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Marlena's Curtain Call: a documentary remembering a Hayes Valley gay bar and community hub

Marlena’s was a Hayes Valley gathering place that helped knit the city together through good cheer and glitzy drag numbers. It was a popular gay bar, featuring lip-synched drag shows, community fundraisers, and lots and lots of regulars. The spot was around for a couple of decades, right in the heart of the up-and-coming Hayes Valley, which, these days, has up-and-come with trendy restaurants and boutique shops. But, no longer, Marlena’s.

Marlena, also known as Garry McLain, is one part savvy businessman, and one part spotlight-loving showgirl. McClain bought into the bar after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. It was called “The Overpass” then, because the Central Freeway passed overhead and split Hayes Valley in two. Over time, local businesses, an active neighborhood association, and visionary city planning helped transform the area. What was once a depressed, sometimes dangerous part of San Francisco became a burgeoning center of commerce, with the renamed Marlena’s Bar as an unofficial community center. 

Marlena’s was at the center of a changing San Francisco. The double-decker freeway off-ramp from Highway 101 that split Hayes Valley was completely torn down in 2003. It was replaced by a park and the tree-lined Octavia Boulevard. It also created acres and acres of empty lots in the middle of the city. Little by little the lots have been developed. One is now an open air market with pop-up food shops inside shipping containers and an outdoor beer garden.  And, there are no fewer than a half-dozen, mostly high-end housing developments somewhere between breaking ground and nearing completion. With more and more to come. The neighborhood is, quite literally, higher rent.

The bar formerly known as Marlena’s will reopen with a new name: Brass Tacks. It’s got new owners -- three straight men who’ve lived and worked in the neighborhood for more than a decade. Two of them helped start and manage some of the city’s most popular cocktail lounges and restaurants. One says he hopes the new bar will be a fun, safe place for people to come, drink, and make friends -- and they’d like to keep the drag shows, and the fundraising, going. After a remodel, Brass Tacks may open early next month.

In the meantime, Marlena herself has had a bit of down time. She took a trip to Alaska, and she’s gearing up to be a Grand Marshall of San Francisco’s Pride Parade this Sunday. She is still part owner of the building and will continue to live upstairs and work for her community.

"I know you may think I’m strange. But I just love our people. I love what I do. I’ve dedicated my life to it. And I’m not done," Marlena said. "I don’t need a hearse with six white horses, because I’m not ready for them." 

Click the audio player above to listen to David Boyer's original radio documentary, "Marlena's Curtain Call."

This story originally aired June of 2013.

Crosscurrents San Francisco