In Vail’s early days, the local watering holes were as important as the skiing
By Randy Wyrick and the Vail Valley Magazine staff
Over the years, a slew of popular bars has graced the streets of Vail. Everyone, especially in the early days, took comfort in a local watering hole to catch up, complain and and have a helluva lotta fun. At that time, being part of the bar scene was like going home after work. In fact, before everyone in town had a telephone, mothers would call the bar to speak with their kids. They knew where they could find them. Safe — but, needless to say, not always sound. But in those early days, perhaps even more than now, those raucous, crowded joints were the heart and soul of the ski town scene.
It really began with La Cave, New Year’s Eve, 1963. Jim Slevin paid a year’s liquor license for one night! There were 45 rpm records by a new group called The Beatles belting out their hits – “She Loves Me,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Twist & Shout.”
“We had a combined restaurant/nightclub and stayed open till 2 in the morning,” Daphne Slevin told Women in Vail authors Elaine Kelton and Carolyn Pope. “I remember sitting in our apartment and throwing all the bills up in the air, catching one, and saying this was the lucky guy who was going to get paid.” At the time, it was a bar (La Cave Copper Bar) as well as a restaurant.
Then there was Pistachios where Tom “TS” Simon, who only had $18 when he rolled into Vail in his 1956 Thunderbird, was a bartender. He lived in the Clocktower in the heart of Vail Village – exactly 100 steps from the bar. TS had a duck named Fang that he won pitching dimes at Cheyenne Frontier Days. And when TS walked to work, the duck waddled along. Fang also waddled up and down Pistachio’s bar and, sometimes, took a sip of shots along the way. One time, Fang fell off the bar and because he was drunk, never thought about flying. He suffered a hairline fracture in this right leg. You can’t make stuff this up!
In 1964, Bill Whiteford, by his own admission a “trust-fund” baby and graduate of Stanford, with a Masters degree in geology from the University of Michigan, opened the Casino on the unpaved Bridge Street opposite Pepi’s. It was modeled after the Reisch Tanz Casino in Kitzbuhel, Austria and was billed as the largest disco in North America. It was like an Elizabethan theater — a large dance floor and dining area, a balcony with tiers that could be closed off and a list of entertainers like bandleader and jazz trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie, and groups like Irish Rovers. However, the most popular entertainment was people — particularly locals, climbing up the bar’s rafters and ringing the cowbell that hung from the top — then dropping down to the floor.
Another time, Whiteford, who always enjoyed ice bars at the premier European resorts, wanted to build one at Mid-Vail. And even though the idea was turned down at a director’s meeting, Whiteford, with the help of other “forward thinkers,” built one anyway: a thirty-foot-diameter circular bar made of concrete that was chest high, covered with watered down snow. It was a full-service bar with hot pastrami sandwiches, corned beef and pea soup for starters. Without a liquor license or permission from Vail Associates, the bar was shut down. However, guests were on Whiteford’s side and clamored to let him reopen – which he did. Soon, however, the forest service closed him down, once more, for advertising foreign liquor on U. S. Forest Service land. It was really the Carpano umbrellas that caused the bar’s downfall. In the end, even with the help of Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall, who had the forest-service employee who had the bar closed, relocated to El Paso, the ice bar was only open on and off for two months. Needless to say, Whiteford, with his sense of humor, was one of the most popular personalities to ever live in Vail.
About this time, the Slevins decided that running La Cave Restaurant as well as the bar was too much work. So John Donovan, who had been their bartender, borrowed some money from them and bought the bar. He put his skis, guns and beat up Land Rover as collateral and opened Donovan’s Copper Bar in November, 1966. He paid off the Slevins by Christmas. And Donovan’s Copper Bar was born. The place where you might find President Gerald R. Ford at one end of the bar and one of Vail’s town drunks at the other. In between there’d be lots of Secret Service agents. And locals, like legendary town prankster Packy Walker (whose capers are still celebrated) and his buddy, who’d ride into town on a horse and buggy to alight at libation locations. They’d charge tourists five bucks a ride and then could drink all night on the money they made — as long as they did most of their dinking in Donovan’s Copper Bar, where both hot dogs and beers were three for a dollar.
“They were small beers,” says Diana Donovan, with a wink in her eye. She was the one you’d find in the kitchen making lunches, while balancing daughter, Kerry, in a backpack. Donovan’s was truly the place to be if you wanted to meet anyone and everyone in town.
