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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.”

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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)

 

 

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SANTIAGO, Chile—Lavender petals of the jacaranda tree fall on an empty dinner plate in a bistro patio. Two petals float together like feathers in a dream. They land together where you are alone.

Symbolism is pondered for a few minutes but you cannot linger here. There are places to go. On a 2012 visit to Santiago, there was a climb up to the Cerro San Cristobal adorned by the snow-white statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion. This time you return to reflect on those you have lost while offering gratitude for all that they gave.

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You walk towards the Lastarria neighborhood and head past the rushing Rio Mapocho river and Parque Forestal.

For the last four days young and old people have been sprawled out in the park grass and under lush trees, embracing each other, making out and being in love—for the moment or for years, what does it matter? The park is always quiet. No loud music. You can feel heartbeats.

And you smile.

Travel is being. You open up. You go to a Chilean soccer game with 37,000 crazy locals when the hotel staff says it is not such a safe thing to do. Is passion elevated from the length of the search or from the point of loneliness?

 

I have never been to neighboring Buenos Aires, Argentina, but I wandered through Bogota’, Colombia a couple times. Because of the fog, damp weather and rolling hills, Bogota’ gets compared to San Francisco. Santiago is cleaner and more modern than Bogota’ in architecture and landscape. Santiago is what would happen if you put bits of contemporary Los Angeles in wine country. I want to stay a bit longer. I do not want to face my first Christmas without my parents.

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Bringing Wrigley vibe to Santiago. And Colo-Colo won 1-0

 

But home calls like a distant candor.

First there is a final return to the tiny piano bar Don Rodrigo.

The Don Rodrigo is on the first floor of the Hotel Foresta in central Santiago.

The no-frills hotel was built in 1920 and features a slow moving elevator that can hold no more than three people at a time as it chugs up to the seventh floor.

The bar  space is a maze of small rooms and dark corners. Wall size mirrors give the illusion something bigger is going on. The bar only seats five people. The romantic aura is like the park in the dark. The summer nights in Santiago are as crisp as mountain air and you feel it in here.

Marco the piano player does not sing but he plays American standards like “My Way” and “Take Five,” the Dave Brubeck experiment in Stereo-phonic sound that now makes me think of Roger Ebert. Marco  does not talk and does not play Billy Joel songs.

The bartenders are round and jolly and they wear starched white shirts with black bow ties, just like in Humphrey Bogart movies. Few tourists are seen, and the night desk clerk has no idea who is this Don Rodrigo. But you guess he must be somebody to have a bar named after him.

Dave Hoekstra Don Rodrigo beer and portrait

Dave Hoekstra Don Rodrigo beer and portrait.

 

So you ask the shy woman from Northern Chile to press the bartender on your Don Rodrigo investigation in Spanish. She, too, is a journalist and her smile is like a butterfly unfolding its wings. She is the one who notices the bartender only has three fingers on his right hand.

It goes something like this: Guido Vallejos was the founder-illustrator of Barrabases magazine and owned the 50-seat bar. He was friends with a soccer player named Don Rodrigo, and/or Don could have been a cartoon character in his magazine.

Now, over a couple pisco sours, the woman from Northern Chile and I had fun channeling Bill Murray’s “Lost in Translation'” in hearing the stories of Don Rodrigo.

This  behavior later became worrisome when I returned to my hotel to research Guido Vallejos. In 2012 he was sent to prison as part of a child prostitution bust in central Santiago. He was 83 years old! Perhaps this is why no one at the hotel wants to talk about Don Rodrigo.

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Romance in the air at Don Rodrigo

There is no easy way to transition from that translation except to continue with journalistic flair of The Clinic.

The Clinic is a satirical newspaper in Santiago that also owns and operates a couple of bars and restaurants. It’s like going to a bar called The Onion in the states. The Clinic serves drinks like the Orgasmo Multiple (Johnnie Walker Red, Bailey’s, frambuesa) .

Obama and U.S.-Cuba relations as seen by The Clinic.

Obama and U.S.-Cuba relations as seen by The Clinic.

After hearing Dixieland jazz at the Club de Jazz de Santiago (established in 1943, but now part of a fancy shopping mall] we closed down The Clinic in Plaza Nunoa with a couple of mojitos.

