Wednesday, March 06, 2013
Last Call at Marlena's
Marlena's, the Hayes Valley drag bar that welcomed virtually any race, gender or sexual orientation for the last 23 years, was open for its final day on Sunday, and there was a line out the door to say goodbye.
Marlena's replaced a scary dive called The Underpass in 1990, which was surrounded by sidewalk crack dealers, drug addicts and prostitutes plying their trade under the 101 doubledecker freeway. That monstrosity, which cut through the neighborhood like an infected open wound, was torn down in the early 1990s because of the Loma Prieta earthquake, and the rebirth of a safer streetscape began with a drag bar as one of its anchors.
Marlena's felt weird at first, as if the bar had gotten lost during its opening while en route to Lower Polk Street or the Tenderloin. However, the place quickly became a genuine neighborhood center, and the home base for fabulous characters like Empress Cockatilia above. (All the photos, except the top, were taken by me in 2001.)
It was always a cheap dive, with a long, narrow bar that opened into a wider small space in the back that held a pool table. If you did not know what was coming, there was no more exquisite surprise than the pool table being cleared of players on a weekend night. Then, a hinged plywood board came down from one of the walls over the same pool table, a curved sparkly curtain was pulled around the plywood, and in 30 seconds, there was a makeshift stage. Voila! Let the lipsynching begin. (The contestants above were part of a Mother-Daughter Drag Contest one Mother's Day afternoon, which was being emceed by Berlin on the left.)
Another enticement was that odd, interesting characters were always wandering in from all over the world. The trio above was from (left to right) Nebraska, Fiji, and the Azores Islands, and after an hour of drinking beer with them, I never did figure out who was sleeping with whom.
The real reason the place was special was its proprietor, Garry McClain above, aka Marlena. Most of the time he looked and acted like a kind, plainspoken truck driver from Modesto, but his personality had its more glamorous side which you can see in the picture below. (Click here for a post about his awesome rummage sale in 2009.)
In 2001, when I asked him what the signage above was about, he replied, "We had a Studio 54 Theme Party last night, and it wasn't a benefit or for anything in particular. It was just to have a good party, and it was a damned good one. God, it felt like the Good Old Days."
My favorite Marlena's moment was during a Friday Night Hayes Street Fair one evening years ago. The place was jammed and there was a drag show happening onstage. The late Empress Pat Montclair was one of the bartenders along with Marlena, both of them in dresses and heels, and at one point Pat went to the stage and performed a lipsynching number complete with a walk along a small stretch of the bar. Marlena decided to one-up Ms. Montclair, and took the stage for her own lipsynch number, then proceeded to continue with the number while trying to walk the entire length of the bar which was crowded with dozens of drinks. Unfortunately, she hit a wet spot about halfway during the journey right in front of myself and a friend, David Barnard. The next few seconds are imprinted forever on both our memories because Marlena was at one moment perpendicular to the bar and the next moment perfectly parallel. It may just be my imagination, but she seemed suspended in air for seconds like a Roadrunner cartoon, before hitting the bar with her whole body and sending drinks flying in every direction. The crowning detail was that she continued lipsynching the entire time and somehow managed to clamber back up on those heels and make it back to the safety of the stage for the song's finale. May your retirement be beautiful, Mr. McClain.