Legendary ‘Tobacco Road,’ oldest bar in Miami, shuts its doors

27 Oct 2014 | Author: | No comments yet »

In Miami, It’s the Final Toast for an Iconic Bar.

MIAMI — If a bar’s essence could pull up a stool, throw back a few shots and bare its byzantine soul, stories would have gone on forever and last call might never have come. MIAMI (Reuters) – Miami’s oldest bar, Tobacco Road, a popular watering hole where suit-and-tie-clad lawyers belly up alongside hippies gathering signatures for medical marijuana petitions, is preparing for last call.MIAMI—Tobacco Road—the oldest bar in this city and a onetime speakeasy and gambling den—survived Prohibition, the Depression, hurricanes and police raids.“Tobacco Road,” the storied blues-bar and one-time gambling den, which claims to hold the oldest liquor license in the city of Miami, shutdown after one last hurrah Saturday night.

The cramped, musty space near Miami’s downtown thrived for decades as a gambling den frequented by Al Capone, as well as a strip club and legendary blues bar. The compact blue building is surrounded by cranes giving rise to projects like Brickell City Centre, a $1.05 billion development that will include condos, a hotel and upscale mall. The feds closeted themselves in the famous upstairs room, where early Miamians gambled and drank illegal liquor and later some of the greatest American blues performers rocked and rolled on a floor so ramshackle it actually shook. But the iconic bar will pour its final drink on Saturday, marking the end of an era in gentrified Miami where traffic-clogged roads are increasingly shaded by new office towers and high-rise condominiums.

No one, not even its owners, knows precisely when the bar was built. “When we lifted up the floors we saw the foundation was trees with bark still on them,” said Patrick Gleber, 55, who purchased the bar with partners for $200,000 in 1982. The developers, which include a Colombian auto executive, have a permit to demolish the premises, but they have not yet submitted any plans for what would replace it, the Miami Herald reports. “Tobacco Road was the people.

Earlier this month, Patrick Gleber, who bought Tobacco Road with partners 32 years ago, announced in a tear-filled staff meeting that they were turning out the lights. “It’s a shame,” said Bill Sayad, a 79-year-old retired lawyer and “old road warrior”—as longtime patrons are known—who has been coming since 1972. “If they start replacing everything in town with concrete high-rises, the character of Miami is going to be gone.” During Prohibition, the place was formally a bakery, but housed a speakeasy on the second floor. It reopened in 1948 and until the 1970s was named Chanticleer after a character in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” Gleber and his partners named it Tobacco Road after a popular 1960 song. But that’s the kind of place Tobacco Road is, or, rather, was: A narrow cavern, just 22 feet wide, where vagrants rubbed shoulders with celebrities, cops, lawyers and lawbreakers in a convivial atmosphere of grungy, forbearing decorum, and where very little that happened — and lots happened — surprised anyone. Then on Oct. 15, city officials posted a “repair or demolish” order on the bar’s rear entrance, and the city’s code inspectors broke with precedent from the days when about $200 could buy a reprieve, said Kevin Rusk, one of the owners. The bar featured a beloved house band, Iko-Iko, who wowed crowds with their unique mash-up of blues and New Orleans “swamp music.” “It’s like someone’s died,’’ Iko-Iko’s leader, Graham Wood Drout, told the Herald. “I’ve gone through all the stages — grief, anger, resignation, all of it.’’ The stories, legends, and myths about the “Road” are numerous, but the truth is even more fun.

As Sunday rolled around, bringing the Road’s final last call, Joel Rivera stood before a bleary-eyed crowd at 4:40 a.m., a megaphone in hand, sunglasses shielding his eyes. Over time, the neighborhood cleaned up, and Tobacco Road became a premier spot for live music and a popular hangout for a diverse crowd, from rockers and hippies to attorneys and business executives. “No matter who you are, you can come,” Mr. In its ode to the bar, the Herald recounts how an overzealous doorman once turned away supermodel Cindy Crawford because she lacked proper ID (he let her in once she got back from her limo with her driver’s license).

