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Ray and Wilma Yoder, Cracker Barrel and RV fans (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

Ray and Wilma Yoder, Cracker Barrel and RV fans (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

GOSHEN, IND.—-Ray and Wilma Yoder watch the world roll by from the front porch of their 85-year-old farm house on County Road 34 in Goshen, Ind. While sitting next to each other on a twin rocking chair, Ray and Wilma wave to Amish neighbors who hold tight reins on their horse and carriage. Truckers and cars go too fast for this thin stretch of rural highway about 25 minutes southwest of Elkhart.

You see, Ray and Wilma always move in modest directions.

They met in 1953 in baptismal class at a Mennonite (new order Amish) church about four miles from where they live today. Ray has lived in the same farm house since he was five years old. “Wilma came about ten miles that day in a horse and buggy not knowing it was all going to be worth it,” Ray quips during a front porch conversation on a warm September morning.

Ray and Wilma will celebrate their 61st wedding anniversary on Oct. 11.

Their life has been filled with rewarding turns.

The Yoders are the proud parents of four children between the ages of 43 and 58. In the 1960s Ray became a factory worker at the now- defunct Globemaster Mobile Homes in Goshen before snagging a job delivering motor homes from manufacturer to dealers in Elkhart, the RV capital of the world.

And that was their gateway to becoming octogenarian Americana celebrities.

In 1978 while making a delivery in Nashville, Tn. Ray ate at his first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Briley Parkway by the Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Cracker Barrel is headquartered in nearby Lebanon, Tn.

Since then Ray and Wilma have visited all 645 Cracker Barrels in 44 states.

Signatures from Ray and Wilma's fans. (D. Hoekstra photo)

Signatures from Ray and Wilma’s fans. (D. Hoekstra photo)

“It’s so much like the food at home,” Ray says. “The green beans are super good. We’ve not been able to match the meat loaf. Maybe its a little drier.” Wilma adds, “Sometimes mine falls apart but it as near like mine as any I’ve tasted. I like their hash brown casserole. Blueberry pancakes.”

Ray and Wilma are to Cracker Barrel what Willie Nelson is to Wacky Tobaccy.

As Ray and Wilma’s children grew older Wilma began to trail Ray in a second RV so they could make more money on a drop. They would rest at the same time. They would communicate through Citizens band radio.

“I didn’t let her go anywhere without me,” he says while glancing at his bride. “Even with the snow blowing in Wyoming I would look in the rear view mirror and her little headlights would be there. We would pull into a filling station and people would see us talking together. They’d say, ‘Are you two together?’ And I’d say, ‘We don’t get along too well so we have two motor homes.’

And Ray and Wilma laugh at the memories.

The Yoders also planned vacations around Cracker Barrel. For example, when they visited the Grand Canyon they would find a nearby Cracker Barrel. “We never owned an RV,” he says. “We were always in a new one. We could sleep in it if we were en route. But we needed to use rest rooms at the rest area or a Cracker Barrel. The best part of our lives were the years with the RVs.”

Ray says it took about ten years before they realized they had a Cracker Barrel streak going.

“We had a couple hundred of them down,” he says in a country drawl as thick as pancake syrup. “I heard where another restaurant chain had a guy following them. I said, ‘If he can do that, we can do this one. And if you don’t mind Mom, we’re going to all of them’.”

Wilma nods her head in agreement.

“I like to eat,” she says.

Ray and Wilma's team work during a New Mexico road trip.

Ray and Wilma on a New Mexico road trip.

The Yoders do not own a computer. They do not have GPS. They are not on Facebook or Instagram so there’s no social media bragging on their Cracker Barrel quest. “I knew where I was going,” he says. “The Cracker Barrel map would always say what exit to get off at. Its a map filled with 600 stores.”

The hard-hitting journalist might ask if Ray and Wilma have documentation of all their visits.

“I really don’t have documentation,” Ray answers. “Just between me and God. I will tell you we’re not in a lying situation. We didn’t do this to prove anything to anybody. We took some pictures. We did circle each one on the directory map. I’d put a check mark on the map as one we’d have to get.” Once Ray and Wilma visited the Cracker Barrel they would circle the check mark on their map.

I almost used the Freedom of Information act to make Ray and Wilma show me their maps.

I almost used the Freedom of Information act to make Ray and Wilma show me their maps.

Ray explains, “Now that we’re retired from the RV we take our own car. We still like driving and getting out. Is there a rodeo or a concert? We like Western Swing and we can’t find that very easy around here. We’ve seen Asleep at the Wheel at about 25 places and we’re still not tired of them. We came to Naperville (at a July, 2012 Tex- Mex Festival) to see him (bandleader Ray Benson).” There is a Cracker Barrel Old County Store at 1855 W. Diehl Rd. in west suburban Naperville, Ill.

Ray and Wilma have discovered that most Cracker Barrels are alike. “The one in Hilton Head is up off the sand on posts to make up for high water,” he says. “Eight of them are right-handed, all the rest are left-handed.

“Right-handed is where you go in the front door and the dining room is to the right.” In soft tones Wilma admits, “I had a bad experience (in New Orleans) with a new restroom. I was going to the right when I was so used to going to the left.”

Ray says, “We got serious about this in the ‘80s. We got eight (Cracker Barrels) in one day.”

I about fall off my country rocker.

Ray continues. “Someone asked, ‘How do you do that?’ and I said, ‘Don’t eat too much at the first one.’ They were out of the way places but we needed to get them in order to claim them with our
bunch. It was along U.S. 17 in North and South Carolina: Maybe a half an order at (the first) one…Then a coffee to go at the next one… By ten o ‘clock we were at the third one, probably the house salad…The fourth one would be noon hour for meat loaf…The fifth one would have been a sandwich. At that time we liked their grilled cheese and bacon sandwich (sixth)…. Even if you waited until nine at night you’d have the grilled chicken dinner…The eighth, final stop,would be the cider float. The waitress would say, ‘Excuse me?’ And I’d say, ‘You have both ingredients. Instead of doing a root beer do a cider. And they would do it. ” Cider floats are not on the Cracker Barrel menu.

That’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Notable Cracker Barrel celebrities start with gospel-soul singer Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul does not like to fly. She travels to gigs in her luxury coach bus. In 2012 Franklin told me how much she loves
the chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel. In 2011 she signed a plate at the Cracker Barrel in Lakeville Mn. before a performance at the Mystic Lake Casino near the Twin Cities.

“Never met her,” Ray says. “Timing was off I guess. Did she come during the lunch hour? Some of them put on baseball caps and you never know.” Cracker Barrel employees have come to know Ray by his white cowboy hat.

Ray and Wilma’s daughter Doris Copenhaver works at the BMV (Bureau of Motor Vehicles)  in Goshen. In a phone conversation she says, “We didn’t realize how serious they were until the early 2000s. We were amazed. The meat loaf is what got Dad started.  What’s weird is going to one without them. Its like, ‘Well, I know they’ve been here before.’ We also used to go with them when they delivered motor homes. They go to Sarasota (Florida) in the winter so we would eat in the ones near there too.

“This keeps them young.”

The nearest Cracker Barrel to Goshen (pop. 33,000) is at I-80 and Cassiopolis Street in Elkhart. “We go to that one, sometimes for family get together,” Ray explains. “The lady who runs the cash register there, her and her husband used to run the Greyhound bus station across the street. She always knows us.”

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The camper van visits RV fans Ray and Wilma Yoder (Photo by Jon Sall.)

Ray maintains the Amish population birthed the RV industry in Elkhart. “They don’t worry about unions,” he says. “One Amish guy will know a neighbor down the road looking for a job and they bring them in. You go to work at four in the morning and work hard at it. And make pretty decent money. Why pay ten when you have five who will do it? I’d say about 80 per cent of the workers were Amish when I started in the RV industry (in the late 1960s).”

Indeed, in June, Allison Yates of Atlas Obscura wrote a story “Why the Amish are Building America’s RV’s (They’re forbidden from driving them, but not making them)” and pointed out the Amish of Northern Indiana have never been as isolated as other Amish communities in America.

Ray celebrated his 81st birthday on August 28. As a surprise, Cracker Barrel flew Ray and Wilma to the Cracker Barrel grand opening in Tualatin, just outside of Portland, Or. It is the first Cracker
Barrel on the West Coast. The Nashville-based chain previously had only ventured as far west as Boise, Id.

“All the employees were waiting for us to make our appearance,” Ray says. “It was different
for two little country kids. I told them I could drive to O’Hare airport (in Chicago.) I’ve done that before. But they came with one of those limo cars and took us to O’Hare.”

Recent storefront (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

Recent storefront (Courtesy of Cracker Barrel)

As a 17-year-old, Wilma was attracted to Ray for his homespun values. He once ranked third in the Indiana State Table Tennis Tournament and these days he travels to Branson, Mo. for checkers tournaments. “He was a nice person,” she says. “Other boys didn’t have as much character. I thought he was better looking.”

Ray continues, “I was never into alcohol. Not that needs to be brag, but I did enough other things. I had my part of excitement in life. In mid-life you have two or three jobs, you have a little family and you have to work at that. We did that, too. There were no divorces in the Amish church. You pick them and you stay together.”

And that has been the old country creed for Ray and Wilma Yoder as they seen America through the wide open windows of an RV and the comforting heart of a Cracker Barrel.

Canadian sunsets (D. Hoekstra photo)

Canadian sunsets (D. Hoekstra photo)

TROIS-RIVIERES, QUEBEC, CANADA—Like all great tiki establishments, the Hotel-Motel Coconut remains true to its original vision.

Gerry and Madelaine Landry opened the Coconut in 1961 in Trois-Riviers (Three-Rivers), a 90 mile drive north of Montreal. They wanted the Coconut to capture the spirit of their Tahitian honeymoon.

Amazingly, the place hasn’t changed much in 56 years

Current owner Valerie Boisvert looked around the dark 180-seat Coconut bar that is loaded with rattan chairs, totem poles, tiki statues and shell lamps. “They brought all this back from Polynesia,” she said.” The Landrys also built a modest wooden bridge and added faux palm trees and portraits of pretty Polynesian women in all of their black velvet glory.

And while I’ve been to tiki bars from Easter Island to Hawaii to San Francisco, I can’t remember going to a roadside tiki bar with an adjacent tiki hotel. And motel. And an 80-person outdoor Coconut Terrace overlooking the highway and the magnificent Laviolette Bridge that arches over the St. Lawrence River.

The Coconut Hotel-Motel has 37 rooms.

When I visited Trois-Riveres in mid- August, my Room 29 had one door going outside to the parking lot AND another door into the hallway. At first I thought the hallway door was an adjacent room.

Hotel-motel manager David Duhaime explained, “That’s the reason we have hotel and motel. If we had only a door for outside it would just be a motel.”

I love the basic and good nature of Canada.

 

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My little paradise.

The motel dates back to 1958 when the two-lane Quebec Route 138 was the popular route between Montreal and Trois-Riveres (pop. 115,000).The route runs parallel to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The Hotel-Motel Coconut is on the west side of the city. “It used to be a motel with 12 rooms,” Duhaime said. “At one time it was called the ‘Hotel TV’ because it was the first motel here to have cable TV.”

 

Coconut Bar

Construction of I-40 left Route 138 in the Southwinds, but like Route 66 in the states, Route 138 remains popular with bikers and campers. After their honeymoon, the Landrys morphed from TV to Tiki.

Inside the coconut bar.

Boisvert and her husband Sylvain Carle bought the establishment in 2002. “Everyone knows the Coconut Bar,” she said. “It took us two years to find the money. We met here.  My husband said ‘I love you’ to me thefirst time here.’ We have been together 29 years.

Awhhhhh.

Valerie and Sylvain did make one structural change.

In 2012 they closed the motel restaurant and added, yup, another tiki bar. Located off the modest lobby, the romantic Volcano room offers a small bar, billiards and video machines. The Volcano is drenched in red light. After a couple of tropical drinks you may think you are in a seductive Amsterdam alley.

