He can be harsh, but he’s always right.
I originally wrote this as a short book review for Washington City Paper, but the paper was in the process of being sold, then bankrupted, with various editors—and finally myself—leaving. So the piece got lost in the shuffle and I post it here because I still think it’s an interesting look at the supposed true history of punk rock and standup comedy in Washington, D.C.
The book that started the argument is I Killed: True Stories of the Road From America’s Top Comics (Crown, 264 pps. $23.95), co-authored by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff. It’s a heartily amusing Whitman’s Sampler of odd, outrageous, and inexplicable human behavior as experienced by traveling comedians. (Jay Leno gettin’ freaky—who knew?) The generally brief anecdotes may be savored piecemeal. Taken as a whole, the book is a horrifyingly hysterical tour of America after hours.
Shydner’s entry stands out, and is what started this investigation into D.C.’s comedy and punk-rock past. Titled “They Weren’t Sedated,” the piece concerns the comedian’s 1978 gig opening for the Ramones at “a big pub off Dupont Circle.” In an phone interview from California, Shydner confirms that the club was the Childe Harold. “I lived right around the corner at 17th & N,” he said. “I really hung out at the Childe Harold a lot.” Shydner was a George Mason student at the time, studying to be a lawyer. That career path veered wildly when Shydner got caught up in D.C.’s comedy boom.
As with the punk explosion in music, standup comedy also freed itself from the hegemony of “professional” show biz in the ’70s. Kids realized you didn’t need a tux and a spot on Ed Sullivan to tell jokes. Shydner credits Saturday Night Live, which began in 1975, with igniting the boom. Because before SNL, “you just didn’t see people your age or close to it doing comedy on TV,” he notes. “You just didn’t see it in a sensibility that you related to. SNL kinda popped it. And everybody starts doing comedy.”
The CBGB’s of D.C. comedy was a tiny dive bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Anacostia called El Brookman’s. Future comedy stars such as Lewis Black and Rich Hall started there. And before venues dedicated to comedy appeared—places like Garvin’s on Connecticut Ave. and the Comedy Cafe on K Street NW—the eager young jokesters caught the attention of local booking agents seeking low-cost fodder for music shows—someone to fill time while the roadies set up the gear. Thus, the young Shydner’s early work was mostly in rock clubs, opening for bands. Here’s how he describes his Ramones show in I Killed:
“When the room was filled with two hundred people, all smoking and spilling beer, it was possible to experience the sense of death by suffocation with a stale gym towel.”
Shydner paints a very funny picture of an unnamed, coked-up bar manager betting the fledgling comic $100 he wouldn’t last five minutes in front of the overly-excited crowd. “I was not far removed from my high school and college jock mind-set,” Shydner writes, “so I tended to view each performance as an athletic event, a game to be won or lost.” He happily took the bet, and then the stage.
“The audience booed so loud I didn’t even hear my first joke,” Shydner writes. “Seconds later, someone threw a beer in my direction. It didn’t hit me, but there was no time to determine whether it was thrown as a warning or simply to gauge distance, because the next one DID hit me. Once they saw I wouldn’t move and they wouldn’t get tossed, the crowd had themselves a new sport.”
The beer barrage continued, with the plucky Shydner valiantly holding fast for the full five minutes. The manager paid up and one of the Ramones even offered congratulations as the band made its way to the stage: “You’re good man. Fucking good.”
A funny story, and one that contains a certain truth about the life of a performer. Shydner’s portrait of standup-as-gladiator is compelling. “I won the game,” he writes. Much of I Killed chronicles similar experiences, not always victories.
However, I mentioned the anecdote to Washington City Paper‘s former music critic emeritus Mark Jenkins, who instantly snorted that the story couldn’t possibly be true. “It wasn’t a rowdy scene at all,” he insists, further explaining that he was at all three shows that the Ramones played here. “I never saw a comedian open for the Ramones in D.C.,” he says flatly.
Turns out, Jenkins was not only at the Ramones’ first D.C. show, he was instrumental in getting the band booked here.
“This is how it happened,” he says, explaining that he and Howard Wuelfing—a member of such seminal D.C. punk bands as the Nurses and Slickee Boys—were seeking a place to get New York bands to play in D.C. “We went looking for the names of the managers of all these bands, Television, Talking Heads. We said, those bands are fine for the Childe Harold, but you don’t want the Ramones.” But the clubowners wanted a band with an album out and at that point only the Ramones qualified.
Jenkins also puts the Childe Harold show in ’76 or ’77. “It wasn’t that mad any times that I was there,” Jenkins contends, who characterized the group’s act as “performance art.” He recounts how at the same spot in every show, the band would stop. “Then Johnny and Dee Dee would take off their jackets—and then they would start again.”
Jenkins recalls the audience as mostly “curiosity seekers. Not many Ramones fans in the audience, it seemed to me.”
Jenkins’ timeline also has the Ramones graduating from D.C.’s small rooms early, making a Childe Harold gig in ’78 unlikely. “They were in the Warner [Theater] pretty quickly, with the Runaways, ’cause I ran into them at the Burger King at the Greyhound station on New York Avenue before the show,” he remembers.
Over the phone, Wuelfing wracks his brain a moment, then declares, “I don’t remember a comedian at all.” Wuelfing now runs Howlin Wuelf Media, a music PR firm out of Morrisville, Pa.
