Pour and Tour
Most of them have moved on by now, to places like Key West, Naples, Orlando. At the very least they've gotten real jobs (or tried to), gotten married (or tried to), and hunkered down in Kendall (despite trying not to). Maybe, if they somehow stashed enough dough, they bought a Saab and moved to Boca. But few of them still venture out at night to that ribbon of highway that is called an avenue east of U.S. 1 and a road west of U.S. 1, but that is, in fact, neither a road nor an avenue, but a street (Southwest 40th Street, to be exact).
But they used to go to Bird Road. It was an era that seems more distant than it really was, a period when there was a Big Daddy's on every corner, drunk drivers were let off with a scolding, and having sex could only kill you if you got caught with someone else's spouse. Bird Road was a dynamic strip back then, a diverse stretch of bars and nightclubs that overflowed with drinkers and brawlers, strippers and pool sharks. Bar-stool philosophers and street-corner poets, the kind of people Springsteen used to sing about. Hell, the kind of people Springsteen used to be.
Tougher drunk-driving laws, the Latinization of Miami, and the explosion of nightlife on the Beach and in the Grove have all conspired to sap Bird Road of much of its vitality. Live bands were, to a large extent, supplanted by satellite-dish TVs, CD jukeboxes, and video games. In a business that's tough to begin with, barkeeping is even tougher along Bird Road. But while several establishments that seemed healthy and thriving barely a decade ago have gone under, some have survived.
Which leads us to this excursion along the strip. Geographically the tour runs from west to east, but historically it weaves in and out, from what is now to what was then to what isn't there any more.
11423 Bird Road
Roomy and carpeted, its walls adorned with geometric mirror arrangements, Huff's (formerly the Lucky Lady) is a clean, well-lighted place, albeit one with a color scheme that leans heavily toward earthtones. The oblong, octagonal bar is immense, with an equally enormous brass grid suspended from the ceiling above it. The band plays on weekends; during the week the chief attraction (besides cheap beer) is a pair of dartboards. The hulking projection TV set at the opposite end of the bar used to be a drawing card as well, but it doesn't work any more.
Huff's Lounge on a Friday night is about as far removed from the glitz and glamour of South Beach as a bar can be. No leggy fashion models, no wee-hours celebrity visits. Like the majority of the bar's clientele, the members of the band, Magic Touch, are thickening in the middle and thinning on top. Couples don't so much dance on the parquet floor in the corner as they shuffle, to "Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile" and "Long Train Runnin'."
And when a gaunt man in a western-style shirt staggers out the front door, steadying himself against the building as he squints into the vast shopping-center parking lot (which is nearly as well-lit as he is), and staggers his way to his battered black Bronco, those "Pray for Me -- I Drive Bird Road" bumper stickers don't seem all that funny. But when he turns on his radio, hangs his Tony Lamas out the window, and begins to snore deeply, the future suddenly looks a tiny bit less ominous.
THE CONCORD LOUNGE (CLOSED)
Concord Shopping Center
Many of Huff's patrons are refugees from this watering hole, a cramped, dark hole-in-the-wall full of seedy characters who managed to locate it despite the absence of so much as an identifying name plate on the door.
Ram centsn Corugedo, drummer for Money and Cigarettes, performed at the Concord Lounge, and at Huff's when it was the Lucky Lady. "I've probably played in all those places -- if it's a dive, I've played there," says Corugedo. "The Lucky Lady used to be a geriatric bar. The Concord was more wild. I was there one night when a bunch of undercover cops came in and shut the place down, and that led to four or five months down the road when they closed down the bar for good because the bartender was dealing coke. You'd see people come in and say, 'I'll have an Amstel Light and a G,' and the bartender would pass them a beer and an envelope and go, 'That'll be $52.25, please.'"
Guitarist Jack Allen, who used to work at Carroll Music in the Concord shopping center, has some of his own vivid memories of the Concord Lounge. "After work once, a couple of us went there, and there was a guy outside throwing up on the sidewalk, wiping his mouth with his hands," Allen recalls. "We went inside. In came the guy. He was the bartender."
