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Marlena’s Bar to Change Hands

by Matthew S. Bajko
Saturday Jan 12, 2013

The new year is set to bring big changes to Marlena's, as the famous Hayes Valley gay bar is being sold.

Proprietors Garry 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 Friday, January 4. If the sale goes as planned, the new owners would close the bar sometime in March for several months to remodel it and bring it up to current state and city codes.

Marlena has hinted for several years that he was thinking of turning over control of his eponymously named establishment to new owners. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter this week, McLain said the time was right now that he is 73 and Buxton is 70.

"At our age, it was something to think about," said McLain.

He said he feels "fine" about the decision to sell, especially since, "I won't have to work seven days a week."

For now, the new owners' identities are not being revealed. Nor would McLain discuss the purchase price for the bar, saying only that, "A lot of people wanted the bar."

He described the buyers as "young" and "eager," though he did not know if they are gay or straight. At least one already owns another bar in the city, he said.

"They want to keep this a neighborhood bar that is welcoming to both gay and straight," said McLain, adding that the Saturday night "Follies" drag shows are also expected to be maintained.

As for the name Marlena's, McLain said he told the buyers "they could have the name if they want it" but it is unclear if they will opt to keep it or rename the bar.

He has also offered to sell them his collection of Santa Claus figures, which numbers more than 1,400 and decorates the bar every Christmas season.

"I think they are going to purchase the Santas for the annual display. They want to keep it going," McLain said.

According to state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control records, the liquor license for the bar, located at 488 Hayes Street, was first granted February 8, 1978 and the primary owner is listed as J Buxton Inc.

Janice Buxton and her now-deceased husband, John, opened the establishment that year as the Overpass. The name referred to the double-decker highway structure that had overshadowed the neighborhood until it was torn down beginning in the early 1990s following the Loma Prieta earthquake.

In 1990 McLain, who describes himself as "a proud gay man," came on as a co-owner of the bar while he was the reigning empress and it was renamed Marlena's. He and Buxton are also co-owners of the mixed-use building that houses Marlena's and burger joint Flipper's. McLain lives in one of the upstairs apartments and will retain ownership of the six-unit building.

He moved to the city in 1989 from Modesto, where in 1976 he was crowned the Third Empress of Modesto. Two years prior he helped open the well-known Central Valley gay dance club the Brave Bull. McLain sold his ownership in the bar years ago.

Although he is now selling his stake in Marlena's, McLain intends to remain involved in the business, putting on fundraising events "and all kinds of stuff."

He does intend to focus on more leisurely pursuits, with plans to travel to Australia and New Zealand later in the year. Traveling has been logistically difficult, said McLain, due to his bar duties.

"If I go anywhere I have to get someone to cover for me because I am an on-hand operator," he said.

Before he finalizes his travel plans, though, McLain wants to assist the new bar owners with reopening Marlena's.

"I want to help them get this going first," he said.

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