Across from Donovan’s was the Red Lion — an inn and a bar — owned by Marge and Larry Burdick. As the story goes, occasionally Larry felt the need for male bonding and his loyal ne’er-do-well friends took him out and then made sure he was back home before sunup. One of them had a key to the place and, supposedly, they would place inebriated Larry into the dumbwaiter for the trip upstairs. Remember, this stuff is legend. Even today, some folks ski all the way down to the Red Lion deck. It’s possible that these people do not love their skis.
When Larry passed away, Marge sold the Red Lion to a guy from back east who lived in a third-floor apartment across Bridge Street, and habitually phoned down to the bar asking for vodka and Coke. When a bartender knocked on his door, the guy usually answered dressed in boxer shorts. His stay in town was short lived and Kevin Foley, currently on Vail’s Town Council, along with two others, purchased the bar.
And then came Nu Gnu, opened in the late 1960s by former Vail mayor Paul Johnson, as one of Vail’s first rock ‘n roll bars. Johnson was said to have manned the door every night with a handlebar mustache and fishnet shirt or a feather boa. This was another bar where you might find President Ford, as the Western White House was on nearby Mill Creek Circle and off-duty Secret Service agents hung out there — close to home. Susan Ford would come in under Secret Service protection even though she was underage. Her SS code name was “Snowflake.”
You could almost ski into The Slope — and some did just that — which was at the bottom of Vail Mountain. What originally opened as a basement bar in the ‘60s also became a place to see great ski flics…for 23 years. For movies, you had a choice between The Slope and Crossroads Cinema where, in some rows, a pole might be blocking half your view of
Gartons’ was owned by cousins Dave and Rob Garton. “The bar,” says Dave’s son, Bart, with a laugh, “operated on the fringe of legality. One time there was a wet t-shirt contest, and Dad had to publicly announce that there could be no full-on nudity. Contestants came up, did their thing, and would usually end with ripping off their tops. That was kind of OK, but if they went for their knickers, Dad had to run up behind them and keep them from popping the button. All was going OK when, one time, the last contestant, after a short wiggle, called up her entire softball team. It was complete chaos as they all doffed everything and Dad ran around trying to keep their pants on — unsuccessfully. I believe the liquor inspector was there, but took pity on Dad as he witnessed him doing his best.”
And, smack-dab in the middle of town was Pepi’s — the baby of Sheika and Pepi Gramshammer. Everyone notable from U. S. presidents, actors, astronauts and athletes to local legends hung out at this bar at some time. It’s just what you did — and still do — when in Vail. One wall, filled with trophies, awards and photos of both Gramshammers, shows the history of Vail, the bar and its owners. The best way to describe Pepi’s is “joyous chaotic.” It was always a party with Rod Powell, and his guitar, playing non-stop, the crowd singing along at the top of its lungs and people sometimes dancing on the tables or forming a conga line out the door. “Rod was the key to happy days and happy hours,” reflects Sheika, who danced on tables more than once. “We were talking about ‘the Twist,’ and there was no room to dance on the floor, so some guys made a bet with me that I wouldn’t twist on the table that the four of them would lift. They lost!” Sheika says with a laugh. And then, of course, was the conga line, led by Pepi — to who knows where! In more ways than one, being in Pepi’s — its ambiance of song, laughter and joy — was, and still is, intoxicating.
At the top of Bridge Street was Cyrano’s at one end of the building and Los Amigos, at the top of the stairway, on the other end. Cyrano’s was a bit more of a social bar. This was a place where everybody — mostly the early 30s+ people — hung out. Singles, married folks, folks who said they were single but really were married (really only separated since breakfast), all met before making the rounds through Vail. If only the walls could talk.
