Originally published in Riverfront Times
There are a lot of great stories that come from a good bar. And it stands to reason that the older a bar is, the more stories it has — stories that come from the patrons who frequent it and from the bartenders who serve them.
It becomes a storytelling nation of sorts. At some point, people don’t even remember what happened. They just remember the stories they’ve told about it.
The 34 Club, located at 34 North Euclid Avenue in the Central West End, has been in operation since 1941, passing hands from owner to owner for the better half of a century. To put that into perspective, in the year the bar opened, Duke Ellington recorded “Take the A Train,” the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Stan Musial made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Seventy-five years isn’t a long time for a church to be standing, but it’s a hell of a record for your local tavern. The 34 Club wears its years with pride. “We could tell you some good stories,” says current owner Tom Bergman, “but you know, we’d have to change the names to protect the innocent.” It’s one of the oldest, continually operating drinking establishments in St. Louis city — and should probably be registered by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.
But as we are reminded so often in this country, memories and history count for shit. Though the wheels of progress turn slowly in St. Louis, we are still more apt to start over and bulldoze antiquity rather than let it age gracefully, much less venerate it.
In August, the Koman Group announced it had purchased the 31st block of Euclid Avenue, with plans to renovate the entire space by leveling the current structure and building a high-rise condo.
On December 31, the 34 Club will pour its last drink.
The 34 Club is a veritable crawlspace. An attic within an attic. A forgotten speakeasy where the password no longer carries any meaning. The smell of dust and cockroach dander pervade throughout, and crossing the threshold is a commitment to stepping backward in time — you can feel the clock hands slow to a crawl.
The bartenders sling manhattans overflowing with whiskey and a dash of water. The bathroom is a squatter’s prison: The only complement is a lock; the only luxury is that it works. It’s a wind-down for most, a wind-up for some, but it’s been a hiding place for anyone in the city looking to not be found.
It’s not pristine or pretentious. It’s dark, drab and perpetually filled with the smog of a thousand cigarettes, having escaped the smoking ban thanks to its diminutive square footage and lack of food. And if you walk in thinking there’s a big pint with your name on it, think again. There are no taps, no collection of craft beers. Bottled Stag and Miller High Life reign supreme — and they’re not drinking them ironically here. Cocktails are cheap and built to last.
Bartender Sean Brennan will ask what you’re drinking, but not because he gives a shit. And if he doesn’t like what you’re drinking, he’ll make you something else. “Get the fuck outta here,” he’ll slur, in a throaty, half-Irish rasp. You can’t be thin-skinned and drink here.
When the bartenders finish with their shift, they pour themselves a stiff one and take a seat on the civilian side, never even stepping outside for a break. Talk about loving where you work.
Steve Smith used to be a regular here, long before he opened the Royale. “I always dug the suits rubbing elbows with the regular working man at this bar, which is not common enough,” he writes in an email. “The older regulars in the neighborhood really make it worth the trip. They would cuss, joke and drink with the best of them.”
Trinkets and minutiae collected over the years adorn the walls: pictures of The Odd Couple, the Rat Pack, old photographs. To inquire about their significance is a lost cause. Bar manager Mike Mullen shrugs unknowingly. “Most of it is just crap and cobwebs. That’s what holds it together,” he laughs.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the 34 Club was a destination bar. A glitzy hotspot not far from the hustle and bustle of Gaslight Square — and a bar beloved by the city’s power brokers to boot. Union bosses, police captains and aldermen all came to strike deals and indulge in the nightlife. Celebrities would stay at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel and hop over to the bar for a drink. Among the names thrown around, you hear Carol Channing, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Miles Davis. No one who experienced those evenings is still alive to comment, but the stories keep getting repeated anyway. And when the legend becomes fact, you’d be a fool not to print the legend.
Primarily a cop hangout for several decades after that, the 34 Club started expanding its clientele after Tom Bergman took ownership in 2003. A former cop himself, Bergman isn’t quick to start talking but once he gets warmed up, he takes great pleasure in recalling the bar’s glorious past. He punctuates his anecdotes with “you can’t make this stuff up” and “it is what it is.” His laugh starts hoarse, like he’s gasping for oxygen, before transforming into a barrelhouse roar. You can tell he has laughed a lot in here.
