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Originally a Filipino restaurant and club owned by Ness Aquino, it featured many Filipino celebrities, including Amapola (aka Amapola Cabase). Aquino and Amapola also co-hosted a weekly television program, The Amapola Presents Show on KEMO-TV Channel 20.
In 1976, Jerry Paulsen of Psyclone Magazine booked a few punk rock shows at the Mabuhay. Aquino then entered into an agreement to have rock promoter and television producer Dirk Dirksen book punk and new wave bands there, bringing an increased level of professionalism to the venue; it soon became the premier venue for punk rock in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s (a sort of west coast CBGBs). Virtually every early Bay Area punk and new wave band performed there, and it was an important touring stop for bands from beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. Among the bands that performed at the Mabuhay were the The Nuns, The Avengers, Crime, The Mutants,JimmyZ Corpse,Lil Denny and the Gangrenes Ramones, Blondie, Devo, The Go-Go's, Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Bad Religion, The Child Prostitutes, VKTMS, AlieNation, The Adaptors, D.O.A., The Germs, Black Flag, Willful Neglect, Hellbillys and Metallica. Comedians Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg also made early appearances at the venue.
Dirksen had a unique style as emcee, deliberately baiting and trading insults with audience and band members, which had the effect of raising the energy of audience and performers alike. Dirksen's abrasive persona (which was largely a performance) was a central part of the atmosphere of the Mabuhay.
Dirksen and Aquino dissolved their agreement in the early 1980s over disputes concerning Dirksen booking all his higher profile shows at the venue directly upstairs from the Mabuhay, the On Broadway Theater. After booking both venues for a period of time Dirksen moved his entire operation upstairs. At this time the booking at The Mabuhay turned more to metal than punk, as most of the better punk acts followed Dirksen.
The Mabuhay Gardens closed in 1988 after a couple years of marginal operation. At the very end Aquino attempted to move his operation upstairs to the On Broadway (by then vacated by Dirksen) under the moniker of "The Mab On Broadway".
As of 2006, the building housed a nightclub called The Velvet Lounge. The Velvet Lounge booked a few punk shows in 2003 with the intention of promoting them as "Fab Mab" shows. However, Dirksen denied them the use of this name, to which he held the trademark. A "Fab Mab Reunion" – emceed by Dirk Dirksen – took place on April 8, 2006, at The Fillmore and not at The Velvet Lounge. The actual "Mabuhay Gardens" name is owned by relatives of Ness Aquino.
The venue was again opened in September 2007 under the name Club 443 by management who were primarily interested in hip hop and who eventually proved to be quite hostile to punk and metal. However, they agreed to allow T&T Presents, an SF based music promotions agency which booked many punk and metal shows at the Mabuhay from the late 1970s through mid-1980s, to host a series of shows under the name of "The Old Mab" and using the Mabuhay Gardens logo with the blessing of the Aquino family. This collaboration failed when Club 443 failed to fulfill its obligations and began booking hip hop DJ shows in a side room which conflicted heavily with the live music. These shows climaxed with a two-day benefit series for Ness Aquino, who had suffered a stroke. The premises has gone through a number of management changes since and is currently occupied by another DJ dance club called Sutra.
The Mabuhay Gardens featured in a chapter from Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (Pulitzer 2011). This chapter, "Ask Me if I Care," was also published in the March 8, 2010 issue of the New Yorker.