Through the power of inclusivity and large doses of humor, Harry Denton changed the way San Francisco thought about nightlife and our collective humanity.
Harry Denton, photographed in 2011, during the relaunch of the Starlight Room
In a city that lures people the world over, Harry Denton gave them a home—or least a wildly fun and unpredictable sense of one. When Denton died in late August at the age of 77, he was still cagily mapping a comeback as the dean of San Francisco’s nightlife scene. Who would expect otherwise? Denton, who grew up in Idaho, dropped out of college and took a bus to the Bay, arriving in 1965; he achieved immortality in the 1980s through the 2000s by lording over venues like Harry’s Southside on Folsom Street, Harry Denton’s on Steuart Street and Harry Denton’s Rouge in Polk Gulch. The crescendo was Harry Denton’s Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake, where he created Sunday’s A Drag, a drag queen brunch.
Johnny Love Metheny, who has been part of the bar scene in San Francisco for years, says Denton made outsize fi rst impressions. “The fi rst night I met him, he came into Henry Africa’s—where I was working—jumped on the piano and entertained the crowd for hours. I realized I was watching a showman,” he says. “My fi rst night working for him at his fi rst bar, Harry’s on Fillmore, he jumped on the bar with a chandelier and danced. Nobody had ever seen a bar owner be so entertaining to his guests.” To Metheny, Denton’s commitment to his patrons ruled the night, and he showed his employees that work could be fi lled with joy. “He showed us how much fun owning a bar could be, and he mentored so many of us and motivated us to open our own places,” he says.
Due to failing health in recent years, Denton moved to Seattle to live with his brother. Metheny spoke with him often by phone and in person. “During those calls and visits, he would ask how the bar scene in San Francisco was doing and [the status] of his favorite spots,” says Metheny. “Then he would always talk about us opening a bar together. He had all of the details, including where it would be and the uniforms the staff would wear. If you weren’t lucky enough to get to know him, you missed the nicest, most thoughtful and caring person a friend could have.”
So, yes, Denton gave us all a rowdy home, countless laughs and the stuff of mixology dreams, but he also provided something else to native and newly arrived San Franciscans over the years: an enduring friendship. That, in the end, is what makes a legend.
Photography by: PHOTO BY DREW ALTIZER