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A bar in downtown Amherst is a local urban legend
Mention the Drake to anyone who has ever lived in Amherst
town or gown and you'll get a reaction. Sometimes a story.
Always recognition, unless the person is way under thirty and too
young to remember. Usually you'll get a laugh and some rolling of
the eyes. And if you're a writer, the person may tell you a
story, then ask you to keep it anonymous. The place definitely
had character, cachet, and, toward the end, a reputation for
trouble. The Drake held the power of urban legend, and as so
often happens with the repositories of such legends, truth and
fiction are densely intertwined.
The graffiti on the outside wall of the Amherst Cinema,
catty-corner across Amity Street from the Drake's old home, still commemorate the bar's 1985 demise. "Save the Drake" and "For Willy, for humanity," declaim white letters on bare brick. (The latter is a reference to bartender Willie Whitfield, the spelling of whose first name is in some doubt, who ruled the Rathskeller, or basement bar, at the Drake for twenty-five years.) Over the years, someone has been keeping the message freshened up with spray paint, even though it's more than a decade since the building was gutted, cleaned up, and supplanted by the Perry, a building of rental apartments with, as yet, no legendary aura to speak of.
In its latter days, the Drake was famous, its below-street
Rathskeller notorious as a smoky dive, a place whereso one
legend goesanyone who could be seen over the bar could be
served. Its upstairs apartments, according to more legend and
some hearsay, were the lair of drug dealers and other
seamy elements. There were suicides there, but were there murders
too? Who can say for sure?.
Jim Foudy '68, now editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette in
Northampton, describes the atmosphere of the Drake in the late
'60s as "sophisticated, funky, a little exotic. It was a place where you saw people you wouldn't see on campusblack people, artists." (Artist Chuck Close lived there for a while.) "It was a place to go and hang out that wasn't a frat, a club that wasn't a club." On Friday nights, says Foudy, you couldn't move, it was that crowded.
Like many famous locales, the Drake had by then already lived many lives. Built in the mid-nineteenth century, it became Prospect House around the turn of the century, a place with rooms for rent. In 1917 it was named the Hotel Perry, for new owner Egbert Perry, serving, it was claimed, "a high class of permanent and transient guests." In 1938, William Richters, a New Yorker who had owned Drake's Restaurant on Times Square, bought the building and renamed it Drake's Hotel, advertising "a comfortable stay and a friendly service, combined with an atmosphere of refinement." In 1959, when Patrick Kamins took over, the name was changed to the Village Inn, although in local vernacular, it remained the Drake to the end. Bradford Parker bought the building in 1964 and held it until 1985, when it was sold to real estate developer D.H. Jones and converted to its current, wholly residential use.
By the mid '50s, "refinement" was no longer a word that
anyone would have used about the Drake. But if the atmosphere
became utterly murky toward the end, the transformation was
gradual. Barbara Tiernan '55 remembers going to sit in the main floor bar and playing pop tunes on the upright piano. "We drank quarts of beer for 50 cents and sat in the high-backed wooden booths," she says. "I carved my name in one."
It wasn't elite, says Tiernan, "but it was a nice place to hang around. Nobody cared how old you werenone of us was twenty-one then; it was convenient, smoky and dark." When Mary Martin's Peter Pan appeared on TV for the first time, Tiernan and her friends went to the Drake to watch, taking up all the stools, pushing off the regulars. "It was the only color TV in town," she explains.
In the middle '60s, home economics major Cindy MacEachern '67 and her friends used to go to that same upstairs bar and restaurant for beers and steak on Friday afternoons. The students had to eat in the dining commons all week, she says, "so it became an end-of-the-week tradition to say `Let's get a decent meal.'
"We'd pool our money and bum in from campus thumbingwe didn't have cars, and there were no buses. Sometimes we'd share a plate of food. There were always big steak fries too, with lots of salt." It was very congenial, she says, mostly UMass students with "townies" on the side, Amherst College students clumped together in another section. No Smithies or Mt. Holyoke students, as she remembers it.
Chris Jones, who got his English Ph.D. at UMass in 1978 and now edits the Pike County Dispatch in Milford, Pennsylvania, thinks there were three bars in the Rathskeller alone. He remembers bartender Willie Whitfield as the genial warden of the outermost bar and ace of the whirlybird game. "Willie was on your left as you came in, carding people," says Jones. Nearby was the whirlybird, a pinball-type game about six feet high, with a Vietnam motif. At the end of the room there was a pool table, "where various sharks held sway." There was a foozball game as well, and booths were people played chess.
The smaller second room boasted a beer barplus, Jones recalls, washing machines and dryers. He vaguely remembers a third barroom on this level.
