By Mackenzie Fargo, Emma Starer Gross, and Harry Spitzer
Published by
Epic Magazine

You’d never have guessed it from the location, nearly hidden on a dingy stretch of Ventura Boulevard, with a used car lot on one side and a car-wash tent fronted by a giant plastic hand on the other, but Oil Can Harry’s was something of a gay mecca.

It wasn’t glamorous, but that was part of the appeal. This was not West Hollywood, where the gleaming gay culture of Los Angeles arose. Since Oil Can Harry’s first opened in 1968, it was a different kind of gay bar, a place squarely rooted in the down-home, almost rustic spirit of the San Fernando Valley. It was, of course, kind of a dump, a place described by its loyal patrons as a run-down palace, or maybe the worst wedding banquet hall you’d ever seen. The bar was in constant need of a face-lift, or at the very least, new bathroom stalls. It was decidedly not cool — although in very recent years, it made its inevitable appearance on the hipster cultural map after a Haim music video and Lady Gaga’s Grammys afterparty. And yet, for half a century, Oil Can Harry’s had a big, gay gravitational pull across the Hollywood Hills to the distant Valley, for people who were not concerned with “trends” or “big-name music acts” or “being younger than 70.” For the thousands of regulars over the years, Oil Can Harry’s was the only place in town.

The place vibrated on a wavelength of earnest inclusivity. When you entered its front doors, beneath the hand-painted profile of Oil Can’s mascot, with his top hat and fancy mustache, and then walked past the glass photo case collaged with cowboy paraphernalia and signed photos of Dolly, Reba, and Johnny (Cash), and stepped on to that scuffed-up dance floor, beneath the banged-up disco ball and faded cardboard cutout of the moon, Oil Can Harry’s didn’t so much feel like you were going out as you were coming home.

When those doors first opened in 1968, the gay scene in Los Angeles was in flux. The word “gay” had only come to widely mean homosexual in the previous decade or so, giving an identity to what had previously been an act. This also gave the rest of the world a more defined population to police. Around the time Oil Can’s served its first drink, a series of demonstrations-turned-“riots,” first at several other gay bars in Los Angeles and then at the Stonewall Inn in New York, helped launch the modern queer civil rights movement.

As that movement took hold, Oil Can Harry’s became less of a speakeasy and more of an institution — but always an anomaly in Los Angeles queer culture. What began as a hideaway to safely sashay with a same-sex dance partner (all genders welcome from the start) grew into a disco and a haunt for rodeo competitors, a watering hole for the silent generation and the newly out, a place where you could do-si-do with a leather daddy or talk shit over a game of pool — often all in a single night.

Then came the pandemic. Along with many beloved institutions, Oil Can Harry’s was unprepared. After 52 years of service and history, weathering ownership changes, the AIDs epidemic, and bearing witness to decades of progress and persecution and agony and joy and shockingly few decor updates, Oil Can Harry’s shut its doors for good on December 9, 2020.

And yet, it lives on in the minds and memories of its patrons and personnel — collected here in an oral history that traces the evolution of what it was like to be queer and progressive in the US through the lens of a single space. You’ll hear from a pro-line-dancing fire chief, a stuntwoman cowgirl, a “UK cowboy,” and an International Mr. Leather. You’ll meet community activists and DJs and dance captains. And you’ll learn about the individual at the helm of this space — a man named Bob Tomasino — the person to whom patrons most attribute what came to be known as the “magic in the Can.”

When we put out a call for memories of Oil Can’s, we were overwhelmed by the outpouring of responses from people who wanted to help us understand what made this place so singular. Thanks to the Oil Can’s community for helping us tell this story. This is for you.

Illustrations: Lauren Griffin (Typogriff)

JACK INMAN | Patron
Walking into Oil Can’s, it was like being transported to another world.

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER |Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
It was a sanctuary.

SERA SLOANE| Patron
A church.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
A crystal palace.

ASHTON COOPER | Patron
You could feel there was history there, like this place had belonged to so many people over so many years.

Various Oil Can Harry’s promotional materials from its five-decades-long run. Photos: Top-left bar poster and bottom-right matchbook images courtesy of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries. Event fliers from the Oil Can Harry’s Facebook page

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
I just thought it was the bee’s knees, the best place in town.

BRI LEROSE | Patron
The steps leading up to Oil Can’s — they looked like you were about to walk into a terrible banquet hall where the worst wedding you’ve ever been to awaits you. It was like, dingy old carpet on these bizarre, round steps, and then an L-shaped entryway.

CHRISTIAN BOCK | Bartender
By the entrance, there was a wall of photo montages. Like those old-school collages in big, 24-by-36-inch frames. They were packed with photos of generations of people, drag queens, leather daddies, cowboys, everyone who came to the bar before you.

Photos that once hung on the wall at Oil Can Harry’s, and now reside at the Valley Relic Museum’s storage in Van Nuys, CA. Bottom left image features the Sensational Dorothy Gorden. Photos: Shelly Simon

CHARLIE COLLELA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
That bar was open 50 years, and those decorations never changed.

SERA SLOANE | Patron
It was like stepping into a David Lynch film. You’d look around and it was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this exists.”

DAWN LARSON | Patron
It was all twinkly lights, kitschy decorations, and mirrored panels.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
There was a huge cowboy hat — it had to be 10 feet wide and 12 feet long — that hung over the bar.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
It was like Studio 54 on acid. It was absolutely lovely.

The interior of Oil Can Harry’s. Photos: Courtesy of Jim Battaglia

BRI LEROSE | Patron
When you rounded the corner into the bar itself, it was like—I feel emotional thinking about it — there were queer couples of all ages, all races, all kinds of different backgrounds, everybody presenting so differently, just like, spinning and twirling on this beautifully kept hardwood floor, with a disco ball and huge stage with a little cardboard cutout of the moon.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
We were spoiled by that dance floor.

WAIDE RIDDLE | Patron
It was made of sprung wood. All the best dance floors are made of sprung wood. Essentially, that means the surface is elevated slightly to give the floor a bit of give under your feet.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Most people don’t know that Oil Can Harry’s has a basement. And down there in the middle of the night while people were dancing, you swore to god that the floor was going to collapse because of all that stomping and pounding.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
I was just getting sober in 1995, and it was a place that I could go and not have to drink and just dance and have a good time.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
We’d always have celebrities come into the bar. Geena Davis, Christina Applegate, LeAnn Rimes, k.d. lang — they came to Oil Can’s because people wouldn’t surround them. It was a bar where they were safe. Where we were all safe.

KRIS LARSON | Patron
The community at Oil Can’s, it was a family. And that family was a staple of our lives for decades.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Oil Can’s was my home for 34 years.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
32 years, for me.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
We had birthday parties there, weddings and anniversaries. If you took away the 20 years I spent going to Oil Can Harry’s, I’m not sure who I would be. It would leave a huge gap in my life.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
That feeling, the one you got when you walked into Oil Can’s, it doesn’t exist anywhere else. It was the combination of this particular place, in this particular building, over a particular time in history … It was a magic you can’t reproduce.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I’ve been to about 80, 90 countries, every disco, every bar possible. But there was no place like Oil Can Harry’s.

Left: The Zomba Cafe used to occupy the building in the 1950s–60s before Oil Can Harry’s opened. Photos: From OCH’s website; courtesy of Jim Battaglia

In the 1960s and ’70s, being gay in public was both illegal and taboo. This was the backdrop that Oil Can’s was born into — and to protect patrons, the bar (and its founder) had to devise strategies to conceal what took place within its walls.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Oil Can Harry’s was opened in 1968 by [a man named] Bert Charot.

CHARLIE MATULA | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
Bert was … He was a character.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
He couldn’t have been more than 5-foot-7, 5-foot-8, slim.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Everyone thought he looked like Sonny Bono because he had a mustache and brown hair that he kept on the longer side.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
It was a toupee. And the only reason I know that is because there was a fan in the front of the bar, and one day I was tending bar, and Bert walked by and the fan caught his toupee, and it flipped up and as he walked past, it lay back down on his head. Tommy was with me, and he looked at me and fell on the floor laughing.