While neither Allen nor Corugedo witnessed any actual gunplay at the Concord Lounge, its proximity to the Tamiami Gun Shop and indoor shooting range compelled the lounge's owner to hang a "No Loaded Guns" sign just inside the door, a sign that was roundly ignored by patrons who stopped by after target practice, their sidearms holstered in plain view. Ironically, when Home Depot decided to open an outlet where Tamiami Gun stood, the weapons store relocated next door to the Concord's old digs.
9001 Bird Road
Nowadays the most popular nightspot on Bird Road is a restaurant: La Carreta, which, on any given night boasts more patrons than any Bird Road haunt west of the Palmetto.
With the possible exception, that is, of Shalaco's, a Mexican-American dance club.
Entering Shalaco's, which was once a cog in the Big Daddy's liquor-store-and-lounge empire, is like embarking on a B-movie adventure. A narrow, shabby corridor leads to a heavy soundproof door, where you half-expect Peter Lorre to appear and demand the password before he lets you in. Shalaco's has preserved at least one important Big Daddy's tradition: It's darker than Mammoth Cave. If not for the light radiating from the CD jukebox or the wide-screen TV set, infrared goggles would be required in order to traverse the dance floor and the tight ring of tables at its periphery.
Picture this: The TV is tuned to Telemundo, which is running a cheap Mexican action movie (a bad girl tries to seduce a married man; he shoots her with his big pistola), but the audio is overwhelmed by Juan Luis Guerra and Grupo 440's "Burbujas de Amor." The clientele is predominantly male, and the few women who are present dance listlessly with a series of men beneath a mirrored disco ball. One of the women, a brunette with glossy red lipstick, a tight black micro-skirt, and stiletto heels that stretch her calves to the breaking point, looks barely old enough to buy her own drinks. She stares impassively into space as she wriggles halfheartedly with an overweight older man, her third partner in as many songs. Her skin is as smooth as polished marble, her eyes as hard as granite. When the song ends, she walks to the bar and waits for someone to light her cigarette.
She doesn't have to wait very long.
BERNARDO GARCIA-BRAKE & RIVERO FUNERAL HOMES
8215 & 7895 Bird Road
For those who believe rock is dead, the resting place of the Copa provides a handy illustration of the metaphor -- it's now the Rivero Funeral Home. And if one example isn't enough, the Big Daddy's down the block is now the Bernardo Garcia-Brake Funeral Home.
Ron Hoeben, co-owner of the retail music store Not Just Guitars, remembers the Copa when the customers were a little more lively. Hoeben played guitar at the club for more than eight years, as a member of house bands Joined Venture and Blue Mist. "Everything you can think of happened there," says Hoeben. "If you wanted to go somewhere and get laid for sure, that was the place. Sexually, it was pretty free. That's probably why people liked it so much. One night there was a guy dancing in the middle of the floor; the girl he was dancing with just unzipped his pants and started giving him head right there. Another time there was a lesbian couple in a corner table sucking each other's breasts. It wasn't like that every night, but it wasn't uncommon, either. If you were a band member and you couldn't get laid there, you couldn't get laid, period. Cost me my first marriage.
"That place killed me," Hoeben asserts. "Burned me out. Lots of other bands, too. Seven sets a night, 9:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. Nobody does that any more. The Copa was amazing because it was the same crowd, night after night, till 5:00 a.m. It was always kind of a mystery what these people had for day jobs."
DOUBLE PLAY PUB
7821 Bird Road
Nestled in the shade of the Tropicaire Flea Market, the Double Play (formerly Zeke's, and later the Silver Bullet) is a cozy, cluttered neighborhood sports bar that doesn't look big enough to contain the single pool table it's got, let alone host a live band. An electronic message board atop one of the two beer coolers announces a "...LINGERIE SHOW EVERY FRIDAY...ENJOY THE LADIES' COMPANY, WIN A PRIZE...." Ballgames are broadcast on all three TVs. The beaten linoleum floor has a thousand tears and cigarette burns, and many of the black drop-ceiling panels look as though they will buckle at any time. Better than 50 percent of the decor consists of Budweiser and Coors Light promotional materials; the only item that was probably not donated by a beer distributor is the giant stuffed-animal head mounted on the wall above the pool table.
