Patrons knocking back a few cold ones at one of Minneapolis’ most legendary dive bars could party a bit easier knowing “Big John” Duhart was on the lookout for trouble.
The gentle giant manning the door for two decades at Palmer’s Bar, a West Bank institution, earned a loyal following among the watering hole’s eclectic clientele. His large stature and bass voice was usually enough to keep the peace, whether he was ejecting rowdies or clearing the bar at closing time. But when the place erupted into a full-on brawl — as it occasionally did — Duhart wasn’t afraid to dive into the chaos and start grabbing bodies.
To the regulars, he was a friend. To rambunctious customers, he was the enforcer. And to young men in trouble, he was a father figure who doled out advice in after-hours chats.
“I don’t have no bad night at Palmer’s,” Duhart told the Star Tribune in 2016.
Duhart died Jan. 5 at the age of 66.
Unlike some bouncers, Duhart had a reputation of keeping his cool.
“John never got worked up. He never did anything out of anger,” said Seneca Krueger, a former bartender who worked with Duhart. “He was able to regulate himself in a way that I’ve never ever seen anybody else able to do that.”
From her perch at the bar, Krueger recalls subtly communicating with Duhart at the door about trouble afoot.
“A bouncer’s job is not to break up fights. A bouncer’s job is to identify where the problems might be, so that a fight doesn’t start in the first place,” Krueger said. “John knows people. He knows what to look for.”
“There’s too many people in here!” was Duhart’s typical refrain when he needed to clear people from the bar at closing time, recalled bartender Joe Roberto. He commanded a big presence at the door, Roberto said, and knew most of the people coming in.
“It’s just every walk of life, from students to professors to gutter punks and old hippies and gangsters,” Roberto said. “It doesn’t matter. Everybody goes there.”
Long before he became a dive bar legend, Duhart grew up in a large family on the South Side of Chicago. He started his working life in his early teens, bagging groceries at the neighborhood store.
After high school he began managing a chain of grocery stores in Chicago, where he was known to offer a line of credit for customers waiting on their assistance checks, his sister said. He later moved to Minnesota to join his mother and brother, who had relocated from Chicago.
People close to Duhart weren’t sure exactly when he started working at Palmer’s, though former owner Lisa Hammer said he essentially “came with the building” when she and her late husband bought the place in 2001.
Longtime friend and fellow Chicago native Paul Benson said Duhart was a charitable person who helped him get on his feet when he moved to Minnesota in the early 1990s.
“Everybody loved John. He didn’t have no enemies. Nobody ever messed with him,” Benson said. “Especially for being a bouncer, sometimes people get mad at you.”
Duhart had only a short retirement. His daughter, Keiana Nicole Bradley, was overwhelmed by the dozens of Palmer’s regulars who attended his funeral. A crowded potluck celebration of life followed, back at the bar.
“You felt very safe with him, all the time,” Bradley said. “And that’s what a lot of people would say. … They knew that if he was at the door that it would be fine.”
Duhart is survived by daughters Bradley, of Atlanta, and Deneen Charleston of Indiana, as well as siblings Phyllis Duhart-Massac of Nevada, Olivia Duhart of Chicago, Abdul Daoud of Chicago and Karen Duhart Cox of Minneapolis. Services have been held.