We talked about the who, what, when, where, why and how of journalism over an introductory reporting textbook that was sitting on a library shelf next to our table.

We spoke of making every word count, the economy found in every Pablo Neruda poem.

A couple days later I wondered why two lavender petals tumbled through the summer sky. I kept the petals to place in a photo book next to my images  of snow capped Chilean mountains, fresh December flowers and dark piano bars. When I am gone, someone may look at that book and think what a special time it must have been.

 

 

 

 

 

All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

All photos by Paul Natkin unless otherwise noted.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—The walls of the main dining room at Niki’s West feature assorted anchors and life preservers. A white silhouette carving depicts a fisherman casting a wide net.

The nautical decor does an enchanting job of transporting customers to a far away place.

But where is this place?

Niki’s West was opened in 1957 by Greek immigrant Gus P. Hontzas. It is in an industrial park across the street from the Birmingham Farmer’s Market, which accounts for Niki’s spot-on-fresh vegetables. 

The long cafeteria -buffet style line is a landmark destination for Birmingham’s working class. The line moves fast in a place that has been slow on change.  Every weekday afternoon about half of the customers in the 420-seat restaurant are African-Americans, who because of segregation laws, would not have been allowed to eat at Niki’s West in 1957.

In the fall of 1957 the Civil Rights Act was passed, giving every American the right to vote. About 20 per cent of African-Americans could vote in 1957 and the Civil Rights Act was the first major civil rights legislation passed by congress since 1875.

Niki’s West also invites the debate between the southern “Meat and Three” and “Soul Food.” The restaurant serves 10 entrees and 40 vegetables every day. The “Meat and Three” generally consists of a meat accompanied by three vegetable and/or potato items. But most local African-American customers say Niki’s West has the best soul food in Birmingham. Niki’s is known for its lemon icebox pie, colllared greens and fried orka.

Niki’s is owned and operated by Pete and Teddy Hontzas, the sons of Gus. They are straight shooters. Once that is understood, everything is cool at Niki’s. Just a few years ago Niki’s West had house rules like “No Tank Tops, No Bare Feet, No Rollers on Head.” During a May, 2014 visit a sign in the kitchen read “When you’re on the clock you’re off the phone.”

Pete was dialed in during a lively conversation in Niki’s kitchen. 

“More blacks call this soul food,” he said. “More white people call it meet and three.  In the country they all call it soul food. There’s no racial thing. Soul food is like good music. It sticks to you.

“It conquers your soul.”

Pete Hontzas (center)

Pete Hontzas (center)

Amy C. Evans is the lead oral historian for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an affiliated institute of he Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “Meat and Three is absoultely soul food,” she said. “Meat and Three might be more generally associated with a white establishment, but it is just the way people ate. When you need to feed the body to do the work you had to eat a good amount of nutrient rich and energy providing food.”

Birmingham is known as “The Magic City” because of it’s rapid growth between 1880 and 1920. There is no more magical place in Birmingham to witness the fluid exchange between the city’s past and present than at Niki’s West.

Niki’s West is named after Gus’s daughter Nicoletta. In 1951 Pete and Teddy’s great aunt (his Grandpa’s sister) and great uncle started Niki’s downtown on 2nd Avenue. It was challenging to get the Hontzas brothers to sit down during a visit to Niki’s West. Teddy was slicing steaks in the kitchen and Pete was dealing food for the cafeteria line.

Restaurant manager Diane Simmons was running interference and directing traffic. She started working at Niki’s 1994, seven years before Gus’s death. “Gus was agile,” she declared before seating a couple out of the buffet line. “He was good hearted. He expected you to do what you were hired to do. Both the sons do what it takes to do what keeps the wheels going. It’s busy. On a good day, between breakfast, lunch and dinner I will seat between 900 and 1,200 people.”

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Diane Simmons at lunch time.

Around two in the afternoon Pete sat down in a small corner to the side of the crowded kitchen.

This seemed to be his place in the world.

“My Dad and his three first cousins came over from Greece in 1951,” Hontzas said. They lived in a small primitive dirt road village where they grew up under the lights of lanterns at night. “My Dad first went to Jackson (Ms.) to stay with my Grandmother’s brother,” Hontzas said. “He learned how to cook, just like the other cousins did. He actually started here in ‘59. My great aunt and great uncle gave him an opportunity from a country that was in a civil war.”

