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.

Photograph of Minnie Baker in 2007
by Ed Brooks

“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?’ ”

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7 Responses

  1. When I moved to San Francisco in the early 70s, everyone I met wanted to turn me on to what was happening in my new city. One of my new friends said he needed to take me to the hippest place in town for live music. I was game. So one night we hopped on Muni and headed over to Fillmore Street, to Minnie’s Can-Do Club.

    That night we walked through the door into multi-ethic, multi-cultural, jumpin’ San Francisco. The place was smoky and crowded and sweaty and rockin’ — no brooding, angry, angst-ridden music going on here. The good times were rolling, the beer was flowing, and absolutely everybody in the place seemed to be moving to some very funky blues coming from a small stage at the back of the room. From that night on, Minnie’s became my club of choice.

    Minnie herself presided over the bar. She ran a tight ship, but was kind, maternal and good-looking, too. It seemed impossible that the fully adult male bartender was in fact her son. She believed in supporting local writers. Poets like ruth weis and devora major read there.

    And the music! Minnie’s was one of very few clubs that showcased local blues bands, keeping live music going at a time when deejays and disco were becoming the norm in many of the city’s clubs. It could be a pretty rowdy place, but Minnie never let it get out of hand. The stage was only a step above the dance floor and there was much flirting and carrying-on between the band members and the women in the crowd. The restrooms flanked the stage, men’s on the left side, women’s on the right. The women’s always had a line, and you had to walk right up to the band, and sometimes stand practically on stage to wait your turn. During the evening, the musicians managed to get a pretty good look at all of the women in the bar, and we had a chance to gossip and laugh and size up the band as we waited.

    Aside from all the socializing, the music was terrific: gritty, funky, homegrown Bay Area blues. Jazz was big in the city at that time — at Keystone Corner and the Matador in North Beach, especially — but a lot of musicians like my saxophone-playing friend liked to get loose and have fun playing rhythm and blues — dance music. And Minnie’s was all about dancing.

    The minute the juke box went on people were up and shaking booty. Then the band would start up and it would just keep on going. When the exhausted musicians finally called it quits, the juke box was on again — the Ohio Players, the Commodores, Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, War, Aretha.

    One night I remember Minnie literally shoving a bunch of us out the door, delirious, more than a bit drunk, just plain unwilling to let the fun stop. “Hush up and go home now,” she said. “I got a license to worry about.” Out we went spilling onto the sidewalk. Directly across the street, the New Zion Baptist Church sat prim and scolding. A street light glowed softly in the fog as we dispersed into the cold summer San Francisco night.

    The fun did stop when Minnie had to move her club to the Haight. I went there a few times and saw the opening production of Notzge Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Committed Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enough.” Minnie was again supporting artists, giving them a place to perform. But for me the place never regained the fun and funk of her Fillmore Street joint.

    Years later, I ate at the restaurant that Minnie’s had become at the time. I was most curious about the restroom. It was still in the same place, or so it seemed, but it no longer had the aluminum anti-rust paint on the walls or the machine that dispensed tropical-colored condoms. And there was no cute drummer to flirt with while I waited.

    • Thank you so much Barbara for bringing back such beautiful images and memories of Minnie’s club!!

      We came to SF in ’74, lived in Bernal Hights, and friends took us there for the music, the dancing, the folks, the good times… I loved it, your words say it all! I’ve been back to France for many years now, and still recall this magical little place when nostalgia comes by, or when I need some lively memory to cheer me up.

      I did leave my heart in SF, and a good chunk of it at Minnie’s Can-Do!!

  2. FROM LONDON — In 1973 I was a recent graduate from art school and I traveled to the U.S. to seek fame and fortune as an artist. I traveled by Greyhound bus from New York to revisit San Francisco, the city where I was born in 1949, and where my father was first posted when he began his career as a diplomat.

    In those days my specialty was painting portraits of people in the context of their home. In the search for commissions, I visited the Hoover Gallery and showed the gallery owner, Herbert Hoover, photos of my work. He gave me a commission to paint his wife, the charming Mrs. “Pinky” Hoover, who was very good to me. I painted her seated in the splendor of her drawing room, in their Pacific Heights mansion, surrounded by beautiful works of art.

    Meanwhile I was exploring San Francisco as much as a very impoverished young artist could. I had a lonely existence in my studio flat. But one night some friends took me to Minnie’s Can-Do Club on Fillmore Street. The minute I saw Minnie Baker regally seated by the door, I knew I wanted to paint her, but I was too nervous to ask. Pinky Hoover helping me rehearse what I was going to say. Scared but determined, I went to the Can-Do and asked to speak to Minnie. “I really want to do a portrait of you,” I said, “but I can’t do it for nothing. So I wonder if you would think about how much …” I faltered. I shall never forget Minnie’s swift, appraising eyes taking me in. She said, “I’ll pay you same as the bar staff, every Friday.”

    And she did. I would arrive at midday when the Can-Do opened, go to the back room where the beer was stored and where I kept the painting and my palette, paints and brushes. I would set up by the front window, my back to the light, facing the length of the bar. And I painted. I asked Minnie what she wanted in the painting. She chose the new jukebox, the new Coors beer sign with its rippling waterfall, her favorite jewelry and headscarf. I put in the ping-pong table — it was just installed — and the TV, with Senator Sam Ervin, scourge of the Watergate trials, on the screen. You can also see the walls painted silver and the women’s restroom.

    It took a long time. The Can-Do became my place of warmth and safety. My English accent was exotic. “Hell now,” I heard one regular say, “she sounds just like Basil Rathbone.” And I became known as “The Limey Leonardo.”

    Minnie was wonderful to me. She took me around to the neighborhood bars and tried to get me a commission to paint Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, the retired basketball star elegantly running a very stylish bar — but he politely declined the opportunity to be painted by me. She found me work designing posters for gigs, the poetry nights, designing decorations for the retirement party of a local Chinese grocer — he loved fishing, so on the window of his shop I painted a fisherman by a river. I remember the roast suckling pigs, with their golden roasted skin cut like armour, being carried in for the feast.

    My mother came to visit me from London and was also embraced and celebrated by Minnie. With her son, Aaron, she took us on an evening of fancy restaurants and bars in uptown San Francisco. She took us to her friend Connie’s soul food restaurant next door to the Can-Do. My mother still has the menu — and a lovely Christmas card from Minnie showing her and Aaron holding my painting.

    When the painting was finally finished, there was a party in the Can-Do and it was hung above the bar. I said goodbye to Minnie, who had been such a marvelous supporter of the young, shy artist I was then. Saying goodbye was hard. She said, “The world comes to me, I stay here and people leave.” I have never stopped thinking about her and her power to heal and take care of people. That’s what she did for me.

    I am so happy to find Minnie again. It is no surprise that instead of taking it easy at 74, Minnie is sailing around the world. She’s in the merchant marine! I am so thrilled she is still here, and still grooving.

  3. I discovered Minnie’s in 1973. Someone talk me there on poetry night and I decided to come there the next week. I don’t write poetry so I wrote 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 witha 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.

  4. Filmore 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, Filmore Street was Lower Pacific Heights. By night, however, it was “Upper Filmore”; the black Cadillacs with their white side-wall 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Does anyone remember a piano player there that played th”Rattle snake Blues” I’ve been trying to think of his name but can’t recall it.

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