he bar is the Shelter, Tucson's increasingly popular lounge and a
throwback to the early Kennedy years. It is also a symbol for the new retro attitude that is affecting America's hipsters. The lounge decor and music of the early '60s is experiencing a surprising resurgence around the country, and Tucson has responded.
The dark intimacy of a piano room is beginning to take over the brightly lit neon splendor of the '80s nightclub, with gold lamé or velvet curtains covering the windows where beer signs once beamed. Los Angeles' Dresden Lounge, New York's Monkey Bar, Mercury Lounge and Fez, and Chicago's Green Mill have all made the transformation from dingy dive to lounge paradise. Tucson's Shelter is also making the transition.
The Shelter has been a mainstay on Grant Road since 1961, but in recent years the bar had fallen into disrepair. For the last two years the neighborhood bar had been closed due to financial difficulties of the former owners.
In the decades between the Shelter's existence as a lounge lizard haven, the bar lapsed into a determinedly unhip neighborhood dive status. Typically, one could find the occasional oatmeal wrestling match going on at the bar, and the bar was listed in a hot rod magazine as one of America's 10 best bars, according the patrons. About the only constant the bar had would be the flow of alcohol.
Then last year, new owners Santiago and Maybelle bought the strange-looking building, and set about restoring it to the lounge atmosphere of its glory days.
The original land owner had commissioned an architect to build the funkiest building that land owner could own, and the Shelter shows it. Built in the concrete style of actual bomb shelters, there are no windows in the lounge, and the building's exterior decor consists of rock and concrete barricades.
As a result, there's a strong Kennedy Era influence on the bar's decor. A hologram picture of John and Jackie hangs over the bar, and across a row of booths hangs a sign that reads "On October 15th, someone stole the Jack & Bobby Kennedy tapestry. It was the cornerstone of the Shelter's JFK collection ." This element is essential to the lounge's atmosphere, says Bart, the manager of the Shelter.
To help recreate the proper atmosphere, the owners enlisted the help of the wife of one of the first owners of the bar. As a result, the bar is laid out as it was 30 years ago.
"The owners have tried to recapture the feeling of those days, the pre-Bay of Pigs glory days of Camelot" said Bart.
The lounge music of the period is also a part of the Shelter's appeal
─ the lounge has hosted the Friends of Dean Martin, and features a jukebox loaded with titles ranging from Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles" to a more than healthy Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass selection.
The easy-listening music of the period is also benefitting from an overall resurgence. This has led to artists such as Juan Garcia Esquivel, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman and Les Baxter benefitting from revived record sales and CD reissues of their catalogs. Not surprisingly, copycat bands have sprung up, such as national bands Combustible Edison, Love Jones, and Tucson's own Friends of Dean Martin.
Bill Elm of Friends of Dean Martin can't explain the sudden revival of the scene's music either. "People were just ready for something like that . all the newer music is just loud guitars and it's kind of nice to have something easy and relaxing to listen to," he said.
Like Combustible Edison and Love Jones, the Friends of Dean Martin is a band comprised from former rock musicians ─ the bands feature players from local groups Naked Prey and Giant Sand. However, the band didn't mean to capitalize on a budding trend. They see their forming as just a natural progression.
"We just wanted to play music like that . we wanted to play more parties instead of playing shows. We got kind of sick of playing shows that people need to come and watch, now we just play more of a background music," Elm offered.
The manager of the Shelter can't explain the growing lounge interest either. "It's just cyclical. It was just time for a new sound," Bart said.
The music that is so integral to the scene is hard to pinpoint. It includes the torchsongs of Sinatra and Tony Bennett, but also includes the Hawaiian "exotica" of Martin Denny, the early '60s surf guitar explosion and the Fellini film soundtracks of Nino Rota. The music has a tendency to swing, but borders on the cheesy side. The one unifying bond that all the different types share is the ability to become a soundtrack for the cocktail hour.
The crowd that frequents the Shelter, however, is not limited to Urge Overkill hipster look-a-likes. The clientele is amazingly diverse, with ages ranging from 21 to a much older crowd who comes during the day. The lounge has been a more than hip place for the college crowd to spend weekend nights, but the more laidback atmosphere that the less crowded weeknights bring is more of what the owners are looking for.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the bar was occupied by four men and women who had been coming to the bar for the past thirty years. The Shelter has always been "a place where a woman could come and feel safe . no smart alecks," said Virginia, a former English teacher who is in her '70s.
The regulars don't seem to mind, or notice for that matter, the reversion back into the early look of the bar. "It looks nice," one of the women offered, "it looks like it used to."
No lounge would be right without the cocktail, and the Shelter does them up right. A martini is always available, but the lounge comes up with outlandish drinks of their own.
"A few weeks back we had Love Night and we served love potions all night . for Halloween we're going to have black lemonade," Bart says.
Since it relys on the conventions of a kinder and gentler period, the lounge scene is pretty easy to get into. Just hanging out at a lounge such as the Shelter and enjoying the scene, a martini would suffice. But the cocktails, music and atmosphere that have been brought back into vogue for the lounge renaissance are only a superficial look at an earlier era.
It's hard to imagine the entire lounge revival enjoying any sort of longevity. Instead it would appear to be a smaller version of the disco explosion that occurred a couple of years ago. But in the meantime the revival is an excellent opportunity to scour thrift stores or your parents' record collection, lay back and swing.
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