Common threads run through this port of call in the deep American south.

“They basically got pushed out of Greece,” he continued. “The restaurant gave them a chance to excel . So they paid rent to the great aunt and great uncle for running the two places. That’s how it got started. That’s the true story, not some internet thing.”

During their embryonic years Niki’s West and the Niki’s downtown also had lounges with go-go dancers. The present day Niki’s West kitchen is where the lounge used to be. “That’s what they were known for, really,” Hontzas said as he began chain-smoking Winston Lights into my face. 

“In those days go-go dancing was very popular. You had good music back then.  How are you going to have go-go-dancers with this sorry ass music today? Do you classify music as art or just noise? I classify it as noise and thensome downward. In 1984 we got rid of the lounge. The lounge was bigger than the (original)  kitchen, that tells you something.”

Typical mid-1960s go-go dancers-- not at Nikki's West. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

    ’60s go-go dancers– not at Nikki’s. (Photo not by Paul Natkin)

The large back dining room was added in 1991 at Niki’s West. Gus was pointing towards the future. “Dad always depended on my brother and I,” Hontzas said. “He would have not built that last addition if we were not going into the business. I think he was ready to sell it or deal with what he had. It still is not for me. I look about 60, don’t I? ”

Pete Hontzas was born in 1966. He started working at the restaurant on summer shifts in 1974. He made $5 a day washing dishes and bussing tables. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “But I hated school. I’ve learned everything at this place.”

Only recently did Pete and Teddy remove their cigarette machine that was by the front door. A sign said “Smoking is not encouraged but accepted.” Pete rapidly explained, “It’s true. You have to visualize that line you went through today is not like it was. We had a jukebox. A cigarette machine. It was a hole-in-the-wall. I told Dad the cigarette machine looked tacky in here. But he said, ‘That damn machine makes $400 a month.’ So that’s why that sign was there. It became an icon. It’s a colorful place. Are you Polish, German or what?

“They call Chicago, New Orleans the melting pot. We are the melting pot of Birmingham. We have blue collar workers, white collar workers, lawyers, politicians, couples and families who can save a lot more money by eating here. The dynamics of the city have changed. The city is spread out. There’s growth south of the city. People are going to Hoover (pop. 82,000, the largest suburb of Birmingham)

“A lot of municipalities have their own places to eat. We’re kind of a destination point. They probably come here for the entertainment, but I want them to come for the food first. That’s soul food. I  can eat more black than a white man can. I can eat more white than a white man can. I can eat more Greek than a Greek man can. I love good food.”

Auburn University baseball-football legend Bo Jackson has visited Niki’s West several times. Actor-comedian Chris Rock stopped at Niki’s West in when he was in town. The Rolling Stones launched their 1989 tour in Birmingham and two of the Stones ate at Niki’s West. 

Hontzas cannot remember which ones they were. “Why don’t they come get my autograph?,” he asked. “If a hot shot lawyer comes in here do you think I’m going to bow down to him? I think not. Humility is the bottom line.”

Niki’s West is north of downtown Birmingham.

Over time Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor emerged as one of the most menacing faces of the civil rights era. In May, 1963 he green-lighted the Birmingham police and fire department use of firehoses and police dogs on demonstrators, many of whom were children and high school students. The violence was televised and forced  viewers to look at civil rights with a more sympathetic eye. 

The speed of change began to accelerate. The Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination was passed in 1964 and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was given the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.  President Kennedy said, “The civil rights movement owes Bull Connor as much as it owes Abraham Lincoln.” Today, a cold steel life-size statue of a generic Birmingham policeman and a barking dog confronting a member of the non-violent “Children’s Crusade” stands with other civil rights era statues in downtown Kelly Ingram Park. Connor confronted the demonstrators in this park, named after the first sailor in the U.S. Navy to be killed in World War I.

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Hontzas was not born During Connor’s reign of terror in 1963.

“I’m full blooded Greek,” he said. “If you act right and judge content by your character, I don’t have any problem. If you act like a fool, white, black, whatever, you’re getting your ass out the door. 

