Zipping Up Mary's

A local landmark for gay sex and social activism closes after 32 years

In 1978, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission revoked the bar's license after repeated infractions, which included serving minors. To get another permit to keep Mary's in business, friends say, Farmer used a trustee to help hide his ownership from the TABC. Farmer became a silent partner with Owens and, after his death, left his portion to bartenders Terry Smith and Yancey.

"Gaye drew a crowd like no other bartender," remembers Owens. "She brought in business. [Farmer] thought if he could keep her here, the bar would stay here."

However, Mary's never really shook off its financial problems. TABC records show $1,500 in administrative penalties assessed in recent times, after the bar bounced checks to its suppliers. Owens says the decision was made not to pay for a new bond required by the state for the lounge to stay open.

Owners Gaye Yancey and Cliff Owens: The flame on the Mary's statue is finally extinguished.
Owners Gaye Yancey and Cliff Owens: The flame on the Mary's statue is finally extinguished.

"The bar is not as profitable as it once was," he says. "At this point, we've been operating on a month-to-month…or even a day-to-day business."

Owens cites the usual reasons for the decline in business: the faltering economy, post-9/11 fallout and even Enron's collapse. But Hill has another theory about Mary's woes. "The gay bars were where people could go and be themselves," he says. "I don't know many people in the closet anymore. When we started organizing at Mary's in the early '70s, I didn't know any people who weren't in the closet…Mary's is no longer a vehicle for political organization."

On Mary's final night last week, the patrons laugh, drink and play pool. The bar that always had choppers lined up in front is down to its last motorcycle -- the one hanging by chains from the ceiling.

One customer pulls out a camera and asks the regulars to drop their drawers for a photo. He gets three asses and one front shot, but, especially in light of the bar's former bawdiness, the effort seems forced.

At the far corner of the bar, it is obvious that this John Paul Jones is not the one famous for saying he has not yet begun to fight. Jones points out a picture of a drag queen he once knew among the thousands of faded photos lining the bar.

Jones remembers his friend Harper P. Parker, who died three years ago, at age 49, probably from a liver problem. Out back is the Gold Star Espinoza bush he planted in her memory. In the spring, it blooms with scores of little flowers.

Inside, Owens takes a mike and says, "For 25 years we've been saying last call for alcohol, and this really is the last call."

At five minutes until its final closing, Mary's bright lights come on. The sudden, harsh illumination shows that tears are flowing down Jones's wrinkled cheeks. He sips from his final screwdriver, refusing to file out with the others. "I open the bar," he says, "and I'm gonna close the bar."

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