“We knew with the way things were going, they were probably going to take a wrecking ball to this thing,” he admits. “With all the new developments, though, my real concern is that you gotta keep the West End a little weird — this was always the cutting-edge neighborhood for years!”
Of the bar, he says, “You kind of become a family, albeit a dysfunctional family.”
Bergman updated some of the flooring and lighting, but admits that he did little to enhance the bar’s appearance. “When I first bought it, I tried to wash off all the nicotine from the walls and it was just coming down in a river, you know. I just figured it was its own varnish-shellac on there, maybe we better leave it,” he laughs.
The lighting may have improved, but the shadows that lurk never seem to dissipate, even in the light of day.
But that’s the thing. This was always a dark bar, he says. “It wasn’t very inviting from the street. I think a lot of women would be wary of coming in here, but that was kind of the allure; this was a place that people always came to hide.” One unique feature is that the bar is accessible through the back door in the alley, which led to many a secret rendezvous. “I had an inspector here and he said, ‘Yeah, I used to come in here and drink in the ’60s. I was married, but I’d come here and meet my girlfriend.’ He said the great thing about this bar was that one could come in the front door and one could come in the back door and no one would see you go into the place together. That’s what’s so neat about this place.”
But the crowd isn’t always adulterers and ne’er-do-wells. The true allure of the 34 Club is in its egalitarian nature — a complete deconstruction of class walls.
“The one thing I’ve noticed since I’ve bought this place, we started getting younger people here, and I think that, for a lot of them, it was kind of an eye opener — their notion of a bar was a TGI Fridays,” he says. “You come in a place like this and somebody actually talks to you, engages you, and you could really see how people were freaked out about that. But people come in here now and embrace it. You could be sitting next to a millionaire from Lindell and a nurse that just got off work and then you got a homeless person in the corner, you got an architect who’s a drag queen on the weekends. It’s neat, you know? I think it takes the comfort zone away. But that’s just a good neighborhood tavern. It is what it is.”
Mike Mullen stands behind the bar, wiping down the counter and restocking the cooler with bottles of Busch, his gray hair cropped short and thin. He’s only been managing 34 Club for five years, but has been a long-time staple in the neighborhood, having run his own restaurant on Sarah Street called Southern Belle, where the Block now resides. His laugh is distinctive, like it’s being dragged across gravel, but that doesn’t stop him from releasing it often.
On the subject of maintaining the Central West End’s signature high-low culture, Mullen backs up Bergman fervently. “You walk into some of these new places in the West End and you’re just like, ‘What the fuck is this, Valley of the Dolls?’ They’re all a bunch of plastic-looking people, everyone looks the fucking same. Then you walk in here and you see everything. This is like walking into the bar at Star Wars after going into Sub Zero,” he laughs.
The location is one reasons for the diverse clientele, Bergman posits — the bar is just one block from Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where life and death hang in the balance every day. “I remember I had a lady come in and order a double-vodka, and she just downed it,” he recalls. “And I asked her, ‘Bad day?’ and she said, ‘One of the worst days of my life.’ And then she paid her tab and left. I mean, you never know in this place.
“Being so close to the hospital, we’ve had people coming in here who had relatives dying or in treatments, and this was one of the places where people could just come and drink and smoke and get away.” he adds. “So you start to know those people, and some of them keep in touch with us. We have students who have graduated, lawyers, writers, just everybody. It is what it is, you know, let’s face it. Not too many bars are like this anymore.”
The Koman Group is not the only developer changing the core character of the Central West End. In 2014, Mills Properties purchased the 25 block of Euclid, just north of the 34 Club, where a Whole Foods, a parking garage and expensive condos are currently under construction. (Heading farther north on Euclid, Straub’s Market has already finished renovations in a quest to stay competitive.) And though both companies have extensive real estate portfolios, Mills Properties received an estimated $10 million in tax increment financing, better known as a TIF, while Koman Group acquired an estimated $6 million.