Complimentary breakfasts for hotel guests are served in the Volcano room to get your day off with a bang. Sylvain is a former chef at the Gueridon restaurant in Trois-Riveres and during November and December dinners are served in the Volcano room. The Volcano does not serve the traditional Montreal poutine (French Fries, cheese curds topped with gravy). In the Volcano room Valerie and Sylvain also diminished Polyneisan music in favor of rock n’ roll. Island music can still be heard between 4 and 9 p.m. in the Coconut Bar.

The way things are going in the states, I imagine more Americans will be finding their way to Canada.

Owner Valerie Boisvert and hotel-motel manager David Duhaine.

Owner Valerie Boisvert and hotel-motel manager David Duhaime.

Duhaime said, “We don’t get many Americans right now. You are here.  During the week we have people who are working in the city. On weekends we have tourists. Winter we have snowmobilers from everywhere. Two French movies and one documentary have been shot  here. French music groups stay here. Here, even in the winter it is  like summer. It is like having a south vacation.

The Coconut Bar serves 80 tropical drinks, beer and wine.  Highlights include the “Porn Star” (Curacao Bleu, Sour puss and 7 Up,) and the “After Sex” (vodka, banana liqueur and orange mix.)

“Every year we try to make a new drink,” Duhaime said. “At the employee Christmas party they have the challenge to make the best new drinks. The newest one is Coca-Sangria. People like the Zombie, Rainkiller. Some on the menu are from 50 years ago.”

The old drinks have the kick of a good honeymoon,

The Hotel-Motel Coconut tiki bar, Volcano room and Coconut Terrace is at 7531 rue Notre Dame (Route 138) in Trois-Riveres, Quebec. (1-800-838-3221.)  Autumn rates are $85 (American). I received a complimentary “Coconut” lei when I checked in.

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“I want to pick up where Theodore Ohman left off,” Foss declared during a mid-May conversation at his cafe in Mount Morris. “HIs goal was to put these in every school across America. And that’s what we’re doing. I just had a couple come in and buy a Constitution to donate to the Oregon School District. Our country needs this. New plates have been made and we want to offer these to the American public. Our constitution is important.  I’d like to see these go to the schools, attorney’s offices.

I’d like to see these go to the current occupant of the White House.

Foss sells 26” by 40” reproduction prints on parchment for $99 each at Wethepeopleprints.com. Shipping is free.

“We started doing research,” Foss said. “I started calling a lot of places to authenticate. I had never seen anything like (black ink) on glass.” Wisconsin appraiser Mark Moran worked with the Antiques Roadshow series. Foss paid for the appraisal and Moran estimated the Declaration lithographs created from Ohman’s plates at $650 each. For his Declaration lithograph, Ohman used an engraving plate from 1823 and the last negative of the original Declaration before it was permanently sealed in the National Archives in the early 1900s.

No one knows how Ohman made copies of the Constitution, but Foss  discovered more than 10,000 Constitution copies in the crates. Those were done in 1953. “We believe he got sick and passed on and was never able to distribute the Constitution,” Foss said. “Theodore Ohman had two kids who are deceased. He started his printing business in Memphis, Tennessee and move to Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he passed away. His printing plates, negatives, positives and maps went up for auction in Fort Lauderdale. A gentleman in De Kalb (Ill.) purchased all of it. And it was brought to his printing business here. He passed away, that estate sold and  this stuff got moved from one warehouse to another warehouse.

“And it got forgotten.”

HERE is a nice trailer from videographer Melissa Tassone:

Foss, 57, is owner of McKendrie Street Cafe, a sandwich and coffee shop, ironically on 500 Evergreen Dr. in Mount Morris (pop. 3,100). He also owns the Below Zero ice cream and smoothie shop in downtown Mount Morris. Below Zero is across the street from the community band shell that features Wednesday and Friday night summer concerts.

Mount Morris is a cozy borough about 35 miles southwest of Rockford and 100 miles west of Chicago straight out on Route 64 (North Avenue.) A Mount Morris welcome sign on Route 64 says, “Let Freedom Ring!” Mount Morris is the home of the Illinois Freedom Bell, located in the town square. I have spent some time in Oregon, a small town about five miles east of Mount Morris, but I had never been to Mount Morris. If you want to pull the strings of a Mount Morris resident, just call their town a suburb of Oregon.

Jerry Stauffer (L) and Ken Foss (D. Hoekstra photo)

Jerry Stauffer (L) and Ken Foss (D. Hoekstra photo)

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PEORIA, Ill .–The earth moves but it doesn’t shift quite as fast in Peoria, Ill.

As you roll into Peoria on I-74 across the Illinois River, you are met by a humble skyline that consists of the 50-year old Mark Twain Hotel, AFL-CIO headquarters and Caterpillar headquarters. Nestled beneath all that faded promise, like nuggets of gold in a stream, is Jim’s Steakhouse–or Jim’s as locals call it.

 Jim’s has been around since 1960. The late Peoria Chiefs owner Pete  Vonachen, his baseball bud Harry Caray and Peoria native Jack Brickhouse were Jim’s regulars. I’ve been going to watch Midwest League baseball in Peoria since 1985 when future Cubs Hall of Famer Greg Maddux played for the Chiefs. How could I miss Jim’s?

Jim’s is at 110 S.W. Jefferson, in the lower level of the six story  Janssen Building. Diners walk off a gold elevators and enter a hallway filled with hundreds of autographed celebrity photographs. It is the Peoria Pump Room. There’s photos of late Peoria native, singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, Warren Zevon and Elton John. There’s Larry King and Fabio (I presume they weren’t dining together). The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

IMG_6380But most of all, there’s lots of pictures of baseball players: Peoria natives Joe Girardi and Jim Thome (a Jim who still comes to Jim’s regularly), Pete Rose, Bob Gibson and scores of others. If there is a metaphor for the song of Peoria, I’d say it is Jim’s.

Tim Comfort, 61,  is the owner of Jim’s. His father Jim started the famous restaurant. Jim Comfort owned the not so famous saloons Comfort Lounge and Circa in the Peoria area before opening the steakhouse in 1960 in the Junction City Mall, north of Peoria. Jim’s moved to its present location in 1992, which is a ten minute walk to the beautiful Dozer Park, home of the Chiefs.

Jim and his brothers all worked in the restaurant growing up.

That’s how life is in Peoria. The earth moves slow, until something like the January, 2017 announcement that Caterpillar was moving its headquarters to Chicago. Caterpillar had talked about building new headquarters in Peoria in 2015. This news shook Peoria  and Jim’s right to the core of its 160-seat lover level steakhouse.

Caterpillar’s roots are near Stockton, Ca. but the company purchased a bankrupt East Peoria manufacturing company in 1909 and has since been part of the community fabric. The company headquarters is just two blocks away from Jim’s.

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“Since 1960 we have served every CEO Caterpillar ever had,” Comfort said. “Then they give control of the company to people out of state, and like most downstate, people are moving headquarters out of downstate to Chicago or other states. Nobody here likes their decision to move.”

And then in early March, IRS and federal agents raided Caterpillar offices in Peoria as part of an investigation into allegations that the farm equipment manufacturing company was shifting profits overseas to avoid taxation.

Comfort was born and raised in Peoria. “When we got of high school, we could work at any of Caterpillar’s factories and make good money,”  he said. “Most of my friends fathers supported families; four, six, eight kids, running a machine for Caterpillar. That has all changed.

“Those factories have been bulldozed in East Peoria. There’s very little manufacturing done around here.”

Caterpillar did step up to the plate in 2013 when the Chiefs had  financial problems. Caterpillar gave the Chiefs $2 million in funding  for stadium naming rights over 10 years matched by $2.7 million in new investment of cash and equity by the Chiefs’ ownership group of about 50.  In May, 2013, the former O’Brien Stadium was renamed Dozer Park, a reference to Caterpillar bulldozers.

The best of plans push forward. Today, Tim’s younger brother Greg runs Jim’s Steakhouse in Bloomington, Ill. Older brother Jim, Jr. operates Jim’s Bistro in Peoria Heights. “We each have our own Jim’s,” Comfort said. “My brothers and I started out as dishwashers, busboys. Then we went on to cleaning the restaurant. Our parents had us prep cook. We ran the salad department. From there we went into back up cooking and running the broiler. We knew how to do everything.”

The Janssen Building was erected in 1990 in the former site of the Niagara Hotel and the basement speakeasy known as The Combo Club.  The warm interior contains ample flourishes of cherry wood, brass and marble. When a guest walks into Jim’s it does feel like the 1960s all over again. “My father always told us to stay traditional and not go into anything that would go out of style,” Comfort said. “This restaurant hasn’t changed in 25 years.

Courtesy of Tim Comfort

Jim’s photo courtesy of Tim Comfort

“Downtown Peoria has changed considerably. Pete Vonachen (1925-2013) pushed for the ballpark downtown. It took him a long time. You can see (Peoria’s leading builder) Ray Becker’s buildings as you leave Jim’s. He built all these tall buildings downtown (in the early 1990s). Most of the growth now is going to the northwest part of town.”

Many of the celebrities stopped into Jim’s because they were  appearing at the nearby Peoria Civic Center or staying in a downtown hotel. Dan Fogelberg (1951-2007) signed a picture and it is encased with a signed guitar along a wall. “Dan and his wife ate here every time they were in town,” Comfort recalled in humble Peoria tones. “This was his restaurant. Sometimes they would come in and order appetizers, sit in the corner and you didn’t even know they were in the place. They were wonderful people and they are really missed.

“Warren Zevon was playing the Madison Theater. That was a to-go order and we ran it down there. He was nice enough to autograph a picture for us. Fabio? I don’t know what he was doing in Peoria. He had no reservation. He just walked in with a whole group of women behind him. He had (Alaskan King) crab legs. (Cubs Hall of Famer) Ryne Sandberg has been here a couple dozen times Remember he managed here for a while (2007.). Jim Thome signed a baseball bat for us. We probably have a half-dozen signed baseballs. We bother him every time he comes in. He has family in Peoria. He’s an avid outdoorsman.”

Jerry Daughters (L) and Tim Comfort

Jerry Daughters (L) and Tim Comfort

Retired Creve Coeur (Ill.) police chief Jerry Daughters is a fast friend of Jim’s. When Daughters was police chief from the mid-1970s to 1993 he would take more than 100 Peoria area kids to the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis for annual meets and greets with players, especially during Cubs-Cardinals games.

Daughters has dozens of black and white photographs of visits with Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and even Cubs manager Herman Franks, who never missed a meal.

Daughters wandered into Comfort’s office and asked, “Who was the horn player on ‘The Tonight Show? (Doc Severinsen.) He was staying at the Mark Twain and had a concert somewhere. I was shooting the stuff with him.

“Creve Coeur was a hot place back then. We had 12 taverns open until four a..m. and a band in all of them. He was wondering where to go after his show. Now Creve Coeur is dead.”

Actor-comedian Richard Pryor was from Peoria and in 2014 a Richard Pryor Avenue was renamed in his honor just a few blocks away from Jim’s. “Richard Pryor, Jr. has been here several times,” Comfort said. “I asked him, ‘Did your father ever come to Jim’s?’ He said he was sure he had come, maybe in the early 1960s. Sam Kinison (Peoria native) was in Jim’s at least 12 times. You always heard what a wild guy he was. All he ever requested was fresh brewed iced tea. His parents were (Pentecostal) preachers and I think he preached for a while himself.” In a 1989 conversation , Kinison indeed told me he used to preach at a church at 918 W. Belmont in Chicago.

One of the more unique aspects of Jim’s is the logo that features a piano and a piano player. Most urban steakhouses and supper clubs have trimmed the budget for live entertainment. But music will always play in Peoria.

Richard Pryor, native of Peoria, Ill., USA

Richard Pryor, native of Peoria, Ill., USA

Comfort looked at the week’s entertainment scrawled out on a sheet of yellow paper that hung on his office wall. He said, “Bonnie (Tuesday night) is a 19-year-old Bradley student. Ed and Judy are in their 70s, they’ve been playing for us for 30 years. Ben and Kate (Friday night piano and voice duo) are the younger version of Ed and Judy, they’re in their 30s. We have a harpist from 6 to 8 on Friday and Saturday nights.

