Emerging from the rubble of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, it established itself as a queer oasis for Hayes Valley, a now-gentrified neighborhood that had historically been devoid of dedicated public spaces for queer people. Its owner was a divorcé named Gary McLain, a man who had two grown children. McLain, now 78, began dressing as Marlena one Fourth of July 40 years ago. And it was Marlena who truly owned the bar, one that became the most Christmassy drag bar—or the draggiest Christmas bar—in San Francisco, and perhaps the world.
In its 23 years in Hayes Valley, Marlena’s stood defiant, a welcoming den of kitsch and flamboyance in a shapeshifting city. The neighborhood changed, but Marlena’s barely did. The space occupied the ground floor of 488 Hayes Street, where it became a refuge from the despair and hopelessness of the AIDS crisis at its nadir, until Marlena sold the bar in 2013.
The faces of frequent patrons may have disappeared, either to other bars, other neighborhoods, or other cities, as many San Francisco residents have due to inflated costs of living. Maybe they've died. But San Francisco still thinks about Marlena’s.
Chablis: The neighborhood was different then. It was seedier.Marke Bieschke (owner, The Stud): The first place I lived in 1994 when I moved to San Francisco from Detroit was four blocks from Marlena’s. This was a time in San Francisco history when there were a lot of changes happening: It was during the first web boom. The gay bar culture was coagulating around three different spots: the Castro, Polk Street, and Soma. Marlena’s being in Hayes Valley felt like such an outlier.Jonathan Kauffman (food reporter, San Francisco Chronicle): When the freeway was still up, it cast this huge physical and psychic shadow over Hayes Valley. It was much poorer.
"The first thing Gary did when he saw me was ask to see my genitals. So I showed him my genitals."
Bell: Marlena’s was the first place I was exposed to older drag queens. Trannyshack skewed younger. It was alternative, fucked up, crazy drag. Marlena’s drag was traditional, Whitney Houston-type drag.Chablis: Marlena was a grande dame. She was an older drag queen, so she didn’t look like anything like the RuPaul girls. Her gowns were more matronly. Whenever Marlena was in drag, she was the madam of the house. Very elegant and beautiful. She was the grand hostess, the life of the party.Bell: Her decor was over the top year-round. When it wasn’t Christmas time, it was kind of a museum of Marlena’s tchotchkes and Imperial Court history.Come [the holiday season], though, there wasn’t a space of wall that you could see. There were so many Santas.
"Come [the holiday season], though, there wasn’t a space of wall that you could see. There were so many Santas."
Gagliardi: There was no place better to start a night of holiday cheer than Marlena’s. It was the most densely packed Santa experience—wall-to-wall Santas, from creepy ones to quirky 60s ones to old school Saint Nicholas to international Santas. Every corner, stuffed with Santa, Santas in display cases, and there were even Santas suspended from the ceiling. It was impossible to not be charmed by it all, even for the holiday haters. Santa could not be denied.
Chablis: She collected the Santas over the years. She had some that were life-size to the ceiling and others that were smaller. They would hang a glass shelf behind the bar and glass shelves around the bar so they were all displayed around there. It was basically all Santas. The decorations usually went up just after Thanksgiving, around early December. The Santas stayed up through New Year’s.
"It never struck me as religious. It was kind of a way of reconnecting to the feeling the joy and family that was so rare to the bar, especially in the height of the AIDS days in the late 90s and early 2000s."
Bell: Usually, when a gay bar closes, it’s sad. With Marlena’s, I could tell Marlena just didn’t want to own a bar anymore. You can’t really stop someone from selling a bar.Marlena: It was hard to sell, I’ll be honest with you. My business partner, Janice, wanted to sell. She owned two thirds and I owned one third. When her husband died a few years ago, I had to run it, because she had four other bars.Galilea: Finding out the bar was closing was hard. We closed on March 3, 2013, but I found out that January.Marlena came down to my dressing room and said, “Galee, I have something to tell you.” I asked her, “Madam, what’s wrong?” She told me we sold.It didn’t really hit me until closing weekend. I did pretty good that last Friday. I didn’t cry. Saturday, though, I was a disaster.We did our last show that Sunday. When I did my last show, I walked out at 11 PM and never went back. To this day, I’ve never gone back in there.
I would best describe it as a Cheers bar for queer freaks.
Galilea: Brass Tacks is gay-friendly, but it’s basically a straight bar.Bell: I don’t really go there. It’s just a generic straight bar to me.Bieschke: Marlena’s was this weird, gay fairy tale that felt so San Francisco. Now, Hayes Valley is very sanitized and white.Kauffman: A lot of that older generation did all their socializing in those bars because they were the only safe spaces. Now that’s all gone.Chablis: It was a big loss. It had its own niche in the community, and once that niche was gone, the community dispersed. There are little drag shows all over the city now, but there is no place that has regular drag shows and gives queens a steady place to work.
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Gagliardi: Every year, I like to get together with a friend or two for my holiday spirits tour, hitting up places in various San Francisco neighborhoods that go all out for the holidays, from festive decor to making superior eggnog to serving Tom & Jerry cocktails in vintage T&J cups. I still do my holiday spirits tour, but it’s not the same without a visit to the Marlena’s Santa explosion.Ospital: The city's gay high heel lost about an inch when Marlena’s closed down. We’re a town of new ideas and free thinkers. I always hate to see local, indigenous places close. As we move towards more of a tech-filled city, all of us, as queer people, have to figure out: Where do we get our community now?Chablis: Even to this day, people talk about Marlena’s. The first time people came out in drag was to Marlena’s. People who met their boyfriends or girlfriends did so at Marlena’s. Everybody’s got a story about Marlena’s.Bieschke: When you walked into Marlena’s, you felt safe. You felt as if you’d found your people. You felt like you’re part of San Francisco.The vision I see when I walk into Marlena’s are the warm lights, whether it’s Christmas or not, and characters of all genders. They were characters who you felt that this was the only place they could be. And that was perfect.
Marlena’s was this weird, gay fairy tale that felt so San Francisco. Now, Hayes Valley is very sanitized and white.