TIFs are a controversial way for taxpayers to subsidize development. In essence, the city agrees to hand over future tax revenues to developers in exchange for their work “improving” a property. Though originally designed to entice construction in “blighted” areas, across the country, TIFs are being used in upscale neighborhoods like the Central West End — and developers often threaten to pull out of an area if they can’t get such subsidies.
A critic of such deals in general, the Show-Me Institute has questioned the Koman Group’s Central West End TIF in particular. “TIF is almost certainly unjustified in the case of the Koman Group’s proposal,” Joseph Miller writes on the institute’s website. “The areas in question are not blighted in any way.”
In fact, the subsidized projects are pushing out longstanding businesses.
Shortly after the Koman Group announced its purchase in August, Bergman was given orders to clear out by the end of the year, with no offer to stay as part of the new development.
The block has also been home to Tip Top Cleaners for 30 years and a hair salon. The salon has already shuttered its doors; the dry cleaner, too, is slated to close at year’s end.
Despite being forced out with no discussion, Tip Top owner Bob Mach says he was initially upset, but not with the Koman Group. He cites that old chestnut, “Business is business.” Neither does Bergman blame the developers.
Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, the neighborhood’s independent book store, is a little more on the fence. “It’s a failure of imagination,” she says. “I wish there could be some creativity — could 34 Club stay as part of the new development, for example. That sort of thing tends to not happen, and it’s unfortunate when local businesses that have been here a long time and made the neighborhood what it is are so easily disposable.”
She adds, “I just wish there was a more cohesive vision for local businesses because they are better for the economy, they do create jobs, and they make a neighborhood more interesting. Personally, I don’t want to live in a shopping mall.”
The bartenders at the 34 Club are their own clientele. Jack Rinaldi is 84 and a long-time bartender in the neighborhood. He spent his 21st birthday at the 34 Club — in 1968. “It was a lot of beatniks and hippies everywhere back then,” he recalls. “The neighborhood was all rentals, and now it’s all condos.”
The 34 Club’s newest bartender, Lynn Rinker, might be the most au courant person here with a half-shaved head and pin-up-style tattoos. “Who’s playing this sleepy fucking music?” she complains about “Take Five” on the jukebox. (Spoiler alert: it’s me. They don’t play enough jazz in bars anymore. )
But Mullen is probably the most outspoken proponent of keeping the bar open.
“This place has been here for 75 fucking years, and they’re just gonna tear it down. Who does that?” he laments. “The neighborhood is changing so dramatically now, there’s really not a whole lot of mom-and-pop places left around here anymore.”
The late, great Anita Andell, who died of cancer in 2014, got the RFT’s nod for Best Bartender in 2011. It was an honor she wore with pride, even though many regulars questioned how such a cantankerous person could have possibly won such an award.
Bergman and Mullen recall Andell with humor.
“She could be nice to you if you were nice to her, but if you fucked with her, she would drop a house on you,” laughs Mullen. He takes another drag of his Camel. “She was one of my best friends.”
John Daniels, owner of Wicke Auto Services Body Co., might be the bar’s oldest living patron. Now 87, he entered the 34 Club for his first drink when he was 15. “I started coming here in 1945,” he says. He’s sitting at the bar on a late Tuesday afternoon, just before the daytime game shows air, a cigarette in hand and a big glass of scotch within reach. “They used to have people come in and play jazz, play piano and raise hell. Forrest Tucker came in here once, and I remember having a drink with him. A beautiful woman dancer, whatever her name, she came in here. So many people,” he recalls fondly. “There was a fellow on the East Side named Buster Wortman … he used to bring his friends and clients here and have drinks and so forth.” (“Clients” may be putting it nicely; Wortman was a Depression-era bootlegger and gangster. In time, he would come to run East St. Louis’ gambling syndicate.)
Daniels’ displeasure with the Central West End’s trajectory is evident. “I can’t say I’m crazy about all the developments here. I don’t want to lose the atmosphere we’ve had here for years and years,” he says. But nothing is ever the same as it used to be, he admits. “I think it’s another thing that happens when time moves on. I don’t like to see it closing, but there’s no choice.”