“Entertainment is expensive. I keep telling our talent, ‘Don’t outprice yourself because it’s not a good time to be a musician. Then the music licensing companies want more money for live entertainment. We just paid ASCAP and BMI is due in May.” Jim’s intimate lounge-piano bar area sits about 35 people.

Of course as my late father (a Swift & Company purchasing agent in Chicago) would say, “The meat makes the meal.” Comfort explained, “We’re a traditional steakhouse just as you would find in Chicago. We have the dry-aged Porterhouses, rib-eyes. We take a lot of pride in our beef and that’s what has kept us rolling all these years.”

Jim’s menu menu highlights  include a chopped sirloin bacon wrapped with blue cheese and grilled onions ($16.95), pot roast ($21.95) and baby back ribs ($24.95). “We’re in the category of Gene and Georgetii’s, Harry Caray’s and Rosebud in Chicago,” Comfort said. “I’ve eaten at all of them. We hae people who come down from Chicago and they can’t believe how cheap we are. We cannot get Chicago prices downstate, but it is the same quality and same beef.” And there’s no beef about making Jim’s a must visit for the classic Peoria experience; the way things once were.

 

Tracy the Mermaid (Dave Hoekstra photo and tip)

Tracy the Mermaid (Dave Hoekstra photo and tip.)

GREAT FALLS, MT.–The wide open spaces of Montana can spawn the tallest of tales.

Located in sleepy downtown Great Falls, the mid-century O’Haire Motor Inn is anchored by the Sip n’ Dip Lounge. Guests walk up a short flight of stairs past traditional western lithographs into the lounge.

The dimly lit bar has a tiki motif replete with a 1960s bamboo ceiling. On Wednesday through Friday nights “Piano Pat”  Sponheim is playing lounge music with a subtle polka beat. She has been the Sip n’ Dip headliner for more than 50 years.

Piano Pat faces the bar and a large window that is adjacent to the motel swimming pool.

This is not some cowboy cantina.

On a steamy June evening she is playing a polka version of the boogie George Thorogood version of Hank Williams “Move it On Over.” A silver disco hangs above Pat. A major league baseball game is playing on a television set directly behind her. Pat is in her own world.

I order a cold bottle of beer, the kind with threads of perspiration rolling down the side like creeks down a mountain.

Two beautiful mermaids with eight feet long tails are swimming inside the pool. One mermaid waves at me. This is not a wet dream.

“The most surprising thing is that we have mermaids in the middle of landlocked Montana,” says Sandra Thares, General Manager of the motor inn and lodge in an interview the day after my visit. “Our mermaids are in there six to seven days a week.” The mermaids start swimming at 6 p.m until their shift ends around 10 or 11 p.m.

Piano Pat singing “Margaritaville” while all this is going on is pretty overwhelming. Pat plays piano with one hand and organ with the other hand. About ten people can sit around her piano, not unlike the late great Lou Snider holding court at the late great Nye’s Polonaise Room in Minneapolis. “Pat is the heart of the Sip and Dip,” Thares says. “She’s been playing at the piano every single week except for vacation for more than 50 years.”

PianoPat

Piano Pat (Courtesy of the Sip n’ Dip Lounge)

Locals also talk about the lounge’s “Fish Bowl,” an anti-freeze blue concoction of 10 to 12 shots of rum and fruit juice served in a  64-ounce fish bowl. “If you’re coming to drink one of those, you probably should get a room,” Thares says. “But they are meant to be shared with friends. And every tropical drink you can think of you can get here.”

The O’Haire Motor Inn opened in the fall of 1962 at the corner of 7th Street and 1st Avenue South back when downtown Great Falls had great dreams. The motor inn had the only public parking garage in town. Thares’ stepfather bought the complex in 1968.

“Pat can’t quite remember the year she started,” says Thares, 46. “Its 1963 or ’64. We’ve been trying to get her in the Guinness Book of World Records but we can’t find any paperwork. She would be under ‘Longest House Gig of a Bar’. The keyboards have always been her domain. She politely declines any assistance from guests, but there’s been a few guests over the years. (Country singer-songwriter) Phil Vassar was one.” And so was Julliard professor and composer Phil Lasser. I’d love it if Lasser and Vassar bumped into each other one night at the Sip n’ Dip.

The motel was built by brothers Bill and Edgar O’Haire. Edgar was a Montana contractor before opening the motel. “They traveled the U.S. for an entire year finding everything they liked wherever they stayed,” Thares says. “They bought it back here and put it into this motel.” My room had a ceiling-sized mirror above my bed.

But there were no mermaids in my room.

“The idea for the mermaid windows actually came from the Playboy Club in Chicago where they had a set up similar to this,” Thares says. She is referring to Hugh Hefner’s original Playboy Mansion at 1340 N. State Parkway in Chicago. Hef held court in this 72-room space between 1959 and 1974 before moving to Los Angeles. The downstairs classical French style indoor pool featured swimming Playboy bunnies. The bar could be reached by shimmying down a fireman’s pole.

This gives a different meaning to ‘Great Falls.’

The entire motor inn  is made of concrete which translates into quiet rooms. The O’Haire brothers even built a helipad above the pool.

The early days of the O'Haire Motor Inn

The early days of the O’Haire Motor Inn

“That was back when oil barons would fly in and out on helicopters,” Thares says. “They were building the ICBM (Intercontinental Ballisitic Missile)  silos n the area in the late ’60s. We had the contract to house the government crews. They would come in on helicopters every night. The port has been disassembled. It was shaking the building a little too much.” The motor inn still has 64 rooms. Each room has a souvenir yellow rubber ducky in the bath tub.

“We did not start the mermaids until 1996,” Thares says. “But before that many a guest was swimming in the pool and putting on a show (for the bar). Keep in mind it was during the time of the three martini lunches. And we had a beauty shop down the hall. Women would get their hair done and men would come to the bar and have a cocktail or two while waiting for their wives. You never quite knew who was going to walk in the pool.”

The Sip n’ Dip soon became known for its Skin n’ Dippers.

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The pool is eight feet deep at its deepest end. The pool is now locked and closed to the public when the mermaids perform. But the occasional guest gets in on the action.

Texas comedian Ron White jumped in with the mermaids while he was fully clothed. Actress Daryl Hannah put on a mermaid costume when she was in town filming the acclaimed 2003 film “Northfork” with Nick Notle and James Woods. Hannah co-starred with Tom Hanks in the 1984 mermaid flick “Splash.”

“It was in the middle of the week and quiet in the lounge,” Thares recalls. “Maybe four people. Daryl Hannah told the bartender, ‘I want to be the mermaid.’ We went and got her tails. She swam for about 15  minutes, got out, autographed the window and away she went. Unfortunately about six months after she autographed the window, the window cracked and it had to be replaced.”

Thares even designs and makes the vinyl, velvet, beads and sequin mermaid tails.

“If I had known how much work it would be I probably would not have started it,” she says. “I spend about eight hours a week working on the mermaid tails. Each of the mermaids picks what they want it too look like.”

Mermaids Tracy (L) and Alex (Dave Hoekstra portrait)

Montana Mermaids Tracy (L) and Alex (Dave Hoekstra portrait)

It is hard work being a mermaid.

Each tail weighs between 10 and 15 pounds. Thares explains,  “They’re dragging that extra weight around off their waist. They’re not allowed to use their feet because they’re in a tail. They’re mermaids. They don’t have feet.

“Most of them swim in four to five  hour shifts two to three days a week. We get criticism from people who say, ‘Mermaids don’t wear goggles!’ The reason our mermaids wear goggles is so they can see everyone in the lounge and have that crowd interaction.

A large fish-bowl tip jar stands behind the bar for customers who want their picture taken with the mermaid–and with this being all P.C. 2016–mermen.

Mermen appear on Tuesday nights. “We put mermen in the pool a few years ago and it was an epic failure,” Thares says. “Last year we started getting the request again. They started the first of March and it has been a huge success.”

And in recent months the Sip n’ Dip even added a Sunday “Mermaid Brunch” for families. An all you can eat brunch is offered on the first and third Sunday of every month, featuring blue Mermosas. Of course.

Everyone cannot become a Sip n’ Dip mermaid or merman.

First off, applicants need to know how to swim.

“My ‘merpeople,’ Thares says with a light tone of sarcasm, “Because we can’t be gender specific, the merpeople have to complete an application at the front desk. Then they go through a half hour interview process about their swimming background. The first checkmark is if they have to hold their nose under water. If they have to hold their nose under water they are ineligible to be a merperson. Why do they want to be a mermaid or merman?

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Tracy (left) and Alex wear wigs to keep their hair in shape (D. Hoekstra photo)

“From there they go into a 10 minute swim tryout, based on swimming ability and audience appeal. Can they smile under water? Can they blow bubbles? If they survive that 10 minutes, then we put them in a tail for the next 10 minutes and hope they don’t drown. At that point we’re really looking for swimming ability.

“We don’t care what they look like. They can be heavy, thin, it doesn’t matter. We can do anything with the tails. It’s really about if they’re going to have fun when they’re in there swimming.”

On the night of my visit Tracy Nesbo is training rookie mermaid Alex Strom. During the day Tracy is a nurse’s aid assistant in Great Falls. She has been a Montana Mermaid since Oct. 28, 2012. This will be Alex’s first night. She is also a server at a Great Falls Applebee’s and is studying to become a midwife.

Tracy explains,”I will show her how to put on our tails, jump in the pool and start acting like we’re mermaids. You get into your zone. You go to the bottom of the pool and give the customers the ‘fishy face.’ You act like you’re going to fish for them and reel them in. It’s very therapeutic. It’s a great workout.”

“You have to keep your legs together (in the tail) so its mostly your upper arm strength, The hardest part of being a mermaid is sinking because you want to float to the surface. You learn how to stay down in the water. That’s the hardest part. I think I can now hold my breath for a minute.”

The Sip n’ Dip is clearly the most breathtaking place in Great Falls.

The motor inn and lounge has an engaging, organic feel of authenticity. The Sip n’ Dip did not just tumble out of the Big Sky like a hipster Chicago tiki bar with a wait line. 

It is a real place.

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One of the most remarkable bars in America (Courtesy of the Sip n’ Dip Lounge)

Thares nods her head and explains, “I always tell my staff, ‘Don’t promise more than what we are.’ We are face value. People go, ‘You don’t have authentic tiki totem poles.’ Well, I’m sorry about that, but you know what, I’m not changing that.

“Or, ‘You should put the mermaids in a big rubber suit with a tail so they look more like a mermaid.’ First of all, I hate to break it to everybody but mermaids really aren’t real. We get asked that question 50 times a night.

“So maybe it doesn’t look a lot like a mermaid—but it looks like our mermaid.”

Thares was born in Great Falls and moved to Billings, Mt.. Her stepfather bought the motor hotel and lounge in 1968. “I became  part of his family in 1974,” she says. “In 1976 he and my mom were in a very bad accident. We had to move in with my grandmother in Spokane. A cousin took over the business and he ran it until 1994. We were living in Billings Dad said, ‘Do you want to  move to Great Falls and run the family business?’ I said, ‘Hell no,’ but yeah, here I am 24 years later.

“Downtown Great Falls was thriving when this opened. We had J.C. Penney’s downtown. Woolworth’s, Bon Marche’, which was a big department store. As with any other downtown in any other small town, it hit on hard times, But it’s coming back. A microbrewery came in downtown. There’s some new development. Its fun for us because we’ve always been the cornerstone of downtown Great Falls. And we’ve weathered the storm. We never meant for this to become a tourist attraction. And it has become that and we’re trying to wrap our head around that.”

And don’t keep your head above the water.

Oceanic Arts co-founders LeRoy Schmaltz (far left) and Bob Van Oosting (far right) with author and his friend.

Oceanic Arts co-founders LeRoy Schmaltz (far left) and Bob Van Oosting (far right) with author and his friend, April 2016.

WHITTIER, Ca.–Every day is a getaway day at Oceanic Arts.

The holy grail of American tiki culture is tucked back in an industrial park in Whittier, Calif., the early home of President Richard Nixon.

Oceanic Arts is to the free blue seas what the Watergate complex was to fishy burglars.

Oceanic Arts is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Founders LeRoy Schmaltz and Bob Van Oosting are still hanging ten. 

