The Queen of the 'Harlem of the West' Brought Glamour and Stars to the Fillmore

Leola King

She was considered the Queen of the Fillmore, back when the neighborhood was still nicknamed the "Harlem of the West." She was one of the first women of color to ever own and run a Bay Area nightclub. And when the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency came for her crown, Leola King fought back, over and over again.

King arrived in San Francisco from Los Angeles in 1946, at the age of 27. She would call the Fillmore home for the next 64 years. Her most famous venture, the Blue Mirror Cocktail Lounge—famous for hosting jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington—came only after King had brought people from all over the city to the Fillmore via her barbecue pit.

Oklahoma King's was named for her birth state, lovingly constructed at 1601 Geary out of a log cabin, and featured a smoke pit that was visible to outside foot traffic. The meat on King's menu, including smoked buffalo, deer and quail, was so popular that she often worked around the clock, sometimes opening at 10am and not closing until 4am the next day.

"I was busy all day, all night, lines outside," she told the Oral History Archives Project in 2007. "On Cathedral Hill, coming down the hill, I had a tall, about a 50-foot smoke stack that put the aroma in the air that was just terrific, and people would drive around trying to find the place where this beautiful smell was coming from."

At the end of 1947, when the City Planning Commission submitted a $52 million proposal for rebuilding a 36-block zone enclosed by Van Ness, Webster, McAllister and Geary, King began to be regularly approached by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. By her own estimation, King told them the restaurant wasn't for sale "three or four times." One morning when she arrived to open up, she was greeted by the sight of a bulldozer—and an empty space where Oklahoma King's used to be.

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"They just come in and bulldoze it to the ground," she recalled. "Took all my equipment, stuff that I’d paid for, and all of my foods and everything. I don’t know what happened to anything. When I go there, the lot is clear; there’s nothing on it. So that made me have to go to the hospital. I just was so upset." King was later reimbursed what she'd paid for the land, but not for the structure, equipment or business—in all, a fraction of what Oklahoma King's was actually worth.

After the initial shock had subsided, King's unbreakable tenacity drove her to open the Blue Mirror in 1953. "It was fantastic, a beautiful club," she said, "and it was hot, hot, hot." The club, at 935 Fillmore Street, was smaller than the other popular neighborhood venues at the time—like Charles Sullivan's Fillmore Ballroom—but attracted the same level of talent. Lena Horne, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway were just a few musicians that passed through, and she counted Josephine Baker, Nat "King" Cole, Elizabeth Taylor and boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson as friends.

Bobbie Webb, a saxophonist who performed there with the likes of B.B. King and T-Bone Walker, said in 2007 that it wasn't just the luxurious decor and excellent music that attracted people to the Blue Mirror—it was King herself. "She didn't only have a personality, she was a beautiful lady," he reminisced. "All she had to do was stand there."

After almost a decade of running one of the hottest clubs in town, King later claimed she was warned by neighborhood police that the Redevelopment Agency was using unscrupulous means to acquire buildings. According to her, one day a man and a child arrived at the club, asking if the youngster could use the bathroom. After the bouncer allowed them in, the man bought an alcoholic drink and handed it to the child. "Well, we didn’t even know the kid was in the place," King recalled. "So that’s how they took my license. They came in and padlocked my door and completely put me out of business."

Against the odds, King bounced back yet again, opening the Bird Cage in 1964. The tavern, decked out in stained glass and bright colors, was open between the hours of 10am and 10pm at 1505 Fillmore Street. Like the Blue Mirror, the venue found popularity quickly, thanks in no small part to its lunch counter, famous for King's fried chicken and fish.

Though King selected the location in the hope that it was deep enough in the neighborhood to remain untouched by redevelopment, after a decade of success, once again the agency bought her venue's building and, in 1974, evicted all tenants. King refused to go quietly this time, having to be forcibly removed by the sheriff. She spent the next quarter century fighting the Redevelopment Agency over relocation terms.

Leola King eventually declared bankruptcy in the late '90s, lost her mansion at 711 Scott St., and never quite managed to complete the opening of a new bar named Goldie's. But her grace and poise in the face of relentless losses, her indomitable spirit, and the joy she brought to the neighborhood are the things people remember most about her.

As Lance Burton, founder of Planet Fillmore Communications, who grew up in the Fillmore and remembers King in her heyday wrote after her death in 2015: "Mrs. King was like a big movie star to many of us, a star who brought some very bright moments to our community—maybe the most golden period of years ever to have been seen in San Francisco by black folks before or since... Mrs. King gave our people a chance to dress up and shine in a Sunday evening of glory."

For stories on other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, click here