Another long-time patron, Evelyn Baker, is famous in her own right. In 1983, she was named the first black female circuit judge in the history of St. Louis. “Finest circuit in the state,” she smiles with a long drag on a cigarette before stamping it out in a plastic ashtray. “And the most productive,” she adds.
In 2000, Baker found herself at the center of a controversial decision to keep November polls open until 10 p.m. during the Presidential election, thanks to the apparent mishandling of voter lists by the election committee. And though she served for 25 years and has only been retired for 8, she’s been coming into the 34 Club for half a lifetime. “The people are real,” she says approvingly. “We look after each other, we’ve got each other’s backs. It’s changed quite a bit over the years, and most of the originals are dead. But the philosophy remains the same. We’re family.”
She adds, “It’s where I met my late husband.” She pauses to slowly light another cigarette. “I’ve seen kids grow up. I’ve seen second and third generations of families come in. It’s an interesting place.”
Ned Bowdern is another regular and quite a storyteller in his own right. “There’s a lot of ghosts in this room,” he says. By chance, he reconnected with a grade-school sweetheart at the 34 Club and the two have been together ever since. They call her Betty Bandstand — reference to her days spent as a teenager, dancing on American Bandstand with Dick Clark.
He recounts an age-old story that never loses its charm. “Jimmy Nieders was a mountie and used to come here and park his horse behind the bar and have a drink while on duty,” he explains. “So, one week he went on vacation and one his fellow cops took his horse out to give it some exercise. The horse was like on autopilot or something — first thing he does, he takes the cop right to the bar. Nieders gets back from vacation, walks in and says, ‘I got screwed by my horse!'”
Everyone sitting at the bar has heard the punch line before, but they still erupt in laughter. “Jimmy Nieders, hell of a guy,” Bowdern says.
There’s a framed picture of a priest above the door leading out to the street. “That’s my uncle,” says Bowdern. The priest’s name is William Bowdern. He assisted in a supernatural event that would later become a blockbuster movie. “Ever see The Exorcist?” Bowdern asks, pointing up at the photo. “That’s the guy.”
Brennan had asked Bowdern if they could hang the photo in the bar, annointing the famous priest the patron saint of the 34 Club.
“And I thought, you know, he’d probably get a kick out of that. He had a great sense of humor,” Bowdern says. Prompting the question: “The guy who performed the exorcism had a great sense of humor?”
Bergman doesn’t want to just close the doors and be done with it. He’s been trying to work out a lease with another nearby property owner. But so far, his luck is coming up short, as several have already turned him down. No one seems to want a collection of heavy drinkers and old smokers, no matter how cheerful. Even an empty space across the street, owned by Keat Properties, has declined to rent to the venerable old dive.
“They said they weren’t interested in us setting up shop over there. They said they wanted a national chain,” Bergman says, flummoxed. “My assumption is that they were thinking there would be some stability in that, but I don’t know how much more stable we could be than a bar that’s been here for 75 years. Qdoba was over there, but didn’t last, so you see how that worked out.”
But Bergman remains optimistic about reopening somewhere else in the neighborhood. ”We’ll be new and improved, and we’ll keep on rolling. Squeeze another couple of decades out of the old girl,” he says, looking fondly up at the walls, like she’s an old ship about to be dismantled. “I’m totally invested in keeping it going, absolutely. I think people would follow us. You can’t go down to Drunken Monkey or whatever they’re calling it this week and act like you can here. I mean, let’s be honest. They’ll tell your ass to leave, that’s the sad reality. This is more of a saloon than anything.”
Someone puts money in the digital jukebox and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” starts playing. One of the patrons calls out, “Jack, how about one more and then I’m gonna get the hell outta here.” He downs a shot and saunters out into the street.
“I would love for people to come in before we close and get one last drink here,” Mullen says. While Bergman searches frantically for new digs, the staff is planning one last blowout for their final day on New Year’s Eve — and all of St. Louis is invited.
So before the 34 Club closes her doors one last time, belly up to the bar and be a part of the history that’s kept the place alive. You just might hear a few good stories. Or better yet, you might become part of one.
Promises Bergman, “We’re gonna have one hell of a send-off party.”