Master carver Schmaltz turns 81 years old on May 14. His large hands are battered and knotty, the passionate notches within a mountain of a man.

Schmaltz’s father Earl was a 17-year-old  choir director on the north side of Chicago, became an insurance salesman and later counted votes for Al Capone. His grandson Darby Goodwin was on the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 All-State Football team as a defensive lineman for Loyola Academy.

The family left Chicago for the west coast and Schmaltz was born in Los Angeles.  Van Oosting, 80,  is a former carver and the Los Angeles native now runs the business end of Oceanic Arts.

Oceanic Arts delivered the South Seas decor to Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber, Disneyland, the Polynesian Hotel at Disney World, the Bali Hai in San Diego and even the set of the “Gilligan’s Island” television show. Oceanic Arts sends supplies to Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash tiki bar on a monthly basis.

The 10,000 square feet Oceanic Arts is open to the public and features carvings, tiki heads, totems, shields, masks, thatching, fake tropical birds, seashell light shades, magazines, tiki CDs and books such as Douglas A. Nason’s “Night of The Tiki (The Art of Shag, Schmaltz and Selected Primitive Ocean Carvings)” [Last Gasp, $49.95]

Oceanic Arts showroom

Oceanic Arts showroom, April 2016

Visitors are greeted by a female mannequin in a grass skirt and a small waterfall as they enter the mall of eternal high tides. Oceanic Arts has two other warehouses in Whittier. It is not known if President Nixon shopped at Oceanic Arts, but Johnny Depp is a regular customer.

The Rolling Stones once rented from Oceanic Arts for a party. “We lost some things,” Schmaltz said during an early April conversation at Oceanic Arts. “We don’t know where the party was but some of our skulls ended up at other people’s houses.

We didn’t do a lot for ‘Gilligan’s Island’ originally. There was another firm that was closer to Hollywood. We got involved in later years with bamboo and thatching for their sets.

Oceanic Arts workshop (D. Hoekstra photo)

Oceanic Arts workshop (D. Hoekstra photo)

Most of “Gilligan’s Island” was shot at Radford Studios in Studio City, Ca. Earlier segments were shot on the beach in Malibu and the pilot was made on the island of Kauai.

Van Oosting said, “Early on when we were broke we were in a barn that was used for horses for a while. To save some money we decided to use some boards on the floor and carve them. They ended up in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. These boards had been urinated on for years by horses. We wire brushed the boards, hosed them down every day, but we started hearing about this ‘strange aroma’ in this restaurant.”

In his book, Nason wrote of Schmaltz, “Through his work as co-founder and an artist at the Oceanic Arts gallery and shop, he has probably had a larger influence on where tikis appeared and how they were perceived in America than any other individual.”

Van Oosting has been attributed to have said, “As long as the world is in turmoil, people always turn to peaceful, pleasurable worlds–and this is one of them.”

The good Dutchman laughed and said, “That must have been somebody else who said that. It is a fun place to be. We get set designers who meet here for some odd reason and they say to each other, ‘I haven’t seen you in 22 years.’  We get Wayne Johnson, ‘The Rock,’ Bridget Fonda. You supply a tropical movie, then they want to do their house that way.”

Schmaltz said, “In the earlier days we had a lot of people from Disney, architectural firms and interior decorators who made a beeline every Friday to our shop. We were more loose then. We had drinks and barbecues going.”

Oceanic Arts emporium, April 2016

Oceanic Arts emporium.

Schmaltz and Van Oosting met as students at Mt. San Jacinto College, about 25 miles from the current Oceanic Arts location.

Schmaltz was studying architecture and carving Palm Frond Masks (the thickest part of a palm tree leaf)  as a side project. Schmaltz and Van Oosting partnered up and sold thousands of Palm Frond Masks (500 per order) to the Builder’s Emporium home improvement chain. Their wives stained and painted the masks.

“We got a little place in Bob’s garage,” Schmaltz said. “In the late 1940s Bob Carter was importing tikis and tapa cloth from the South Pacific (to sell to “Trader” Vic Bergeron and Donn Beach of Don the Beachcomber’s). He saw us and invited us to start working. We didn’t know much about tikis.” One of their earliest popular items was the Tahitian Support Posts for Trader Vic’s.

Oceanic Arts---what a place.

Oceanic Arts—what a place.

Van Oosting added, “We grew into a packing shed in Whittier, overlooking Los Angeles, We started doing carvings for Bob. We did some sales work for him. He was also involved with the Kahiki (in Columbus, Ohio) and we supplied them.” But both men kept their day jobs–Van Oosting worked in a pots and pans factory and the Hickory Hop drive-in restaurant in Pico Rivera, Ca. “Just a hippity hop to the Hickory Hop,” he cracked. Schmaltz was a designer and salesman in mid-century modern furniture at Crossroads Furniture in Whittier.

Initially, their work did not whet any appetite for tropical escapism.

Schmaltz said, “I went to look at mountains near here. So did Bob. That was paradise to us, you got the pine trees. Then the desert areas are kind of neat. We have the ocean here.”

Van Oosting added, “Once we got in the business, paradise was out there.  So we went out there for three and a half months and 37,000 miles.

The carvers are modest about that 1960 journey they call “The Big Trip.”

Schmaltz and Van Oosting traveled from Hawaii through Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Guinea, the Australian outback and then New Zealand. “Hawaii was no different than being in Southern California with the same stores and businesses,” Van Oosting said. “Once we got on the airplane and landed in Tahiti we were in paradise. In those Tahiti and Bora Bora didn’t have any hotels. We stayed in grass shacks. Bob Carter helped plant a dream into us. He had a slide show he showed us of his trips.”

“We hired a Chinese Tahitian fellow with a speedboat and went all around the islands. He wanted us to see the schools and figured the kids would get a kick out of it (the visitors in a speedboat). We have color slides of those kids and they looked at us and started crying.” The kids had never seen white people.

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Bob (left) and LeRoy (right) in Chimbu Village near Papua, New Guinea–1960. (Courtesy of Oceanic Arts)

The journey instilled a world of confidence in the young carvers.

“We were supposedly just young punk kids who didn’t know anything,”  Schmaltz said. “We kind of made ourselves an authority. We knew what we had seen. They were filming Marlon Brando’s ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ when we were in Tahiti. So we looked at all the structures and buildings. We never saw Marlon Brando but we heard about him. He wanted a carved head but we didn’t let him have it.”

Van Oosting elaborated, “We learned a lot about design. We saw a book from 1868 in Fiji. We picked up good ideas in Dutch New Guinea. We have their masks and shields we replicated in hardwood. Somehow through gin and tonics and stuff we landed home in Los Angeles with $1.50 in our pockets.”

LeRoy Schmaltz, still carving at 81 (D. Hoekstra photo)

LeRoy Schmaltz, still carving at 81. (D. Hoekstra photo)

The carvers later worked for Pan American World Airways in Samoa and Tahiti. The largest tiki in Tahiti is 30 feet tall–it was carved out of Southern California pine by Schmaltz.

Van Oosting said,  “We never got a ‘big break.’ We were broke all the time. We had enough to buy a good bottle of rum and that was about it. We did a lot of work for Disney World too.

“LeRoy carved a 35-foot totem pole for them, We did Trader Sam’s (the bar at Disneyland in Anaheim,) At one time LeRoy designed restaurants. We worked on restaurants in Tarrytown, N.Y., one near Kalamazoo, Michigan (the since-razed Tur Mai Kai), another in Denver.”

One of their prize commissions is an 18-feet tall and 16’ wide carved redwood tympanium for Marriott’s Kona Kai at their world headquarters in Bethesda, Md.

Schmaltz has done thousands of carvings in his lifetime.

He prefers redwood, sugar pine and mahagony, wood that is easy purveyed from Southern California lumber mills. Schmaltz deploys chisels, routers, sanders, grinders and chainsaws. “The more things I can get rid of to work faster, I prefer,” he said. “If I could use blasting powder, I would use that too.”

During my visit he was working on light fixtures for LuLu’s in Waikiki.

LeRoy Schmaltz--hand of a carver.

LeRoy Schmaltz–hand of a carver.

What does the master carver think about as he works?

“When I was carving with other people I would go into fantasy land and pretend I was one of the characters I was carving,” he answered. “I’m a New Guinea guy. Or a pirate–arrrrrgh. I try to think how they would be thinking.”

He sells his work to collectors for anywhere from $300 to $2,000. I picked up a hand carved table size Hawaiiian Bloxam Idol warrior for my home tiki bar for $300. The detail, especially in the face, is exquisite. It is made with care and dignity.

Schmaltz still works in his shop on a daily basis.

“I still do carvings,” he said in reflective shades. “Fine art. I keep pretty busy, but I don’t do as many big tikis as I used to. I have to bend down and lift them.” That’s okay.

LeRoy and Bob have uplifted the spirits of people all over the world.

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JOHNSON CREEK, WIS.—-The band Starship reopened the historically quirky Gobbler Theater Sunday in Johnson Creek, about half way between Madison and Milwaukee, Wis. Vocalist Stephanie Calvert channeled her inner Grace Slick reminding the older crowd to “Feed Your Head”  in the band’s cover of the Jefferson Airplane 1967 hit “White Rabbit.”

Only the late 1960s would be able to birth the Gobbler Motel and Supper Club.

Feed your head, indeed.

The Gobbler complex was created in 1967 by area turkey farmer Clarence Hartwig, who decorated his dining room in pink colors and pink shag carpeting. Late Wisconsin architect Helmut Ajango blended Mid-Century design with Prairie Architecture in a place that was advertised “Where Central Wisconsin Meets the Concorde Age.”

The Gobbler served turkey 365 days a year, along with supper club staples like prime rim and seafood. From the ground, the Gobbler Theater looks like a compacted Houston Astrodome. From the air, it looks like a turkey, even with windows replicating turkey eyes.

Early into the band’s hour long set, Starship lead singer Mickey Thomas remarked, “This is a beautiful venue–and very unique.”

Thomas stared ahead to the original circular bar, formerly the Royal Roost Cocktail Lounge.

The bar was bathed in Princely purple light and still revolves like the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. But the Gobbler bar moves in a more meandering hourly rotation than the Carousel. In the late 1960s Willie Nelson played in the Gobbler basement for $695 and he likely flew by more than once an hour.

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Gobbler bar–reopening night (D. Hoekstra photo)

The Gobbler sold out all of its 475 seats on opening night. In fact, I bought the last ticket at $35 about an hour before the 7 p.m. showtime. I was on I-94 back to Chicago by 8:15 p.m. Audience seating is circular and elevated, like a theater in the round. The  most distant seat is just 55 feet from the stage. Accented by a tall American flag in a stand, the stage is on the site of the former kitchen.

Food is not served at the Gobbler. Wisconsin beers are a reasonable $5 and $6, wines and Mike’s Hard Lemonades are $4 and $6. The hilltop motel is gone but new owner Dan Manesis has done a remarkable job in restoring the Jets0n-like supper club into a fine music venue.

The best way to get George Lucas out of Chicago’s hair is to send him to the Gobbler.

Manesis even looks like Lucas with a spiritual dash of Jerry Garcia.

Dan Manesis at the Gobbler (Wisconsin State-Journal photo)

Dan Manesis at the Gobbler (Wisconsin State-Journal photo)

Manesis’s story is as unique as the venue’s.

He owns a Milwaukee trucking and warehouse company and has been racing dragsters since 1980 at the Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove. Wis.

His team currently drives the Carol “Playboy Bunny” Burkett tribute car, a 1973 Ford Pinto, colored  pink for breast cancer awareness. Manesis, 62, attended University of  Wisconsin in Madison in the late 1960s where he obtained his business accounting degree.

“I would bring girls to the Gobbler supper club while at University of Wisconsin,” Manesis said on the day after his successful re-opening. “A steak was $16 and I made $1.30 an hour, so I had to work a long time to go on a date. It was a miniature Playboy Club. The waitresses had neat little outfits and they had turkey feathers coming out of their suits instead of the little bunny tail. It was a high falootin’ place.”