But Bert was a good guy. A good boss.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
From what I gather, Bert was a singer before he owned Oil Can’s. Apparently that’s how he got his money.

CHARLIE MATULA | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
He lived next door to the singer and actress Shirley Jones. That was his big claim to fame. He was proud of that.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
When it was time to name the bar, Bert called up his friends to help him. Everyone wrote down ideas and he picked out five and put them into a hat. And then they shook it like a raffle and — I don’t know who had written Oil Can Harry’s, but that was the name that was picked.

PATRICK KIMBLEY | Patron
The icon for Oil Can Harry’s, which was featured on the sign above the building, was a line drawing of a man with a top hat and mustache.

Photos (clockwise from top left): Dev Edwards (2), Jim Battaglia, ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

ROGER BERGMAN | Patron
The logo was innocuous. It didn’t communicate what the bar was, much less that it was a gay bar. And that was important.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
Back then, gay bars tried to fly under the radar. They had no windows, no descriptive signs, no one could see in. You learned about them through word of mouth.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
The story goes that when Oil Can’s first opened, there was a hole in the front door because in the olden days, you know, the ’60s, ’70s, people of the same gender couldn’t dance together. And so if anyone ever came to Oil Can’s, Bert would look through the hole to see who was there. If it was the police, he would turn a siren on and the dancers would switch partners. The men would jump [to dance] with the women and the women with the men.

The siren from the Oil Can Harry’s ceiling now resides in the Valley Relic Museum’s storage. Photo: Shelly Simon

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
At that time, there was a price, a social and legal cost, of walking into gay bars. In the ’60s you could get arrested if you touched people of the same sex, and in the ’70s and ’80s you could still get fired if someone knew you were gay.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
I’ve heard stories of police bursting into bars and getting together as many people they could to arrest. And I think the problem was that it just never stopped.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Even much later, well into the ’80s, the police would come in saying Oil Can’s was over occupancy, or we were restricting traffic. They were just doing anything they could to make it difficult.

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER | Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
I got egged twice standing in front of Oil Can’s. They hit the ground by my feet. But despite these acts of hatred, gay bars had to exist. The community needed them to exist.

JACK INMAN | Patron
You can’t imagine what it was like in the late ’70s and ’80s to be able to walk into a gay bar, any gay bar, and twirl and just be yourself.

BLAKE LITTLE | Patron
During a time when you weren’t accepted by your country, by the town where you were raised, by your family — Oil Can Harry’s was a refuge. It was your home.

The staff at Oil Can Harry’s set the tone of the bar — but one employee in particular came to define its long-standing ethos and feel, with longtime patrons insisting that Oil Can Harry’s wouldn’t have been Oil Can Harry’s without him.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Bert had a best friend called Bob Tomasino, and beginning in the ’80s, while Bert handled whatever was going on behind the scenes, the operations side of the bar, Bob worked the door.

Now, there’s never, ever been anyone like Bob Tomasino.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
Bob looked like the Marlboro Man if he were your grandfather.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
He dressed in Wranglers and a cowboy shirt. And sometimes a cowboy hat.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
He was masculine, very handsome. He had white hair and a big white mustache. He was a big, solid guy.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
He had this really great smile.

CHARLIE MATULA | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
One of those spirits that just you rarely come across in life.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of the Eagle LA
Heart of gold. Generous to a fault. Smart beyond his years.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Later on, in the ’90s, Bert brought Bob on officially as a business partner. But in the beginning, Bob was the doorman.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
It takes a certain kind of person to be a successful doorman, because you’re the first person that you see when you come in and the last person you see when you go out. You learn how to read people in that role.

CHARLIE MATULA | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
Whereas Bert wasn’t into chatting with patrons or being much of a presence at the bar, Bob, for years, as the doorman, interacted with all the customers and got to know everyone.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Bert was more of an uptight businessman. He worried about people stealing his liquor, and was always dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks. Bob was personable, approachable.

RAFAEL “RAFI” GONZALEZ | Patron
The first thing Bob would say was “Hi, honey.” That was his greeting.

CHARLIE MATULA | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
He was so proud of the bar and being involved and making friends and meeting people.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
It didn’t matter who you were, how you were, where you were. When Bob was at the door, you were welcome. If you didn’t have money for the cover fee, you could come through the door. If you didn’t have money for a drink, Bob would buy you one. If you were leather, if you were transgender, if you were gay, lesbian — it didn’t matter.

JACK INMAN | Patron
There was never anything from Bob other than, “Come in and join us. Be part of the family.”

DAWN LARSON | Patron
That was the other part — Bob was a father.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Bob Tomasino was a family man. He raised five children, actually, who weren’t his. Bob had a partner, John Fagan, and they were John’s sister’s children. And Bob and John raised them.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
This was at a time when being a gay parent wasn’t something really talked about. Bob always had an understanding that family could be untraditional.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Between Bob and John, Bob was more of the mom figure, which is funny because Bob was the bigger, taller, more dominant-looking man.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
But that was his everyday life, that was what he did — he just made sure that everyone was ok.

Bob Tomasino, the “heart and soul of Oil Can’s,” pictured with Pat Rivera (far right) and her partner Nancy. Photos: Courtesy Rick Dominguez and Pat Rivera

Oil Can’s sleepy location in Studio City, miles away from the heart of West Hollywood and the bustling Sunset Strip, contributed significantly to its identity, ambiance, and the regulars it attracted — many of whom became employees simply by virtue of always being there.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
In 1984, West Hollywood became a city. Three groups — seniors, renters, and gay people — all fought to have it incorporated. When that finally happened, what that meant was you suddenly had this city that was largely controlled by gay people.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
The day West Hollywood became a city — everything was just crazy.
There were so many bars open, so many places to go. It was just absolutely wonderful.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
Over time, however, what I saw was that everyone was moving to West Hollywood for what they thought was a community, but in reality, it was all these people trying to fit into the social hierarchy.

BRI LEROSE | Patron
West Hollywood has always had a very, like, see and be seen sort of vibe. And for that reason — early regulars of the bar will tell you — Oil Can Harry’s, off the street on a dirty corner in the Valley, was an oasis.

CHRISTIAN BOCK | Bartender
Oil Can Harry’s was in the Valley, on a quieter stretch of Ventura Boulevard, next to this big car wash that has this famous landmark: a huge hand holding a red car. Bob had a friendship with them. They could park in our lot during the day, and we could park in their lot at night.

JOEY SASSO | Doorman, Bartender
From the start, the crowd at Oil Can’s was just normal, working people in jeans and t-shirts who wanted to hang out.

PATRICK KIMBLEY | Patron
Because the bar was away from the Sunset Strip it had this very casual, easygoing atmosphere, where people didn’t feel intimidated by someone else. It was easy to say, “Do you want to dance?” as an icebreaker.

KRIS LARSON | Patron
Another big difference was that Oil Can Harry’s was a bar for gay men and women. West Hollywood’s always been known as Boystown. That’s where the boys hang out. The gay women would get kind of, not shit on, but there those were mens’ spaces. There were very few women’s spaces.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
Unlike a lot of the clubs that are over in West Hollywood, Oil Can’s was not a meat market. You didn’t feel like you were getting the once-over every time you walked in.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I came to Los Angeles to visit in 1986. I was born in Scotland and raised in Yorkshire. While I was here, I had a call from my partner in London, and he asked me if I was coming home. He was feeling miserable and lost and whatever one feels. I told him I would be home shortly, and a couple of days later, I got a call from the police that he had committed suicide. He jumped off a cliff.

So one night some friends said, “You know what? Let’s go out; let’s go dancing.” And we went to Oil Can Harry’s.

I went back again and again and one day, a manager, Jim, asked me if I would help the bar out over the weekend because it was rodeo weekend and they needed a bar back. Three-plus decades later, I was still working there.

