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Closure of Indiana's oldest gay bar impacts LGBTQ+ community

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Thursday, May 2, 2024   

By Meghan Holt for the Ball State Daily News .
Broadcast version by Joe Ulery for Indiana News Service reporting for the Ball State Daily News-Free Press Indiana-Public News Service Collaboration

“Come in as a stranger, leave as a friend” brands the doors of the Mark III Tap Room, known colloquially as “the Mark” in downtown Muncie, Indiana. 

Established in 1968, the Mark is the state’s oldest gay bar. 

Since its initial opening, the bar has moved buildings, closed and reopened its doors multiple times while going through ownership changes. Regardless, it remained a staple of Indiana and the Muncie LGBTQ+ community.

However, after a pipe burst in its 306 South Walnut Street location in January 2024, the Mark III Tap Room faced water damage, leading to its closure for the foreseeable future. Access to the bar's resources, performances and community outreach have been lost.

For performers like Olivia Ward and Jamie Prang, the Mark was not only home to a source of income and creativity — it was home to family, making the closure of the bar difficult to navigate.

“My creative outlet is gone right now,” Prang said. “Now, I don't have anything.”

Prang is a founding member of the eight-year-strong burlesque troupe “The Fabulous Funcie Femmes” and has managed the production house “House of Mayhem” since 2020. Within the troupe, she takes on the persona of Lady J, Mistress of Mayhem.

The burlesque troupe did not take off thanks to Prang’s efforts alone. The foundation of the troupe coincided with the opening of the Mark’s building on 306 Walnut Street. 

Prang remembers the opening day fondly and said the bar was instrumental in ensuring the survival of the troupe.

“The Mark is very, very, very precious to me, especially as a performer and entertainer,” Prang said. “As a burlesque dancer in this town, [burlesque] had its own stigma that people [have] their own opinion about, and [the Mark’s owners] were the brave souls who were willing to give us a chance.”

Ward echoes Prang’s sentiment about the importance of the Mark within their own life.

“I've lived in Muncie my entire life. I went out one night, and it changed my life. The Mark is home,” they said.

A Muncie native and Ball State University graduate, Ward competitively danced for 15 years and was the head of Ball State’s Outlet Hip Hop Troupe. After graduation, they were a hip hop fitness coach. Although dance came easily for Ward, they needed encouragement to get into drag performance.

“I’d always wanted to do [drag], but [Prang] said, ‘Hey! You’ve done this, so here’s the next step,’” Ward said, gripping Prang’s hand.

Prang’s tenure at the Mark, combined with the bar’s welcoming atmosphere, launched Ward’s career as drag king Tevin L. Cruz, a “high-energy” persona who “enjoys being a part of the crowd.”

The Mark is extra special to Ward and Prang. Alongside the fact that they each got their start at the bar, it’s where they met and began their relationship almost three years ago.

“We hold this place very, very dear to our hearts. These are our family members. They're not just people we work with,” Prang said.

Ward misses being on stage — but more than that, they miss supporting other performers. 

“It's the nights we weren't in shows that I miss because every crowd is different. What you're going to see at a burlesque show, you're not going to see probably half of those people at a drag show, or a Sunday brunch, or a Friday karaoke night,” they said.

Indianapolis-based performer Hails Sherwood also lamented the closure of the Mark III Tap Room as a former Ball State student and current drag performer. 

“Coming to Muncie, I hadn't started the process of coming out as anything yet,” Sherwood said. “[The Mark] definitely helped set the groundwork for learning what a queer community is.”

Their performances at the Mark under the name Luna Magick brought them closer to their idols. They described being starstruck by another Indiana drag queen, Venus Entertainment.

“You know, meeting somebody who inspired you to start [performing] is insane. It's a weird thing, being starstruck by an Indy local, but being performers, we do that. It's absolutely opened up new opportunities for me,” Sherwood said.

The Mark doesn’t just serve as a place to build community. Sherwood also praised the ability of the bar to provide free HIV testing to their patrons. In the past, the bar has also hosted fundraising shows for various organizations in Muncie and around the state.

Though Sherwood no longer frequents the Mark as much as they used to, they extend their sympathy to the Muncie community for its loss.

Sherwood said students now lack a space away from work, school or home where they can build community and get away from the bustle of campus life.

“Being able to get away from [campus] was nice. I feel for the people that are there now … and don't have that queer space away from campus that is not affiliated and truly shut off the student part of your brain,” Sherwood said.

But the loss is perhaps felt most acutely by the Mark III Tap Room’s owner, Natasha Martz. She has owned the bar since 2012, but it has been a part of her family for much longer. 

“The Mark has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” she said via email. “[My] dad loved going to the first Saturday shows. In the late ’90s, when I turned 21, it became [his] and I’s ‘Dad and Daughter’ monthly night out spot.”

Martz’s uncle was also a frequent patron of the bar and introduced her father to the establishment. Due to this extended family connection, Martz said the closure of the bar has affected her life tremendously.

“[The Mark] is not only my career, but it is my heart and my passion. Navigating as a small business through a crisis that keeps you from being open is very challenging. Knowing that it is a much-needed space for our community is a driving force for me,” Martz said.

The Mark is still closed for repairs, missing its targeted date for reopening in early March. As of now, there is no update about whether or not it will reopen. Regardless, Martz is proud to be a part of its legacy.

“From a tiny dance floor on Main packed with friends and laughter, to a grand stage on Walnut full of performance art and creative minds, I am lucky to have witnessed so much happiness and joy,” she said.

Meghan Holt wrote this article for Ball State Daily News.

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