The Gobbler, 2016, before Starship concert. (D. Hoekstra photo)

The Gobbler, 2016, before Starship concert. (D. Hoekstra photo)

Original owner Hartwig died suddenly and his family could not keep the establishment going. Under different ownerships The Gobbler became a rib shack and a Mexican restaurant–the outside consists of Mexican lava rock. It reopened in 1996 for a brief period as The New Gobbler before closing again.

In recent years the Johnson Creek Village Board vetoed the idea of a small Gobbler casino. In my 2013 “The Supper Club Book (A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition)” [Chicago Review Press], former Gobbler owner Marvin Havill said, “It could have been a Gentleman’s Club many times over, but the village won’t tolerate that. It’s a perfect building for that. (It was going to be called ‘A Gobbler-A-Go-Go’.) There’s twenty inches of poured concrete. It’s like a bunker. There’s walls of petrified wood. Quartz crystal.”

The Gobbler is to the Midwest what Gilligan was to the island.

Thank goodness for Manesis.

“About two years ago my wife was across the street at the outlet mall buying a purse,” said Manesis, who now lives in Muskego, a suburb of Milwaukee. “I looked on the other side of the road and said, ‘Look! It’s the Gobbler!’ She kind of  slumped down and thought, ‘Oh no.’ So we drove over here and saw the sign that said, ‘Save the Gobbler, no reasonable offer refused.’ That was on a Saturday.”

The next day Manesis met with former owner Havill and his business partner. “I came in, looked at it for 15, 20 minutes and we made a deal with a handshake,” he said. “The only contingency was to get an occupancy permit from Johnson Creek. The village board asked, ‘What do you know about music?’ I said, ‘Nothing, but that I had people around me that would help me make this a success.”

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New Gobbler Theater logo (D. Hoekstra photo)

Remodeling the old bird was an 18 month process and cost more than $2 million.

“The place was structurally sound but all the mechanicals in the building did not work,” Manesis explained. “We had to bring everything up to code. We wanted to do it right.”

A 70,000 pound Gobbler dance floor with a disco ball hung over the bar from the ceiling.

Manesis removed that.

“We had to be very careful,” he said. “We had to take it down in little bits, just like you put lugnuts on a tire. We had to keep rotating, otherwise we would have sprung the ceiling and the venue would have been junked. The dance floor was made of plywood, steel and tons of drywall and plaster. A two-story kitchen was where the stage is. That kitchen served the main floor and it was a way to bring food to people upstairs. All that had to be removed.”

The original Gobbler Supper Club dance floor

The original Gobbler Supper Club upstairs dance floor-note the George Burns portrait.

“I remember guys coming here in tuxedos and gals in evening gowns for dinner. But time has passed. I just looked at it as an auditorium because it is round. I never planned to serve food. It was not designed as a supper club, but as a theater. Our research showed Clarence (Hartwig) changed his mind to make it a supper club at the last minute.”

Located on 10 acres of land just off of I-94, the Gobbler hosted a couple of private events in February and Manesis donated the space to the Johnson Creek school system for a play. The Starship gig was the first event open to the public.

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A recent video image with a supper club typo.

Although Mickey Thomas briefly referenced the spaceship feel of the venue, Manesis said the Starship booking was mere coincidence. “I liked them back in the day,” he said. “Mickey and Stephanie are great singers. The age of the people here were between 45 and 60. We have a state of the art sound and light system. The band was happy because it was so welcoming. There’s not a bad seat in the house. Players from the Milwaukee Bucks used to come here. It was a celebrity destination. We found pictures of John Glenn and other astronauts who came here.”

The Starship evening was cosmic.

The crowd pleaser was “We Built This City” where much of the audience stood up and clapped while blocking the views of rural Wisconsin from aquarium like windows. Wearing a sharp suit and tie that accented his beard and playful Jerry Garcia like face, Manesis watched from the side of the stage with the satisfied smile from a Thanksgiving day feast.

Earlier in the show Thomas put his foot on a monitor, looked to the retro skies and belted out the Starship hit “Find Your Way Back” as if he were at some arena show in Europe.

But he was at the Gobbler Theater.

Before the concert, I met Laura and Ron Oldenhofn of Lebanon , Wis. 

They honeymooned at the Gobbler Motel and Supper Club on Dec. 1, 1979.

“The bar, ceiling and windows are the same,” Laura she said as she looked around the theater with approval. “Dining tables were around the bar (where concert seating is now.) I don’t remember lights around the bar. We stayed here for three days. That was our honeymoon and that’s all we could afford.”

Ron and Laura, Gobbler honeymooners (D. Hoekstra photo)

Ron and Laura, Gobbler honeymooners (D. Hoekstra photo)

Ron added, “ I remember we had a water bed in our suite.” Ron is a retired welder and Laura is an office manager at a vet clinic. She reflected, “We came here tonight for the music, but it was fun to come for the memories We were laughing about it all.”

I loved the Gobbler experience so much, I’d come back to visit even without live music.

Manesis said that’s not in the cards.

He is looking at booking folk, country and legacy rock acts. No further public shows have been announced. “Tonight we have it rented for a corporate event,” he said on Monday, April 24. “It’s available for any type of commercial party. I’m putting a call into (the rock band ) Kansas. Bands want a nice place to play at between Chicago and Minneapolis and many places in Madison and Milwaukee are bigger than this.”

The B-52s would be perfect for this place.

“This idea really started about four or five years ago when my son played as a warm up to a band at the Rave in Milwaukee,” Manesis said. “It was sort of seedy and I asked a friend who was a ticket broker why there wasn’t a nice place in the Milwaukee or Madison area that could seat 400, 500 people. He told me if I had something like that I could get up and coming bands or established acts that were starting to slow down and they would fill a venue of that size. The hunt began. I originally looked at a vacant movie theater, but it didn’t have any personality.”

Personality struts its stuff at the Gobbler.

Grand entrance to the Gobbler (D. Hoekstra photo)

Grand entrance to the Gobbler (D. Hoekstra photo)

“The first year we are trying to establish the Gobbler as a going business,” he said.

“Making money is far behind giving folks a good time at an affordable price. I’m a living Jerry Garcia. We want to have fun.”

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Vicki Shepherd camper van artwork

WARSAW, Ind.—The meaningful solitude of driving reaches a higher level by taking a trip in a camper van. I don’t mean an RV where you bring along friends and family, or even hitching up with an Airstream trailer. I mean a small camper van: where you are alone as a question mark, one bed, a workspace, a fridge and Greg Brown music about backroads and broken hearts.

And that’s where I’m going.

While driving around America for the past 30 years I’ve learned how the real American pastime feeds the imagination. Reflections in the campground river are unfiltered. Driving puts dreams in motion.

Vicki Shepherd and her younger brother Scott Wiley are examples of this pursuit of happiness.

I connected with Vicki through her whimsical art work of camper vans and RVs on a dark January afternoon. As I was researching my next book I saw a stack of her prints in the corner of the gift shop of the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind. 

I loved the bright colors and escapist nature of her self-taught work. Vicki draws on art paper with ink markers and sharpies. I bought a print of 16 campers on dual Ferris wheels. A carnival sign advertised “CAMPER RIDES.” I had to find out more about her. Like twinkling neon around a gloomy corner, I made an authentic discovery.

Vicki, Scott and Vicki’s husband Jeff Shepherd purchase old camper vans and trailers and restore them.

They call this “Camper Pickin’.”

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Vicki and her brother Scott Wiley (D. Hoekstra photo, March, 2016)

This summer and fall I’ll be driving around America in my 20’ by 8’ Ford Transit conversion van. Ford did a similar job for the “American Pickers” television show from the new Ford plant in Kansas City, Mo.

Vicki will custom design the inside of any van, even mine. In the past, she has done baseball themes and Jimmy Buffett influenced campers.

Scott generally restores the exterior, although they also work separately on found vans. One of their jobs became a concession stand at the University of Notre Dame. Another restored camper is part of a Bed and Breakfast in Georgia. A Michigan photographer bought a reborn 1956 Vacationette to use as a studio.

Vicki has drawn 50 van/RV related pictures. She makes van drawings for friends, family and did one for Camping World. Vicki has restored about 55 camper vans and trailers. I’m asking her to do a subtle tiki motif for my van interior. Bamboo brings good luck.

During the late 1960s Vicki was a dancer (not a stripper) at the Cat’s Meow in Fort Wayne. Ind. In sort of a Hooserized version of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, she danced in white go-go boots along side music greats like Fats Domino, Brasil 66 and Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders. Little Richard headlined the downtown Fort Wayne club from April 21-26, 1969.

The Cat’s Meow was an upscale club with catwalks and an illuminated dance floor. In her later years, Vicki was a hospice nurse, so I guess that’s go-go to gone-gone. From 1984 to 1985 her brother was team chaplain for the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. This is one remarkable family.

Vicki during her Cat's Meow years (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

Vicki during her Cat’s Meow years (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

Their father Don Wiley was an industrial engineer who was plant manager at Magnavox electronics in Fort Wayne. He was best friends with Fort Wayne legend Philo Farnsworth, who invented the television system.

“The first thing I ever played with was a slide rule,” Vicki cracked during a March afternoon conversation at Scott’s log home in Warsaw. “I took it out of Dad’s pocket.”

Their mother Maxine Wiley was a Justice of the Peace in Auburn, Ind. who also owned the Carnaby Square Dance Club in Warsaw, about 38 miles east of Fort Wayne. During the 1960s the Chicago-based Buckinghams played Carnaby Square.

Vicki's memories of Carnaby Square

Vicki’s memories of Carnaby Square

The kids lived large in Indiana’s wide open spaces.

“In 1995 there was a resort park down by Silver Lake,” Vicki said. “Friend of my husband’s. He had these old trailers, 1920s, 30s and 40s. Nobody wanted them. He couldn’t get lot rent. He said, ‘How bout if I give you the trailer, you fix it up, sell it, and that way I’ll get the rent.’ None of this was popular then. If I had known then what I know now, I would have bought every one of them.”

Vicki, Scott and Jeff restored them and sold them for $2,000 or $3,000.

She pointed out, “These weren’t canned hams (tiny trailers hitched to a truck.) They were things like Lucy and Ricky’s (1954 hit comedy) ‘Long, Long Trailer’.”

What is home? Where is sense of place? French psychoanalyst Oliver Marc spoke of how early man took possession of space. He wrote, “It is through self-expression that man sets out on the road back to unity. It is a road that passes through the exterior to reach interior unity.”

The quest is the most exciting part of Vicki and Scott’s self-expression.

“There’s a 1958 Mallard I’m trying to get,” Vicki said. “It’s a hoarder’s house. I mean it’s in ‘Deliverance’ down there by (rural) Laketon. I go up to the door. Jeff wouldn’t even get out of the car–he’s a chicken. Dogs are barking and there’s these great big geese. I didn’t know they stretched their necks way out like that. Garbage bags everywhere. They had their Venetian Blinds on the outside of their house! They didn’t answer. I left a note. I’ve been back there three times.”

One of the family's cute restorations

One of the family’s cute restorations

Vicki is retired and Scott has a full time job as Director of Development at Lakeland Christian Academy. His wife Debra is a 2nd grade teacher at the school and their daughter Baylee is a 10th grader at the school.

Scott keeps a vintage 1963 Trailerorboat” on his back porch that overlooks a small river and wooded area where blue heron, deer and a bald eagle can be seen. “There were only 18 Trailerorboats made,” he said. “It’s a little camper with a boat molded into the top. You take the top off when you arrive at the campground and use it as a boat.”

Trailer-or-boat—get it?

The Trailerorboat (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

The Trailerorboat (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

Scott’ collection also included the Camp’OTel (“For people who like going, not towing”), which he found, restored and sold. “It went on the top of your car,” he said. “It folded out into a place to sleep, shower, it had a picnic table built in, a gas stove and a sink too. It even had a little front porch.” The Camp O’ Tel was manufactured in the mid-1960s in Fort Worth, Tx. An advertisement ensures, “Fits on 98 per cent of all cars…A woman can set it up.

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Camp O’ Tel. Some construction needed.

Vicki, 70,  recruited her brother who previously restored cars and motorcycles.

