Another segment of a project The Rise and Fall of a Saloon In The Latter Part off The Twentieth Century. These excerpts are not chronological. In fact very little logic prevails…
It was the best of times; it was the worse of times…
Today is tomorrow’s History and soon will exist only in old newspaper files and Halloween costumes.
___ The Write Down Book
A writing describing what goes into the making of a Saloon… a primer, if you like…
But it is also being a Reminisce of Saloon Life in a burg in California.
A saloon called ‘The Bar’
It wasn’t much to look at from the outside but then most small to middle sized towns aren’t known for fancy exteriors on their saloons. In Nevada, maybe, but not in a town like this. The town was in what is called “The Bay Area” of California between San Francisco and San Jose. Someone asked why anyone would choose to live in such a boring town and some wag said “If you had a big rubber band and hooked one end on San Francisco and the other end on San Jose the skinny part would be this town.” Meaning that one would have access to the bigger places with none of the hassle and expense of actually living in the larger city.
The Bar was a saloon located in an industrial zone one block from the entrance/exit to a major freeway. And as McDonald’s Ray Kroc said, it’s ‘location, location, location’ so from that standpoint it was a good site. Good, because of the accessibility to a major freeway and good because industrial zones don’t have neighborly complaints because it is not a residential area by law.
It was in a state issue ‘utility building’, one of those flat, single story, unimaginative cement block things sitting on a utility concrete slab and painted a utility color with a utility parking lot.
It was smack in the middle of a block boasting a gas station at each end and an auto dealership next door. Since the building had seen some usage as a Department Of Motor Vehicles it was forever known as the ‘Old DMV Building.’ Odd that it should end up as a drinkhouse. Evolving from a place where one got their license to one where events could end up with their license getting suspended.
It is 1975…
The Beatles have disbanded… Members of the Watergate scandal are being prosecuted… Vietnam is still a war zone at the start of the year but the nation is sick of the war and it is winding down. Hostilities will end in April. The Picture Of The Year will be a black and white shot of the last helicopter leaving the American Embassy in Saigon…
Television made light of drinking in 1975. The Dean Martin Show, with Dean’s air of being borderline tipsy has just gone off the air but M*A*S*H was on with Hawkeye and his still and Cheers was a show based in a saloon that would be along in seven short years..
People and society hadn’t commenced the full demonizing of tobacco yet. Smoking was not only permitted, it was ubiquitous and those who disliked cigarette smoke were considered a minority or so it seemed at the time. Tobacco companies had a huge advertising budget and spent as if money made them invulnerable and they would never be brought up short.
AIDS wasn’t a problem…yet…The Pill was There but Herpes other forms of disease was always a possibility.
But just what is a saloon, anyway?
When they hear the word ‘saloon’ Americans visualizes something like “The Long Branch” in Dodge City or Tombstone with swinging batwing doors, dancing girls and a rinky-tink piano. Well, yes, there were such places but ‘saloon’ is rooted in ‘salon’ that being a large room for public gatherings. Of course a saloon is more than that. In California you could get a beer/wine license with very little cost or process. You needed to post a notice on premises visible from the public that you intended to indulge in beer and wine sales. This notice gave neighboring businesses the opportunity to protest such sales if they so chose. But this does not make your business a saloon.
For a real saloon you needed a liquor license, a strictly regulated, limited issue, hard to get, very expensive piece of paper. Only a few new issues were made annually from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Agency (referred to as the ABC) yearly and those were assigned by lottery. If you got a license via the ABC you paid a reasonable fee to the state.
If you owned such a license you could sell this privileging piece of paper and in those days you could sell it for far more than you paid the state for a new issue because a properly run saloon could be a goldmine.
A saloon, then, is a drinkhouse… a tavern… a place where booze and beer is sold. generally over a bar, sometimes with food. Some even had live music.
It was said in an obscure ‘How To Run A Saloon’ type book that all saloons were owned by drunks or reformed drunks.
The Bar was such a place…
But there was another, even more important thing that made a saloon what it was and is still their reason for existence even today…
Without lonely people
a saloon cannot not exist…
__The Write Down Book
“The Bar” … which is what it colloquially was called…
was, after all, a petty, small time, neighborhood bar that featured live
music owned by a person who some say had no business being anywhere near alcohol in Large Quantities.
The pressures and debaucheries of a place like, say Carol Doda’s might be more interesting to the general public but The Bar could have been in your own town…
The Bar? Never heard of the place… naaaah, I don’t like hanging in bars.
Sure I’ll stop by for a drink with you. You’ve asked often enough…
And that’s how it starts.
That’s how most people found The Bar at first. Either by invitation or by seeing it in a chance drive by due to the location, location, location, right off a freeway interchange.
Marijuana, in small quantities, had been newly made a misdemeanor in California and largely ignored as long as you kept it outside…
Preferably under the [Getting Loaded ] sign in the back of the building.
The idea was to be a little discreet…not be so foolish as to blow pot smoke at any gendarmes who might be passing through the parking lot.
In 1975 if you got pulled over and failed a field sobriety test you spent the night in jail and could get a fine as high as three hundred dollars and know that you would get a ribbing from those who were your ‘drinking buddies’.
There is something about watching something grow, a business known as a saloon in particular, because that business is one that is based on the human desire to voluntarily imbibe alcohol and put their dignity at risk in the process.
Now this is not a new thing. When humans learned how to ferment just about any plant material and make alcohol from it, their imagination and creativity knew no bounds. Had they applied their collective focus to medicine instead of getting sloshed, disease in humankind would be very nearly eliminated.