I don’t look at people through color. I was brought up that if you do right, right will follow. We are gracious people. We want people to be happy.”

Willis Huggins, Sr. started eating at Niki’s West in the early 1970s. 

He was an African-American salesman across the street at Alabama Paper & Metal Works. On a busy afternoon in May, 2014 he was enjoying beef liver, cabbage and rice with his wife Hattie, son Willis, Jr. and brother-in-law Henry Jackson of Salisbury, N.C.

Huggins looked around the room and said, “About 40 years ago where we could only stick our heads in the door and get our orders to go. We were not allowed to be seated here.” Huggins was semi-retired and presiding elder at the A.M.E. African Episcopal Church. He oversees 21 churches in west Birmingham and four in Greensboro, Ala.

“I hear about people buying meat and threes here, but I’ve never had it,’ said Huggins, who was born in 1943.  “I call this soul food–down home country cooking. You have to have some neck bones.”

Stephanie Powell is a stay at home Mom who gets out of the house twice a week and drives 17 miles one way from her home in Hoover to Niki’s. “This is soul food and any vegetable you can name,” said Powell, who was born in 1968. “And their vegetables are fresh. Some places you go to you can tell the vegetables are out of the can. I’m a cook, I’m a caterer. They probably got these turnip greens across the street at the farmer’s market. This place has stood the test of time. It made it through our bad economy. We had so many restaurants close down in Birmingham.”

Her friend Kenyatta Strait has been coming to Niki’s since 1999. 

Strait said, “Today I had turnip greens, fried corn, I loved the sweet tea and Greek chicken.” Strait had doggie bags for her Red Velvet Cake and Greek Chicken. “Greek chicken is popular (four days a week),” Hontzas said. “Blackened tialpia, veal cutlet very popular and served every day. Yesterday we had rib-eye steaks. You can’t beat that. Six ounce rib-eye medium rare? That’s beautiful. We had barbecue chicken yesterday, we didn’t have Greek chicken. Pork chops tomorrow, turkey and dressing tomorrow. We have a fresh salmon we do Creole style.”

Willis Huggins, Sr, wife Hattie (far right) and family

Pete Hontzas is not shy about dishing out soul food philosophy.

“People used to love fried chicken with a bone in it,” he said. “Now adults want chicken fingers. What does that tell you where we are going? We used to serve whole flounders. The younger generation doesn’t know what a whole fish tastes like. It is two times better with the bone in it than it is filleted. I won’t eat filleted fish hardly. I have an old soul and my customers love that. I was brought up to like good. food. period.

“You have to something out there you can make money on, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. In this politically correct society they don’t classify macaroni and cheese as a vegetable. We do. Starch and protein? We don’t do all that fancy bullshit. Every day we just write the 10 entrees and 40 vegetables. We include the salad bar as a vegetable.”

The Alabama Farmer’s Market opened in 1956 on 49 acres of land. The membership is now more than 200 growers, and all members must be from the State of Alabama. Niki’s West makes regular visits to the market. 

“That’s why they put this place here,” Hontzas said. “There’s no delivery fee for us. It was so huge back then. Even up to the mid-1990s there was a lot going on there. It’s not as big as it once was.”

Hontzas said he staffs 84 people at Niki’s West. Pete’s cousin John contributes Niki’s secret slaw dressing. And in 2012 another cousin Tim Hontzas opened his own Johnny’s Restaurant, serving black-eyed peas and fried catfish in downtown Homewood, about five miles outside of Birmingham. Tim was born in 1972 and grew up in Jackson, Ms. He named his restaurant after his grandfather Johnny Constantine Hontzopolous who ran his own Johnny’s Restaurant in Jackson from the 1950s through the 1980s.

16th Street Baptist Church, downtown Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, the 1963 target of a racially motivated bombing that killed four girls.

 “This topic you’re writing about gives me chill bumps,” Tim Hontzas said in a separate interview. My grandfather’s logo was ‘We prepare food for the body but good food to feed the soul.’ When I started my thing it was Southern ingredients with Greek influences. We are meat and three with a face lift. It all relates to soul food, it is how it is perceived. Niki’s West is soul food. It doesn’t have to be hog jaws and chitlin’s stereotypes to be soul food.

