What makes Heklina tick? Trannyshack!

The founding diva of Trannyshack expounds on art and life.

Trannyshack founder and hostess Heklina
(nee Stefan Grygelko).

One sunny afternoon in the Tenderloin, Heklina gives me a walk-through tour of her teeny-tiny apartment, starting with a survey of the art on the walls:

“This is a piece by Sam Russell,” clucks the mother hen of Trannyshack, pointing to the first painting. “He helped me paint my apartment, and he gave this to me, and it hangs over my couch and I like it a lot. I don’t really know what it means. It’s kind of religious. To me it seems like an angel in the clouds.”

Moving on we come to some Walter Keene prints from the ’60s, little doll-like kids with big eyes on faded paper, which look due for an “Antiques Roadshow” assessment, and then a very early original Scooter painting from 1995. Scooter, the hip, hunky, queer Tenderloin painter/rapper/model-escort, has scooted on to New York, where he’s blazing his bold paths with his art and sex appeal.

Most jarring, in a psychic sense, is a self portrait as clown by John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer, called “Patches the Clown.”

“I think it’s super creepy,” Heklina shivers. “I got it from Chocolate, who bought it at an auction of John Wayne Gacy’s artwork in Indianapolis right before he was executed.”

There’s a pillowy sculptural piece on the wall by Portia 666, one of Heklina’s favorite drag artists, who in fact did her all-time-favorite drag number at Trannyshack. It was back in the club’s “early days” – Trannyshack at seven is still going strong, belying virtually everyone’s expectations, including Heklina’s – and Portia 666 did a number to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” She dressed up as a unicorn and danced inside a huge Snow Globe made of plastic, bathed in snow-white light, tossing confetti around like snow.

After a peek inside Heklina’s surprisingly small drag closet, packed with dresses, wigs and other apparel, all neatly organized, we repair to the cozy kitchen table to talk, and the first thing she does is light up a cigarette, which she declares is the only vice she has left, along with caffeine, having dumped several others along the way.

I use the name Heklina, but of course that’s a nom de drag. Take away the drag façade, and the name no longer quite fits. Before me sits a gently unassuming guy, Stefan Grygelko, soft-spoken and oddly plain in appearance and style, who you can tell has lived awhile in the fast lane, finally to recover his bearings. The name is Polish, but Grygelko says he moved here from Reykjavik in 1991: “My mother is Islandic, so I have spent a lot of my life moving back and forth between the States and Iceland, and that’s where I was before, just living in Reykjavik and working at the art institute as a nude model and just partying.”

Grygelko was raised in the States, in Minnesota, New York state and Boston, and he’d already done a partying stint in California, in San Diego, where he spent a few years hanging out with punk rockers, transvestites and street people, surviving precariously: “I was 18, 19, 20, living on the streets, doing lots of drugs. I was pretty outlandish, pretty out there.”

Back in Iceland, Grygelko kicked the drug habit but continued to drink a lot: “It’s a very intellectual town; everybody’s really smart, so there’s a lot of art going on. But as far a the gay scene, there isn’t much of one, which is why I’d go to Europe a lot. I was kind of bored with Iceland, and never felt like I fit in with the culture there, because I was mostly American.”

He had no desire to go to California again, but changed his mind after a girlfriend came back from visiting San Francisco, raving about how great it was and insisting they move there: “So I married her – she was a lesbian – so she could get a green card, and we moved here together in ’91.”

Grygelko was immediately taken with the city’s queer arts subculture and fell in with the whole performing crowd, including the now legendary Diet Popstitute, Klubstitute and all those fun freaks. He hooked up with director/writer Tony Vaguely’s Sick and Twisted Players and felt right at home.

Grygelko “met everybody right away,” he says, “because I was dating Jason Mecier, who was half of Enrique, the performance band, and I was living in a house full of radical faeries, with Steve and Maxine and Portia Manson and Lucille and Racine. They had a big house out on 9th Ave. in the Sunset. I was just very taken with it all.”

Alas, Grygelko was not yet a performer, and at first managed to overcome stage fright by getting thoroughly drunk: “One time I did a Sick and Twisted show in a blackout. I don’t remember doing it. But that’s how it was back then, and it wasn’t too important to be sober. Now I can’t imagine doing a show fucked up.”

It was in this era that Grygelko began to dabble in drag, when he met comedian/drag artist Pippi Lovestocking (Scott Free), and when he got a job at the Stud in 1995, first working security and coat check, then bartending. Heklina and Trannyshack were born when Grygelko and Pippi persuaded the Stud’s co-owners, Michael McElheny and Fiesta, to let them do a series of benefits for Project Open Hand, called “Singing for Supper.” They would rent a karaoke machine, drag it into the Stud, and invite their friends to come and sing. Eventually it became a weekly Tuesday-night club, and they dispensed with the karaoke and made it a lip-synch/performance club for the punk/queer generation.

“I called it Trannyshack,” says Grygelko, “based on where Pippi was living at the time, with Chocolate, Ruby Tuesday and Bambi Lake under one roof, and whenever I would go over there I would say, oh, I’m going over to the tranny shack.”

Heklina in her element at Trannyshack.

At the very first Trannyshacks, the performance line-up consisted of just Heklina, Pippi and DJ Robbie D, and maybe a couple other people. They charged only a dollar to get in. The club didn’t take off right away, and Grygelko says “Pippi kind of got bored with doing it with me, and when she left as my hostess and my sidekick, I just decided it would be fun to book different hosts each week, and to have different themes every week. And that really kind of clicked.”

For whatever reason, performers started clamoring to appear. Some carried the cachet of rock stars, including Darlin’, the Steve Lady, Peaches Christ, Portia 666, Juanita MORE!, Vinsantos, Blue Period glam rocker Adrian Roberts, real woman drag diva Trixxie Carr, and many more. As the talent blossomed, the cover charges started going up. Young, smart, sexy audiences went crazy over the punk/anarchic scene, a refreshing break from the dried-up, old-school drag of yore. At Trannyshack, irreverence reigned, and party people came in droves. Had the club been on a Friday or Saturday night, says Grygelko, “it would have died a long time ago, because it would have been so overrun with bridge-and-tunnel horrible people, you know what I mean?”

Running Trannyshack as a tight ship has forced Heklina to clean up her own act. People think Trannyshack is loud, rude and obnoxious, and they’re right, says Grygelko, but “the way it’s evolved, it’s very organized now. I don’t drink or get fucked up so I’m very controlling of how it runs, and everybody around me is kind of getting fucked up and drinking, and sometimes it feels like I’m in charge of the asylum.”


This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter, November 21, 2002