Labor Day weekend was a dark news cycle that included Hurricane Harvey footage and terrible rumors Denton's legendary LGBTQ+ haven Mable Peabody's Beauty Parlor & Chainsaw Repair was suddenly closing. Sunday was the secret finale for this Grand Dame of Denton hangouts, whose quiet passing can only be fully understood if we survey this venue's storied history from back in the day.
The rumor began in an r/Denton Reddit thread on Saturday night then spread like wildfire: Mable Peabody’s is closing. There were frantic calls and messaging to those possibly in-the-know, but by the purported-last-day-of-business the reality began to sink in for the knowing Sunday regulars. The first-hand account of the iconic bar’s final hours in D Magazine conveys the surprise and sadness that reverberated throughout the tight-knit community who came to bid a fond farewell, though the shock still yet ripples throughout Denton. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this safe space for our two-college town, especially given the hostile political climate on the state and national stage. It is also equally impossible to ignore the significance of Mable’s queer celebratory defiance for the LGBTQ+ community and allies all across North Texas. It’s a mistake to think of Mable Peabody’s as a “gay bar” only; it was a radically inclusive and accepting space that proudly defied all labels thrown at it. With a wink.
When it first opened in 1979 under Margaret Honeycutt, it was the underground watering hole for Denton’s gay and queer community, many still closeted with work and family, in a space barely half the size of its current digs on University Drive. When Kelly Sanders bought the club in the mid-90s, she came up with the unusual name with the help of “a lot of wine.” Mable’s quickly became "the Cheers of Denton, Texas for the gays and lesbians," but weeknight music bookings became so popular that regulars dubbed those “straight night.” Over the years, the neighborhood bar would host drag shows, burlesque acts, AIDS or GLAD charity benefits, comedy, and live music or karaoke. Heck, Mable’s has even held church services. As Jenna Duncan with the DRC recalled, the smoky space was standing room only in April 1997 for the infamous Ellen TV episode wherein the star, comedian Ellen Degeneres, publicly came out on the show. For many, it was also their home away from home, a place to fully be themselves.
But in 2007, everyone was violently reminded how vulnerable this inclusive public space could be. In the early morning hours of March 21, intruders vandalized, robbed, and then set fire to Mable Peabody’s, completely destroying it. Sanders and others suspected that it was a hate crime, since the blaze occurred less than two weeks after a suspect was acquitted in a 2005 gay-bashing assault on a busy Denton street, but the arson investigation never identified the perpetrators. Since the venue was uninsured, DFW groups rallied to help fund the re-opening of Mable’s almost a year later in 2008. The iconic spot was reborn, bigger and better than ever.
During that absence in 2007, many a Dentonite reflected upon how special our town’s only “gay bar” is as a safe space for at-risk college kids, but also how important Mable Peabody’s is for Denton’s vibrant communities. Many of us are proud that Denton has its own LGBTQ bar, so its more than a bit upsetting to realize all over again how precarious a thing that really is. Today, many Denton bars are welcoming and accepting, but it isn’t the same thing as having a dedicated inclusive space all your own. You don’t have to wade too far into UNT’s Resource Center LGBT Collection, the first-of-its-kind archive in the South, to revisit a history of exclusion, prejudice, and bigoted violence that is never very far away. We hear that Crossroads Bar may be stepping up to help fill the void left by Mable’s departure, but those are some mighty big ruby slippers to fill. The Facebook page for Mable Peabody’s is filled with loving remembrances and gratitude, which is the ultimate tribute to a place that has been a welcoming sanctuary for so many and for so long.
Thanks for all you’ve been and done for Denton, Mable Peabody’s. We’re sure gonna miss ya, but we’re also really dang happy to have had you as long as we did.
Adieu and au revoir, mon cher.
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past. Be sure to check out our local museums curated by the fine folks at the Denton County Office of History & Culture, and follow @Dentonaut on Twitter for local happenings.