CHRISTIAN BOCK | Bartender
I was in design school, going to classes at night and working a thousand side jobs, but I needed to pick up another shift. I went to Oil Can’s and I told Bob, “I know I’m not the cowboy type to put behind a country bar, but I can carry a tray and work fast and get through crowds.” That’s how I got my start at Oil Can’s. Bob hired me as a cocktail waiter.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
I ended up being there so much and I was helping out and doing this and that and the other, and finally Bob Tomasino, said, “Let’s make this permanent.” So I started as a bar back at Oil Can Harry’s. And then I worked from that position into being a bartender, and lo and behold, for 20 years — on and off, but mostly on — I worked at Oil Can’s.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Was there an interview process to work at Oil Can Harry’s? Nope. It was, “Hey, do you need bartenders? I need a part time job.” And they’d be like, “Do you know how to pour drinks? Yeah? Ok, you’re hired.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, even as gay bars like Oil Can’s began popping up across the country, queer folks still lacked spaces to gather openly in the light of day. That is, until 1976, when a man in Reno, Nevada, took a public spectacle long considered the epitome of straight masculinity and reimagined it: He hosted the first gay rodeo.

It wasn’t long before the gay rodeo became a major attraction, and by the ’80s, it had transformed into a traveling celebration, catering to queer riders around the country. After witnessing the magic of the first LA Gay Rodeo in March of 1985, Bob Tomasino became one of their most active supporters, funding competitors, sponsoring parties, and securing Oil Can’s reputation as one of the West Coast’s finest gay country western bars.

Photo: Courtesy of Rafi Gonzalez and Christian Bock

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Around the 1990s, I was working in IT, and I got to this point where I was just needing something. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but it was just by fate one night I went out to Oil Can Harry’s and I met this group of guys, these folks from the gay rodeo.

ROGER BERGMAN | Patron
This was before there were gay cruises, gay travel agencies, gay tours, and all of the different options that are available for the gay community today.

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER | Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Back then, there were no public events for LGBTQ+ people where you could be outdoors, in a big, wide-open area.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
I moved to Los Angeles to be a stuntwoman. I did that for 22 years. I kept my private life separate, partly because the work environment wasn’t very friendly at the time, not for stunts. But at Oil Can’s, and at the Gay Rodeo, I was out. I could be out.

BLAKE LITTLE | Patron
I mean, it was kind of a revelation, because I didn’t realize that there was this whole community of gay cowboys and cowgirls. I remember me and my best friend, Gordon — we went to that first one together, and we were just two kids, you know? It was an adventure.

Left: Charlie Collela at a rodeo. Right: Blake Little in rodeo gear in 1990 in San Diego, CA. Photos: Courtesy of Charlie Collela and Blake Little

ROGER BERGMAN | Patron
For a long time, the LA rodeo was the biggest one on the circuit.

BLAKE LITTLE | Patron
You had people coming from Seattle, Texas, Oklahoma, Phoenix, Denver, and Albuquerque.

ROGER BERGMAN | Patron
Oil Can’s was the biggest LA bar that supported the rodeo and was really capable of holding a big party. They always hosted a pre-rodeo dance event on Thursday, and a post-rodeo dance on Sunday night to finish off the weekend.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
The rodeo guys I met while they were hanging out at Oil Can’s invited me to come to one of their buck outs, where you go and practice steer riding and bull riding and other rodeo events. Immediately, what it offered me was this family of friends that had a lot of integrity. Just the vibe I got from all of them, I just immediately felt, This is where I belong.

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER | Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
The inclusivity, the camaraderie, the family vibe, the place of belonging and being with your people — it was just captivating.

ROGER BERGMAN | Patron
They had three categories for winners at the rodeo: a Mister Rodeo, a Miss Rodeo, and a Miz rodeo, and that would be a drag queen.

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER | Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
When the rodeo was new, drag queens were the matriarchs of the fundraising. If it weren’t for the drag queens, there never would have been the beginning of the Gay Rodeo Association. What I loved about the gay rodeo was that unlike traditional rodeos, when it came to speed events and rough stock events, women were able to compete in the same events as men [while events were still split by gender].

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
I competed in barrels, flags, and poles. I competed in toe roping, team roping, break away roping. I competed in goats and steer deco and wild drag, and my very first event that I ever competed in was shoot docking.

ROGER BERGMAN | Patron
We wore cowboy hats with feathered bands and macrame belts. Nehru collars were in. And shirts that had, like, a cape attached. Not like a long cape, but just from the shoulders down to, like, mid-back.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Bob Tomasino was a huge supporter of the gay rodeo and all the fundraisers that we did. He sponsored me personally as a contestant, so when I was at
all the rodeos, I was wearing Oil Can Harry’s shirts and carrying Oil Can Harry’s flags.

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER | Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
From very early on, Bob was part of the LA Rodeo’s planning and logistics committee. He not only sponsored individual contestants, but he would sponsor the dance tent, which was not inexpensive. A big part of the rodeos was dancing — that’s how rodeo people learned about Oil Can’s.

CHARLIE COLELLA | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
I competed in the gay rodeo for 27 years. Whenever Oil Can Harry’s sponsored me, I’d see Bob at the rodeo and he’d congratulate me. Or if I showed up to work and the bar was really packed, sometimes they would announce those of us who’d won to the crowd. Everyone applauded you and cheered you.

ROGER BERGMAN | Patron
Nobody knew the final results of the rodeo until Monday morning. So Sunday night, contestants would all go out to Oil Can’s and party. The gay rodeo organizations from other states would all bring their flags and climb up the stairs and wave them off the second-story balcony, looking down at all of the cowboys and cowgirls dancing below.

Photo: Courtesy of Pat Rivera

In 1981, Los Angeles saw its first cases of what would later become known as AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). However, the common use of the term “GRID” (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency) was popularized in 1982, which perpetuated the incorrect belief that AIDS affected only gay men.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
I moved to Los Angeles in ’84 from a small town in New Mexico to pursue a DJ career.

When I started going to Oil Can’s, one of the first DJs I met there, his name was Michael. He was the disco DJ. I would come in and watch his music style and how he carried the night. He was always very accepting of me. The other DJ was a little bit of a bitch. [Laughs] Like, “You want to be a DJ? I don’t think so.” Michael was the one that would let me into the booth, and we would hang out and I would watch him work and get to know him. He was a mentor, somebody I looked up to.

Then all of a sudden, he just quit. And I didn’t even know why. I mean, we all kind of figured, but we didn’t really … nobody talked about it.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I stopped counting after 50 people I knew had died. When you’re working in an environment like a bar, especially one of Oil Can Harry’s caliber, there are a lot of people you meet, you know, two, three, five hundred people a day. But then, a lot of them start passing away, dying. And so everyone else who was left there, it just sort of became like a family, like to take care of each other at that time.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
I remember when I got to California in the early ’90s, within the first about eight to 10 months of me being here, six of the 10 friends I had made had died. It happened so fast. One day a person’s healthy, and then you’re watching them slowly deteriorate and then go.

BLAKE LITTLE | Patron
My best friend Gordon, the one I first went to the rodeo with, died of AIDS. I would say over half the guys who were my closest friends at the rodeo died.

It changed sex, it changed everything.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Even between our own people, the stigma around AIDS in those days was incredible. People were frightened at the time of catching anything, of sitting on the same toilet at the bar, of drinking out of the same glass.

There was a decline of people who came into Oil Can’s. Business slowed. And the people who did come in would come in sick, you could tell. A lot of it was because of the medication. There was only AZT at the time, and AZT took away your immune system.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
In the bars and clubs, everybody had beepers or pagers because you had to take medications at exact times throughout the day. So all of a sudden, peoples’ pagers would start going off. You’d see someone check their pager, and then they’d reach in their pocket and start taking a handful of pills.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
It was tough, you know. I was 18 years old and was thrust into the gay community that I wanted to be a part of — but all of a sudden, I had to put everything in perspective because of this disease.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
We were just kids, 20-something-year-olds in hospice care with friends and next-door neighbors because the community that we lived in — literally, everyone around us — was dying off, rapidly.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
At the bar, there were probably six or seven of the staff that passed away through my time there.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
I started doing more … started trying to do my part, as far as facing the virus and being there for people who needed help.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
It was a collaboration of friends, anywhere from six to 10 of us, going over and hand-feeding our friends, changing their diapers, giving them pills, holding them, listening to them scream at you about how much they hated you and to get the fuck out and leave them alone.

