Harry Denton, who lent his name to multiple bars in San Francisco and became a central figure in the city's nightlife scene over three decades, has died at the age of 77.
According to Denton's brother, who cared for him in his later years following a severe stroke in 2013, Denton died in a Seattle area nursing home of natural causes.
As the Chronicle reports, though Denton dreamed of hosting a lavish, black-tie 75th birthday for himself at Bimbo's 365 Club, that dream was never realized due to his ailing health. The onetime, self-described "alcoholic, foodaholic, shopaholic and sexaholic" will instead be remembered for presiding over several bar-nightclubs, ending with Harry Denton's Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in Union Square. And he's remembered, as friend and drag queen Donna Sachet says, for bringing "the gay lifestyle into a downtown environment" — and introducing Union Square tourists to Sunday drag brunch.
Denton's story of emigrating from a more staid part of the country to San Francisco mirrors that of many gay men born in the middle of the 20th Century. His brother tells the Chronicle that, after being popular in high school outside Twin Falls, Idaho, he dropped out of the University of Idaho after his sophomore year without telling his parents and took a bus to San Francisco around 1965.
In an undated interview on YouTube that likely dates to 2011, Denton tells the story of coming to San Francisco and getting fired from a retail job in the 1970s for "partying too much." That led to his first gig as a bartender, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He tended bar at two iconic spots of SF lore, Henry Africa's and Washington Square Bar & Grill — mentoring with charismatic barkeeps Norman Hobday and Ed Moose along the way. By the 1980's he would move on to Harry's Bar in Pacific Heights (though it reportedly was not named for him), and then open Harry’s Southside on Folsom Street, Harry Denton’s on Steuart Street, Harry Denton's Rouge in Polk Gulch, and Harry Denton's Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake.
Denton was known to bop around the city nightly to visit staff and patrons at all of his venues, cabbing from place to place, and getting to know everyone who went out regularly in SF in the 1990s and 2000s.
When he joined Twitter in 2012, Denton called himself the King of San Francisco Nightlife, even though he was soon to be dethroned.
Reportedly, he was still planning his next bar project in his final days, though he would die having lost his small empire about a decade ago. Among the first to go would be Harry's on Steuart Street, which shuttered in 1999 following a money laundering scandal that caused Denton to be pushed out of the business.
The Starlight Room removed Denton's name some years ago, after he popularized the "Sunday's a Drag" brunch there, and hosted many late-night soirees — the hotel owners ultimately decided not to renew their contract with him following a 2011 renovation and relaunch. As of 2019, the space was remodeled and rebranded as Lizzie's Starlight Room — referring to a rumored affair between Sir Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth I, and it remains closed since the pandemic.
It's not yet clear whether there will be a San Francisco memorial service for Denton, though he left behind many friends, loved ones, and colleagues here.
Photo via Twitter