“I remember coming to Niki’s and seeing my Uncle Gus. I was the only boy and I had three sisters. He doted me as one of his own, which isn’t necessarily a good thing the way he raised those boys stern, stern, stern (laughs). I remember the hustling and the bustling, the yelling and the clattering of the pans.”

Tim Hontzas graduated with a psychology degree from the University of Misssippi in 1995 and for 15 years worked on and off for James Beard-winning chef John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Ms.  Hontzas moved to the Birmingham area because his wife Elizabeth Dreiling was a staff photographer for Southern Living magazine.

When he opened his own 85-seat Johnny’s Restaurant in 2012 he used his grandfather’s logo and his 1950s and 1960s menus hang on the walls. “What you have to remember about Niki’s is that it was the shit in the 1970s and 80s,” he said. “They were the first place serving snapper throats. They were the first place driving down to the Gulf of Mexico and bringing back fresh grouper and flounder and hand cutting steaks. And that was the night menu. It’s still the old school way of an 18, 24 ounce rib eye on a wooden platter with a knife stuck up under it and onion rings on top. That’s their damn garnish. There’s no edible flowers or hype. I come from a fine dining background so I know about it.”

Niki’s West also has a modest breakfast menu with grits and hash browns. A bold sign by the front door reminds guests of this fact: “Wake Up! To a Southern Breakfast. Niki’s West.”

“We create our own potatoes,” Pete Hontzas said proudly. “We make everything from scratch. We’re here though, so we do it. My brother and I will always be (behind) the (cafeteria) line. We’re opposites. He’s the younger brother and it becomes very interesting.”

Pete and Teddy trade off shifts. One shift launches at 4:30 a.m. and winds down around 2 p.m. The “night man” comes in around 9:30 a.m. and stays until 10 or 11 p.m. “Next week he’lll do it and I’ll be on the other shift,” said Hontzas, who is married with three daughters and a son “Do you know how that effects your sleeping? We’re stupid though. We make no sense.

“But if you did everything by sense you wouldn’t have America.”

FinalMINNEAPOLIS—The legion of devotees to Nye’s Polonaise restaurant and piano bar form a neon ribbon that runs from Hollywood to Manhattan.

Albin “Al”  Nye opened his Polish-American restaurant in 1964 at 112 E. Hennepin, just west of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Nye’s charms have been how it remained a period piece in a forthright Minnesota manner. Nye’s is Garrison Keillor with a lampshade on his head.

Earlier this year Nye’s announced it was closing in the autumn. The date keeps getting pushed back and now what Esquire magazine once called “The Best Bar in America” is slated to remain open until January, 2016.

Nye sold his restaurant in September, 1994 and died in 2004 at the age of 89. Brothers Rob and Tony Jacob bought Nye’s in 1999. In December, 2014 Rob Jacob told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, “We have made the decision to close Nye’s after careful consideration. In recent years, business has fallen off and it’s been difficult for us to stay competitive.”  (The Jacob brothers declined further comment for this story and our Aug. 29 WGN-AM segment on Nye’s.)

Minneapolis media reported the brothers are working with a development company to build two fancy pants high rise apartments on the site. Updates can be found at the popular Facebook page Save Nye’s Polonaise.

How do you keep the music playing?

Something bigger comes into play when a mid-20th Century place like Nye’s goes dark. We lose our cultural memory. We lose track of gentlemen like Nye’s bartender Phil Barker.  

“I’ve been here 46 years, three months and 20 days,” Barker told me on May 20 in a conversation at Nye’s “I had just gotten out of the Navy. I was sitting at home when Al Nye called me. He asked if I would come down and tend bar for him at lunches. The light went on. I thought, ‘Why get a job where I gotta’ behave myself?’ It beats the heck out of being stuck in some office where you can’t have any fun.” Barker was 22 years old when he started at Nye’s. He said he will find another bartending job in the neighborhood, but it won’t be the same.

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Phil Barker with a Polish beer at Nye’s

Barker grew up in Northeast Minneapolis where his father worked for a burglar alarm company. Barker’s mother owned a grocery store. Nye’s is in Southeast Minneapolis. “The street out front, East Hennepin Avenue divides northeast from southeast,” he said as he peered out of the bar’s daylight darkness. “This used to be the Skid Row area of Minneapolis. In the late 1940s they tore down all the flophouses on what used to be called ‘The Gateway’ into Minneapolis.

