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.

Zipping Up Mary's

The trapeze that swung from the ceiling with naked men was taken down years ago. So were the pairs of underwear stripped from newcomers and left dangling on the upper rafters.

But on an evening last week, in the final hours before Mary's Lounge closes for good, one fixture still remains. At the back corner of the bar, the man the regulars call John Paul Jones, a Mary's patron for the past three decades, sits in the same seat he occupies day and night.

The 60-year-old with the bifocals keeps all his essentials handy: his crime novel, his Marlboro 100s, his half- consumed screwdriver and an inhaler at the ready. "I've got emphysema," explains Jones. "I can't work, but I can still smoke."

He and many patrons gathered at Mary's may want this to be just another Monday at their watering hole, but pretending can't put off the hard truth of what is about to happen: After 32 years of mixing over-the-top revelry with local gay activism, Houston's landmark gay bar is down to its final night of life.

In 1972, Jim "Fanny" Farmer bought the two-year-old Mary's Lounge near the corner of Westheimer and Waugh. His knack for attracting customers, coupled with the transformation of Montrose into an openly gay-oriented neighborhood, helped business soar. "Mary's will always be Jim Farmer's bar," says current owner Cliff Owens.

Mary's became the place to get off.

In the bar's prime, customers -- regular Tom Pointdexter described them as "hustlers, drag queens, twinks, bums, butch and leather guys" -- lined the streets to get in. Inside, they were packed together. A patron who goes by his drag name of Ova Ewe remembers the wild scene. "You couldn't get from one side of the bar to the other without being groped or getting off. If you weren't, there was something wrong with you, and you ought to go home for the night."

Pointdexter recalls piling into the bathroom with groups of people and turning out the lights. Jones himself once knocked over the sink during a liaison there. Mary's minions whisper about "water sports" taking place in an old bathtub. And, of course, there were many private areas in the bar's spacious backyard.

When streaking was in during the '70s, guys would ride up nude on their motorcycles and run inside to put their clothes on before the cops came. Legend has it that a man came through the door on his horse, tied it in the back and went inside for a beer.

The trapeze went up so bartenders and patrons, some of them nude, could swing from the rafters. It came down when a customer fell off in the late '80s.

Mary's had its own rules: It was "illegal" to wear underwear to the bar, and the rafters became the receptacles for countless pairs of men's underwear that had been stripped off new customers. Health inspectors reportedly ordered the nicotine-stained briefs removed from the ceiling as the '80s were ending.

"The bar was known for sex," Owens says. "Fanny loved it that way. He pushed the envelope…"

Mary's was the place to be to see a great butt hanging out of a pair of chaps, but the bar's stature in the gay community was built on more than that. Farmer was politically astute, and Mary's became known as a place where gay men organized themselves.

"The gay community's roots are right here, in this room, in this building," says Owens, motioning toward the rickety office behind the bar. Owens says the Gay Political Caucus (later the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus) was born there. The bar was imbued with a kind of community spirit. The drag queens would donate their tips to charity. There was a garden in the backyard; the vegetables also went to charity.

During Christmas, the owners would put a tree on the roof and hold a lighting ceremony, and in past years dignitaries who lit the tree included former mayor Kathy Whitmire and Debra Danburg, the recently defeated state legislator.

According to gay activist Ray Hill, early planning for the Kaposi's Sarcoma Foundation, the forerunner to the AIDS Foundation, took place at Mary's in 1980.

The wide-open atmosphere of the bar was muted when the AIDS epidemic hit full force. "We had a lot of sex," says Pointdexter, "but with AIDS, that calmed down a lot."

Gaye Yancey, a bartender and part-owner of the lounge, remembers when it wasn't uncommon for three Mary's customers to die each month. The backyard, site of countless liaisons, became an impromptu memorial area where the ashes of the dead were spread.

Bar employee Al Kreger estimates he's seen 100 "celebration of life" ceremonies, as they're called, in the four years he has been at Mary's. Dozens of trees and bushes have been planted in memory of patrons who have died. It was AIDS that killed Farmer in 1991.

Despite its popularity, the bar struggled to survive. Farmer could draw crowds, but he despised rules and was a notoriously bad bookkeeper. "Over the almost 30 years that I've been around Mary's," says Hill, "there's always problems with the TABC and taxes."

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.

"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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