It was not yet noon at Al's Bar, but the Grain Belt Premium, on special for $3, was already flowing at a brisk pace. About a dozen regulars sat around the bar in the cool darkness. Occasionally, the front door would creak open and a wedge of sunshine would stab into the place. Everybody would turn to look.
A woman with her hair done just-so snapped photos with a small Instamatic, capturing old-time memories in an old-time way.
Dave Payne, a genial guy with a perpetual smile and a thick head of white hair, rose from his chair to man-hug the Budweiser keg delivery man, who took one last look around.
"I'll miss you guys," said the Bud man.
After 83 years, Al's Bar will close for good this Saturday, making room for a retail and apartment complex called The Ellipse, which promises to bring an "upscale aesthetic" to the corner of Excelsior Boulevard and France Avenue S. You knew it had to happen. Al's sits just inside St. Louis Park at Minneapolis' gateway to the lakes. Prime real estate with prime views has long made the corner an object of developer lust.
In fact, Payne said he got his first offer on the place about 35 years ago, two years after he scrapped career plans to be a pharmacist and bought into the former speakeasy that was once disguised as a confectionery and grocery store. The place survived economic lulls, smoking bans and health concerns to remain the city's longest continuous business.
Since then, Al's has been the actual home to the first owners, Al Lovaas and Mary Vlavianous, who lived upstairs, and until last month, the night clean-up guy.
And it has been the part-time home to a sitting governor, wrestlers such as Verne Gagne and The Crusher, television and newspaper personalities, third-shifters from Honeywell, construction crews, milkmen, postal workers, a couple of customers who went on to become billionaires and, when the age limit was 18, students from West High School on lunch break.
A television truck had pulled up outside Al's, and a couple of regulars at the end of the bar talked fondly of the television reporter who stopped by the day before for a story.
"She was bee-you-tee-full," said one.
"Tall," said the other.
"And built," said the first man, raising his eyebrows.
Payne picked his way through the detritus of junk in the basement to point out the fieldstone fireplace, where local swells would sneak off to drink hootch. They had the blessings of the sheriff, who was a friend of Lovaas, he said. Boxes of trophies for the 150 sports teams the bar sponsored every year line the wall.
"We guessed that we'd moved a half-million cases of beer through this basement in the last 30 years," Payne said wistfully. He ticked off the notable clientele: Gov. Karl Rolvaag's driver used to sneak him in for a brandy Manhattan. Professional wrestlers on break from taping at the Calhoun Beach Club would cash their paychecks, which their boss, a known cheapskate, issued in Canadian dollars to save money. There was the guy accused of killing his wife and leaving her in the trunk of a car in a parking lot; he spent the day at Al's while authorities searched his home.
"Dave Moore stopped here," said Payne of the late WCCO-TV newscaster.
"But he stopped everywhere."
Al DeRusha, one of the producers of All-Star wrestling, remembers bartenders named "Big Lenny," "Woody," (a former partner) and "Butch."
Behind the bar, little turnover
Bartenders at Al's are still union members, and tend to stay for years. Dick Parent, who was working the afternoon shift Tuesday, has been there for 37 years.
"Butch was a clone of Archie Bunker," said DeRusha. "He looked like a bulldog. Every time you went in the bar, he would insult you."
At the back of the bar, George Scott and Terrence Marciniak were at their usual spots. Scott had brought two hams, a donation to the closing ceremonies on Saturday (1 to 5 p.m.). They are former members of the "Q-tip crowd," white-haired retirees who gathered each morning.
"They'd open at 10 and we'd get here by 10:02," Scott said.
"Now, it's by 10:32," Marciniak added.
Three generations of the Scott family will be here Saturday to say goodbye.
"It was our tradition that I'd bring my kids here at 12:01 on their 21st birthday for their first legal drink," said Scott. "When I brought my son Joe, the bartender was Woody. He smiled and looked at Joe and said, 'You want the usual?' "
Scott sipped his tap beer and looked around at the total absence of upscale aesthetic.
"Geez," he said. "This is going to leave a hole in our day."
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