To those who were at peace, who were nothing but love and light, you still did the same things. You held them while they threw up, and you fed them, and they begged you and said, “Please do something different. I don’t want this to go on.” You just worked together, and we loved each other, and we stood by each other.

JACK INMAN | Patron
I’m HIV-positive, and I don’t know a place that I felt more welcomed during those times when it was pretty dark than Oil Can Harry’s.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
Oil Can’s became a place for support, for fundraisers.

JACK INMAN | Patron
It was the one bar that consistently did fundraising for the AIDS community. I went to AIDS/Lifecycle charity events there. The Life Group Los Angeles had fundraisers there. AIDS Healthcare Foundation had fundraisers there.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
There were drag shows there, the Campers and the Troupers, who did charity work and collected money for AIDS or people living with AIDS.

WAIDE RIDDLE | Patron
The Campers were what they sounded like — it was camp. They wore crazy costumes and everyone was on their hit list. And those drag shows were used as fundraisers. Bob was always adamant that if you’re going to bring in the community, you need to raise money for the community.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
It was all Bob. Just wanting to help the community in any way he could.

JACK INMAN | Patron
I don’t recall there being many AIDS charity events at the bars in West Hollywood, which is interesting. But Bob Tomasino had one every week. I don’t know that any other bars can say that.

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER | Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
After a handful of fundraisers at Oil Can’s, Bob would say, “The bar did pretty well tonight. I want to give you the cover.” So he would give a couple extra $100 to the pot.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Bob and Bert’s thing was that if somebody needed a bed, or a washing machine, or anything like that, they said, “We’ll do a raffle.” They’d allow them to do the raffle, and what they would do is they’d outright buy the item, and whatever money that the raffle brought in, they’d give that to them
as well.

JACK INMAN | Patron
They would let us come in and make Jell-O shots if we wanted to. They allowed us to take revenue from the bar, which was their bread and butter — and now I’m getting emotional, because I don’t know anybody else that does that. It was always “yes,” it was always “how can we help?” and “how can we make it bigger?”

Bob always made it bigger.

After more than a decade of viewing an AIDS diagnosis as a death sentence, the queer community received a lifeline in 1995. With the introduction of protease inhibitors, a new, life-saving anti-retroviral medication, patrons began flocking back to queer spaces, eager to reconnect, let loose, and leave their worries at the door. At Oil Can’s, already known for its country western theme, this return coincided with the rise of country line dancing, a trend fueled by Garth Brooks’s early ’90s ubiquity; the starry-eyed musical western, Pure Country; and of course, Billy Ray Cyrus’s inescapable earworm, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
Come the mid-’90s, the battle wasn’t over, not by any stretch. But people just needed to go out and have fun.

PATRICK KIMBLEY | Patron
Back then, poppers were a thing for people to bring on the dance floor. It was probably 25 percent of people who would pull them out and dance.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Once the protease inhibitors came in, everybody felt a change, and said, “Oh my god, we’re going to live now.

BLAKE LITTLE | Patron
This was around the Garth Brooks era. So like, country, everywhere.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
There was a manager called Jim Angelico. He basically started the bar’s country western line dancing nights. With all the people who were ready to dance and to celebrate, line dancing at Oil Can’s just took off.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
Even if you just went there to watch the line dancing, it was mesmerizing.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
60, 80, 90 people — all synchronized line dancing to a really great song.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
It became this cult. It was absolutely amazing.

Line dancing at Oil Can Harry’s. Photos, clockwise from bottom-left: Courtesy of Jim Battaglia (3) and Waide Riddle (2)

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
I have seen friends who were the most meek and mild and timid people I’ve ever known, and I’ve gone to Oil Can Harry’s and they’re kicking their heels up and two-stepping and do-si-doing and throwing people across the room.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
We were kind of the home crowd, so we had our little spot on the dance floor, and people would follow us. When we had a bunch of new people in the group, we’d ask the DJ to play an easy dance. And we’d be mini-instructors there on the dance floor.

A club review from the Los Angeles Times calendar in 1994 that was once displayed at Oil Can Harry’s. Photo: Shelly Simon

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
In the ’90s, we had this thing called the Black Hat Gang.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
They’d all come in on a Friday night, and they all wore tight Wranglers with the seams ironed, starched shirts, and black cowboy hats.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
It started off with just a few of them. But then, all of a sudden, they started inviting others to wear black hats, and then there were a hundred of them.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
You’d look around and it was a sea of black cowboy hats.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
They’d order 100 shots of cowboy cocksuckers: Baileys and butterscotch. And then they’d hand them all around. Because of groups like the Black Hat Gang, the country dancing scene just grew and grew. It was incredible.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
There would be dance troupes that would come and perform, and I was always blown away by them. There were the Midnight Cowboys, a very sexy, very male, country dance group that would perform and do fun stuff for us at Oil Can’s — and they became quite famous. That inspired me to start my own dance troupe.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
There’s not much that I usually brag about, but performing with the LA Wranglers, the dance troupe Rick founded, I was very proud of that.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
In 2000, I put the word out to some friends. I got about 25 people to audition, and that’s how the Wranglers got started.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
I was a Wrangler for nine years. During that time, Bob let us use Oil Can’s as a practice space.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
We held performances at the bar too, for crowds of friends and family.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
As a Wrangler, we did this routine where, to the beat of the music, we just tore open our shirts. Which was fine, until I realized, “Oh my god, my dad is here.” It was the first time my dad went to Oil Can’s, and — I will never forget this — he said, “This is the friendliest bar I have ever been to.”

Photo: Courtesy of Roger Bergman
Photo: Courtesy of Rick Dominguez

In 2004, Oil Can Harry’s took a chance on something outside its country purview. Michael Lara, manager of Bullet Bar in LA, successfully convinced Bob that Oil Can Harry’s should have a leather contest. With a reputation as a cowboy and country bar, chaps and leather stood side by side to witness the success of Oil Can’s first Mr. Leather competition that same year. Once part of the network of “feeder” leather competitions, the bar had their own shot at the coveted International Mr. Leather title, one of the most respected titles in the leather community.

JACK INMAN | Patron
In the ’90s, the map of gay bars in Los Angeles looked like this: Country bars like Oil Can’s or Rawhide were in the Valley, West Hollywood was “Boystown,” and the leather bars were in Silver Lake.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
At the time, I was the manager of the Eagle LA, which is a Levi/leather bar. Los Angeles has a very big leather community, and various establishments have Mr. Leather competitions. There’s anywhere from nine to 12 contests put on by bars or organizations, and all the winners go on to compete for the title of LA Mr. Leather. Whoever wins that title goes to Chicago for International Mr. Leather.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
For Bob to introduce leather into his country bar — it felt like a big deal. When the Los Angeles Leather Coalition formed in 1993, they didn’t allow Oil Can’s in. It didn’t have the “feel” of the Eagle or of the other Silver Lake leather bars.

CHARLIE MATULA | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
We were like, “What is this cowboy leather contest?” We need to go see what’s going on over there.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
When we went to Oil Can’s, we found out that one of their competitors was the exact person we didn’t want to run, because he was perfect for the Mr. LA Leather title. He was community-oriented, he was good-looking and smart. His name was Mike Gerle.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
I’d always been interested in the leather community — their attitudes toward sex, the intensity around a BDSM scene, the structure of the sub-dom relationship — but also, I was terrified. I thought that if I were associated with leather, the A-gays — the West Hollywood, “perfect” gays — would no longer accept me. I thought the social cost of doing leather would be too high.

But the more I learned about leather, the more I was like, This is me, this is what I want. So when I saw the poster for the Mr. Leather contest at Oil Can’s, I thought, Maybe I should just run. The next day, I was on stage competing.

HANS KOWOLL | Patron, Mr. Oil Can’s Leather 2011
To make it in leather competitions, you have rehearsals, interviews, it’s a big process. It’s not only about having beautiful eyes. It’s more about having a beautiful heart. A heart that is directed toward the gay community and the leather community.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
I had met Bob Tomasino through my accountant, “Daddy Don,” who was also into leather. Bob was amazing. He was all about people embracing themselves and being whoever they wanted to be, so Oil Can Harry’s made me feel really safe about competing.