The Foosball table and the Street Fighter II video game don't see nearly as much action as the pool table and the CD jukebox. Guns N' Roses and Tom Petty serenade a procession of mediocre eight-ball players, some of whom take their game far too seriously, considering their skill level. The sign that proclaims, "Only one person permitted in the bathroom at a time," seems unnecessary. For one thing, the Double Play is not the kind of place that's conducive to drug dealing or illicit sex in the restrooms. And besides, fitting one person into the cramped lavatory is a feat best left to contortionists.
"We played there," insists Ram centsn Corugedo, acknowledging the location's petite proportions. "It was called the Silver Bullet because it didn't have a name back then, just a neon Coors Light sign in the window. We had to move the pool table to play, it was so small. But it was great, we'd have all these rednecks trying to breakdance, spinning around on the floor."
7305 Bird Road
On Bird Road, bars seem to come and go in pairs. The Double Play's competition for the sports bar trade, the Time Out, is less than a mile away. Formerly a popular gay bar known as the Leprechaun, the Time Out has evolved into a place that fills up with well-groomed, fresh-faced Dolphin and Hurricane fans in pressed jeans and loafers who take full advantage of one-dollar drafts during games. There is no pool table, nor is there room for one. Dominoes, however, are spoken here.
In the absence of a major sporting event on the wall-mounted, 35-inch color TV set, the Time Out crowd makes its own entertainment -- arm wrestling on the black-lacquered bar, or singing along boisterously to songs that were written right around the time they were born (e.g. "Brown Eyed Girl," "Maggie May"). It doesn't take much effort to approximate the sound of a full choir in this red, white, and black establishment, where noise reverberates off the sparsely decorated walls and the checkered tile floor. Incredibly, the kids know all the words.
6835 Bird Road
Formerly the Keg North and, before that, the Champion, Helene's Rendezvous is the newer (and smaller) of two gay bars on Bird Road. Helene bought the place in March, then opened it as a gay bar in June, which might come as a mild shock to former patrons like blues promoter Mark Weiser. "The Champ was the classic Miami redneck bar," Weiser says. "Back then, that was practically on the frontier. No Cubans. No Negroes. Just rednecks."
The Champion/Keg North had a lot in common with the Concord Lounge -- cheap drinks, rowdy blue-collar trade with a sprinkling of bikers, and a tradition of winking at petty drug dealing. But Helene Miller, who has worked in or around bars her entire adult life and was a Champ patron herself, has had her fill of rednecks. "Rednecks only know three words," the proprietor opines, "and two of 'em are shit and fuck, which they use as an adjective. I tell 'em to go home and try using it as a verb. Gay men are more intelligent, artistic, educated, and interesting."
Decorwise, Helene's has changed very little since its days as a beer-drinkin', pool-shootin', fist-fightin' juke joint that could have been patterned after a movie starring Clint Eastwood and an intellectually superior orangutan. The two pool tables are still there, and the bar looks basically the same. Chances are the Champ and Keg South didn't carry copies of David (or, for that matter, New Times), nor did the tiny stage and adjacent dance floor see the likes of male strippers on Friday and Saturday nights. But in keeping with the Champ/Keg North spirit, Helene's offers happy hour every day -- all the beer you can drink for five bucks! -- from opening until 8:00 p.m.
Helene isn't nearly as worried about barroom brawls as she is about the adult book and video store next door. Nights, she says, habitues from the store hang out in the alley and the parking lot the two establishments share, in spite of a sign on the bookstore that warns, "PARKING LOT MONITORED BY VIDEO."
"I've been around the block. Used to get ten cents a drink as a B-girl in Albany, New York, during World War II," Helene says. "I know what goes on in those booths, in those cars. When a female meets a guy, at least he takes her to a hotel. That's one reason why I'm keeping the pool tables. More games so customers can play with each other, have a conversation, start a relationship. Otherwise it's very dangerous."
6701 Bird Road
Talk about longevity: Sid's piano bar has been a fixture on Bird Road for sixteen years. It was originally built in 1926, which by our calculations makes it the oldest Bird Road bar still standing.