Sunday, a victim of the massive wave of glitzy development that’s burying the last remnants of a rough, colorful riverside district with its origins in the city’s earliest days. Rivera, the tavern’s general manager, an optimist who is raising money with a partner to reboot the Road a block away, even as high-rise projects consume property nearby. They launched a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to raise $50,000 to preserve historical elements, including the neon sign out front and the cypress bar top. Longtime employees got Gleber’s blessing to open a new Tobacco Road at an old electrical shop building at the rear of the block — God bless ’em and good luck with that — but few think it could ever be quite the same, even if they pull off what seems a long shot. “The building is very important and it will never be duplicated,’” said Mark Weiser, the lavishly bearded “longhair” — his word — who booked acts at the Road for 25 years. “There was something about the molecules in the wood.

Naturally, the feds were partying in the Road’s private, upstairs room. “What made Tobacco Road great was its casualness, the people from all walks of life who let their hair down, relax, and drank side by side,” Mark Weiser, Tobacco Road’s longtime talent coordinator, told Reuters. But those moves do little to comfort old-timers like 46-year-old Oski Gonzalez, who played his first gig at Tobacco Road in 1999 and handles promotions for the bar. His band, Oski Foundation, will be playing the last song on Saturday night. “I don’t think anyone is leaving,” he said. “Everyone will have to be thrown out.” I think that had a lot to do with it.” When the building goes, it will take with it a long, near-mythical history of sometimes sordid misbehavior and illegality, police raids and drug busts, much of it actually true. It’s all there in that space.” That space, built in 1915 and now sagging, began with a wholesome enough facade as a bakery, according to a chronicle of the Road by Casey Piket, a blogger for Miami-History.com.

Tobacco Road really dates to the late 1970s, when an ex-cop named Neil Katzman bought a long-lived bar known as the Chanticleer and, later, Shandiclere, according to extensive research by Miami-History.com blogger Casey Piket. Prohibition had arrived early in Florida (1914) and the bakery, positioned so close to the seamy banks of the Miami River, set in motion the property’s love affair with vice. So sordid was its reputation that during World War II, the military barred service members from visiting the bar, then known as Charlie’s Tobacco Road, to hear its swing and jazz acts.

A retired police officer bought it in 1977, then sold it in 1982 — when Miami was known for its race riots, refugees and cocaine cowboys — to young owners who turned it into a blues mecca for those drowning in disco. There were tales of Doctor Feelgood, prosaically known as William Bell, a skinny, old ex-con whose finger poke was so authoritative that the Road’s owners made him a bouncer.

One day an accountant, newly ensconced in a halfway house for the criminally insane across the street, strode into the Road and demanded a beer by repeatedly slamming a chisel into the surface of the 44-foot wooden bar. “You should have seen the place clear,” said Mr. The building wouldn’t be listed as a licensed bar in city directories until 1938, when it appears for the first time as the South Side Bar, though there’s little question an illegal speakeasy operated upstairs at some earlier point, Piket said. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former dictator of Panama, was convicted on drug and racketeering charges, federal prosecutors celebrated in a room upstairs. It feels like it’s been around forever.’’ The partners gradually fixed and cleaned the place up, turning the bar into a safe haven even as the occasional drive-by shooting in the early years still sent people scurrying inside. Bush was on the line to offer congratulations. “The Road always represented the best part of Miami,” said Coz Canler, who for 30 years was the lead guitarist of The Romantics, as he sat near the stage and listened to bands play on the last night. “It was real.

What really matters — the building, the history, the intimacy, the stories, the music, the smoke, the furtive sex, fused into Dade County pine and ground in with decades of spilled sweat and beer into the floorboards — will be dust and memories. That was never more true than the night Sun Ra’s avant-garde swing jazz big band — around 20 strong — led dozens of audience members in a snaking dance around the cramped room.

But the people that did come would fill the room,’’ Weiser said. “To see these musicians so close, that’s a special thing that didn’t exist anywhere else.’’ Weiser and Gleber helped rediscover forgotten performers and brought them new audiences. When Diamond Teeth Mary McClain, half-sister of ur-blueswoman Bessie Smith, came out of retirement at an advanced age, she became a regular Tobacco Road performer.

Regulars aged and business leveled off, and competition nearby ratcheted up with the development of West Brickell, though the Road could still pack them in for special occasions.

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