Barrymore’s Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska is unique. It is located in the backstage area of what used to be the Stuart Theatre. You enter the bar through an alley. The bar entrance was the performer’s stage door when the theatre opened in 1929.

Barrymore’s was always dark and musky and smelling of sawdust and rope. The Stuart theatre is still a performance space with seats and a stage and on the other side of the fire curtain remains Barrymore’s — still backstage — and still thriving with life and ambition and still giving off a strange ambience of being someplace you don’t belong but were always meant to be in the end.

Barrymore’s is where the radio people I used to work with would hang out before, during and after work because the station was on the eighth floor of the same building. If I joined them during the day I always had a pop while those around me would slowly make their way into the slosh. One day my friends and I were hanging out downtown after school and we decided to go into Barrymore’s.

Barrymore’s was an upper class bar. It wasn’t like the bar troughs clotted along downtown where University of Nebraska-Lincoln students would head for the cheapest buzz they could find. The five of us sat down together at a tiny round table. The waitress came over and smiled and asked what we were drinking as she placed a cocktail napkin before each of us. She said drinking in such a way we knew she mean alcohol and not pop or water.

We all looked at each other and Chad — the manly man among us who, at 15 had a full beard and a deep voice and looked craggy and at least 50 years old — ordered for us. “We’re all having dark girls,” Chad said smoothly and with great confidence. “Back in a jig,” the waitress said.

We all looked at each other as soft jazz music voluptuously played all around us. We were all 15 and we were about to be served alcohol in the grandest bar of all.

Then, one of us finally had the guts to ask the question: “What’s a dark girl?” Chad smiled and leaned back in his chair. “You have to fit in if you want to drink. If they card you, you’re dead. Talk the walk, man.” “But what’s a dark girl?”

“A dark girl,” Chad said in a low, soft voice as he leaned into us, “is even better than a pale one.” “We’re getting alcohol, right? We aren’t really getting a girl-girl, right?” Chad continued on in his low, sexy, voice as if he hadn’t been interrupted, “St. Pauli Girl is a beer. A foreign beer. A pale beer. If you order a ‘dark girl’ you’re ordering the darker version of the beer no one really knows about so the fact you know about it means you drink. It means you know. You fit in.”

“We’re getting beer!” someone chirped while clapping.

“Don’t shout. Don’t clap. You’re going to get us carded,” Chad said as he hushed us with his eyes. “Fit in. Fit in by keeping cool and quiet. When your dark girl comes, nurse her a little bit. Don’t chug.”

The waitress arrived and set down before us five St. Pauli Girl Special Dark bottles of beer and five small glasses and a big bowl of pretzels and peanuts. “We didn’t order pretzels.” one of us us said in a voice that was a little too loud. The waitress gave us a look. “Thanks for the snacks.”

Chad kicked the person under the table and peeled off a $20 bill and handed it to her. “Keep the change.” She grinned at her 150% tip and left us alone as she headed back to the BarBack. “Guys, the pretzels and peanuts are free,” Chad said. “And stop drinking it out of the bottle! We aren’t in your basement. Tilt the glass a little first. Then pour a little bit into the glass and sip.”

“Ew. It’s bitter.”

“Drink it anyway.” Chad said.

“I don’t like the heavy foam.”

“Drop a peanut in it and the salt on the nut will bring it down,” Chad ordered. “No more talking. Drink it all. Eat a pretzel between swallows if you can’t handle the taste.”

For the next 10 minutes we all ate and drank in repetitive silence. Chad surveyed the bar. “Good. We’re fitting in. Now watch and learn.”

In a single movement, Chad caught our waitress’ eye, raised his eyebrows and drew a small horizontal circle in the air around us. She nodded and Chad smiled back at her. “We have another round coming. I’ll pay for it. You’ll pay me back later.”

After a long wait, our waitress came up to us with an empty tray. Chad closed his eyes and fell back, deflated, in his chair.

One of us said in a squeaky voice that was, again, a little too loud, “Where are our dark girls?” She looked each of us in the eye. Except for Chad. He was sitting there with his eyes still shut. “Look, you guys. There’s a man at the bar who said you’re all 15 years old. I’m in big trouble because I served you and you gotta get out of here.”

As she crisply turned on her heel I looked through the smoky haze of the bar to see Gay, one of the top salesmen at the radio station, sipping a cocktail through a stirring straw and shaking his finger at me. Gay was a monster of a man. He was mighty and tall and huge and he could sell you sunshine on sunny day using just a handshake.

Gay’s giant mop of snowy hair was slicked back like a snowcapped mountain. His brilliant, bushy-white mustache glowered at me in the dark. His leathery face did not crack a smile. I was immediately sick to my stomach as I felt a salty mix of beer and pretzels fighting their way up through the peanuts and out through my mouth.

