The Chain Drive and the Rumor Mill

A gay Austin institution holds its last hoorah, again and again.

The little stucco bar with the infamous tree will soon have to find a new home, but for now, tomorrow is another day.

Madonna had recently premiered her new single “Live to Tell” at an AIDS benefit at Madison Square Gardens. Martin Sheen had been tapped to star in the London premiere of the groundbreaking play, The Normal Heart, a heartbreaking indictment of the gay community’s confused response and the Reagan administration's inaction in the face of the new plague. Over 12 thousand Americans, mostly gay men, had died of the disease, a number that would double through the course of 1986, and the first drug to effectively manage the disease, a blunt instrument called AZT, would not hit the market for another year.

All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.
(Photo from the Amy Smith's piece on a relocating Chain Drive back in 2000.) (PHOTO BY JANA BIRCHUM)

To open a gay bar in the midst of a crisis destined to all but rob the queer movement of a generation of gay men was a brave, risky, and perhaps necessary move. The Chain Drive opened in April of 1986 at 602 East Seventh (now the location of the Side Bar), signified only by a chain drive motor mounted over the door, providing the then-seedy Red River neighborhood with a judgment-free zone. The bar brought together all sorts, particularly those with Tom of Finland lifestyle aspirations, a classic leather bar scene.

In 1989, the bar relocated to its current location on Willow Street, and there it has stayed, tucked away in its own little downtown time bubble, and though the leather scene has undergone many changes and diversifications, the Chain Drive has remained relatively unscathed, at least until now. Skyrocketing property values and hungry developers appear to have won the day. The Chain Drive held its closing party on Sunday, June 8, with rumors of its new location spreading like wildfire.

However, for the time being, the bar remains open, in the same nondescript white stucco building, for at least a few more weeks. This isn’t the first time the space’s imminent demise has been forestalled. In 2000, the Chronicle reported on the end of an era, and rumors of closure have circulated since. This time, though, the news seems pretty certain, as a half-billion dollar project backed by former L.A. Dodgers owner Frank H. McCourt Jr. looms large on the neighborhood.

Whatever the future holds, the Chain Drive definitely has one. All hearsay aside, owner Donald Jatho definitely has plans for the institution. Although the bar’s staff and loyal patrons are playing close to the chest for the time being, rest assured we’ll be there for the grand opening… and perhaps a few times before then.

Check back here at the Gay Place over next few weeks for more about the relocation of the Chain Drive.

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