Barker is a direct connection with Nye.  He is the senior employee at the restaurant. Collecting voices like Barker’s is why I do this website.

 “Al Nye was Polish and Austrian, “ Barker said. “He was born in north Minneapolis. His father moved to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, which is where he was raised. He moved back here during the Depression. He worked at Minor Ford before World War II and got a job at Northern Pump (company, established 1929). They made ordinates for the Navy there. He started out by owning a beer joint in South Minneapolis. Then he bought this bar, August 1, 1950 from Jimmy Heffron. This (bar) building opened  in 1908 it was the Prince Street Cafe.“

 Old regulars call the original bar “The Old Bar or The Old Side.” Newer folks call it “The Polka Lounge.”

 “The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” plays on Friday and Saturday nights in the bar. The cozy bar with eight Naugahyde booths and a dance floor is open Tuesday through Saturday.  The bar only opens during the day (at 11 a.m.) on Friday and Saturday, when Barker tends bar.

Barker looked toward the dining room and continued, “He added on the restaurant—the first room– that opened December 23, 1964 at four-thirty in the afternoon.”

Of course, old-timers call this “The New Side.”

But it is technically The Polonaise Room. Diners slip slide away into the past while sitting in the gold vinyl covers of large booths. 

The iconic piano bar is part of the supper clubby room that serves Polish-American cuisine like cabbage rolls and pierogis along with strip steaks and walleye. Music starts at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Folks sit around a curved piano underneath a portrait of 18th Century composer Frederic Chopin.

In a folksy Northern setting where more people are familiar with Harry Chapin, Nye loved Chopin. He wrote his polonaises mostly for solo piano. “Chopin lived in Paris and that’s where the polonaise comes from,” Barker explained.  “Chopin missed Poland so much he wrote the ‘Polonaise’ which means ‘Poland’ in French. So it’s Chopin’s Polonaise.”

And so it became Nye’s Polonaise.

Around Valentine’s Day 2008 I hung around the piano bar listening to the playful Sweet Lou Snider sing standards of the 1950s and 60s. She sang Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” for my date and I. Sweet Lou started at Nye’s in 1965 and health issues forced her to retire around  Valentine’s day 2011. She had been coming to work on crutches.

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Thanks for the memories Sweet Lou Snider

Sweet Lou met her future husband David, on Labor Day weekend 1959 while she was playing with the rock band Lanny Charles and his Harem at  the Casino Bar in La Crosse, Wis. David requested “It Had to Be You.”

“I had to look it up,” Sweet Lou told me as her eyes sparkled under multi-colored Flintstone-like lamps that were handcrafted in Winona, Minn.. What will become of these lamps when Nye’s goes dark?

Where will these stories go?

Daina De Prez now sings at the piano bar between 8:30 and 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

A second dining area opened in 1967 in a former sign shop, and the third area [The 80-seat Pulaski Room, east of the Polonaise Room] used to be John’s Café.  “Everybody still calls it John’s,” Barker said. “ That opened in December, 1971, ” Finally, the open-spaced Chopin Room seats another 80 people between the piano bar and the Pulaski Room.

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When I was working on The Supper Club Book  a few summers ago I debated on whether or not to include Nye’s. It was a close call. I concluded the scene just seemed too large for a traditional supper club. Nye’s reminded me of Chicago’s Busy Bee restaurant on steroids.

“For the amount of food we serve and the number of people that come in here, it’s a supper club,” Barker said. “We still have relish trays. Family owners. Old Fashioneds are  popular again, especially  the Brandy Old Fashioned from Wisconsin. At one time like 51 per cent of every bottle sold in a Wisconsin liquor store was a bottle of brandy.

Barker said the Polish Vodka Martini is the most popular drink at Nye’s. “And our Polonaise (with Chopin potato vodka! served with dry Vermouth and an olive),” he said.

Vodka was outlawed in Minnesota until 1957. “They thought you couldn’t smell it on your breath,” he said.  “And it smelled like lighter fluid. Another Minnesota spin is the addition of hazelnuts to a White Russian, another go-to drink at Nye’s.

