December 31, 1997, 6 p.m.: The Merc fills slowly at first, but you can already feel the heady air of celebration wafting through the murky dining room, with its darkly polished honky-tonk bar, fringed dancing-girl lamps and Dede LaRue's neon-encircled papier-mache circus animals crashing through walls. People nest in the sunken wooden booths, chowing down on everything from tofu-stuffed pumpkin with polenta in marinara sauce to good old-fashioned working-class steaks glistening with just the right amount of fat and gristle. Janet Feder strums her classical guitar in the background; dark-eyed goth-gypsy servers crisscross the room with loaded plates of food.
As the diners and their idle talk multiply, a middle-aged, wild-haired woman wearing a slinky peach chiffon pie of a Jean Harlow gown and wrapped in a pink and white feather boa sashays between the tables, causing heads to turn in a combination of amusement and fascination. She's equal parts ageless and pleasantly gone-to-seed; a latter-day Janis, an enigmatic businesswoman who consults the stars for answers, the last of the red-hot Denver earth mamas.
Stand aside: Marilyn Megenity has entered the building.
To those who've watched Denver's pop-culture scene for the past twenty years, Megenity's story is surely one of survival, fraught with the details of staying alive in a world that's become more and more streamlined, franchised and sold out with every passing season. She started out in the mid-Seventies with a $5,000 inheritance, a peyote vision of a people's nightclub and a smidgen of restaurant experience that seemed more useful before the fact than it really proved after she dived in.
"We had a little money and not too much brains," says Dan Wilson, Megenity's former partner in business and life, of their early leap. But they took it anyway.
Together they opened Elrond's at 13th Avenue and Washington, where they served funky food all day long. From there they moved on to 22 Broadway, taking over the kitchen at an established bar and booking oddball local acts such as lone bluesman Johnny Long, a perennial Megenity fixture in those days. These were just the first stops on an endless, ragtag journey Megenity took through Denver in the Seventies and Eighties, setting up her tent, it seemed, wherever she could get her foot in the door. If she started out not knowing much about business, she learned along the way.
Several locations later, Elrond's shape-shifted into the Mercury Cafe, a full-fledged club that "gave local bands a place to play, where they were treated with respect and where entertainment was the focus, not in the background," Wilson recalls. "And they got paid pretty well, too."
Megenity favorites--the Young Weasels, the Aviators and the Pink--were big fish in the Merc's little sea, bringing a school of followers through the doors with them. The club was an instrumental part of the town's new-wave-directed bohemian culture of the time, providing not just a gathering spot, but a fermenting ground--a place where you could dance all night or stand in a corner sizing up the bands, no matter who you were. Not only that, but you could come back the next morning to nurse your hangover over homefries and coffee.
In the early Eighties, when Megenity's Merc lit for a while in cavernous digs at 13th and Pearl, she began to book "big shows that nobody else wanted"--second-rung national acts washed through the pipeline from L.A. and shunned by Barry Fey, including X, Black Flag, Gun Club and Green on Red. Megenity says she "had to book two nights and matinees" just to break even, but the shows were memorable to all who attended them--full of electric moments when the entire human zoo that filled her dance floor wall to wall became a synchronous, fluid, fraternal unit.
Ask anyone who was around, and they'll tell you they don't really know why Megenity's been so fiercely tenacious. "It was just what she wanted to do, and I can't imagine her not doing it," Wilson says.
Megenity attributes her staying power to three things: her commitment to creating community, her fanaticism for sharing healthy food, and guidance from the heavens. "I'm an astrologer," she says. "Even though outside circumstances seem so dismal, it helps me to still believe I can do this."
"She believes food and music are revolutionary," Wilson adds. "It's part of her identity; she expresses herself that way. It's an art form for her--bringing food, entertainment and people together in one place."
The dream has never been as real as it is now: A few years ago Megenity found herself a building at 22nd and California streets on the edge of downtown Denver that she's grown into comfortably, filling the two-story space with life. Finally on solid ground, this Merc is a complete package, offering music, theater, dining, poetry readings, swing dancing and the occasional benefit for grassroots causes, from the hippie-throwback Rainbow Family gatherings to Salvadoran relief causes. (What it's not offering is any music Megenity deems disruptive to her sense of community--she made the decision to ban that two years ago.)
Megenity still has her finger in every pie at this quintessential Mercury Cafe--especially in the kitchen. Done musing for the moment, she excuses herself: "I'm about to go put on my apron and make some chocolate raspberry bread for tomorrow morning..."
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What's next? "I'm here," Megenity says.
So's Wilson, at least once a week. The onetime cook and bartender who eventually broke up with Megenity and went on to law school says he still eats at the Merc on a weekly basis.
"I hope she goes on for another twenty years," he says. "Bad service and hippies: You can't beat it."
As the New Year's Eve crowd and the smoke thicken on the main floor (people are ready to rumba when Cabaret Diosa takes the stage upstairs after 9 p.m.), Merc fixture Ed Ward hosts an early-evening erotic-poetry reading on the second level. Megenity is working both floors tonight, but she takes time to contribute her own sexy recitation--a silky, alliterative, sensual paean to the act of throwing tomatoes and garlic together to simmer in a pot on this day of all days: "...marinara, merry New Year," she drawls sleepily to the small audience, looking them straight in the eye, before drifting back down the stairway.
No question about it: Marilyn Megenity rules this roost. The circus is finally here to stay.