Scott’s showcase item is a 1964 Ford Fairlane four door called “The Spaceliner,” where he removed the top and added sleek white bucket seat and dual bubble tops.

“Campers are fun and cute,” said Scott, 55. “When we started getting into it people had no idea they were collectibles. We’d knock on doors and people would say, ‘If you can get that hunk of junk out of here, you can have it.’ People would give them to us. Or, we would get a camper for $200, put another $100 into it, clean it up and sell it for $3,000. It was a great profit margin. Now, it’s becoming real popular. People are into tiny living.”

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Scott Wiley’s concept for my van (Courtesy of Scott Wiley)

Vicki said that 90 percent of the 55 campers she has restored were made in the Elkhart area, an hour north of Warsaw.

Scott explained, “A lot of cars were made in Northern Indiana. (The Detroit Pistons began in 1941 as the Fort Wayne Zoller Pistons before moving to the Motor City in 1957.) Because of tax breaks it was cheaper to build stuff in Indiana.”

I learned that 85 per cent of America’s RVs are manufactured in the Elkhart area.

Vicki and Dave Hoekstra lost in The Spaceliner (Photo by Scott Wiley)

Vicki and Dave Hoekstra lost in The Spaceliner (Photo by Scott Wiley)

Scott Wiley attended Spring Arbor College in Jackson, Mich. where he majored in Business Administration and Sports Administration. During his senior year in 1984, he obtained an internship with the Pistons. Scott’s first job was editing highlight reels for halftime shows.

“I got to be friends with (Pistons center) Kent Benson,” he said. “Kent was a Christian, I was a Christian. When I was with the Pistons it was Kent, Isiah Thomas and Ray Tolbert–all Indiana graduates. Bill Laimbeer  and Kelly Tripucka were from Notre Dame. I felt at home and they were all my age. I got to know Larry Bird. His point guard at Indiana State was Steve Reed. They called him ‘The Bird Feeder’ and he was our neighbor here in Warsaw. But it was Kent who asked me to be chaplain.”

Sports lines run deep with Vicki and Scott. Their mother was a big Chicago Cubs fan. Their uncle Everett “Deacon” Scott  played in 1,307 consecutive major league games, a streak later broken by Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr. Everett Scott broke into the major leagues in 1914 with the Boston Red Sox when Babe Ruth was a fellow rookie teammate. Everett’s brother Walter Scott played for the St. Louis Browns.

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“Everett’s roommate was Babe Ruth,” Vicki said. “I have the rocker that Babe Ruth rocked my Mom in.” Jeff added, “We had two (1923 Yankee World Champion) baseballs a long time ago. One was lost and never found.”

Vicki added, “We had another ball and it went down the storm sewer in Auburn. Uncle Skippy was playing with it.”

Uncle Skippy lived for the moment, just as you do in a camper van. 

When Mom Wiley was seven years old the Bambino gave her a necklace during a visit to Auburn. Scott recalled, “When her brother Skippy began dating, he gave it to his girlfriend!”

With an sigh, Vicki continued, “Now Uncle Everett suffered from carbuncles. Of all the things to suffer from. Carbuncles are like cysts. We in the family don’t call them boils. He had a big zit on his ear.”

Everett Scott was also an accomplished bowler, racking up 50 perfect games. Scott pointed out, “With a two finger bowling ball.” After Everett retired from baseball he opened Scott’s Bowling Alley in Fort Wayne. He sold that bowling alley to build Northcrest Lanes, in Fort Wayne, which in the 1950s was the biggest bowling alley in Indiana.

Everett died in November, 1960 in Fort Wayne. He was 67 years old.

 “Now this may be interesting to you, Dave,” Vicki said. “He had a Sealy Posturepedic mattress in his casket. And a satin robe. It scared the tar out of me when I saw him.”

Scott said, “Evidently he wanted to be comfortable.”

Evidently interior design is also part of this family’s DNA.

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Vicki and Jeff Shepherd. I told him he reminded me of country singer Billy Joe Shaver.

The camping world calls interior van decorating “Glamping.” Vicki’s children Kip, Matt and Katrina also help out with camper design. Husband Jeff assists with woodwork.

Vicki admitted, “Some glamping is so over done and tacky. I do things with Hawaiian lights. Bamboo on the counter tops. I don’t do wallpaper unless I have to. If it looks good I keep what’s inside. I don’t keep the campers. Everybody thinks I’m this huge camper.

“Well, I’ve never gone camping in my life.”

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Photos, Nov. 2015 by Dave Hoekstra unless noted.


RAPA NUI, CHILE–Some have fallen and some stand tall, which is the story of mankind.

Any pilgrimage to Easter Island, a.k.a. Rapa Nui, must begin at the Rano Raraku quarry where almost all the majestic moai (carvings) were made. Visitors can see nearly 400 of the island’s 887 moais in various stages of artistic endeavor on a healthy hike through Rano Raraku.

Some moai look out towards the ocean, others are horizontal on the ground. I saw one moai tucked in the crevice of a volcanic cliff. Scattered across the quarry, the moai look like pins hit by the strike of a bowling ball. The human form moai were moved from the quarry to locations across the 64 square mile island. Other moai were never intended to leave the quarry.

The moai are architectural wonders of power, wonder and mystery.

We can see ourselves in them.

We strive to stand tall. The Rapa Nui people sculpted the moai between the years of 1200 and 1500 A.D. The three-dimensional moai are set on stone platforms although in recent years archeologists have discovered bottoms. The large heads take up more than half of the statues, which average about 12  feet in height. The size of the statue denotes the amount of prestige, sort of a Donald Trump thing.

The bold but welcoming faces represent ancestors. In recent years a couple of moai have had the whites restored to their sunken eyes.  Moai were the focal point of ahu, ceremonial mortuary sites derived from the East Polynesian sacred place known as Marae, and their placement on  land links them to families.

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Most of the figures were designed in the volcanic rock of Rano Raraku and then chipped away until the facial image remained.

Easter Island was formed by three separate volcanic rock eruptions from the ocean floor somewhere between 100,000 and 1 million years ago. All volcanos on the island are extinct.

Rano Raraku also contains a tree framed picnic area (and gift shop–they are everywhere) for visitors before they embark on a tour of the breathtaking quarry. On a clear day, sea birds, partridge and hawks fly around the grounds of the tiki gods. My late November visit to Easter Island was a trip of eternal summers with angels on my autumn wings. I will never forget this journey of spellbinding rebirth.

Easter Island is the most remote island in the Pacific. (Antarctica is the most isolated place in the world and the surfers told me their best swells come from Antarctica.) The heritage name Rapa Nui was adapted in the mid-1800s, roughly translated as Rapa (island), Nui (large.)

Easter Island was discovered by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeven on Easter day, 1722. 

The island is a five and a half hour flight from Santiago, Chile. My expectation delivered me faster than that. Easter Island is 2,150 miles from the west coast of Santiago and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. Where do you go to draw on spiritual energy? You rent a bicycle and ride around the  island terrain.  You soon learn how small you really are. The bigger moais weigh 90 tons.

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High season in Easter Island is from October to April. Tourism is the number one draw. Only 5,000 people live on Easter Island and tourism numbers have climbed to 100,000 annually.

About 40 per cent of the residents are Rapa Nui, with the rest from mainland Chile and a smattering of British, French and German.

I was surprised that huge  LAN Boeing 787 Dreamliners fly into the tiny Easter Island airport twice a week. My stretch plane was filled with Chilean tourists. During my four days on Easter Island, I met a couple of Canadians, many Japanese tourists and lots of young visitors from Santiago. Easter Island is becoming their Key West.

The in-town airstrip was built in 1996 which launched the Easter Island tourism industry. If I wasn’t schlepping so many souvenir moai back home, I could have walked from my hotel to the airport. Cargo and food are also shipped to the airport on the large planes out of the capital city of Santiago.

The food on Easter Island was outstanding. More than 120 species of  fish, especially mahi-mahi and tuna, are fresh out of the ocean. Beef and chicken are imported from the mainland. I had a memorable breakfast at Tupana, a breakfast and lunch pop-up in a trippy Volkswagen bus. The bus was parked along the bay, which is a popular departure point for surfers. The fresh strawberries, ample bananas and chocolate served atop a warm waffle got me though until mid-afternoons. Internet service can be spotty on the island and Tupana was the only establishment I saw with a hash tag.

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Sunset over the bay is a beautiful thing and can be experienced at the funky La Taverne Du Pecheur. Locals call the owner “The Angry Frenchman.” The two story restaurant features a small outdoor balcony overlooking the Hanga Roa bay.

The Angry Frenchman insisted that anyone on the porch ordered dinner. It is not a place to hang out with a beer. So I ordered dinner.

I enjoyed the ample serving of seafood ceviche appetizer, downed with a cold Escudo beer. The raw ceviche is Chile’s national dish.

Some of my first hotel choices were sold out, so I picked the Iorana hotel through Hotels.com. Iorana means welcome in Rapa Nui, although the mood was a bit frosty. Riva Riva is Rapa Nui for “very well.” The Riva Riva was that the owner/front desk woman spoke fluent English and spent some time in Destin, Fla.

The bad news is she pestered me on things I should have seen and things I should have done. But she never asked if I needed anything.

I staggered into the Iorana after nearly 25 hours of transit (Chicago to Miami, Miami to Santiago, six  hour layover in Santiago and to Easter Island.) As I was checking in the owner told me about a new radio station in Easter Island. This news brought me back to life. I heard zydeco-like music playing out from the station behind the front desk. Only a couple days later did a resident tell me it was the Iorana itself that opened that new station (100.5 FM). I did pick up a 2009 compilation of 19 hits from Radio Manukena (88.9 FM) CD. But the Iorana’s rooms were clean, the hotel has nice views of the ocean and hot water–which wasn’t the case with the accommodations of some other tourists I talked to.

My friend at the hotel was right about seeing the quarry first, which I did not do. The bike ride was my initial idea but I did know how difficult it would be to bike from moai to moai even in short distances. I rented a bike from Oceanic Rapa Nui, which also rents cars.

The quarry, where it all begins

The quarry, where it all begins

The terrain is choppy and rough for bicycle riding to the moai. The following day I ditched the bike and joined a half day group tour where I ran into two Chicagoans. The tour reminded me of the depressing confines of a junket, so on the third day I spent $150 for a private half day tour with Jorge’ Tepano of Tararaina Tours. It was money well spent.

A Rapa Nui native, Tepano took me to the two must-see attractions: 

Rano Raraku and Ahu Tongariki.

Ahu Tongariki is the island’s largest ceremonial display with 15 moai, all of which have been restored. It is where locals and tourists go for the spectacular sunrises. I finally made it to an island that Jimmy Buffett has yet to visit, although he told me he dreamed of playing a concert at Ahu Tongariki or a similar lineup of statues.

“I have a friend there named Jo Anne Van Tilburg who is an archeologist,” Buffett told me in late summer 2015 on my WGN-AM radio show in Chicago. “Through her and making the (2006) movie ‘Hoot,’ my driver in ‘Hoot’ married a woman from Easter Island. Cheech was my Teamster driver. So my music went back over there.

“I got word that the chief of the Rapa Nui tribe was a fan. Jo Anne said they wanted me to be a guest at their (annual February) cultural festival. They would let me sing amongst the statues. I was headed there to figure out if this was true when I fell off the stage in Australia (in January, 2011). I was going to fly there on my plane to check it out. I’ve never been able to do it, but I gotta get there.”

Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial structure in Polynesia. The University of Chile restored the moai between 1992 and 1996. The $2 million restoration project was funded by the Japanese government.

Ahu Tongariki (file pix)

Ahu Tongariki (file pix)

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After several phone calls and e-mails I discovered Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg, not on Easter Island, but at the UCLA Rock Art Archive in Los Angeles. Rock art is the process of carving or painting on stone. Rock art is another part of the mysterious puzzle on Easter Island.

Van Tilburg is director of the Rock Art Archive. She is also director of the Easter Island Statue Project, which maps, excavates and archives Easter Island statues. Later this year UCLA will publish her atlas of Easter Island statues.