Nye’s doesn’t ignore its imported Polish beer.  You can find Zywiec, Okocim and Tyskie on a menu of 35 brews. “They’re basically all the same,” he said. “They have kind of a sweeter, hopsy after-taste to them from what I understand. I don’t drink. I used to drink, I was my own best customer. I made a deal with the state highway department years ago. They let me drive a car if I quit drinking.”

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Phil Barker in daylight in front of the original bar.

Barker has served several thousand people during his 46 years at Nye’s. But he has not taken care of Minneapolis notables like Prince or Jesse Ventura.

 “I’ve served a couple vice-presidents,” he said. “I talked to Hubert Humphrey when he was vice-president. It was on a Monday. We used to have a Teamster business luncheon here and he stopped in to ask a question. He ran in and ran out. We’ve had (former Minnesota Viking) Bill Brown. (The late and rowdy New York Yankees-Minnesota Twins manager) Billy Martin  had lunch here with (former Twins coach) Frank Quilici. Billy behaved himself.”

But is the everyday people who made Nye’s what it is. And it is the everyday people who will be missed.

 

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Dave Hoekstra photo,  June 9, 2015

Dave Hoekstra photo, June 9, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C.–If you look hard enough you see history in the misty shadows of bright neon.

As Asheville grows as a tourist destination many people stop to take photos of the Mountaineer Inn neon-lit sign on the near east side of Tunnel Road. The 1960s era sign features a hillbilly with a rifle resting against his right leg.

The iconic sign is purposely spelled with backwards N’s and E’s to attract roadside attention, but it attracts its own desires at night when it is lit up in cherry red and evergreen outlines.

Asheville is now filled with trendy motels and boutique hotels, so the Mountaineer Inn is left for extended stay residents, day laborers and the occasional prostitute. On a lazy June afternoon I sat by the pool (closed for remodeling) reading the biography of North Carolina born writer Joseph Mitchell. I saw that a few families were attracted to the Mountaineer Inn. The families asked proprietor Chris Moutos to see a room and then left for greener pastures.

And they were witness to the kind of room I stayed in: a saggy bed, a 1970s era Zenith television set jerry-rigged to cable TV and an air conditioning system run through the front office. I paid $59 for a Monday night stay. As one family drove away a middle-aged man with a walking cane left his room. He startled the mockingbird perched on the roof of his unit. His dago tee shirt wasn’t doing any favors for his ample belly. The man asked me how far the Waffle House was. It is two blocks west, not far from where the sun sets on Asheville.

Dave Hoekstra photo

Dave Hoekstra photo

The Mountaineer Court was built in 1939 as a 19-unit motel. Moutos added another 44 units in 1973. “Some of the biggest rooms in the state, 14 by 28 (feet),” Moutos crowed. The Mountaineer now consists of 76 units and the spectacular neon of the barefooted mountain man with his corncob pipe and rifle.

John Turk, Vice-President of the Western North Carolina Historical Association and Professor Emeritus Youngstown State University told me, “Asheville was founded in the 1790s and has had up and down times. The civil war certainly a down time.

“When the railroad got here in 1880 the place started to boom. You could get to Asheville from Baltimore or Philadelphia. A lot of people came to the mountains to get away from the heat and humidity. It built up until 1920 and the stock market crashed.Asheville went into the dark ages until the 1960s when tourist trade started to jump again. That’s when all these motels were built on the three main roads that led into Asheville. Themes varied from hillbilly to Florida chic to Colonial Revival and that was the time period before Howard Johnson’s where they all looked the same. There was a certain amount of character to the Mountaineer.”

Turk leads walking tours and bus tours of downtown Asheville through History At Hand. He has lived in Asheville for 10 years.

He admits he has never stayed at the Mountaineer.

“It is wonderful this motel is still in operation,” he said. “It prides itself in this huge sign. And if you live in Asheville everybody knows where it is. You are either in the camp that thinks its a horrible filthy thing that we need to get rid of or an iconic statement about what was happening in Asheville in the 1950s and 60s.”

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

George Moutos has owned the Mountaineer since 1964.

