Last Call: Marlena’s Says Goodbye

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday April 23, 2013
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More of a celebration, and less of a wake, the last weeks of Marlena's the historic and intimate Hayes Valley bar grew to a series of crowded boisterous celebrations.

On the same weekend that the Eagle Tavern re-opened, after 22 years, on March 3, 2013, Marlena's closed.

The last days were full of performances, including the marathon showcase of lip-synching numbers performed by dozens of female impersonating drag royalty from the Imperial and Ducal courts.

Taking a break from the day full of acts, Marlena, whose real name in Garry McLain, sat outside the bar, rested on a tree planter and recorded another portion of an upcoming audio feature for a reporter.

Asked about the day being called a celebration, Marlena agreed. "It is, because I'm not going anywhere," he said. "I'm not moving. Hopefully, these people will find somewhere to go. But I'm still dedicated to this city. I'm an Empress! I love this city and I've given my life to it, so why wouldn't I want to keep it going? I figure I've got another good twenty or thirty years."

As reported in BARtab's parent publication, the Bay Area Reporter, the men in escrow to buy Marlena's are Matt Conway, Anthony Healy-London, and Josh McAdam. Conway is the bar manager at the nearby restaurant Absinthe, and Healy-London is a co-owner of the gay-friendly Church Street bar Churchill.

McLain, better known as Absolute Empress XXV of San Francisco, Marlena the Magnificent, and his business partner, Janice Buxton, entered into escrow with the buyers in January.

Twenty years ago, Hayes Valley was a very different place. The highway overpass loomed, street crime was rampant, and many of the current successful shops and restaurants had yet to become part of a financial boom.

Buxton and her now-deceased husband, John, opened the bar in 1978 as The Overpass. In 1990 McLain came on as a co-owner of the bar while he was the reigning empress, and it was renamed Marlena's.

Now, with the Patricia's Green park and other nearby improvements, it's sad to see a stalwart part of the neighborhood bid goodbye just as the street has become a success (or a gentrified strip, according to critics).

"The neighborhood is changing, rapidly," said Marlena. "All the new businesses, the buildings, and a lot of younger people. We have a lot of younger women who had been coming to the bar." He offered a campy look. "Now I have nothing against women, except they scream."

Amid some laughter, Marlena posed for another bevy of photographs, commenting, "If I got a dollar for every picture I've had taken today, I'd be rich."

Other drag performers offered comments. Goldie aka Glen, for many years has lived next door, above the next-door restaurant Flippers. "Marlena's has been our home," she said. "Or The Imperial Palace, as we call it. We're still a community, and have been friends for a number of years. But we don't know where we might next congregate, what hen house we're gonna be in."

But where will they go?

"I think this might give the Imperial Court a little kick in the ass to change it up, and do different venues," said Goldie. "Outdoor venues like The Sisters [of Perpetual Indulgence] do at other bars."

Other alternatives include El Rio, which hosts the DayTime Realness event.

Goldie smiled. "Have you ever seen a drag queen climb the lemon tree on the patio of El Rio? It's fun!"

Kathleen Ritchey, who worked as a doorman for two and a half years, called Marlena's "the only sports drag bar in San Francisco. This was a really great work experience for me. I met a lot of great people. I'm proud of Marlena for retiring. She worked hard as hell. But I'm gonna miss all these people."

Anna Mae Coxxx, Colette LaGrande and Sheena Rose at Marlena's last day. Photo: BARtab

Grand Duchess XI Deena Cartier of Alameda called the closing day more of a celebration than one of loss. "It's a tribute to a community institution," she said. "I've been coming here at least eighteen years. It could be a sad day, but it's also a happy day, because this is not the end of Marlena."

Asked as well about the future of traditional drag performing venues, Deena said, "Because San Francisco is so diverse, we're lucky to live where we can go elsewhere; the Castro, Beatbox, which has been doing drag shows, and Fauxgirls, and monthly shows at Infusion Lounge. Donna Sachet's Sundays a Drag, and the shows at Aunt Charlie's Lounge may hopefully keep drag performers busy."

While Aunt Charlie's is more intimate, "It's a tiny dive," corrected Cartier. "But you would be surprised by how much money benefits there have raised."

Galilea, the longtime host of the weekly drag show Hayes Valley Follies, was lauded onstage as well as Marlena. Members of the LGBT rodeo community paid tribute to the hostess in a sing-along version of the Amy Winehouse song "Valerie," with the title changed to "Galile(a)."

Galilea commented from the stage, "When the rodeo would come and the girls would show up, I would be so excited because I knew I was gonna have the funnest show. There was never a dull moment with the boys and girls from the rodeo."

After lip-synching her number on the last day, Danielle stepped to the side of the stage. Marlena had been seated on a raised platform next to a painting depicting an earlier drag incarnation.

"Thank you for believing in our community," Danielle said as she held Marlena's hand. "Thank you for believing in us. Thank you unselfishly preserving our history. Thank you for giving us a safe place. You are a formidable force in our community. I love you."