Everything about Sid Gilmour's establishment is refreshingly eccentric or stubbornly anachronistic, from the prints of vintage fighter planes and miscellaneous kitsch that adorn the walls to the owner's trademark handlebar moustache to his skewed outlook on life ("I hope the Clinton administration brings back Prohibition. It'll start everybody drinking again"). At Sid's, the jukebox still plays records, not CDs. "I don't pay that much attention to it, but I know it's got records because every once in a while someone kicks it and it skips," the owner explains.
"Sid was a horn player," recalls Lynne Noble, renowned blues chanteuse and vocalist for Good Rockin' Johnny and the Wiseguys who once hostessed at the nearby Yorkshire Inn. "He's a character, a truly rank individual. He took up piano one night when they needed someone on keyboards more than they needed someone on trumpet. Pretty soon we were going in at 1:00 a.m., and we'd have sing-alongs till three. We'd play Stump the Band, sing old show tunes, whatever."
Concurs Lancelot O'Blarney, bassist and connoisseur of the Bird Road bar scene, "Sid's is great if you like show tunes. Any tune you can possibly name, he can probably play."
Well, maybe not any tune. "I'm an old geezer -- 66 -- and most of my repertoire is from the Dark Ages, World War II, says the piano man. "When kids ask me for a new song by Janet Jopple, John Elton, Fleckwood Meat, or whatever, I have to steer them in the right direction. Most everybody's seen Casablanca, so they usually ask me for that famous song from the movie, 'You Must Remember This.' Sometimes, though, on a weekend we'll get some UM drama or music students and they'll know some great old songs, do amazing versions of Sinatra, and the time goes by so fast."
While the ability to recall (or fudge) obscure songs at a moment's notice is undeniably a valuable asset for a singing piano player, Sid's would not be Sid's without the owner's bawdy sense of humor, equal parts winks, one-liners, and four-letter words. "I have a fair vocabulary of dirty songs," he confesses. "It amazes me that when you use the f-word or the c-word, people still get shocked. Maybe because they think an old fart like me shouldn't talk like that."
Of course, you have to wonder about anyone who wasn't tipped off by a sign that reads, "HOUSE RULE: IF YOU DON'T SING YOU GOT TO SHOW US YOUR TITS," mounted above the entrance to the piano bar.
"Entertainers are not your run-of-the-mill characters. They tend to be strange or deviants. Many have problems with drinking or drugs. I've been very lucky; that was never my way," Sid says. "I've been looking after this bar for sixteen years, counting the till every night, keeping an eye on things. Most musicians couldn't handle the business end of something like that.
Sid does, however, confess to feeling a tinge of guilt. "I've worked cruise ships before, in Canada," he confides. "I wouldn't mind doing a little cruise-ship work. The bar can look after itself. We have a lot of regular customers -- lawyers, scumbags, a real slice of America -- they're probably getting sick of seeing me around every night as it is."
THE AMERICAN EMBASSY/YORKSHIRE INN
6505 Bird Road*CHECK ADDRESS
Bill Fernandez and his brother Joe, who grew up just a few blocks off Bird Road, went on to own or manage three separate nightclubs in the immediate vicinity: the Alley, Zachery's, and the American Embassy/Yorkshire Inn (the Embassy was the bar, the Inn was the restaurant). But the Fernandez brothers, who recently opened The Baker and the Fisherman, a seafood and gourmet market where the old Red Road Meat Market used to stand at the corner of Red and Bird, claim they've gone out of the bar business for good.
"First, you've got all the competition from the Grove and the Beach," explains Bill. "Then you've got the neighborhood -- it's mostly Cuban, blue-collar. Not the kind of folks who'd be willing to spend much more than a buck or two for a drink. We used to hear all the time, 'I'm moving to Broward,' or, 'I'm moving to the west coast.' Between the crime and what-have-you, it seemed like 50 percent of our clientele moved out of town. And then you had the cops. MADD buried a lot of places, with the stricter drunk driving laws. Absolutely killed the Copa. Back in '82 and '83, cops were sitting outside the place just waiting to pull someone over."
After a splashy 1981 grand opening that attracted thousands of patrons, the Embassy quickly established itself as one of Miami's hottest nightspots. In a matter of approximately three short years, however, business slowed to the point where the brothers chose to close up shop.