HANS KOWOLL | Patron, Mr. Oil Can’s Leather
Competition days at Oil Can Harry’s were wonderful. The bar looked alive. Lights, the DJ, the announcer.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
The bar was packed and people were in leather and fetish gear. Except for the lesbians. I remember when I was about to go on stage, the lesbians, who pretty much owned the pool table, just kept doing what they were doing. You could hear cue balls throughout the night.

HANS KOWOLL | Patron, Mr. Oil Can’s Leather
You have a section where you’re interviewed by a panel. They ask how you’re planning to help the community and your thoughts on the leather scene.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
After that, they usually ask you a funny question, which terrified me because it was the only part I couldn’t prepare for. Luckily, I got a serious question, “What’s the biggest issue facing the gay community now?” And I said apathy.

Once you’re in front of an audience, the contest has a jockstrap portion, which is just to see how a guy looks and how he handles himself on stage. I moved to California originally to do ballet, so I’m great on stage; I’m fine with that.

When they announced the winners … it almost didn’t register that they said my name. I couldn’t believe it.

HANS KOWOLL | Patron, Mr. Oil Can’s Leather
Winning Mr. Oil Can’s Leather, it feels like the day you marry the boy of your dreams. You feel beautiful. You feel on top of the world.

Hans Kowoll as Oil Can’s Mr. Leather. Photo: Jay Lawton (JayPG Photography)

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
The only requirements of winning Mr. Leather Oil Can Harry’s was that you had to wear a leather vest with an Oil Can’s patch on the back, and you had to run for the next contest, Mr. LA Leather.

Mr. LA Leather took place six weeks later, and lo and behold, I ended up winning that, too. Winning Mr. LA Leather — all of a sudden I had people holding my stuff, bringing me drinks, and I was surrounded by hot guys who had never given me attention.

I was more crotch-centered in that moment than heart-centered. I didn’t go back to celebrate at Oil Can Harry’s that night. I didn’t go thank the bar and the people I was supposed to be representing. And that’s something I will regret for the rest of my life.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
Mike’s ascent was crazy. He didn’t even know what International Mr. Leather was when he entered Oil Can Harry’s. Then he was in the Los Angeles Mr. Leather contest in March, and then, at the end of May, Memorial Weekend, he’s in Chicago with over a thousand men from around the world with about 50 other contestants. And he wins.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
I had my crown and I was onstage talking to all these people, and I pulled away from them and standing there in the crowd were Bob and [his partner] John, and they were sobbing.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
To see Bob … I mean, he was just beaming. And crying. We were all crying. We were happy, and we were just excited — one, because LA won, but two, because Bob won, and it represented him and his establishment.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
Leaning over to hug Bob and John, while wearing full leather, that was hard. My pants were so tight that I couldn’t really step up or kneel down. But I did that to get to Bob and John. Bob was sweaty and covered with tears. He kept saying how proud he was of me. I didn’t realize it would affect him like that.

HANS KOWELL | Patron, Mr. Oil Can’s Leather
I think for Bob, part of having someone from his bar win Mr. International Leather was proof that Oil Can’s could be both a country bar and a leather bar. That we could combine those scenes.

Bob Tomasino and John Fagan.
Photos: The Oil Can Harry’s WordPress

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
A couple months after winning, I went back to Oil Can’s. Bob was sitting in his space right on the ledge by the cash register — his quiet place in the bar. And I told him, “Bob, I’m so sorry I haven’t been here. I really screwed up that night after winning Mr. Leather LA. I should have come here that night to celebrate.”

He stopped me and said, “You’re a good person, Mike. I see the love in you and I’m proud to have you here.” There was no cattiness, no drama.

HANS KOWOLL | Patron, Mr. Oil Can’s Leather
Being Mr. Oil Can Harry’s Leather, it’s not only the fact of winning or participating but the fact of being part of Oil Can Harry’s, part of their family. Every Mr. Oil Can’s Leather has their picture hanging in the bar. Every time I go to a leather event, I always wear my Oil Can Harry’s leather vest with pride.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
As the reigning Mr. LA Leather, I had a seat at the Los Angeles Leather Coalition board and a vote at the next meeting. And I passed around my medal, and I thanked everyone for helping me win. Then I was like, “So, I’d like to point out that Oil Can Harry’s is on the agenda today, and I’d like to vote to let Oil Can Harry’s into the Leather Coalition.” And of course, they were welcomed in.

Photo: The Oil Can Harry’s WordPress

For staff members and patrons who were physically or emotionally distant from blood relatives, Oil Can’s became a home, and its community, a chosen family. The bar saw romances blossom on its dance floor, and eventually, when they were legalized, weddings under its disco ball.

The Oil Can Harry’s employees formed a chosen family. Clockwise from top left: Charlie Collela; Christy Cotton; Blake Little and Christy Cotton; John Fagan, Bob Tomasino, and Tommy Young; Tommy Young; and Rick Dominguez. Photos: Courtesy of Charlie Collela, Rick Dominguez, and Jim Battaglia

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
Every year at Christmas, Bob and John would invite everyone who couldn’t be with their blood families over for dinner.

They always had at least two Christmas trees at their home, and they loved to decorate, and they loved to entertain, and they wanted to share their home with us. Bob and John always took on the big dishes — the hams and turkeys and the roasts and all that kind of stuff — and then we’d bring sides and desserts. Their five children were always there, and I remember stockings hung over the fireplace and tons of presents.

For many of us, Bob and John were our family of choice. They were parents to their children, but they were parents to many, many other people as well. They brought us in, and they took care of us.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
It turned into a family. If you had a problem, Bob would take care of it.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
On weekends, when 2 o’clock rolled around after closing, usually everybody on staff was still wanting to party and have a good time together. So we’d go to a Denny’s or something like that.

JOEY SASSO | Doorman, Bartender
At the diner, we would gossip about everything from Rick telling me which guy of the night he thought was cute, to who wasn’t on good terms with each other for whatever dumb reason, to every single person’s thoughts about what should be going on at Oil Can’s to make it more successful.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
We would talk about the bar, but we would also talk about our parents and families back home. We’d share about our lives. We would discuss the struggles our customers were having, to see if we could do anything to help them — that was definitely something that stemmed from Bob. We were so much like brothers and sisters, the staff at Oil Can’s. There was so much love.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
The day gay marriage was legalized in California, Bob and John went and got married. It was a celebration like you wouldn’t believe. Everybody was like, “This is our time.”

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
I started DJing weddings of people that met at Oil Can’s. So many. I mean, in the hundreds.

RAFAEL “RAFI” GONZALEZ | Patron
Christian and I met at Oil Can’s. This was back when I was very new to the bar.

CHRISTIAN BOCK | Bartender
Just wide eyed and bushy tailed and wanting to learn all the dances.

RAFAEL “RAFI” GONZALEZ | Patron
Later on, I spotted the same blond guy on the dance floor, just smiling. I went up to him and said, “What’s your name?” And he said, “Christian.” That’s when they started playing a shadow dance.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers member
A shadow dance is a country dance that’s really only known in the gay community.

The shadow dance. Illustration: Lauren Griffin (Typogriff)

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
You’re basically spooning your partner, so one person’s crotch is right up against one person’s butt, and the person in back can have their arm across your chest. There’s a safety in it, but it’s erotically charged, all at the same time.

RAFAEL “RAFI” GONZALEZ | Patron
When Christian and I started shadow dancing … I was like, god, this guy turns me on.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
I had a rule: I would not shadow with anyone at Oil Can’s that I hadn’t danced with before. Until I met my wife. When Nancy and I started to shadow dance, it was amazing. You don’t always find that with somebody you dance with the first time.

RAFAEL “RAFI” GONZALEZ | Patron
After our shadow dance, Christian and I went home together. It was supposed to be a one night stand. But the next morning, I realized I’d forgot my pager at his place. When I went back, I knocked on his door, and there was this silent moment, and I don’t do well with silent moments, but I asked him, “Do you want to go to dinner?” That was it.