There were plenty of students at the Drake, says Jones, but also a lot of hangers-on, street people. "It was the scene for them," he says. "Then there were guys, students, just trying to get out of their apartments, get their head out of a book, listen to the jukebox."
The culture of drinking was taken for granted, he says. People weren't "obsessed" with the subject, it was just a fact: everybody did it. An interesting thing, though, Jones reflects, is that there in the middle of this "ultimate escape place" was the whirlybird, a game that represented the Vietnam War. "Here were a lot of people who were in grad school as an alternative to the war, yet here's this symbol of it, right smack in your face."
Not everyone was charmed or intrigued by the Drake's atmosphere. Articles in the local papers sound a steady drumbeat
of complaints from neighbors. In November, 1965, "serious charges" were leveled against The Village Inn, as the building was then officially called, along with threats that the establishment's liquor license would not be renewed. Dr. Sheldon Clapp, an Amity Street neighbor, complained of public love-making, "latrine evidence" on lawns, and loud noise from departing patrons for hours after midnight. More than a decade later, the place's image hadn't improved much. Van R. Halsey, president of the Amherst Historical Society, located opposite the Drake on North Prospect Street, wrote in June 1979 to the town's board of selectmen, worrying about the hotel's effect on neighborhood property values and attacking the building's managers for "indifference," "poor external maintenance," and permitting a "growing blight." These were the concerns that eventually closed the place down.
But there was plenty of sentiment, if not sentimentality, expressed as the place faced its last call. An article in the Amherst Bulletin for June 5, 1985, is filled with appeals to emotion and even a sense of multicultural injusticemostly from people who did not want to be quoted by name. One departing customer accused the new owner of "trying to gentrify Amherst and get rid of all the poor, the disadvantaged and minorities." Others took a less ideological tack, worrying mainly about where they would go for a drink and some undemanding company: "The question is what will replace the Drake and the answer is nothing." No doubt about it, the Drake was irreplaceable. A sort of era had ended.
The Blue Wall in the UMass Campus Center is now an airy cafeteria where one can get a passable meal and meet friends over a decent cup of coffee. There is little in its present-day decor to remind patrons that it was once the hottest spot on campus, the place where happy hour began promptly at 3 every Friday afternoon, the peer educators and their information table on moderation all but crushed in the rush for beer.
"It was a notorious trend-setter for the weekend," remembers health educator Pam Gonyer.
It was also a notorious money-maker. In those days, before the drinking age was raised from eighteen to nineteen in 1978 and to twenty-one a year or two later, the Blue Wall was "one of the largest beer consuming establishments in the Northeast," recalls Ashoke Ganguli, director of the university's auxiliary services. Some 1,800 kegs per year were downed by packed houses that squeezed in to listen to live bands and enjoy their first bar experiences away from home. With $600,000 in revenue literally pouring in, the bar was perhaps the most effortless way that UMass made money.
The Blue Wall lost $280,000 the first year the drinking age went up (and another $400,000 when UMass stopped selling cigarettes, in 1987). That put Ganguli in a philosophical dilemma. "My job is to maximize business, but that business was diametrically opposed to the institution's academic interests," he says, agreeing that it is probably better "from a societal and academic point of view" not to sanction happy hours a la the old days. Revenue from alcoholcatering, functions and the bar at the Top of the Campus and the graduate student lounge for those twenty-one and overnow amounts to barely $100,000. It bothers Ganguli to see the business go to the town bars and pubs that popped up to serve a population still intent on drinking. It irritates him to hear the constant complaint that UMass transferred its drinking problem to the neighborhoods of Amherst. It is the law, he says, not UMass, that has
exacerbated the drinking problem for the 80 percent of undergraduates who are too young to drink.
And a higher drinking age really hasn't done a thing to curtail student problems with alcohol. "We've hold events by the dozens. We've tried the juice bars. We've tried everything," contends Ganguli. "But I've seen drinking behind walls as high as ever."
Were the age of majority to fall againa move Ganguli feels would be consistent with other things we ask eighteen-year-olds to do, like give their lives for their countryhe wouldn't hestitate to bring beer back to the Blue Wall as a bar. His enthusiasm stems as much from a desire to be honestas a society, as a universityas a desire to be profitable, he says. Ganguli recently returned from a trip to France, where children are often seen enjoying a glass of wine. "The effects of alcohol behind closed doors," he says, "is much worse than when it's out in the open."
Noting that the general climate has changedthe state did away with happy hour altogether a decade ago, there is more awareness of drinking and driving, and more emphasis on health as a wholehe feels an alcohol-serving Blue Wall might bring some of those closet drinkers out into a healthier open. With eagle-eyed bartenders trained to shut off young lushes, he believes, "the system is already in place to help people drink responsibly."