Joseph Finocchio, an Italian immigrant and dedicated family man who for 50 years was the reigning king of San Francisco's performing drag queens, died Monday in that city. He was 88 and had suffered a stroke in September and a heart attack last month.
Finocchio's, the club that bears his name, was opened in 1936, 26 years after he arrived in San Francisco. He guarded the door to the club when it was his father's speak-easy during Prohibition.
While working there, he once said, he got an idea for a show featuring transvestites who would entertain, serve drinks and joke with the primarily male clientele.
"The cops, they objected," he said. "I had to fight a little bit of trouble, but then they told me if you run the place straight everything would be fine. They don't want the entertainment to mingle with the customers. I promised to run it like regular theater."
He did and at his death the club was attracting more than 300,000 customers a year.
"When I first started there was a lack of understanding, but now people realize it is entirely different from what they were thinking," he said. "People accept our show more as pure entertainment than they did in the past. They see it as an artistry rather than a perversion.
"And never a scandal, never. It is a clean show where all my fellas conduct themselves in a ladylike manner. I respect them and they respect me."
Survivors include his wife, Eva, a daughter, a sister, a brother and four grandchildren.