CHRISTIAN BOCK | Bartender
Rafi and I didn’t know what Bob would say, some months later, when we asked if we could have our wedding at Oil Can’s. They weren’t really in the wedding business. But of course, Bob said yes. Not only that, but he went above and beyond. He provided just about everything. We had 250 guests, and we had caterers set up where the pool table was, and Bob gave us the venue for free, and DJ Rick also played for free.

RAFAEL “RAFI” GONZALEZ | Patron
I remember at one point Bob said, “We can put a curtain on top in front of the Oil Can’s logo, so you won’t see it in the wedding video.” And Christian and I were both like, “No, that’s the main reason why we’re here. We want Oil Can Harry’s to be a part of the wedding.”

CHRISTIAN BOCK | Bartender
And as far as I know, we were the first couple to get married at Oil Can’s.

Photos: Courtesy of Rafi Gonzalez and Christian Bock
Kris and Dawn Larsen got to know each other at Oil Can Harry’s. Photo: Courtesy of Kris and Dawn Larsen

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
It’s fascinating — you just hear that story over and over and over of people who met their partners at Oil Can’s.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I used to get people who’d come back every year on their anniversary: “We met in Oil Can’s, we met right in front of you, this is our favorite place, and we come back every year.”

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers member
It’s been 12 years since that first time I shadow danced with Nancy at Oil Can’s. To this day, there are times when I dance with Nancy and there’s nobody else on the dance floor, even though it’s packed. It’s like being in a real dream. You’re spinning, and the lights are shining around you. And I don’t see anyone else on the dance floor but her.

The turn of the century and rise of the internet introduced challenges for Oil Can Harry’s. And a change in leadership exacerbated the threat of the bar shuttering.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I remember around the year 2000, turnout was down.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
There were lulls.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I think it had to do with the internet; people started getting on the computer. You didn’t have to leave home at all to get laid, to put it bluntly.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
For line dancing, we went from four nights and Sundays to maybe three nights, and then we were doing other things on other nights just because the capacity wasn’t like what it used to be.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers member
It got a little bit scary. There were a couple times when they stopped Tuesday night dancing because the crowd was too small. Thursday’s Women’s Night, died.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
For a while, Bob and I butted heads because I wanted to introduce line dances to different styles of music, to hip-hop songs, to pop songs. I felt that incorporating mainstream music into line dancing, you’d attract a lot more people than just your hardcore traditional country folks, and you’d get more people in your bar. I fought so, so hard for that. But Bob said to limit it. He worried it would turn off the country purists.

Photos: Courtesy of Jim Battaglia (left) and Michael Drell (right)

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers member
There was a point when it wasn’t as happy as it used to be. Rick had disagreements with Bob, so we took Wrangler practice to Rawhide, another country bar. We worried about Oil Can’s. But Bob assured us it wasn’t going anywhere.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Bert passed away in [2007]. He was sick for 10 years. He had cancer. Bert left the bar to his two sisters and brother. The sisters and brother said to Bob, “You know, we’d like you to stay, and we’re going to give you a five-year lease with an option to buy.”

Well, about three weeks later they came and said, “Oh, we’re selling the place.”

I think the bar was being listed at $4.2 million. There was no possible way that Bob could have afforded the money to keep it open. We were looking around for other places to go. You know, to move Oil Can Harry’s to somewhere else. And then, Bob was at the bar one day, and Monte Overstreet walked in.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
Don’t say that name.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
He owned — there were so many places. From what I gather he owned
over 50.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
Gay, from what I understand.

CHARLIE MATULA | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
He’s a property tycoon.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
Monte was this short little old man who always had pretty boys around him. He looked like a typical gay sugar daddy type of guy.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Monte said to Bob, “You know, I’ve heard all about you. I know you’re a man of the community. You’re a standup person. If I buy the place, would you lease it from me for ten years?”

And that’s what happened. Bob, who in our minds was always the heart and soul of Oil Can’s, officially took over.

Bob enlisted Rick Dominguez to create a disco night, and by the early 2000s, the retro, high-energy, gay-as-can-be evening skyrocketed to popularity, becoming one of the defining draws of Oil Can’s for the decades to follow.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
I got a call from Bob one day asking me if I deejayed disco music. I’d been deejaying, you know, since the ’70s — the high-energy disco craze was very much part of my life. So I said yes.

WAIDE RIDDLE | Patron
Oil Can’s had been country for so long, when I heard about Disco Night, I thought, “Hmm this seems enterprising. Let’s see what happens.”

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
That first Saturday Disco Night, we brought out all kinds of props — mannequins dressed up like Cher and Barbra Streisand and collages of old records and albums that they posted all over the club, trying to make it look like it was a ’70s disco.

And it was a success. I mean, it was big.

WAIDE RIDDLE | Patron
I walked in and asked the doorman how it was going. He said, “Well, take a look.” I turned the corner, and the whole place was packed.

JACK INMAN | Patron
People came decked out in disco wear and costumes.

SERA SLOANE | Patron
I had a denim jacket with really long fringe. A red pantsuit. One night I rolled in by myself in a tuxedo.

WAIDE RIDDLE | Patron
You had go-go girls and hippies. Glitter and confetti and loud colors and white leisure suits. I remember a couple dressed as Danny and Sandy. It was all things and everything — like a masquerade event.

JACK INMAN | Patron
The heat on the dance floor from all those bodies — the air conditioning could never keep up with it. I could always be found in the upper-righthand corner of the dance floor, right in front of the fan.

ASHTON COOPER | Patron
I remember just vibing to ABBA a lot.

WAIDE RIDDLE | Patron
At midnight it was always “Dancing Queen” or “Xanadu” by Olivia Newton John.

JACK INMAN | Patron
It became my aerobic exercise for the weekend. Once I’d burned 500 calories, it was time to go home. My friends would always laugh and ask, “What’s your calorie count? What’s your calorie count?”

SERA SLOANE | Patron
In the beginning, I was going to Disco Night with friends, and then I just started going alone. I would leave friends’ weddings to go to Oil Can’s for Saturday night disco. I stopped working Saturdays at my salon because I just wanted to have the whole day off to prepare to go out.

JACK INMAN | Patron
It became a Saturday-night ritual for me. I graduated high school in ’79, so, to me, disco felt like youth. It felt like home. There’s something about being in a space with other human beings, joined by the beat of the music, and all the different expressions of joy that creates, that mentally is healing.

SERA SLOANE | Patron
Going to Disco Night ended up feeling like part of my identity.

JACK INMAN | Patron
Disco night opened Oil Can’s up to an even more diverse crowd. There were people of all ages. I remember seeing folks that had to be in their 80s, dancing, doing their stuff.

WAIDE RIDDLE | Patron
I brought my mother. She loved it!

BILLY CAMP | Patron
There would even be a large straight crowd. It was completely gay the other nights, but Disco brought a lot of straights who loved being there, dancing with the gay guys.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
The other important person that Disco Night brought out to Oil Can’s was John. You didn’t really see him the other nights of the week, [and even at disco he was a rare presence]. But John loved disco. I really only got to know John when he would come to Disco Night. Every once in a while, at the end of a shift, he’d find me and say, “That was a great set, Rick.”

SERA SLOANE | Patron
I always stayed until the last song on Saturday nights, which was “Last Dance” by Donna Summer, and that was always really important. A lot of people were gone, but the regulars were always there. People would embrace for that last song.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
After Disco Night got going, Bob asked Rick to start DJing other nights too, including line dancing nights.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
I finally got the chance to try out line dances to music other than country songs. And the response was mind blowing.

KRIS LARSON | Patron
Oil Can’s became the only country bar in the city where you’d go in and hear hip-hop music played to a line dance. I’m a firefighter and I would go to Oil Can’s after my shift. It was really appealing. Really unique.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
Changing up the music opened Oil Can’s up to a whole other community of people. We started having more and more people, more young people too, coming in for the first time. They’d hear a popular song and see everyone doing a line dance to it, and all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, I have to learn this.”