Archeologists find saloons in every civilization they unearth. They’re mentioned in all the holy books, usually with an admonition to avoid such places. Even at that, most holy books can be bent to sneak in a drink or two if the interpreter is clever since holy books never seem to say the same thing to all readers. Even though religion seems to forbid the imbibing of alcohol since it Makes Much of this from various pulpits On the other hand, some of our finest wines and liqueurs, even champagne, are made by or were conceived by monks.
This same sentiment, to avoid the saloon, is echoed by most mothers but it seems as ineffective as the holy books since most saloons thrived at least they did for up to and including most of the twentieth century and certainly did so in America.
So what’s the big attraction.? A new bar in a dumpy looking building. What was it that made The Bar different from any other in a dumpy looking building?.
The actual bar itself…
In the 1800’s Brunswick-Balke-Collendar made pool tables. Very ornate pool tables and they also made beautifully figured and carved back bars and bars custom fit to any area you chose. They used a method of molding sawdust and wood fiber to resemble wood carving and were very capable in using veneer and between the woodworking and mirrors installed, they could take a plain, nondescript room and make it look like a palace. When you sat at such a bar or stood facing it you were transformed back to the elegance of the Victorian Age. An elegant Brunswick bar was like a wooden Siren singing to sailors from their rocky trap….
Man what a piece of work that back bar was… graced with nicely made faux Tiffany style lamps suspended….
Maple, cherry, mahogany just what kinds of woods were in there was a source of constant genteel argument.
Brunswick…the bowling ball people…
“Edwardian” was the model… great example of how a back bar, finely crafted can look… If it were done in marble instead of polished dark wood it would look like an altar for The Holy Mass…some say it was so inspired…
If this is truly the case it is an altar to Mammon for in the center was an antique NCR cash register
The Bar was proud of its Bar…and rightly so…
It was a gorgeous piece of furniture featuring a large central mirror flanked by four wooden Doric columns, two to a side, each pair separated by two narrow vertical mirrors. The long top section and columns had tiger stripe ‘flaming’ of darker rays in the warm brown overall color. The framing of the mirrors had beautiful examples of woodworking moldings and the central figure was a “carved” lion’s head.
Many saloons have fancy back bars but this one also had the original bar section included, a singular work of elegance hard to find today.
It was a bona-fide antique that had been lovingly restored by T.O. and friends.
“T.O.” Is what the patrons called the guy who owned the place. The name is not important for this tale. It could have been anything. “T.O.” could mean “the owner” so let’s leave it at that and call him T.O.
When T.O first got the bar it was separated into its various pieces and had been painted white and stored for some years in a warehouse after it’s previous owner, a hotel, had gone belly up.
It became a labor of love to restore the thing. T.O. and some friends took it, stripped it of every vestige of paint and sealed and varnished it.
When it got installed somehow the main mirror was broken slightly…a ten inch crack in the lower right corner of the glass. No one would admit just when and how it happened. Some say it happened during an after-hours party when T.O. was showing off how loud the company stereo could go but no one knew for sure or, better put, them that do know ain’t talkin’.
It was beautifully lit at night by three hanging lights, faux Tiffany lamps, controlled by a dimmer switch. There was one at each end of the bar holding a single globed milk glass and one twin globed lamp over the middle of the bar. All three lamps had Tiffany style stained glass shades.
The bar top itself was made of solid, nearly three quarter inch mahogany. It was well over a foot wide, a size and thickness difficult to find nowadays.
As you faced the bar, the left end curved and went flush into the wall. The right end did the same but it had a “gate” being a flip lid, (that had been removed) to allow the bartenders egress to go behind the bar. This left a single seat by the side door at the right end where the bar section went flush to the wall.
This bar did not have a brass foot rail. Instead it had a twelve inch foot ledge overlaid with 12” marble tiles. The tiles were installed with donated labor by a tile mason so he might use it as a demo for his quality of workmanship I don’t know if it paid off for him but he did a beautiful job of it. The old tradition of having a raised area for one to put their foot harkened back to the old days when stools were not provided. The foot rail helped ease ones back by allowing one to change their stance occasionally while standing for long periods.
The Bar had stools however. The bar was surrounded by eighteen red leather covered barstools of sturdy manufacture, stout enough to support the heaviest patron and heavy enough to discourage their use as a weapon in any future disagreements. It had two waitress stations each with brass stanchions and each with faux marble slabs which made the sliding of trayloads of drinks over the mahogany spill rail easier.
This was a bar designed to be a working bar.
It was gorgeous.
It was beautiful.
It looked like a movie set. With such a bar, taking up almost one entire wall of the main room, you immediately forgot you were in a nondescript concrete box.
Those cement block walls were covered with smooth but unfinished redwood boards further adding to the illusion of ‘place’.
As you entered the building The Brunswick masterpiece was on the left wall.. On the right back quarter was a dance floor made of hardwood tiles that was of a decent size. It had an honest to god stage raised almost three feet off the floor, very sturdily built and carpeted…It was large enough to comfortably hold a four piece band and their gear and had a three foot fold-away extension which could be implemented for extra room onstage when needed.
It had a good stage lighting and sound system for its day, run from a section of rail which divided the room in half. The rail, more like a fence, allowed free passage at both ends and through its center to give some separation to the room. and was a good location for the sound mixing board.
Immediately prior to The Bar’s inception someone had tried to make a business of a Mexican restaurant in the place. Since the only Mexicans in the staff were the busboys it failed but it left a full kitchen for The Bar to use.
There were about ten 24 inch cocktail tables and eight or ten tables that were about three feet across and extra stack chairs on hand for busy nights. Two bathrooms were down the hall as was the office…
The fire department said it had a capacity of 180 people.
The Bar was ready to open…
To be continued, it already is, fragmentally, in the “From The Bar” category on this site….