SF's Castro readies for Heklina memorial

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday May 17, 2023
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Heklina will be remembered at a celebration of life May 23 at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Gooch
Heklina will be remembered at a celebration of life May 23 at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Gooch

San Francisco's Castro LGBTQ neighborhood is coming together to remember the groundbreaking drag queen Heklina at a celebration of life event Tuesday, May 23.

Heklina, the drag persona of Stefan Grygelko, died April 3 while in London, where she was preparing to star in "Mommie Queerest" with her good friend, Peaches Christ (Joshua Grannell). Heklina was 55.

Castro Street will be closed for 12 hours, beginning at noon Tuesday, to accommodate crowds expected to attend the sold-out "Heklina: A Memorial (She Would Have Hated This)" that evening at the Castro Theatre and those expected to watch live on-stage programming and a livestream of events inside the theater beginning at 8 p.m.

"I hope it feels good as a community to celebrate the life of someone who has touched us so profoundly," Peaches told the Bay Area Reporter. "I think the sheer scope and size of Heklina's connection to so many of us will not be reflected in just the memorial. I think there'll be years of remembrances."

Peaches; D'Arcy Drollinger, a former business partner of Heklina's; and Sister Roma of the drag nun group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will emcee the event. Drollinger was named San Francisco's first-ever drag laureate by Mayor London Breed on May 18.

Juan Garcia, a gay man who'd co-produced the Castro Street Fair for a decade, told the B.A.R. that entry to Castro Street will begin at 5 p.m. In the five prior hours, Garcia will work with staff from Another Planet Entertainment, which manages the Castro Theatre, to set up the stage in front of the historic movie house.

"They really stepped up," Garcia said of APE. "It would've taken me months to get all of those things done. They did it in a week: the street closure, talking to the police department, the merchants, Muni."

When asked for comment, gay APE spokesperson David Perry stated, "We are honored to host this tribute to Heklina. The Castro was her home, and always will be home to her memory, fans, family and the LGBTQ+ communities."

Programming will begin at 6 p.m. on the stage hosted by LOL McFiercen and Dulce De Leche.

"There'll be some announcements, a slideshow in memory of Heklina, and probably one or two drag performances," Garcia said.

Another option for people who might not want to go to the in-person celebration is to view it on SF Oasis' Twitch channel, or visit the neighborhood bars, where the channel will be streaming. Heklina was a co-owner with Drollinger of Oasis. She later sold her shares and moved to the Palm Springs area.

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is the new president of the Castro Merchants Association, said the neighborhood is stepping up for the occasion.

"Everyone is pretty welcoming of it," she said. "It's really important we celebrate people who've made an impact on our community."

Asten Bennett, co-owner of Cliff's Variety on Castro Street, said that she's been working with APE's Margaret Casey "to make sure to contact UPS and FedEx and let them know about the closure."

Asten Bennett and Casey will be going door-to-door Friday to let business owners in the affected area — Castro Street from Market to 18th streets — know about the street closure.

The main issue for merchants, Asten Bennett said, is making sure they know they have to get deliveries before the street is closed at noon. The merchants can facilitate deliveries between noon and 2 p.m. if drivers use 18th Street for access, she added.

Portable restrooms and hand-washing stations will be near the entrance to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's public parking lot behind the Castro Theatre, and a first aid station will be inside the parking lot.

As for her own store, Asten Bennett is planning to stay open during regular business hours (Cliff's normally closes at 6:30 p.m.) for now, but will "play it by ear," she said.

"Tuesdays are actually terrible as far as business anyway — it's the worst day of the week," she said. "So we'll see how it is. Restaurants and bars will have a chance at getting better business."

Garcia said that "everything ends" at 10 p.m., at which point "we have to deconstruct the stage and close the street. Everyone can hang out on the sidewalk but we have to open up the street at midnight" to allow for street cleaning.

"It's going to be lots of crowds, but we have to get people off the street by midnight," he added.

Peaches said, "I hope it's healing for people who might be in shock and need to see everyone, who need healing from this tremendous loss."

The organizers are raising money on a GoFundMe that as of press time Wednesday surpassed its $25,000 goal.

"It was important to us we keep the event free, if possible," Grannell said of starting the online fundraiser as a way to offset expenses.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro on the city's Board of Supervisors, did not return a request for comment for this report. In a brief phone call earlier this month, he expressed gratitude for the city agencies helping to facilitate the event. His office also worked on getting the street closure approved and noted that a lot of people wanted to bid farewell to Heklina.

Updated 5/18/23: This article has been updated to indicate D'Arcy Drollinger was named the city's first-ever drag laureate.

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