The Brave Bull: Modesto bar's still kickin' at nearly 50

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday June 20, 2023
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Modesto's The Brave Bull
Modesto's The Brave Bull

It's not too often these days that we get to celebrate a lively gay bar reaching a milestone like half a century. Too often what we are reading about is quite the opposite, about some longtime institution closing or going straight and saying, "We don't need gay bars anymore."

So when I started seeing lively posts about Modesto's Brave Bull online and found out that it was the first bar of San Francisco drag royalty, I was intrigued. That it has a tale to tell about the importance of faithful allies and has been in business for 49 years was icing on the cake.

a B.A.R. ad for a Candidate's Night at The Brave Bull in 1977  

Early years
The Brave Bull opened on Modesto's South 9th Street in 1973, and became a gay bar in 1974. It was owned and operated by Mr. Casey Lubbers. According to the McHenry Museum & Historical Society of Modesto's LGBT history accounts, resident Scott Pike said that The Bull was renowned worldwide for its early "super disco sound system," as described an a 1977 Bay Area Reporter ad.

Pike also said in the bar history that people came from as far as Europe simply to get a Brave Bull T-shirt. Gay celebrities including drag performer Divine and San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk were among the notable patrons of this bar.

Moon Trent (photo: David Cole)  

Sing out
The good news about the bar's continued existence came via the musician Moon Trent. Trent is former a San Francisco resident and was in the bands Pale and Brown-Star before going solo as well as being one of the cover boys (with Marcus Ewert) for the Pansy Division albums "Wish I'd Taken Pictures" and "Quite Contrary." I know him via his posts about his music and the music from his label Timmi-kat ReCoRDS which he runs with his music and life partner of 32 years David Cole (www.moontrent.com).

A few months back I started noticing Trent's posts for Karaoke and Open Mic nights at the Brave Bull. Up until this point I had read about the Brave Bull in back issues of the Bay Area Reporter while doing research, but hadn't really read much about the bar recently. I asked Trent how long he had been doing the night:

B.A.R. write-up of a softball team benefit at The Brave Bull in 1983  

"We've been doing it four years, although there was a year and a half hiatus for COVID. We're back and now it's mostly karaoke. I started doing open mic back in 2019. DJ Evaluation is in charge of karaoke, but I'm still there every week. When we started doing it, the bar wasn't open on Thursday night, so we added that night and now the bar's open four nights a week."

I asked whether the crowd was mixed and if they get tourists from the Bay Area.

Trent said, "It's a friendly, respectful crowd. Occasionally we get people from the Bay Area. It's only 90 miles away. Thursday nights are not as busy as the Sunday drag shows. They get 200 to 400 people. The place is packed!"

I asked Trent how he wound up back in the Central Valley (he's originally from there). It's a familiar story:

"We moved back in 2004. We were priced out of the Bay Area."

He made the best of the move. Aside from the night at the Brave Bull, he also hosts Midnight movies and is performing at a Pride event on June 25 at the Denair Gaslight Theater (www.denairtheater.com). I'd say that San Francisco's loss is the Central Valley's gain, but as we're actually so close it's more like this provides more entertainment options in different locales.

Marlena (misspelled Marlana) as Modesto Empress in 1976  

Marlena moves
I mentioned to author Larry-Bob Roberts that I was researching an article on the Brave Bull and he asked if that wasn't the bar Marlena helped start in Modesto. That's when it struck me. Of course I had heard about the bar before. It was Marlena's first bar.

Marlena (aka Gary McLain) was co-owner of the bar beginning in 1974 with friends Casey and Val Lubbers. From the very beginning it was a formative experience. Besides being Marlena's first bar, it was the bar he was working at when he became Empress III of the Imperial Court of Modesto in 1976 (before becoming Absolute Empress XXV or the Imperial Court of San Francisco in 1990). It was also where Marlena first tended bar (before the Cinch, Kimo's, the Mint and Marlena's). I asked whether or not the experience at the Brave Bull was a positive one.

Marlena replied, "Definitely. I was inspired by the Brave Bull to become a bartender in San Francisco and to get my own bar."

I told Marlena about Moon Trent's comment about the crowds at the Sunday drag show and he replied, "Drag has always been big in Modesto. There was a drag bar there before the Brave Bull opened."

a B.A.R. ad for an October 1977 Halloween party at The Brave Bull  

That was the Mustang Club, which opened in 1970. So it's not surprising that the Brave Bull was not the first place where Marlena did drag. But the bar did play a big role in Marlena's Imperial year in Modesto. For example the Halloween Party at the Brave Bull also served as Marlena's birthday party in 1977.

But in 1980 Marlena moved to San Francisco and the Lubbers took over as sole owners of the bar. The bar was in good hands. An article from the Modesto View in 2011 explains why they opened it in the first place:

"Casey originally launched the bar because his gay friends had nowhere to go."

The Central Valley community obviously loved the family right back. In December 1976 in the B.A.R.'s "East Bay and Beyond" column Gene (no last name given) wrote:

"The Brave Bull in Modesto is featuring Casey-style Christmas decorations, which means that if Casey hung them, there is bound to be one hanging upside-down."

Violetta's drag show in 2017  

Family business
Along with news about Imperial Court goings on, the gogo boys and the expanded disco floor, both articles and ads about the bar indicate that there were parties to celebrate both Casey and Val's birthdays. The B.A.R. ran an article on a celebration in May 1982 for Val's 50th birthday.

And they raised their family there. I spoke with Kaysi, the second generation of the family to run the bar, and asked when she started working at the bar. She said it was around age 10 and told me, "If you have kids and own a bar, the kids are going to be in the bar."

She knows what she's talking about. She raised her own kids, now in their 20s, around the bar. I asked what effect it had on them and she said, "It made them more open-minded."

Asked what plans are in store for the 50th anniversary, Kaysi said, "We're not sure, but I've told Casey we'll have to do something big: maybe a mechanical bull?"

One thing that is certain is that they've already done something big. Any bar that can last half a century, inspire new events, and have packed shows is doing something right.

happy Brave Bull patrons  

The Brave Bull has been thriving for 49 years. It has provided us with personalities like Marlena, who have helped make San Francisco what it is, and been there for economic refugees like Moon Trent, offering a venue for their creativity. And all the while its owners have shown us the importance of having good friends. As the Central Valley is one of the fastest growing regions of California, it not only reflects our past, it is a bridge to our future.

It seems like there was much more interaction between the Bay Area and the Central Valley in the 1970s and '80s (so back issues of the B.A.R. would lead me to believe). But perhaps that allows this Modesto bar to now be more geared toward its Central Valley clientele.

It's certainly worth a visit from the Bay Area and I look forward to hearing more about the upcoming 50th anniversary events.

The Brave Bull is open 8pm to 2am Thursday through Sunday, 701 South 9th Street, Modesto.
The Brave Bull on Facebook and on Instagram

To read an LGBTQ history of Stanislaus County (which includes the history of the Brave Bull) from the McHenry Museum & Historical Society of Modesto (www.mchenrymuseum.org), download the PDF at The LGBTQ History of Stanislaus County

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