 The 5’2” Moutos shuffled about his front office which features a vintage sofa and a front desk where he registers visitors by pen and paper. On a good day Moutos will tell visitors about studying Byzantine music as a young man. A Greek Orthodox, Moutos wanted to be a priest when he was young.

Here is a portion of our interview that we aired on the July 18 edition of Nocturnal Journal on WGN-AM 720 in Chicago.

“I will be 92 in one month,” he said. “And I work from seven in the morning until 11 o’clock at night. If we have a storm, we get big problems with the neon. It cost money to operate. It is hard to get parts. I fight and fight to keep the sign. The city has made it a historic sign. People from Europe and all over take pictures of that sign. Several people have tried to buy the motel. It is not for sale. What do I do if I stay home? Keep working. That’s all I can do. I love to meet people. I meet good people.

“Remember ‘Horse’ on ‘Bonanza”?

Actually it was ‘Hoss.’

“I wanted to give him (Dan Blocker) the room free,” Moutos continued. “He would not take the free room. He went across the street and ate feta cheese and bread just like he was in Athens, Greece. He came here in September, 1964.”

Blocker was one of Moutos’ first celebrity guests. Moutos was an Asheville restauranteur on June 10, 1964 when he visited the motel to sell a chamber of commerce membership. “I bought the motel in less than three minutes without knowing what I do,” Moutos said in a broken Greek accent.

Moutos was born in Greece and grew up in Athens. He was a messenger in World War II and came to America in 1951. Moutos lived with his aunt and uncle in Augusta, Ga. for 18 months before relocating to Greenville, S.C. to work in a restaurant. He next moved to Asheville to open his restaurants. He liked Asheville because the cool climate reminded him of the Mediterranean. At one time Moutos operated four diners in Asheville.

But Moutos found his calling in the Mountaineer.

His first restaurant, Cosmos, was across the highway from the Mountaineer.

“One of the most nice and high reputation in the state,  the best part of the city,” he said. Moutos is married to a high school classmate from Athens but they didn’t get hitched until April, 1977. It was not a shotgun wedding. “I was 53,” he said. “I went back to Greece to get married. She is 17 years younger than I am.” Barbara and Chris have sons ages 34 and 36. The oldest son John is involved with the motel and lives in Raleigh, N.C. Nick lives in Asheville.

Portions of the 1988 hit baseball film “Bull Durham” were filmed in  Asheville and the nearby McCormick Field is a minor league baseball treasure. McCormick is situated in a slope on the fringe of the downtown area. I’ve visited McCormick Field the past two summers.

The tiny brick framed ballpark (4,000 capacity) opened in 1924 and was renovated in 1959. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Willie Stargell are among those who have played at McCormick where the right field wall is a mere 297 feet from home plate. The Asheville Tourists are a Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Yankees.

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Waiting for the gates to open (Dave Hoekstra photo)

McCormick is baseball’s oldest minor league stadium still in use. The vintage scoreboard reads “Visitors” in the guest slot and “Tourists” underneath in the home slot. In “Bull Durham” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) ends his career with the Tourists after being released by the Durham Bulls.

 “Bull Durham make shot,” Moutos said. “It was all right. I gave them the room free because it was good work for the city. But they took off the screen doors and never put them back. They were rough people. I’m glad they did the scene with no clothes on at another hotel in Greensboro (S.C.)

Moutos had a better experience with the acclaimed 2003 indy film “All The Real Girls” that starred Zooey Deschnael and Paul Schneider. 

“That was the best movie we had here,” he said. “Good girls. It was nice. They stayed here from October to March. 40 rooms. They were beautiful people. They paid the bills and it was good advertisement for the motel. The producer (Jean Doumanian) wanted to write a story on me. I came here with nothing and made something.”

The 92-year-old proprietor can walk around his grounds and realize it is not 1964 any more. “It’s not good people like it used to be,” he said. “You have to watch close to whom you rent it. You don’t want to rent to people who have a good time or dealers of dope and those things. You have to watch it close. You have to be 21 to rent a room. We have a bridal suite with new furnitures.” And like an old wedding ring, the Mountaineer circles the past with hopes for the future.

The Mountaineer Inn is at 155 Tunnel Rd, for reservations, call 1-800-255-4080.

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn

No diving in the deep end at the Mountaineer Inn