During its heyday the bar became known as a gringo hangout. "The American Embassy, so-called because the rumor was they didn't let Cubans in," asserts Jim Fox, a long-time local and font of Bird Road lore. "They didn't broadcast it or anything, but if they didn't like your looks, they might make you show five or six IDs before they'd let you in."
Bill Fernandez says the bar was tough on potential troublemakers, not Cubans. "We had a lot of Cuban customers. We had an English DJ that came up with the name because he thought it was ironic that so many people spoke different languages, but that was the extent of it. If we thought there was even the potential for a fight, we'd throw the customer out. The secret to preventing trouble was letting people know ahead of time that you meant business. And it usually worked."
The presence of an intimidating bouncer didn't hurt, either. "We had the world's biggest doorman," says Fernandez, "Fred Ottman. Six-foot-seven, 375 pounds. Not much fat. One night Dennis Harrah (former Miami Hurricane and L.A. Ram all-pro lineman) and *CK SP*Gary Dunn (former Pittsburgh Steeler with a handful of Super Bowl rings) tried to tackle Freddy after the bar was closed. Couldn't do it. Today he's a famous professional wrestler, one of the Natural Disasters. I think he's called The Typhoon. Weighs about 450 now, or more."
THE FOXXY LAIDY LOUNGE (CLOSED)
6507 Bird Road *CHECK ADDRESS*
The American Embassy adjoined one of Dade's better-known nude dancing bars, the Foxxy Laidy Lounge. The Laidy boasted multiple stages, a reputation (accurate or not) for being outlaw biker-run, and the second-biggest bouncer in South Florida, a six-foot, six-inch, Jabba the Hutt-looking dude as wide as he was tall, perpetually clad in a Harley T-shirt and a greasy denim vest. The Laidy gave the neighbors fits for years before finally shutting down amid rumors of drug busts, gang wars, and financial hanky-panky. It's a safe bet that few homeowners mourned the Laidy's passing, although it will be hard to match the cheap thrill of sitting in the Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street and watching the Colonel's customers do a collective jaw-drop when a gaggle of strippers strutted in wearing pumps, hot pants, and flimsy halter tops amid the lunch rush.
The Foxxy Laidy was preceded as a den of iniquity on Bird Road by a pair of nude bars further west, both of which have long since closed. Still, a lot of people remember them, particularly one at 109th Avenue called the Bird's Nest.
"First it was a place called the Keynote Lounge," recalls Bill Fernandez. "They had a great soul band, which was kind of ironic because you can bet they never had a single black customer. They played classic Motown in that redneck bar. One day some woman whose husband was in the band -- he'd been having an affair -- walked up on the dance floor with a .38 and gunned him down in front of everybody. Later it became the Bird's Nest, and somebody got killed there, too."
Although not technically on Bird Road, one recently opened establishment is worthy of mention in this company, in light of the fact that it is the only former Bird Road nude bar that's still in the nightclub business. Situated behind the Gables Lincoln-Mercury car dealership, at one time it was the Alley Cat Lounge. Today it is almost unrecognizable, an upscale disco owned by the ex-wife of its namesake, a famous home run swatter. And if a recent Saturday night is any indication, the warehouses, plumbing wholesalers, and body shops located nearby had better get used to the idea of having their parking lots overrun at night by Canseco's customers.
3673 Bird Road
"We give good bar," says Warren Kilborn, congenial young owner of one of the oldest and most popular gay bars in Miami. Kilborn bought the twelve-year-old Uncle Charlie's in February, after a controversial drug raid shut it down. (The twisted tale was chronicled in these pages, in a January 22 news story called "Pull the Plug, Bolt the Door, and Kiss Your Club Goodbye."). He envisions the new Uncle Charlie's as a place that offers something for everybody, from porn star night (Tuesday) to pool tournaments and country-and-western night (Wednesday), complete with two-step and line dancing lessons. There's a two-for-one drink promotion, a 50-cent draft beer promotion, a blackjack table (no betting allowed), a dance floor, and a friendly, straight bartender named Karen who has been there since the place was a hetero hangout called Mr. Beneby's.
"When Joe D'Andrea owned Beneby's, he always said it would make a great gay bar. He was right," she assesses.