Van Tilburg, her husband and family are Buffett fans.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg at Rano Raraku (file pix)

Jo Anne Van Tilburg at Rano Raraku (Courtesy of Easter Island Statue Project)

“I love the way the man can turn a phrase,” she said in an engaging conversation from Malibu. “He’s a really fine writer. We live in Malibu and have a place in Aspen (Colo.) I have a Jimmy Buffett poster in my kitchen signed by all the guys in Aspen that were off  the wall in those days like Hunter Thompson. I actually met Jimmy through a mutual friend, a woman he knew in Tahiti. We had dinner and we hit it off. And he’s always said he wanted to go to Easter Island.

“It was something he didn’t want to lose.”

Van Tilburg sent Buffett native music and photographs in preparation for his 2011 visit. “When he fell off the stage he was two days landing on Rapa Nui,” she said. “I was there to meet him with the best flowers and prettiest girls I could find. We kept it as low key as possible. There was no performance scheduled. He wanted to do something for the islanders. I told him of his choices of places to stay, one place that is $1,000 a day in the middle of nowhere and run by Chileans–it is fabulous–and another place that is $300 a day, in the heart of the village and run by Rapa Nui people–he chose the latter. He really wanted to be part of the community.”

Stay tuned for further developments. Nothing is set in stone.

In 2003 Van Tilburg wrote “Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island” (Scribner, $27). Routledge died in 1935, institutionalized from schizophrenia. She was one of the first female graduates of Oxford University and between 1913 and 1915 conducted the first ever excavations of the island’s statues. She also interviewed the islanders, gathering information about Rapa Nui customs and rites.

 “She and I are one,” Van Tilburg said. “She worked on Easter Island  with (native) Juan Tepano and Juan Tepano is the great grandfather of the man with whom I work. It felt like something that was meant to be. Routledge used lit candles at her desk to keep herself focused. I found if she could stay on track with the problems she was dealing with, I felt it the best way to honor her work would be for me to stay on track as well. It’s very hard sometimes to be a woman as an archeologist and hard to be involved in other projects I am. If I’m gone too long I lose my north. She helped me understand you have to stay focused in order to make a contribution.”

Weekly market in the village center.

Weekly market in the Rapa Nui village center.

A very long time ago oral folklore was handed down at evening family gatherings on Easter Island. The late Uka Tepano kept 75 notebooks of the stories from her father, who was the son of Juan Tepano. Uka Tepano died in 2004 and she left behind the island’s most extensive written work in native language. The pages are as yellow as the Polynesian sun and just as precious.

Van Tilburg also leads yearly tours with the New York-based Archaeological  Tours. She conducts the tours because she is interested in what motivates people to make the effort in time and money to get to Easter Island.

“What moves them to want to visit this place, other than just another place to check off on a list–which a lot of people do,” she explained. “The people with Archaeological Tours are well read. We always start at the quarry. The (moai) artists were creating something that would speak to everybody equally. They represent an ideal. The statues we are excavating are set in actual holes carved in bedrock up to a meter deep. There is not a lot of leeway to move it. You have made a decision the statue was going to be there a long time.”

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“The other important thing is that the statues on the ceremonial sites are smaller than the statues remaining along roads leading to those sites. So the debate has always been about the statues lying dispersed from the quarry: ‘What are they doing there?’ ‘Were they moving along roads?’ ‘Were they standing in place for some reason?’ Some in fact were meant to be standing in place between the quarry and the ahu. But we don’t know how they got there, how they erected them or why they did that. I think they moved them in primarily a horizontal position. They didn’t walk them, I can tell you that. I think they used rollers, ropes and sleds. I also think they moved them in rafts along the coastline.”

My tour guide Tepano explained, “The first archaeological restoration was in 1956 at Anakena by Thor  Heyerdahl. It was with the Rapa Nui group of people where they used stone, logs and rope.” Heyerdahl,  who died in 2002 at the age of 87 was the Norwegian anthropologist who wrote the landmark book “Kon-Tiki” about his 1947 voyage to the Polynesian islands on a balsa log raft launched from Peru.

Locals affectionately call Heyerdahl “Mr. Kon Tiki.”

In 1958 Heyerdahl wrote “Aku-Aku” about his effort in raising the statue Ahu Ature Huke at Anakena. Heyerdahl and his expedition team camped at Anakena in the mid-1950s and again in 1986. The archaeological site is the only sand beach on Easter Island.

Today, approximately 40 per cent of Easter Island is protected as a national park and you can buy park tickets as you enter the airport. It also took me a few days to discover the novelty passport stamp of moai statues you can get for free at the Napa Rui post office near the center of the village. Passports are stamped in Santiago, but the Easter Island addition is regarded as one of the top stamps in the world, along with Greenland and tiny San Marino, Italy, the oldest constitutional republic in the world.

My stamp and souvenir.

My stamp and souvenir.

In March, 1996 UNESCO designated Easter Island a World Heritage Site. Van Tilburg first visited the island in 1982. She now returns four times a year when she is excavating.

She still lives in a world of mystical discovery. Just last year her group unearthed an upright carved stone head in Rano Raraku.

“From a dreamland standpoint I went there because of Thor Heyerdahl,” she reflected. “As a child (in St. Paul, Mn.) I had read his material in National Geographic and had given reports about it in my grade school class.

“From a practical point of view I was invited by the University of  California Berkeley to record rock art. I had been doing that at UCLA since 1979. I wanted to go to Easter Island for a long time and then, there it was.”

Van Tilburg has witnessed dramatic change since her first trip to the island 34 years ago.

“Like all developing areas of the world they have been flung into the digital age in a way that was unexpected,” she said. “Economically their lives are immeasurably better than they were. From a socio-political point of view they are extremely tense because their economic situation, which is very good, has put them in a position where they wish to have more autonomy from Chile.”

The visitors are changing too–with people like me!!

There goes the neighborhood (Hoekstra photo by Jorge' Tepano)

There goes the neighborhood. (Hoekstra photo by Jorge’ Tepano)

“In 1982 it was a real trek to get there,” she said. “In those days you could sit in Santiago for a week or two weeks before they got a plane to go to the island that was half way full. But the people that came were on a quest.. 

“They were inspired. They knew a lot about the island at the time there wasn’t much to know. What’s ironic is now that there’s so much to know through the internet and published material, people know less than they did then. They pay less attention. The whole digital revolution has changed our attention spans and the way we are hard-wired mentally. The idea of being there and rushing to see everything is pretty much the state of the situation right now.”

Tepano was born in 1972. His parents were fishermen and farmers. “Many things have changed since I was born,” he said. “More resources have come to the island. More flights. More garbage. Until the 1990s there were not many cars here. Most of the people used horses. Some ate horses. There was not much money. Not many choices. Now we have big planes from China. We have a charter from the United States. Normally people stay here for a couple of days.”

I even saw a cruise ship docked outside of Easter Island and recruited a passenger from Hamburg, Germany to take my picture at the Tahai moai near the center of town. Tepano said that was one of two cruise ships that were visiting the island in high season. Tahai is the only moai on the island with a replica set of beady white eyes. Original eyes were made of white coral.

“Almost 600 moai eyes were destroyed during the civil war time,” Tepano said. “Why the eyes? Because they can see the spirit with their eyes. The spirits belonged to their tribes. The eyes projected the spirit of the tribe. The moai never belonged to the architect. They always belonged to the tribe.”

Easter Island airport, Thanksgiving Day, 2015

Easter Island airport departure, Thanksgiving Day, 2015

Tepano has been a tour guide since 1997. Why are people so fascinated with the moai?

“It is the mystery,” he answered. “The fable of the statues walking side by side. Why did aliens come to help them bury the moai? Of course that is not the real history. It is a very small island but contains so much history.”

Van Tilburg added, “The exciting thing is that it is not over until it is over. There is still a lot more to know.”

Printer's Alley, 1960s (Courtesy of Skull's)

Printer’s Alley, 1960s (Courtesy of Skull’s)

NASHVILLE, Tn.–The joke about Nashville’s rapid growth is how the city skyline consists of tower cranes.

Traffic is a major issue. Former Mayor Karl Dean was so concerned about the city’s outdated public transportation system he tried to take buses to work–but locals stopped to pick him up in their cars.

Things in the rear view mirror are larger than they appear.

“The preservation of historic landmarks in Nashville in crisis mode,” said Robbie Jones, past president and board member of Historic Nashville,  Inc. told me in a January 2016 interview. “The city is growing so fast developers are tearing down historic buildings as quickly as they can and they’re replacing them with condos and office towers. We are under assault.”

The recent reopening of the historic Skull’s Rainbow Room in the once seedy downtown Printer’s Alley is major cultural news that incorporates country music, murder, speakeasies, burlesque and a carnival worker.

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David “Skull” Schulman opened his nightclub in 1948 in Printer’s  Alley, once the ribald shadow of Nashville’s publishing and printing  businesses.

The narrow two block jaunt stretches from Union Street to Church Street. Andy Griffith was a house comedian at Skull’s and the club featured exotic dancers in the Bible Belt hometown of Bettie Page.

Printer’s Alley nightclubs populated the Bourbon Street- like strip and entertainers on the circuit included Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams and the Supremes. In 1963 Jimi Hendrix played with bassist Billy Cox at the Jolly Roger, next door to Skull’s.

Schulman was born in North Nashville, several blocks from the since-razed Sulphur Dell ballpark. As a teenager he froze baseballs in the meat freezer at the nearby Swift & Company to deaden the rubber inside. He once was locked inside the freezer on the Fourth of July.

Schulman was known as “The Mayor of Printer’s Alley” and later became a semi-cast member on the “Hee-Haw” television series. He liked to wear his faded blue “Hee-Haw” overalls behind his beloved bar. Skull also loved poodles. During Christmas Skull would dye his poodles red and green Elvis Presley once sent him a poodle and Skull insisted on naming every poodle “Sweetie” or “Sugar.” He was often seen walking his poodles on a rhinestone leash down Printer’s Alley.

On Jan. 21, 1998 Schulman was murdered during a robbery inside the club.

A cigarette vendor found Schulman lying on the floor. His latest “Sweetie” was wandering around the bar. Schulman’s throat had been slit and he had been hit over the head with a liquor bottle. He died the next day. He was 80 years old.

Skull and friends (Courtesy of Skull's)

Skull and friends (Courtesy of Skull’s)

The horrific murder shook the Nashville entertainment industry to its soul. Country singer Tanya Tucker rushed to Schulman’s bedside before he died. Skull’s friend Willie Nelson  appeared on “America’s Most Wanted” in an effort to catch the killer (s). And in 2001, American drifters James Caveye and Jason Pence were charged of robbing  and murdering Schulman.

Pence was working a carnival at the Tennessee State Fair and Schulman once hired him for part-time help. Pence told police he knew Schulman carried large wads of money in the bib of his overalls.

Caveye got a life sentence while Pence pleaded guilty to facilitating a murder, which carried a prison sentence between 15 and 25 years. Skull’s Rainbow Room closed several months after Schulman’s death.

I was fortunate to have met Skull during visits in the late 1980s and 1990s. My friend Angelo Varias, former drummer with John Prine, took me there for the first time. We saw burlesque comedian Joey Gerard who had cut his chops in Calumet City, Ill. strip clubs. A few years later I adjourned to Skull’s after the Country Music Association (CMA) awards and had a couple beers with a young Shooter Jennings.

I only spoke with Skull a little bit. He loved baseball and worked as a batboy for the Nashville Vols minor league team. I later learned that Vol players gave him the nickname “Skull” after he suffered a fractured skull in an automobile accident. On May 24, 1935 Skull flipped the switch for major league baseball’s first night game at Crosley Field with Cincinnati Reds General Manager Larry MacPhail. MacPhail had operated a department store in downtown Nashville.

Country saxophone player Boots Randolph ran a club down the alley from Skull’s.  Before my time, country-jazz guitarist Hank Garland (Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline) was the headliner at the nearby Carousel Club. All those joints have since closed.

Printer’s Alley became old news.

Lower Broadway Avenue is just a few blocks away from Printer’s Alley and that nightlife strip with honky tonks like Tootsie’s and Robert’s Western World was reborn after the 1996 opening of the Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.

Even most locals thought Printer’s Alley was extinct—until June of  2015 when Skull’s Rainbow Room quietly reopened.

