Twenty years have passed since the shocking death of bar owner Marion Pantzer.
By Nancy Ford
A lot can happen in 20 years. Texas’ sodomy laws have been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Men who played professional basketball can announce they are gay. Women can wear fly-front pants—in public!—without fear of being arrested for cross-dressing.
Marion would be stunned.
Marion Pantzer owned Just Marion and Lynn’s, one of Houston’s very first bars for lesbians. Like many of the earliest gathering places in our community, Just Marion and Lynn’s was a no-frills kind of establishment. The club, now the site of Cousins’ neighborhood bar on Fairview, started out as a garage or warehouse of some sort: poorly lit with concrete floors, card tables, and long folding tables with folding chairs, some of them painted red. That was about as fancy as it got.
But the women and men who came to Just Marion and Lynn’s weren’t looking for fancy. We were looking for each other. We were looking for a safe place—as safe a place as possible—where we could share a beer and a story and a game of pool and maybe even a dance before vice cops came in to make sure that those dancing were dancing with a partner of the opposite sex. Ah, the good old, bad old days….
On my 30th birthday, I was shanghaied by friends for a pub crawl. One stop, of course, was Just Marion and Lynn’s.
After downing our obligatory beers there and then spilling out on to Fairview to debate where we would land next, one of my rowdier friends produced a billiard ball from her pocket as her birthday gift to me. I remember being shocked—shocked, I tell you—that she had committed such a heinous act, leaving Just Marion and Lynn’s billiard-playing patrons one ball short.
I put the smooth and inexplicably nicotine-stained 11-ball in my own pocket (my corner pocket?), intending to return it to Marion the next day.
While I publicly apologize to anyone who tried to play pool without that 11-ball, I am so glad I never returned it. The ball is one of my most prized possessions. It sits on a bookcase in my bedroom, reminding me daily of a time when playing pool in a dingy, poorly lit garage with red folding chairs was all we had.
The mid-’80s saw Marion move Just Marion and Lynn’s to a newer building on Richmond, near Montrose Boulevard. This time the club was dubbed Just Marion’s and opened the year I had abandoned corporate life to pursue a career in comedy.
To help make ends meet between gigs, I delivered singing telegrams. It was my pattern to stop by Just Marion’s after a night of delivering birthday greetings and get-well tunes. During those late-night visits, I made small talk with Marion about her earlier life as a real circus clown, weakly comparing her experience to my lame clown ‘grams for children’s birthday parties.
The evening of March 10, 1986, I delivered a few telegrams, as usual. But I didn’t drop by Just Marion’s after my gigs. Who knows why not? Maybe comedian Bill Hicks was appearing on Letterman that night.
The following morning, my friend Billie Duncan called, sobbing with the horrific news that Marion had been shot.
Two men had entered Just Marion’s at about 1 a.m., presumably to rob it. When she realized what was happening, Marion pulled the ever-present .25 calibre automatic from her sweatshirt to defend her employees and her property. But her draw wasn’t as fast as it had been when she served in World War II. She was gunned down in a flurry of five shots, the fatal bullet piercing her aorta.
Montrose went crazy. Disbelievers, both male and female, swarmed the tiny bar begging for the news not to be true. Marion’s subsequent funeral was one of the largest and best attended in our city’s history, with hundreds of community folk, business owners, police officers, drag queens, military personnel, and politicians paying their respects. One of the final registrants in the guestbook was Kathy Whitmire, the mayor of Houston.
Controversy still surrounds Marion’s death. One of the accused, Roger McGowen, today sits on death row in Hunstville, insisting that though his car was used in the commission of the crime, it was his cousin Charles McGowen who had been driving. Roger says he was not even present at the robbery. Charles cannot confirm his cousin’s story because he was slain by police while committing another robbery a few months later.
Lore has it that Marion’s male bartender and friend, Peaches, testified at the trial that the bar was held up that night by two men in ski masks. If the two were wearing ski masks, the prosecuting attorney asked Peaches, how did he know they were men?
“Honey, I know a man when I see one,” Peaches is said to have replied, likely with at least two snaps. Marion would have gotten a big laugh out of that one.
Fast forward 20 years. The Proletariat, a music venue, now occupies the site that housed Just Marion’s at 903 Richmond.
On the afternoon of March 11, I intend to swing by The Proletariat. Maybe I’ll have a beer, maybe I’ll play a game of pool, maybe I’ll share a story. Join me, if you like. If you’re old enough to remember Marion Pantzer and her legacy, bring along someone who isn’t but who believes preserving our Montrose history is important.
But this time let’s leave all the balls on the pool table.