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Rick went from a brilliant disco DJ to a brilliant DJ of all types of music to a choreographer and a teacher.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
The first few dances that I choreographed at Oil Can’s, I put out on the internet with step sheets. They became popular not just at Oil Can’s, and not just in Southern California, but across the country. Today, my dances are done all over the world. It’s really cool to go online and see people in Korea and France and Spain all doing dances that started at Oil Can’s. I found out later that Bob had to stand up to a lot of country purists who weren’t happy with the change. But he took a chance on me and defended me. And it changed my life.

With Disco Night attracting throngs of new customers and the versatile Rick Dominguez assuming the role of Oil Can’s “Resident DJ,” the aughts seemed on track to be the bar’s most successful chapter in decades. Then, a tragic loss blindsided the Oil Can’s community.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
I was going through a divorce, and it was tough. Bob said to me, “I know you need a safe space to be, to hang out, to put your head down at night.” So I stayed at Bob and John’s for a little bit.

But it was just temporary. I knew I was going back to Texas. My family was there; my mom wasn’t well. I went to Bob and said, “I’ve got to go.” He and John actually helped me load up my U-Haul. And I stayed at their house the night before I left Los Angeles.

That was the last time I saw Bob.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
It was 2013, and Bob and I had gone into work together. He picked me up, and then when we finished work, he said to me, “Come on Tommy, we’re leaving now.” He dropped me off at my place, and about 30 seconds later, he was hit by a drunk driver and killed.

Broke every bone in his body.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
We found out from Rick. He called to say Bob was hit by a teenager a mile from his home. Nancy and I were in shock.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
At Bob’s celebration of life, I sat with his family. I sat next to Tommy.

JACK INMAN | Patron
The memorial service was held at West Hollywood Auditorium, and the building was packed.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
There were people sitting; there were people standing.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I was the emcee for his memorial service. The Bob Tomasino Country Pavilion is what they named [the auditorium] afterwards.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
It was huge. I mean, they had this huge picture of Bob, and when I say picture, I mean as-tall-as-the-auditorium picture, on the stage.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
The Campers were there. The leather guys were there. Shoot, all the various performers that had ever performed at Oil Can’s wanted to be part of it.

JACK INMAN | Patron
There was a procession of flags coming down the aisle, and these were the flags of all the different communities that Bob had supported. Some were leather flags, some were trans flags — all these different regimental flags that represented the breadth and depth of how much support he gave to the community.

KRIS LARSON | Patron
I think if you only knew one part of Bob’s life, you kind of got to see a little bit more of the broader scope of what it was. Yes, he was a bar owner, but he was more than that. And I think that’s what you got when you saw proclamations in the different groups that were coming up, all tied together by one person.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
I remember a lot of tears. A lot of hugs. When someone’s taken away and you don’t expect it, it’s really hard to fathom that it’s real.

CHRISTY COTTON | Bartender, Gay Rodeo Competitor
At gay rodeos, when someone from the community passes away, there’s a ceremony called the Riderless Horse ceremony.

The way the ceremony works is: One or two people will walk alongside a horse that is fully saddled up as if he were getting ready to be ridden. They will have a single boot from the soldier in a stirrup on the saddle. And oftentimes a wreath of flowers around the horse. The horse will be led around the arena with a song playing. And the announcer would say who this person was, why they were being honored that particular day.

I led the Riderless Horse ceremony for Bob at the Palm Springs rodeo. John walked with us too. The horse went ’round and there was a wreath of red and white flowers around his neck.

Photo of Bob’s Riderless Horse ceremony. Photo: Courtesy of Sunnie Rose Berger

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER | Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
At Riderless Horse Ceremonies, they sometimes play “The Dance” by Garth Brooks. But at Bob’s, Tommy sang the song live.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I remember that a couple of days before the memorial service, I had gotten this anonymous message that said, “You don’t know me, but I was at Oil Can Harry’s one time, I was looking at the building, and this man came out, and he turned around and said, ‘Oh, are you coming in?’” and he said, “Oh no, I don’t have any money.” And Bob said, “Well, you can still come in.” Bob took him to the edge of the path and pointed up to the Oil Can Harry’s sign, and said, “This is Oil Can Harry’s, and everybody’s welcome.” And he took the guy inside, and he bought him a drink, and he talked to him for a couple of hours.

This man told me, “I will never forget that man.” And that’s what Bob was like — it didn’t matter who, what, why, or when you were; he would take care of you.

SUNNIE ROSE BERGER | Patron, Gay Rodeo Competitor
I always walk with Bob. He walks with me. Or flies alongside. Whatever he wants to do.

In the wake of Bob’s death, Oil Can’s struggled to find its footing — forcing the people who loved the bar to reckon with the uncertainty of its next chapter.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
It’s hard to remember trying to have fun at Oil Can’s after Bob’s death. It was a period of transition; nobody knew what was going on.

JACK INMAN | Patron
It was strange, walking into the bar without him there to greet you at the door.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
They did put his portrait up, and they put up some memorabilia and those sorts of things. But I think the overall sentiment was, “Where do we go from here?”

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
To be honest, I thought that was going to be the end of Oil Can’s. But what ended up happening was that John took over. Running a bar was something totally new to him, but he didn’t want to disappoint Bob. So he took it on.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
The bar was Bob’s thing, and John had his own business. He had a hair salon. And he had to set that aside because he knew the importance and the significance of Oil Can’s to the community at large.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
John tried really hard to follow in Bob’s footsteps as best as he could, but he was in a depression for a while. Understandable, very understandable. He went heavy into drinking. We were worried about him.

KRIS LARSON | Patron
It was extremely difficult. I mean, you have a spouse for decades, and all of a sudden, overnight, your life changes.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
John realized he was just not capable of being in that bar for a while. He couldn’t psychologically, so he put people in place that he knew could run the bar and keep it going. And there was a little bit of a hiccup there.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
John brought on a friend to manage Oil Can’s, this guy named Patrick who had run businesses on the East Coast. First thing this guy did when he came into power was try to get rid of the people who had power, and those two people were me and Tommy.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
When John took over, I was demoted to head bartender, when I had been the bar manager.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
I was the resident DJ; I ran the nights; I knew how we did things. Patrick came in and said, “Everything needs to go through me.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” It got ugly very quickly.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Patrick had no idea what he was doing. The bar went downhill so fast, because it wasn’t about the customers anymore. It wasn’t about hospitality. Everything became much more corporate.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
Patrick wanted the big cowboy hat gone. He started taking down a lot of decorations, and he didn’t replace them with anything. He took away the things that made Oil Can’s, Oil Can’s.

CHRISTIAN BOCK | Bartender
Eventually, Rick was let go.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
I don’t even remember what I did, but yeah, I was fired.

CHRISTIAN BOCK | Bartender
Some other DJs were brought in for a while. But it wasn’t the same.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
After I left, the country nights died. Our Friday nights averaged between 40 to 80 people. It was not pretty.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
Even though there was all this trouble, we just kept going back because it seemed disrespectful not to. Bob created this place for us. And if anything, he’d want us to be here. So yeah, we never stopped going. We just kept up our regular routine and cried and hugged and grieved together. That’s what we did.

And, within a year, everything settled down.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
One day I got the call from Tommy saying, “They fired Patrick.” Shortly thereafter I got a call from John saying, “Can we talk?”

DAWN LARSON | Patron
Rick came back. Well, Tommy never left. It started to feel like home again.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
John finally came out of the cloud that he was under, the depression, the drinking.

DAWN LARSON | Patron
He started sitting in the chair that Bob used to sit in by the door.

KRIS LARSON | Patron
And we were there, ready to assist him. With Bob, he had always been the giver, the one to comfort us. But with John, it went both ways. He needed us as much as we needed him. We worked together to heal.