Karen says that except for the raid, which many in the gay community decried as politically motivated and transparently discriminatory, Uncle Charlie's dozen years in business have been remarkable for their relative quiet. "About the only thing that ever happens is that the tire store across the street is famous for sending customers they don't like over here to have a drink while they wait for their car. Of course they don't tell them it's a gay bar. But after twelve years, I can usually tell if someone walks in here and doesn't realize. I tell them, 'Before I serve you a drink, you know this is a gay bar, don't you?' and it avoids a lot of problems. Sometimes they'll stay and finish the drink anyway."
2721 Bird Avenue
There's only one drinking establishment east of U.S. 1 (where Bird Road becomes Bird Avenue) that bears mention, but it is perhaps the ultimate Bird Road bar. That would be Flanigan's Loggerhead, formerly the Trysting Place and before that the legendary flashpoint of Miami's burgeoning alternative rock music scene, 27 Birds.
"27 Birds; what a place," writes Jeffrey Lemlich in his book Savage Lost, which traces the colorful history of South Florida garage bands. "One night it's the Front and the X-Conz. The next night it's the U.S. Furys (with Isaac from the Reactions)...or maybe the Throbs...or maybe even Einstein's Riceboys (from Milwaukee), immersing the audience with 'Milk of Amnesia.'"
Bluesman Fleet Starbuck was one of the first to bring live music to 27 Birds. A few other blues bands performed, but the club hit its high-water mark in 1982, when local punk promoter/performer Richard Shelter began booking original alternative acts. Charlie Pickett and the Eggs, Cats on Holiday, Screamin' Sneakers, the Eat, the Essentials -- 27 Birds quickly became the focal point for the new wave/alternative scene. Recalls photographer Jill Kahn, "I started going there a lot in '82. I remember seeing Charlie [Pickett] and the Spinouts there. Isaac from the U.S. Furys used to expose himself all the time."
Adds a former 27 Birds bartender currently pouring drinks at the Taurus in the Grove, "Guns, punk rockers, rowdy UM frat boys dropping their shorts, a guy who slashed tires in the parking lot and later got thrown off the roof of a building -- yeah, it was pretty wild."
Bird Road denizen Jim Fox was in the bar when an irate patron stomped out and proceeded to wreak havoc with a strange deadly weapon. "I was shooting pool with this guy -- he was a tree climber," Fox remembers. "He went over to the bar and started bothering a young lady. I believe her exact words were, 'I wouldn't go home with you if you were the last man on Earth,' which everybody in the bar overheard. So he storms out, saying something to himself like, 'I'll fix her.' The next thing you know, he's got this chainsaw from out of his truck, and he's cutting down trees and power poles."
It isn't terribly surprising that when the Flanigan brothers, Jim and Mike, took over in 1985, they did a complete housecleaning, right down to the regulars. "The clientele was flushed," explains Michael Flanigan. "I permanently barred about 200 customers the first week. With the exception of the happy-hour crowd, we rebuilt from scratch."
Of course, there's still the flamboyant Michael Flanigan himself, well-remembered for his self-described "wild man days," whether behind the wheel of a bright green 1970 Cadillac convertible with steer horns mounted on the hood or making the rounds of competitors, bribing bartenders ten dollars to announce last call early and tell everybody to meet for a nightcap at the Loggerhead.
Ironically, the wild man hasn't taken a drink in three years. Nowadays he spends more time fishing at Walker's Cay in the Bahamas than he does taking care of business at the Loggerhead. Just one more sign, as if any were needed, that an era has ended on Bird Road.
"When kids ask me for a new song by Janet Jopple, John Elton, Fleckwood Meat, I have to steer them in the right direction."
"At the Embassy we had the world's biggest doorman," says Bill Fernandez, "Fred Ottman. Six-foot-seven, 375 pounds. Not much fat."
Formerly the Alley Cat Lounge, Canseco's is the only former Bird Road nude bar that's still in the nightclub business.
Geezerly Sid Gilmour lets his whiskers do the walking while he tickles his ivory fancy Rock is dead they say: From the rowdy Copa nightclub to a sedate funeral home Esther knows her way without Jose, but can her nightclub survive big-league competition?
From porn stars to pool tournaments, there's something for everyone at Uncle Charlie's Helene Miller gets substantially more than ten cents a drink now that she owns her own bar tour.
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