The 140-seat club is all dressed up and retains none of the funky aspects of the original place, which included mildewed carpet on the walls. The restaurant and bar features heartfelt homage to Schulman.

Skull's Rainbow Room, 2015

Skull’s Rainbow Room, 2015

Two of his classic Manuel western jackets and one Nudie jacket are framed and hang on a wall over a dining area. The small black and white television set where Schulman liked to watch wrestling matches is in a nearby case.

The original checkerboard stage is still in use, and yes, tasteful burlesque dancers still perform twice nightly. Executive Chef and business partner Gannon M. Leary trained at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans and his lobster bisque is the best in the region.

Skull's Rainbow Room, 1980's (Courtesy of Skull's)

Skull’s Rainbow Room, 1980’s (Courtesy of Skull’s)

The new ownership group is led by David Wileman, a 40-year-old native of Manchester, England. One of his four partners is Vincent Polizzi, a former bodyguard for Brazilian soccer legend Pele’.

“Glory days and bad times in Printer’s Alley,” Wileman said during a recent lunchtime interview at Skull’s. “And David ‘Skull’ Schulman was there all the way through it. He was here rain or shine. It was his life. He never married. He had a sister who auctioned off all the music memorabalia and we actually bought some of the stuff back.

“The club had been empty for 16 years when we got it. It had flooded, it had been on fire. The only thing missing was a plaque of locust. The damage was almost Biblical. But certain things were ridiculous like the original stage. And learning who all played here. Willie Nelson was part of the house band. Elvis, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan all played on that stage. Paul McCartney wrote songs here when he moved to Nashville (in 1974 to record his “Junior’s Farm” album) He took a shine to a girl who was on stage and that was ‘Sally G..”

Courtesy of Skull's

Vince Gill photo courtesy of Skull’s

“Sally G” was the flip side to the Paul McCartney and Wings hit single “Junior’s Farm.” The country-tinged ballad featured Nashville session players Vassar Clements and Johnny Gimble. Wileman said, “Linda McCartney got pissed and he had to change the name. It was originally ‘Diane G.’ Johnny Cash was a good friend of Skull’s.

“When they were filming “The Johnny Cash” television show, Johnny would bring down whoever had been on the show. One night Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were all on that little stage.” Michael McCall, Museum Museum Writer/Editor of the Country Music Hall of Fame verified the fact that Dylan and Mitchell were guests on Cash’s premiere show. The series began on June 7, 1969 as a summer replacement show. It was taped at the Ryman Auditorium, just a few blocks from Skull’s.

Jimi Hendrix, (left) in Printer's Alley 1963 (Courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Jimi Hendrix, (left) in Printer’s Alley 1963 (Courtesy of Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark, “Hee-Haw” was a country version of the popular “Laugh-In” comedy series and Schulman liked to create his own version of the show in his club. “Skull had dancers,  comedians, singers and bands,” Wileman said. “He’d be on the show from time to time popping up in the cornfields. He wore the Nudie and Manuel Jackets with the rhinestones. We have two sets of his ‘Hee-Haw’ overalls. He was famous for wearing elaborate outfits. I tried them on. They’re horrible.”

Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy was musical director of  “Hee-Haw” between 1969 and 1987. The new Skull’s honors McCoy with a vintage poster promoting a live appearance from McCoy with Monument Recording artist Laney Smallwood. McCoy has not been to the new spot, but he gave the lay of the land of the original place.

“It was the 1960s,” he said. “The Rainbow Room was upstairs. That was the strip club. We played downstairs at the Black Poodle. We became friends with Skull because he hung out on the ‘Hee-Haw’ set. Skull was a character. He was on Printer’s Alley a very long time. He had live country music and there was no country music in the alley.”

Printer's Alley 1963 (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

Printer’s Alley 1963 (Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum)

After Skull’s Rainbow Room closed, the next door Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar rented the space for storage. That plan stopped after employees refused to go in the 3,000-square foot vacant club because they saw an eerie shape that resembled Schulman. Nashville ghost tours now stop at the club.

Skull sculplture of Skull by Sonny Behr near the club entrance. (Dave Hoekstra photo)

Skull sculplture of Skull by Sonny Behr near the club entrance. (Dave Hoekstra photo)

 “The walls are nearly two feet thick,” Wileman explained. “Solid stone. When we were doing renovations there was no air conditioning, no heat in here. Pretty much what the temperature was outside is what the temperature was inside.

” There were nights when it was 80, 90 degrees outside and the temperature would plummet in here. It was very strange.”

Wileman’s partner Phil Martin has taken over Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie, across the street from the New Orleans influenced Printer’s Alley Lofts. Each of the nine high-ceiling lofts can be rented by the day or the week.

                                                                   

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Skull’s Rainbow Room is actually in the basement of the Southern Turf Building, constructed in 1895. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and Historic Nashville Inc. owns a preservation easement on the building.

Skull’s had to work with the non-profit group to restore the space with integrity.

“We consider Skull’s a success story,” Jones said. “They’ve done it the right way. In 1982 (Nashville attorney)  Bob Tuke invented the first preservation easement program in Tennessee. He has his offices in that building, so that building is protected. We’re so excited about this positive development we’re holding our annual meeting January 28 at Skull’s. The city historian is going to speak.”

Schulman would be speechless.

David Schulman and his beloved Nudie & Manuel jackets (Courtesy of Skull's)

David Schulman and his beloved Nudie & Manuel jackets (Courtesy of Skull’s)

The original turf building included a  bordello on the third and fourth floors and the office of The Tennessean newspaper faced 4th Street on the opposite side of Printer’s Alley. The alley is actually subterranean at the bottom of a steep hill.

“This area was big during Prohibition,” Wileman said. “There was a famous bar upstairs called The Southern Turf Saloon. This was the gentleman’s quarter, a place where the ‘nice ladies’ never came. Skull’s had been a casino. There’s bootlegging tunnels underneath here and catacombs that go down to the Cumberland (River). The club that Boots Randolph had, there’s an actual entranceway into the tunnel system. The Underground Railroad ran around here.”

Vice raid at Skull’s, 1962 (Courtesy of Skull’s)

Printer’s Alley thrived in part, because cocktails didn’t become legal in Nashville until 1967. Turkish baths and funky pawn shops were part of the Printer’s Alley landscape during the early 20th Century.

McCoy laughed and said, “In the mid-1960s we played at the Captain’s Table, downstairs in the alley. I was in a band I had with Kenny Buttrey and Mac Gayden (Nashville session players).  It was the funniest thing, at that time liquor by the drink was illegal in Nashville. And four blocks from the state capital they’re selling booze down there it was going out of style. Someone got paid off.”

Wileman said, “Printer’s Alley didn’t really close down during Prohibition. High-end politicians drank down here. It was off the radar. But in the last few years the word got out Printer’s Alley was closed. It’s kind of bizarre. They’re rebuilding the Utopia Hotel, a famous hotel at the corner of Printer’s Alley. A couple bars and restaurants are closed while they are doing renovations. It looks kind of decrepit leading up to Printer’s Alley.”

The six-story Utopia, 206 Cherry St., has a stone facade that was designed by the same architect who worked on the Ryman Auditorium, the mother church of country music. The Utopia was a hangout for horse racing fans and in the late 1800s was known as the “resort of the sporting classes.”

Jones added, “We need to balance redevelopment with the preservation of historic landmarks that make Nashville unique, the very qualities of the city that make people want to come and visit and work here. We can’t lose our character as we grow. We’ve already lost a lot of buildings on Music Row. Recording studios and publishing houses. As a result of all the demolitions, in January (2015) Music Row was designated as a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

Historic Nashville, Inc. maintains an annual “Nashville Nine” of the nine most endangered properties in Nashville. The properties are nominated by the community. The Colonel Tom Parker House, 1215 South in Madison is on the 2015 list. Elvis Presley’s manager lived in this home from 1908 until 1986.

Keeping historic burlesque was a no-brainer for the new Skull’s ownership. Rotating pianists play supper club era music on a black Baldwin Baby Grand during dinner time. Evanston native and former Musician magazine editor (1995-98) Bob Doerschuck is part of the piano rotation.

“It ties in nice with the whole place,” Wileman said. “We lean more towards jazz although there is a country music influence at times. We wanted to do something different than Lower Broadway. We wanted to roll back the  years, a speakeasy, jazz-burlesque. Even the menu reflects that. We got our hands on some of the menus from the old alley restaurants and we did a twist on that. Prime rib. Escargot.” I loved the crawfish tomato risotto with gorgonzola cheese and Aborio rice ($13).

Kitana Louise is a regular Skull’s dancer who moved to Nashville in 2005. She left her native Houston, Tx. to be a country singer. In 2012 Louise began studying burlesque under Freya West, the Headmistress of Nashville’s only burlesque finishing school. West learned her craft under the legendary Michelle L’amour at Studio L’amour in Chicago.

Kitana Louise was not on "Gilligan's Island."

Kitana Louise was not on “Gilligan’s Island” (Photo by Stephanie May of La Photographie)

Louise met Skull’s partner Phil Martin at a 2013 private singer-dancer gig for Prince’s horn player.

Martin told all five showgirls at the party that Skull’s was going to reopen. “It’s an amazing thing to be part of this movement of empowering women to own their sexual experience and have fun with it,” Louise explained.

“Bringing Skull’s Rainbow Room back has definitely helped solidify the burlesque presence again in Nashville. Printer’s Alley was always intriguing to me. When you walk down the alley there’s a big mural with the picture of a showgirl. This is Bettie Page’s hometown, this is Music City.

“Live dancing belongs here.”

Louise has seen all kinds of reactions as she dances to Big Band and classic blues on stage and atop a runway adjacent to the dining area. The runway pays homage to the original Skull’s, where strippers danced on tables.

I’ve had people walk out,” Louise said. “People say things that I would consider inappropriate. They don’t know. A lot of people don’t know whether they should clap, if they should holler. The tipping thing is interesting as  well. ‘Do I put a tip in her bra?’ ‘Do I put a tip in her underwear?’ Do I throw some money on the stage?'”

Tips for Skull’s show girls are accepted in a large glass jar.

Louise explained, “It’s different than a strip club experience. It’s different than a drag queen experience. Here you are in a club that serves escargot and foie gras, and there’s a person taking off their clothes. How do you socially behave?”

Wileman said, “The burlesque show is a very mild, fun show. It’s a throwback to that whole Sally Rand era with girls and the feather downs. It’s tasteful.”

Skull (right) and Sally Rand (Courtesy of Skull's)

David “Skull ” Schulman (right) and Sally Rand (Courtesy of Skull’s

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David Wileman  left England for America to play soccer at Hofstra University in New York. His aunts and cousins ran bars and restaurants around England and he grew up in the hospitality environment.

Wileman’s historic eye was developed in part by managing The Beekman Pub, established in 1936 near Wall Street. Wileman’s American born wife works for the federal government and was transferred to Nashville in 2010.

Wileman said, “I’ve been a big fan of preservation and restoration. I salvaged what I could do. We redid the drains, the electric, the plumbing then brought a lot of pieces back in and tried to put the puzzle back together. It took us 18 months to redo it. There was water damage behind the stage. I took the back of the stage off and found the original food menu, five feet by eight feet. It was actually patching a hole behind the wall. Why go buy good wood when you can use that?

“We brought back the (25 seat) bar. The basic layout of the room is very similar to what it was. The location of the stage is in the same place. About two weeks before we opened this lady walks in with a box. She was a bartender at Skull’s for 27 years. She gave us all these photographs. Skull lined the walls with pictures of everyone who had been through here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Paul McCartney, Elvis (Presley).”

“We had a party for Tim McGraw. He got his break in here. Apparently Tim McGraw was ready to throw in the towel and Skull gave him some money and told him to ‘stick around.’ He brought some record guys to come see him and the rest is history. Skull touched people on all levels from the top to the bottom. People still talk about him and it was nearly 20 years ago this place closed.

“This guy was obviously something very very special.”

(c) Dave Hoekstra, January 2016

Skull says good night (Courtesy of Skull's)

Skull says good night (Courtesy of Skull’s)