Inthe late 2010s, a wave of unprecedented celebrity attention turned Oil Can’s into the go-to spot for a younger, “hipper” generation seeking “retro” nightlife. Confronted with an influx of straight and cisgender patrons, the bar’s regulars were forced to reckon with Oil Can’s resurgence and success but also with its evolving identity.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
Mark Ronson, who wrote “Shallow” with [Lady] Gaga, wanted to host a 2019 post-Grammys party at Oil Can’s. All of a sudden, there were conference calls every day from Paris, New York, London, and Los Angeles, preparing for this party. I said to them beforehand, “The place is kind of shabby … Do you want me to buff anything over? Put a red carpet outside? Clean the walls?” And they said, “No, no, no, no, we want it exactly the way it is. It’s perfect.”

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
They turned the upstairs into a VIP lounge and the parking lot into an outdoor space with food trucks. We all got there early to set up — I ran mic checks and sound checks with the DJs, including Mark Ronson, and made sure the booth was good to go up on stage.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
The night of the Grammys party, Lizzo was there. Katy Perry, Adele, and Gaga performed.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
The party was a success. The entire night Adele had security people following her around saying “No pictures, no pictures.” But then she met Joey [Sasso] who was bartending and I guess started crushing on him. Joey was the only person that night who got a photo with Adele.

JACK INMAN | Patron
After Gaga, Oil Can’s brought in this much younger cast of people. Sometimes it was so crowded, you had to know someone at the door to be let in.

Photo of Lady Gaga and Rick Dominguez at Oil Can Harry’s. Photo: Courtesy of Rick Dominguez

SERA SLOANE | Patron
You’d be waiting in line to get in and it was like, “Oh, that person’s on that show Euphoria.” It was feeling like, “This is where you go if you’re a TV star.”

JACK INMAN | Patron
There was this big shift, and frankly, some of us, and I include myself in that, felt like our space was taken over by straight people. For those of us who had always had Oil Can’s as our safe space, it kind of felt like we were losing a piece of our identity. It was sad.

MIKE GERLE | Patron, 29th International Mr. Leather
Now, it’s “cool” to be with gay people, to the point that it became the thing
to have a bachelorette party at Oil Can’s, and people didn’t get why that was annoying for us — why it was annoying to be talking with someone and suddenly a girl comes up to you and starts touching you and taking your picture.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
The thing is … wasn’t acceptance what we wanted? The bar used to be a place to hide from the outside world, but then the outside world changed and, well, the bar changed with it. Yes, the dynamic was different. But the newcomers, the straight allies, brought in money. And for people like me, who remember those nights when the Oil Can’s was empty, when we were scared all the time that the bar wouldn’t make it, having a crowd, a packed dance floor, and lines around the block felt really good.

JACK INMAN | Patron
Yes, there was a new generation that came into Oil Can’s. Yes, it didn’t always feel the same as it did in years past. But I know the bar offered something special to those young people. And I know that if Bob was around, he would have found a way to welcome it and to see the good in all of the change.

BRI LEROSE | Patron
In the beginning, I was definitely intimidated by the regulars. Especially when people have been coming for decades, they’re not super eager to talk to the new people. And I get that. But when I walked in that first time, watching these people of all ages, backgrounds, and identities dancing, I longed to be a part of it.

I came out later in life, and it was right before I went to Oil Can Harry’s the first time. So I was still figuring out how to be gay in public. It meant a lot to be able to go to Oil Can’s and see the diversity and warmth of the queer community.

The pandemic forced Oil Can Harry’s to temporarily close its doors to the public on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Its patrons and staff didn’t yet know it, but that would be the last time they would step foot in the beloved bar. Almost two years later, they are still grappling with a future without Oil Can’s.

JACK INMAN | Patron
I live in the Valley, so I’d seen the “for sale” sign.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
We thought we were getting a couple of weeks off, then it was a month, and two months, and three months. That’s when I started thinking that it wasn’t going to open again.

I’d heard that Monte Overstreet was wanting to sell. There was no possible way that man wouldn’t sell — Monte Overstreet is a businessman. There’s no way around that, that’s what he does.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
After Monte closed The Gold Coast, Rage, and Flaming Saddles [in West Hollywood], we knew selling Oil Can’s was probably on his mind, too.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I kept hoping at some point in time that Monte might just turn around and say, “You know what, I’m going to keep this one.”

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
John was trying to work out a deal with Monte so that we could make it through the pandemic, basically saying, “Don’t sell it now, just wait for the day when we can open and start it up again.” But after a while, Monte stopped communicating with John and just put him in touch with his lawyer. That’s when John called me for a heart-to-heart.

I was in the car, on my way to video a line dance, and I had to pull over because he started opening up to me in a way he never had before. He told me how after Bob died, when he first took over Oil Can’s, it was deep in the red. In fact, the bar had never pulled a profit. Bob kept it open with his own money, simply for the community.

When Bob passed away, that red went to John, and he had to figure it out in those early years. Eventually, after the Grammys and Gaga, when Oil Can’s got popular again, it did start turning a profit. When the pandemic hit, it was finally in the black.

Then John told me he was reaching out because he was trying to help save the bar. He knew that despite our differences, despite the conflicts we had in the past, I wanted to save the bar as much as he did.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
When the community got wind that the bar might be closing, it became overwhelming. People coming to my door, people texting me, calling me. We started looking for other places to go, you know, to move Oil Can’s somewhere else. Someone even tried to save it by registering it as a historic building.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
John and I looked for people who would buy the bar out, financial backers or people who were interested in investing. But they all thought it was a sinking ship. During Covid, with no plans to reopen, they felt like their investments would just get eaten. So they all said no.

Photo: Courtesy of Jim Battaglia

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
In December, when the bar did sell, John put a note out to the community. The outpour was unbelievable — hundreds of messages from patrons. It was home for a lot of people.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
It broke my heart when I found out Oil Can’s closed for good, because just in this pandemic, I think we’ve lost seven gay bars already, if not more. It’s just really, really heartbreaking to see these longstanding establishments of 30-plus years that can’t survive.

JAMIE CORNEJO | Patron
For people, particularly an older generation, who for years were not able to live out and proud, the closing of these places is going to be really tough.

RAFAEL “RAFI” GONZALEZ | Patron
It’s a blow, the loss of gay spaces. Because there isn’t really anywhere else that we can go. I guess there’s the internet. Social media makes it a lot easier to keep in touch, but it’s not the same. I feel like a lot of the younger generations, they’re not going to have a place like we did where you could meet people in person, rather than being on Grindr, or whatever app is popular.

HUNTER FOX | Patron, Co-Owner of Eagle LA
I talk to some of the guys now that are in their early 20s and just coming out, and they have no recollection of a lot of stuff that happened or what a lot of people went through. And it makes me happy, because they’re free. They don’t have the same fears. But I think people need to know how we got where we are. Keeping bars alive is about maintaining our history.

JACK INMAN | Patron
Gay bars were our churches, our gathering places, places where we could be safe, where we didn’t have to put on some other persona. It always felt that way at Oil Can’s.

BRI LEROSE | Patron
Oil Can’s was a piece of queer history.

PAT RIVERA | Patron, Wranglers Dancer
I know a lot of people are sad that the bar is closing. I’m very appreciative of the memories that I have, of what we have and what we had, because there was nothing like it. Nothing like it.

RICK DOMINGUEZ | DJ, Dance Instructor
Who knows what might happen down the line. I still dream about opening a bar of my own. Of following in Bob’s footsteps. Bob started as the door guy and moved up all the way to become the owner. If Bob can do it, so can I. I can call it Oil Can Rick’s. [Laughs]

JACK INMAN | Patron
Whatever happens, I’m hoping and praying that someone will continue to play the party music, the dance music, and that it will be done with the same love of community that Bob taught us. And that we can do it in his honor and his memory.

TOMMY YOUNG | Bartender
I heard that some Oil Can’s people started meeting up in the park to have a dance. They gather in Tujunga on Sunday afternoons and do country dancing. I hear things like that, and I believe that the magic of Oil Can’s will live on.

Photo: Courtesy of Dev Edwards

Edited by Joshuah Bearman and Gina Mei. Copy-edited by Lila Thulin. Fact-checked by Will Peischel. Illustrations by Lauren Griffin (Typogriff). Additional photography by Shelly Simon. Thank you to the Valley Relic Museum.

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