On Wall Street, a British gent opened a restaurant featuring British food and called the place Sweeney Todd’s, after the British barber/serial killer who murdered his clients while they were sitting in his barber chair. After Sweeney Todd’s died, the Hong Kong Café was born. The place was so close to Chair 1 that many folks began their après ski adventure by scarfing down an order of the amazing egg rolls along with a Bahama Mama, a magical elixir that contained enough alcohol to float an outrigger canoe, before moving on. And, out the Hong Kong’s windows was a view of Donovan’s patio — and any shenanigans that might be going on there.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who walked the streets of Vail who didn’t go to Mickey’s, in the Lodge at Vail. Seeing Mickey Poage was a must! For 35 years the man sat at his grand piano and put on a show, calling every song he ever sung, his “favorite.” As John F. Kelly, of the Washington Post once wrote, “A good piano bar piano player has the pacing of a distance runner, the memory of an elephant and the understanding of a neighborhood bartender. He’s able to deal with melancholy drunks with the compassion of a priest and obnoxious drunks with the firmness of a bouncer.” And there you have it. A description of Mickey to a T. It was not surprising to find other talented people join in — singing, perhaps playing an instrument. It’s just what one did at Mickey’s. When Vail Resorts took over the Lodge, the company gave him the piano as well as the bar as a parting gift. These days, Mickey and his piano are well situated at Vista in Arrowhead — with the sounds of this gifted entertainer drifting out through the windows.
Alfie Packers, at the base of the Lionshead gondola was named for the infamous Mr. Packer who resorted to cannibalism to survive when he and five others were trapped in the San Juan Mountain wilderness. As the men died of exposure and starvation, Packer stayed alive by eating them. A Hinsdale County jury found him guilty. Some of the patrons can recite Judge M.B. Gerry’s speech when he sentenced Alfie to hang: “When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’ be hanged by th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead.” Footnote: Alfie didn’t hang. After a second trial he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in state prison. He was paroled after
Lionshead’s Bart and Yeti’s is named after two dogs, Bart and Yeti. The place had just been sold and it needed a new name. As the story goes, Packy Walker (he made the rounds) would sit at the bar with his dog Bart. A few barstools down Pepper and Jan Etters sat with their dog Yeti. One night, patrons were having a spirited, tequila-fueled discussion about what the new owners should name their bar. One guy recalls loudly that the previous owner didn’t like dogs in the bar. “Name it after those two dogs and he’ll never come back!” he shouted. So they did. The name stuck and so did the dogs. Bart was fond of drinking white Russians from a wooden bowl. Years later, at Bart’s wake, several wooden bowls were on the floor filled with white Russians. In homage, Bart’s buddies were lapping them up. The door swung open and a husband and wife walked through surveying the scene. She turned to the husband and declared that they wouldn’t be staying there.
And over in Minturn is — what else? The Minturn Saloon — in a building that dates back to 1901. It has always housed a restaurant and bar, though it’s rumored to have provided other uses! One retired railroad worker recalls that, as a child, he served as a runner between the saloon and neighborhood homes. At times he would deliver messages telling certain gamblers that their wives expected them back at home — presently! Let’s just say it was a rowdy place. It was sold in 1938 to a man who changed its name to “Jeffs,” who then sold it in the mid-‘70s to a man who wanted to turn the bar — accustomed to weekly fights — into a restaurant for tourists. He changed the name to “The Saloon Across the Street from the Eagle River Hotel.” That mouthful of a name was shortened to “The Saloon” which is what it’s still called. And this place has some notoriety. It is recognized as the après-ski destination of those skiers who have experienced the “Minturn Mile,” considered one of the country’s premiere our-of-bounds areas. As well, Men’s Journal listed The Saloon as one of the Best Après Ski Bars in the World. And to think, it’s right in our backyard.
• When discos came on the scene — Shadows at the Marriott in Lionshead was THE place to be. It’s almost as though everyone skied down the mountain right into the place. Standing room only! Disco lights. Blaring music. A jangle of voices, boasting, swearing, loud laughter. It was the place to be when the last episode of television show Mash aired. And it’s a place that is still missed today.
• Over in Vail, music from Nick’s, which was underground, could be heard up and down Bridge Street. The people were intoxicated with the throbbing rhythm of the music. Any night, you’d find folks from the “big city” teaching new dances: the hustle, locomotion, line dances. Nick’s was always “happening.“
Mostly, it’s the fanciful legends about the goings on in Vail’s early years, the storied ones that pique our interest and imaginations. Like when someone carried a pig into a bar and that same someone and an accomplice let live chickens loose in the Vail Village Kentucky Fried Chicken. How ‘bout when 37 white mice were left in a women’s rest room? And then there were the rabble-rousers who rode their horses down Bridge Street and into the bars.
Just another average night in old Vail.
Don’t you wish you could have been there?