Gay had always been kind to me. He offered me sage advice. He was my friend. Gay was short for “Gaylord” and he loved to be called “Gay” and if you called him “Gaylord” he would correct you and tell you to call him “Gay.” Gay was a really old guy even back then and “gay” did not mean then what it means now.

AYDS, back then, was a diet supplement of chewy caramel and not AIDS, the deadly killer disease. Back then, the legal drinking age was 18.

“L-l-l-let’s run for it!” one of us stammered. “There’s an emergency exit right behind us.” someone said.

“Push it open and let’s go!” another one of us urged.

“No.” Chad finally said as he slowly opened his eyes and inflated his lungs to sigh, “We’re going out the way we came in.”

The rest of us audibly gasped. That exit was on the opposite end of the bar and we’d have to weave in and out of all the tables and customers to get out.

“It’s too far. We’ll get arrested between here and there.”

Chad ignored our pressing impulse to fight or flee. “We’re going to be cool. We’re going to fit in. Follow me.”

Chad peeled off another $20 bill and tucked it under his cocktail napkin.

“And don’t run,” Chad hissed. The rest of us lined up single-file and followed Chad out of the bar like prisoners in a slow-motion Chain Gang. The second we hit daylight outside the bar we looked at each other through squinting, dazed, eyes trying to figure out what to do next. Then Chad turned away from us and flew into a run.

The rest of us took his lead and split off in a sprint for our lives in opposite directions. I didn’t stop running until my head stopped buzzing from the beer. It took awhile. None of us ever spoke with each other about getting caught.

It was a painful loss of face and if our waitress had called the police instead of telling us to scram we all would have ended up in juvenile detention for a day or two and that would have brought great public shame and private regret to our families.

I saw Gay many times after that incident. He never brought up what happened and neither did I.

He knew we did the wrong thing and then, as now, I’m relieved he chose to shake a finger instead of shout because the meaning of that silent message hurt even more. I had disappointed my friend.

Gay taught me fitting in is sometimes finding out what you must never become when you’re underage backstage at Barrymore’s bar.

25 Comments

  1. Hey A S —
    Yes. It was quite a moment. I don’t think the other guys with me ever knew it was Gay who fingered us as being under age. I know I never told them.
    If we’d made it out of there without getting caught we would have shared that story everywhere and never stopped talking about it. The fact we got caught ruined the experience as any sort of coming-of-age milestone of repeatable merit.

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  2. I felt like I was in the bar when I was reading the recollection.
    Great story-telling!
    Which friend suggested going to Barrymore’s?
    And, did anyone say “there’s nothing to worry about. Relax?”

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  3. Hey Chris!
    Thanks for the wonderful comments on the story!
    I think it was my idea to go to Barrymore’s since most kids that age had no idea there was a bar back there or what “Barrymore’s” even meant.
    I’m not sure what you mean by: “there’s nothing to worry about. Relax?”

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  4. Hi David,
    It seemed that the phrase “There’s nothing to worry about. Relax” always preceeded some underage alcohol-related mishap when I was younger.
    I experienced an underage alcohol mishap when I was a freshman at IU and went camping in the Hoosier National Forest‘s Harding Ridge Recreation Area with some friends from Bloomington.
    As we were throwing our camping gear into my dad’s Isuzu Trooper II, one of my friends carefully put a six-pack of beer and a six-pack of wine coolers in the truck.
    I said something to my friend about the alcohol and how we probably should just leave it at his house.
    My friend said,
    “There’s nothing to worry about.”
    “Relax.”
    “You need a drink!”
    Of course, even though we thought we were safely hidden deep in the woods, we got caught with the alcohol by the Conservation Police.
    We hadn’t even drink much when an officer materialized from the darkness that eagerly consumed the meager amount of light put out by our gas lantern.
    Since we weren’t drunk, he confiscated the alcohol, wrote us all tickets to appear at court, told us to be good, and said we could continue to camp, if we wished.
    He also said that he’d be watching us.
    Even though I have an “Earned Dismissal” order and the case was dismissed after I completed some community service hours, I still had to advise the Indiana and Illinois Bars of the incident when I applied for admission.
    Beware any time someone says “There’s nothing to worry about.”

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  5. Hi Chris!
    Ah, now I get it! Thanks for filling in the meaning behind that interesting phrase.
    Your drinking story holds many fine lessons: Listen to your gut; think for yourself; your actions today influence your decisions in the future. Excellent work!

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  6. Hello Dave!
    Well, except for Chad, we all looked incredibly baby-faced. The bar was dark, though, and we were there in the middle of the afternoon. So maybe our waitress thought we were college kids finished with class. The UNL campus was two blocks away and at that time high school seniors could legally drink.
    I had a girlfriend who was very voluptuous in high school. She could always “buy” whatever she wanted without getting carded. It was a convenient blessing.

