In drag or out, Marlena is Imperial royalty

  • by Peter Hernandez
  • Tuesday June 25, 2013
Share this Post:

Dressed in a black suit and black loafers sprinkled with glitter on a recent afternoon, Garry McClain, better known by his drag persona, Marlena, exited the Hayes Valley Victorian that once housed his wildly successful eponymously-named bar and waved to some of his old regulars inside a neighboring watering hole.

"Let's see what the girls are up to," McClain said, grinning before embracing a group of men who lit up at his entrance.

He appeared to be dressed for the opera. But McClain, 73, who used to wear drag to the opera long before Donna Sachet, was dressed up for an interview. Marlena, the Absolute Empress XXV of the Imperial Court, won the public vote for community grand marshal for the San Francisco Pride parade this year, and he was beaming.

"It's much easier to love than it is to hate," he said as the interview began. McClain was touting his life, adding that he "knows just who he is and what he is."

McClain owned Marlena's for 26 years, where he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities, hosted Imperial Court gatherings, and directed the 11-year Hayes Valley Mr. Leather competition. The bar closed in early March and the space is leased to new bar owners who will change the name and remodel the interior.

McClain's Hayes Valley flat may be as overcrowded with peacock paraphernalia as Marlena's was with its 1,400 Santas at Christmastime, which are now willed to the Legion of Honor. McClain's home is packed with peacock-decorated plates, lamps, paintings and even a taxidermy peacock to greet visitors at his door.

He explained that after he won the election for Absolute Empress XXV of San Francisco in 1990, he was asked by Nicole Murray Ramirez (Nicole the Great, the Queen Mother of the Americas) to choose a bird that would represent his court.

"I thought they were pretty," McClain said.

On Sunday, he will wear a lavish peacock headpiece bedazzled in rhinestones during the Pride parade, and possibly to some of the seven events he is planning on attending to celebrate his grand marshal honor.

McClain's long history with the Imperial Court, a fundraising organization that reflects the European nobility tradition, spans back to his nomination for the third Empress of his hometown Modesto, where he owned his first bar. Now, as one of the more popular former empresses, he is recognized as a foundational fixture of San Francisco's gay bar scene.

"I would consider myself her protégé, and I consider her my mentor," said Sachet, Absolute Empress XXX of San Francisco who is the Bay Area Reporter's society columnist.



McClain's departure from life as a married man working in a Carnation milk factory to his present life in San Francisco spans eras and experiences, beginning with his first gay experience in a car when he was 25. McClain divorced his wife at 30 and shared custody of their two children �" the oldest of whom is now 52 years old and also named Garry.

Seeking more involvement with Modesto's gay community, McClain ran for the title of Empress III of Modesto not long after his divorce.

"I'm a proud queen, not a trashy queen," McClain said.

He opened a gay bar called Brave Bull in Modesto in the 1980s, which hosted weekly drag shows. While pulling from his popularity as the Empress III of Modesto, he fought against the Brigg's initiative through political rallies. The measure, which was defeated by voters in 1978, would have banned gay teachers from schools.

Also in 1978, he and his business partner Janice Buxton purchased a bar called the Overpass, so named because at the time Hayes Valley was divided by a freeway ramp. Turning it into a drag bar was a risky process, he said, but added that it was "magic" and "meant to happen."

"We joked that Octavia Boulevard would become the Champs Élysées, and Marlena's the Arc de Triomphe of San Francisco," said Sachet, who has known McClain for 22 years.

Though located outside the Castro neighborhood, the bar found a vibrant and loyal following and hosted a range of parties benefiting various organizations and politicians over time. Dianne Feinstein, now California's senior senator, was a benefactor of a fundraiser at Marlena's during her race for supervisor, while McClain also hosted campaign fundraisers for Willie Brown Jr. and Gavin Newsom during their respective successful races for mayor during Marlena's time.

McClain also raised funds for HIV prevention and treatment organizations. His partner, Jimmy Miller, died of AIDS at age 37 in 1999. They met in 1988, when McClain was working as a bartender at Kimo's.

"He was his own character," McClain said. "He was the love of my life."

Two photographs of Miller in a heart-shaped frame now rest next to his bed.


Neighborhood shift

Walking through Hayes Valley, McClain pointed to bustling eateries that he said were once gay restaurants or bars. Someone may soon walk past what used to be Marlena's and say the same.

"We fought for equality and most bars are mixed now," he said, recognizing the dearth of gay restaurants and bars in San Francisco.

San Francisco's bar scene, he said, can be empowered by crafting connections between bars. For example, even when Marlena's was open, he would host fundraising parties at other bars like the Eagle Tavern.

Marlena's benefited from its proximity to the Pride festival in Civic Center and McClain's relationships with the nearby opera and ballet communities. Located between the Castro and Tenderloin neighborhoods, Marlena's garnered a devoted following of loyal customers. Sachet said that McClain taught her important fundraising techniques �" like when to use go-go boys on stage, raffle off prizes, or promote a silent auction.

McClain is a business-minded man, owning the South of Market property that hosted Kok bar, and the Hayes Valley Victorian that once housed Marlena's. There are three other flats in the building and the hallway is floridly adorned with Chinese artifacts like vases, plates, robes, and a token that certifies his visit to the Great Wall of China.

He has also been on the Community Thrift board since 1991 and once owned an antique shop on Haight Street called Ted's Now and Then.