Joseph ‘Bunny’ Simon. Image courtesy of SFGate.

Joseph Floyd ‘Bunny’ Simon, a man of humble beginnings, born on November 24, 1928, into a family of 16 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, became an ambitious entrepreneur who opened multiple jazz clubs across the city of San Francisco. Long before he earned the moniker ‘Bunny,’ his parents Elizabeth and Alcide Simon had nicknamed him ‘Bonnie,’ a Creole term of endearment. At the young age of 15, Simon joined the Navy, where he served as a Seaman. After sustaining a serious injury at Port Chicago, he recovered, and was honorably discharged in 1946. He then settled in San Francisco, to continue his amazing journey, enrolling at City College.

In 2010, Simon sat down with JJ Parson, the general manager of the Fillmore’s community radio station KPOO, to discuss how he brought a wide variety of famous musicians to the Fillmore. Not unlike many young ambitious entrepreneurs, Simon joined the workforce at a young age and started working multiple jobs in the hopes of eventually opening his own business. It became clear that music was his passion once he picked up a part-time job at the Fillmore’s Melrose Record Shop.

Simon worked alongside Maya Angelou before they would both achieve fame. He went on to own and run the Grand Bayou catering business, even as he earned a place as the first African American Supervisor for the US Post Office in North Beach. Simon claimed that both professions helped him establish his management skills. In 1961, Simon opened his first club on Divisadero and McAllister Streets, a place that would later be known as The Playpen. The club instantly became a hot spot.

In a neighborhood that had been so thoroughly divided due to the city’s poorly executed redevelopment plan, The Playpen was a place where all members of the Fillmore could gather, regardless of socioeconomic status. Before live entertainment, community members would line up around the block to have drinks with fellow neighbors and dance to the music of the nearest jukebox. Simon was determined to bring the neighborhood together in any way possible. It got to the point where even teenagers were allowed to attend the club on Sunday afternoons (with adult chaperones).

Simon recalled a time in the early 1960s when young politician Willie L. Brown, Jr., opened his campaign headquarters across the street from The Playpen. Willie was so convinced that The Playpen was an attractive spot that it was a part of the reason he lost in the 18th District election. He claimed that all the men, including himself, who were supposed to be working on his campaign spent their days at the club instead.

As Simon’s club became increasingly popular, famous artists and comedians flocked from cross-country to perform at the venue. Artists like Redd Foxx, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Sly and the Family Stone, Ike and Tina Turner, and numerous others took the stage in the upper room at The Playpen. Etta James would also frequently perform at another one of Simon’s clubs called The Full Moon Saloon. Venues like these helped retain the Fillmore’s cultural presence, helping to garner it the title “Harlem of the West”. Simon went on to open up seven more clubs throughout the city, including The Rambler’s House and the Blue Thistle.

On November 21, 1969, Simon married Anna Simien, whom he had known for seven years. Soon thereafter Simon was asked to take on the great responsibility of directing international recruitment for the Peace Corps in the mid-1970s. After returning to San Francisco, the Simons opened a new club in 1976, the Anxious Asp, on Haight Street.

The Simons moved to Sausalito in 1978, running their business from Marin County. They soon expanded the club, which attracted talents such as Pete Escovedo, Billy Preston, and Al Jarreau, among others. In 1990 the couple sold the business to the Red Vic. All told, the couple employed more than 1000 individuals, many of whom were minorities introduced into the hospitality industry. The Simons would eventually retire and move to Marin County to care for his garden and spend time writing about his experiences.

Simon remained connected to the youth, even in his retirement: he donated a pair of 49ers season tickets to a youth education program in the Fillmore, and he awarded 50-yard line tickets to community groups for many years to reward students who had shown improvements in both their grades and personal conduct.

In recognition of his many contributions to community, Simon received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Francisco Branch of the NAACP in 2016.

Simon had five children with his late wife, Bettye Opal Simon Johnson. Three of the five children are still alive today to remember his story. Simon’s eldest daughter, Dhameera Carlotta Ahmad, recently passed away in 2017. Dhameera was a proud activist within the Black Panther Party.

Sadly, Joseph Simon passed away on July 20, 2019, but as Anna Simon his wife and all who knew him can attest, Simon clearly left a lasting legacy.

Marcelo Swofford, Sormeh Naderi, and Meisy Tunay

Works Cited

“Bunny Talks Playpen on KPOO.” YouTube, uploaded by Marcus Books Music. 5 Apr 2010.

“San Francisco—S.F. Youth Center Given 49er Season Tickets.” SF Chronicle. 4 Aug 1993.

Simon, Anna. Personal interview. 27 Jan 2020.

“Successful Entrepreneur and Civil Rights Advocate Joseph Floyd ‘Bunny’ Simon.” [Obituary.]

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