It’s official. Marlena's Bar (488 Hayes) has exited the Hayes Valley stage, ending its 23-year reign as our neighborhood's only gay bar as well as one of SF's premiere drag establishments.
Owner Garry "Marlena" McClain took over in 1990, and, at that time, Hayes Valley was plagued with crime and urban blight from being in the shadow of the Central Freeway overpass on Octavia.
"[When I bought it] it was a little bar in a rundown neighborhood," Garry recalled. "The freeway was still up, the whores and drug dealers were working across the street. It was risky [to open a bar in this part of San Francisco]."
We all know the happy ending to this story. The overpass was demolished, causing Hayes Valley to flourish into the trendy spot it is today — and Marlena’s had front row seats during the entire transformation.
It’s this legacy that brought people out in droves to say their goodbyes this past weekend. The closing events featured "eat your heart out" performances by some of SF's drag queen royalty on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You'd be lucky to have gotten in to see the shows, though; there was a line spilling out onto the sidewalk every night.
One of those people who waited in line to be part of the Marlena's final weekend was SF resident, Michael Ford.
“I'm a straight man, but I work for a gay man. This place is just a staple and it's welcoming of everybody, regardless of your orientation,” he said.
Among the crowds of people were gaggles of queens decked out in their most glamorous attire to commemorate the occasion. Most of the performers we talked to compared the loss of Marlena's to the loss of family.
Galilea, the host of "Follies," is one person in particular who knows the sense of family that Marlena's fostered.
"It's part of era the way San Francisco use to be with many gay bars, drag show bars and old fashioned, old school glamor — diamonds, gowns, and lots of stage presence,” Galilea wrote to us in an email. "That's why we have been so successful at Marlena's — lots of old school tradition."
The sense of tradition at Marlena's will be a tough one for the new owners to replace. In our previous article, we asked people to email us their favorite memories of Marlena’s and their thoughts on the closing. Here are a few of the responses we received.
From Billy B., Rochester, NY:
"Hearing of the closure of Marlena's brings me great sadness. It also brings back a flood of fond memories. My introduction to the drag scene was here back in the mid 90's when we first moved to Hayes Valley. My boyfriend (now husband) introduced me to a Marlena's regular, Patty Mae. I was so awe stuck of her grand presence. I've never seen a real-life drag queen before. I even told her that she was like a star—bigger than life. Now, I'm sitting here at my new home on the east coast remembering all the great times we've had and of my dearly departed Patty Mae. You will always be my shining star.
Thanks for the memories Marlena (and Patty)."
From Madeline B., San Francisco:
"Garry arrived on the block at about the same time that I did. There were many memorable conversations on the bench outside my store at the time. Mostly I'd like to note Garry's incredible generosity to not only his personal charity choices, but also to the art in Patricia's Green. The installation crews were always treated well at Marlena's; who wouldn't like a rigger in a toolbelt? The artists were grateful as well!
Thanks for the memories and hopefully there will be many more somewhere somehow on the horizon."
From Derek, San Francisco CA:
"The Santa Claus doll at Marlena’s always been so bizarre, yet so irresistible! For the past three years I've organized my friends into an annual “holiday stroll." Picture forty gay men drinking and a-wassailing their way from the Ferry Building down Market Street. We've always ended at Marlena's for the Santas and the drag. Where will we end now?! Decembers will be a little sadder with Marlena's gone."
At the center of all these farewells and the outpouring of love is the one and only Garry. When we spoke with him about his feelings on his transition out of the bar, he replied with, "It's better to go out walking than to be carried out. At least, that's my philosophy."
Rest assured, though, Garry's adieu won't be as immediate as you might think. He'll still be a presence at the bar to help with the transition — he'll even be there in drag on the first day of the new bar.
"I’ll be here to help them for awhile, because I think it's only fair. And also because I like them," Garry told us.
Garry shared his enthusiasm and high praise for the new owners, mainly because he sees something of himself in their ambition.
"Two of them are thirty-five and one of them is 38, and they are kind of where I started when I opened the Brave Bull in 1974 in Modesto. If you look at it that way, they are just an extension of me. They can do it for 30 to 40 years and retire, too."
In a sense, this is truly a changing of the guards for our neighborhood. We'd like to take this opportunity to thank Garry the years he's been a champion for our community. You truly leave some big heels for the new owners to fill, Marlena.