic model created over the last few years, and the fairs look to increase into the future the revenue raised from and returned to the community.

The Millennial Fair: Afterword

Existing as it does, in the ever-shifting fabric of San Francisco and South of Market, The Folsom Street Fair will undoubtedly continue to change, as the  next generation steps up to its stewardship of “all things fair,” South of Market and beyond. The Founders wrote in an opening invitation to the first Megahood event:

“As a neighborhood or place of work, South of Market magnetically attracts the pioneers, the changelings, the cutting edge of industry, arts, entertainment, human and social relationships. Not too far behind the concrete facades, a pulsating, living mosaic-like community is alive and well. On September 23, Folsom will close to traffic and open its heart to the world.”

Folsom and SOMA are the birthplace of many private and public worlds. Those organizers that play through the history of San Francisco, and the LGBT Community South of Market, created and loved these emergent worlds and the people in them, and fought for the enduring community values that underpin these extraordinary efforts in extraordinary times. This is “The Folsom Way.”


This article is provided with the permission of authors Kathleen Connell and Paul Gabriel for the LGBT Historical Society. All rights reserved. No part may be reprinted without the permission of the authors. For more information, contact the LGBT Historical Society at (415) 777-5455.

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