The current Stonewall 50 exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) has added 12 sections of what was formerly the bar top from the iconic Mary’s bar in Montrose. The bar top sections on display add a Houston perspective from the Stonewall era and the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
The well-worn bar tops have dozens of photographs embedded under a clear protective finish, providing a unique visual time capsule of LGBTQ life in Houston from the mid-1980s and earlier.
The Expanded Exhibition
Dean Daderko, curator of the exhibition, first heard about Mary’s bar tops through LGTBQ artists and historians Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin, whose work is included in the current CAMH exhibit. Daderko had asked them how he could find information about Houston LGBTQ life from the time of Stonewall to the present.
The men connected Daderko with Judy Reeves, curator of the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of GLBT History, Inc. (GCAM). Reeves suggested the Mary’s bar tops. Mary’s history started around the time of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City, and the Houston bar mirrored the post-Stonewall gay social scene that was gaining momentum nationally.
Daderko visited the GCAM facility and was eager to add the bar tops to CAMH’s Stonewall exhibit. The bar tops are now displayed on the walls of the exhibit area, making it easy to see the small photos embedded in each section.
Daderko explains why CAMH chose to include the bar tops: “In the early ’80s, the patrons of Mary’s were ‘first responders’ to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, doing things like sharing information about safer-sex practices and taking care of friends who were sick and dying. The bar top memorializes these fallen individuals as it celebrates the larger community which they are a part of. As lovers and fighters, [these men] have long understood the urgency of taking
care of our kin when nobody else would. Queer artists, activists, and visionary allies recognize this imperative. Today, it’s heartening to see how the intersectional concerns addressed by other marginalized communities around issues
of race, age, ability, nationality, and economic status resonate with the queer community [as] we address and combat injustice together.”
The History of the Bar Top
A variety of sources place the origin of the photographs seen in the bar tops to the early- to mid-1980s. Reeves says that the idea to embed photos in the bar tops came from then-owner James “Fanny” Farmer, who wanted to honor Mary’s regulars and memorialize those who had already been lost to AIDS.
Walt Zipprian became a Mary’s regular in 1985. He dates the origin of the bar tops as either 1985 or 1986. Zipprian recalls: “Fanny had a lot of photos, and was looking for something new and interesting to keep bar customers intrigued. He decided to put pictures of regulars already lost to AIDS, and to celebrate current Mary’s regulars. The photos were pasted to plywood, and then a protective sealant was applied. Regulars loved to bring friends into the bar and show them their pictures embedded in the bar top. I remember sitting and looking at pictures of those who were already lost to the epidemic.”
The bar top remained in the bar for nearly three more decades. Mary’s closed in 2009 and was sold in 2011. After the sale became public knowledge, Reeves met with the owners of the property. “It’s a misconception that Jim Farmer owned the building. He leased it, because he was like family to the owners,” she says. Reeves explained the historical significance of the bar top to the owners, and they agreed to save the top and give it to the Gulf Coast Archive.
Rescuing the Bar Top
As the bar top was removed, it was sawed into 13 sections (one section was too small and damaged to be included in the exhibit). GCAM volunteers clipped off the nails and screws that protruded from the back sides, and then transported the sections in pickup trucks to a safe location.
Reeves and her volunteers then worked to clean the bar tops. Decades of nicotine stains and sealant yellowing had clouded the once-clear surface. Reeves discovered that WD-40 was the best product to clear away dirt and other grime. One bar top section still shows the remnants of anti-gay graffiti that vandals had spray-painted on it after the building was sold.
The bar tops show a variety of scenes from 1985 and earlier in Houston’s LGBTQ community—Mary’s regulars, drag queens, events, leather organizations, and even ’80s political figures such as Annise Parker, Kathy Whitmire, and George Greanias.
Reeves is pleased with the inclusion of the bar tops in the CAMH exhibit. “It is amazing that such an important piece of our local history has an opportunity to be featured as a complement to the Stonewall 50 exhibit at CAMH. The Stonewall Riots are called the beginning of the gay movement in New York, and the actions of the drag queens and cross-dressers has been well documented. The Mary’s bar tops are a snapshot of Houston GLBT life that would have been lost [had it not been] for GCAM’s actions a decade ago. We are extremely pleased that they will make their appearance as an aside to the main CAMH exhibit.”
What: Stonewall 50 exhibit
When: April 27 – July 28
Where: CAMH, 5216 Montrose Blvd.
This article appears in the May 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.