The Purple Onion has been a centre of San Francisco culture since its founding by Bud Steinhoff in 1952. The club is a small, dark, basement on Columbus Avenue in the North Beach area. The name came from a friend of Steinhoff’s, Hungry i owner Rod Banducci.
Poet Maya Angelou debuted there, singing and dancing, in the early 1950s. Folkies The Kingston Trio got together and debuted there in 1957, as did Phyllis Diller and The Smothers Brothers (in 1959). Through the 1950s and 1960s the club was well-known for live performance, mainly folk music and comedy. It was the site of comedian Jonathan Winters’ famous freak-out in which he took off his pants and was as a result hospitalised for bipolar disorder. Other famous performers included The Mamas and the Papas, Lenny Bruce and Barbra Streisand.
In 1989 Bud Steinhoff died and the club was taken into its second incarnation with Tom Guido at the helm. Guido continued the tradition of giving a chance to new groups, and as a result has put on some of the most enjoyable and lively shows in the city. Through the 1990s the Onion was home to multiple overlapping Bay-area subcultures, most notably mods decked-out in perfect vintage gear.
The club is dark and hot, with a primitive sound system and décor reminiscent of some cheap 1950s dance in a high-school gym, with minimal lighting and tinsel hanging behind the stage. The bar offers one, sometimes two, varying brands of beer, one cheap, one expensive, and earplugs.
While owner Tom Guido is always willing to give a new band a chance, his favour is capricious at best, and he has been known to turn the sound down or off on bands he doesn’t like. He is maybe best-known for his antics, tormenting audiences with endless bad jokes or meaningless rambling monologues between sets (depending on his level of intoxication). Previous favourites of the Onion often seem to find themselves in bitter feuds with Tom.
Rumour has it that the Purple Onion is no more; last I knew, as of 2000, they weren’t listing their gigs in the paper, but would host the odd show of a Friday or Saturday night. Any information about the current state of the club, or any shared reminiscences, corrections, etc. would be quite welcome—message me.
The Onion has been host to a large variety of underground music, mostly local, but number of Japanese bands have also played there.
In the late 1990s Davie Allan (legendary surf guitarist who, with The Arrows, recorded soundtrack music for teenploitation flick Wild in the Streets, among others) returned from retirement there. Also notable was the debut performance of Supercharger.
Other bands that have played at the Onion in recent years include Estrus Records’ The Makers, surf groups like The Aquamen, The Phantom Surfers and L.A.’s The Bomboras and The Neptunas; garage rockers The Trashwomen, The Mummies, The Dukes of Hamburg and the Count Backwards; punk rockers The Ripoffs, The Loudmouths and Texas’ The Motards; indiepop Go Sailor and Poundsign, ukelele duo Pineapple Princess.