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  7. That sounds like a lot of fun, Dave, and it brings back great memories of grilling in the back yard and pouring some awful — but really cheap — Ancient Age whiskey into a glass of 7-Up to get a little kick.
    I became so bombed on “Blackberry Brandy” one day I lost everything in the back seat of my own car before I passed out. My friends drove me home and then walked back to their houses.
    That was a great sign of friendship because none of us lived near each other and they had to walk home or their parents would know something happened if they made a call to get picked up.

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  8. Ancient Age …
    It brings back good memories, even though I’ve never tried the fire water.
    My grandmother worked for good old AA before she retired. The Ancient Age Distillery in Frankfort, KY was close to her house and she could walk to work.
    In fact, you could see the distillery from my grandmother’s old house in the Thorn Hill section of Kentucky’s capital city.
    My aunt Glenda also had her wedding reception in the Ancient Age clubhouse.

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  9. Hi Chris!
    Wow! What a cool connection to Ancient Age! Did your grandmother drink any of it? Don’t you feel obligated to down at least one shot in her honor?
    😀
    Ancient Age had a clubhouse? Was there free Ancient Age available?
    We used to buy it by the gallon for $3.00 on sale — shudder — we could never down it straight. We always had to mix it with something. Our small circle felt very elite. While the rest were drinking beer we were mixing Ancient Age!
    :mrgreen:

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  10. Hi David,
    I should hoist a shot or two in memory of my grandmother.
    EllenJaye.com has a feature about Ancient Age, which has been renamed Buffalo Trace. There’s a picture of the clubhouse on the page before the fold.
    I remember alcohol being available at the reception, but alcohol was always available everywhere in Kentucky it seemed. Of course, my grandfather owned several liquor stores, so the family was always fully prepared for any party that might break out. 🙂
    I was still pretty young when my aunt got married so I didn’t pay attention to the adult beverages.
    I never did take a tour of any of the distilleries in Kentucky — my parents were anti-alcohol to be rebellious against the family. 😉
    I do remember stopping at one distillery (maybe Old Crow) to visit an uncle who was working there at the time and looking at some equipment when I was in high school.
    When I was in law school, I did visit Talisker in Scotland’s Isle of Skye. If I remember correctly, there might have been a charge for the tour, but they provided a free shot in their gift shop at the end.
    Here’s a distillery I’m going to make a point of visiting next time I’m in Kentucky: Four Roses.
    It’s right up the road from where an aunt and uncle live and where the family usually stays during Christmas visits.
    Four Roses’ Kentucky Straight Bourbon wasn’t available in the U.S. for quite some, but now is since Kirin bought the brand, so I’m curious to try it next time in the Bluegrass state.

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  11. Chris!
    What a history of alcohol you have in your family — making it and selling it — not necessarily drinking it!
    I have family in Kentucky. They turned me on to Maker’s Mark a while back. That stuff is pretty good, I must confess.

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  12. I normally don’t drink – just because I saw so many people acting funny when they got drunk – they had no clue what they were doing – I never wanted that happening to me. I tasted everything though…never got carried away! 😀
    It was a wedding reception of one of my friend’s elder brother. A group of 8/9 of us went together and stayed in a guest house (sort of motel) for 2 days. All of us were 18/19 then – first year in college.
    A few of my friends were planning to drink when I was busy exploring the place with another friend of mine.
    We came back to the guest house, as soon as I entered the room I smelled something that I liked. I asked what it was. One of them asked back “wanna try?”
    I nodded…without even knowing what it was I gulped something (later I came to know it was Rum! :D) that almost burnt my throat!
    I didn’t like the test the way I liked the smell and after sometime I started feeling kind of funny…everything in the room kind of looked tilted…
    It was then I realized my friends were waiting for it…they wanted me to act weird…just because I used to make fun of them when they got drunk!
    I knew I had to get that liquid out of my system. I stood up; my head was spinning as if I spent five hours in a roller-coaster, I tried to walk straight but realized I was all over the map…..because I didn’t even feel I was walking!
    I kept quiet, walked to the rest room and closed the door – and then….the obvious…I threw up!
    At least I didn’t do it in front of others!

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  13. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story, Katha!
    I am so impressed with your mind. You were able to keep in control of your body even when it was too late. You took a forceful path and found success! I am glad the joke was not on you.

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  14. Thanks a lot!
    My friends told me later I looked like Charlie Chaplin when I was trying to walk!!!
    All I remember that I didn’t crawl! Thank God!

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  15. I know, I am glad too.
    My friends played prank on me by serving a Patiala Peg (http://patialvi.com/html/famous.shtml) – which was a double/extra large measurement of liquor. I don’t blame them – the way I used to pull their leg…they used to hide from me if/whenever they got drunk.
    It taught me not to be over confident again in my life. I didn’t stop making fun of my friends…but became very cautious while trying something new.

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  16. That’s an interesting story, Katha! Alcohol can be as dangerous and as deadly as a gun. I’m glad you survived the incident without permanent harm no matter how hard your friends were laughing.

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