“I do remember going to maybe all the shows, if not all the shows. And it was pretty well-behaved. My main memory of the show was how big a PA they brought in.” The “huge” sound equipment dwarfed the “teeny” stage. “And there they were, crammed in between these huge, huge PA speakers, with [manager] Danny Fields sitting at a table—when I say right in front of it, I mean with his head was up against the speaker.”
Wuelfing recalls a scene much like the infamous 1976 Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, England, that inspired the creation of the Smiths, the Fall, Joy Division, etc. “I do remember the folks that wound up being the early D.C. punk scene were all there,” he says.
“To say it was a regular Ramones concert—well, none of us knew what a regular Ramones concert was,” he continues. “Well, I guess I did. Because I’d seen them play at CBGBs in a 15-minute set on a 10-band bill maybe a year before. But, yeah, I don’t remember there being any mayhem of beer-bottle-throwing. And I’m not sure how that could have happened. Because the original punk crowd was kind of an older crowd, for the day. It wasn’t a bunch of 16-year-olds. It was people more in their 20s and kind of on the intellectual side. And seeing the Ramones was a big deal. People were not there to start shit.
“The comedian thing is really throwing me,” Wuelfing says.
After more brain-wracking, Wuelfing becomes more convinced that Shydner’s story is wrong. “It sounds great, getting bottled off the stage at a Ramones show,” he says. “It’s what you’d expect. Because it’s in keeping with the punk mythology that arose down the line, but was kind of not like what it was. The whole idea of there being punk violence came around when you had kids, teenagers, getting into it. The guys like Minor Threat—not that Minor Threat were like that, but a lot of the dumber kids in that scene. Like the guys in Iron Cross and stuff. As more dopey people showed up at punk shows, the jocks and stuff like that.
“But the first batch of punk-rock people were music freaks and they tended to be smart from what I saw,” he continues. “And they just didn’t misbehave. The people who started misbehaving were people like fucking Henry Rollins. I don’t mean that facetiously; that’s what he did. He was a pain in the ass. ‘Cause he would get these places closed down. When [punk music venues] would open in Georgetown, he’d be in there and some off-duty Marine would make some crack or punch some kid, and notoriously Henry was the first to go in wailing. Which is really funny because now you hear [Rollins say], ‘Oh, yeah, it was tough being a punk kid and the Marines would come after us.’ Dude—yeah, good story. That’s not what was going on. He was the one who was doing it.”
Wuelfing also recalls the difficulty the early D.C. punks had in creating and maintaining any kind of scene, calling it “a pretty tentative thing.” Once a venue agreed to host a show, “the last thing people would want to do is start shit,” he says. “Because there you go—there’s a venue down. People wanted to see music. Nobody’s gonna go and throw a bottle at a stuffy place like the fucking Childe Harold and put that in jeopardy.”
Wuelfing suggests that Shydner is “misremembering.” The bottle-throwing scenario sounds to him more like a Bayou gig, the Bayou being the storied Georgetown waterfront club that closed in 1998 after nearly 60 years of hosting everyone from U2‘s first U.S. gig to frat-rock jam bands. “That strikes me as that would be more logical,” says Wuelfing, who characterizes the Bayou crowd as “It’s Friday night, let’s go out. Hey, we’re at a punk rock show, we’re punk rockers, let’s throw beer bottles at the comedian.” And I’m saying that kinda facetiously, but at the same time trying to recall the zeitgeist then and who acted like what. That’s a much more logical scenario. And it’s a long time ago, it could be that the guy is conflating a couple memories. Which is what you do when you make movies or write [books].
For his part, Shydner laughs off the complaints. “I was there that night,” he insists from outside an LA hospital where he’s taken his daughter for a checkup. (“Nothing serious.”) “I have a buddy who was there that night who had to walk me home.”
Shydner also discounts the idea that the show was actually at the Bayou. “I opened up for a lot of people at the Bayou,” he says. “I have a story about opening up for Rick Danko there.” (Shydner later sends the story, which is also quite funny and may wind up in a second edition of I Killed.)
Shydner will admit that the Ramones gig may not be “the absolute first time they came to town,” but insists that the crowd was not sitting quietly. “I never saw any show [at the Childe Harold] where they sat quietly. It’s not a symposium hall, it’s a little bar.”
And it was definitely the Childe Harold, of this Shydner is certain.
“I don’t know what [Jenkins and Wuelfing] saw, man, but I got crushed before I got up there,” he laughs. “Believe me, they would have remembered my show. They might have sat back down after they doused me. Trust me, they would have remembered my show. Sitting there quietly at a punk show—that’s hilarious.”
So, a stalemate of memories. Maybe it was the Bayou. Maybe it wasn’t the Ramones. Truth becomes slippery over time. And a comedian’s job is to tell stories that aren’t technically true. But there is truth within the jokes. And sometimes the truth hurts. Like a bottle to the head.
I get results!
Just one week after launching my Free for All Watch, dissecting the many gripes of the Washington Post‘s Grumpy Old Man page, the public has spoken. Or typed.
This week, Oct. 18, there were three — count them, three! — positive letters for the paper, an unheard of level of generosity in the two weeks I’ve been officially taking note. One letter saluting Michel Du Cille for his photograph, another lauding a front page map, and a third thanking writer Martin Weill for his light-hearted zoo story.
Now that’s three out of 13 letters, but this could be a trend. Or, to phrase it in current headline-writing fashion: Could this be a trend? (See also Twitter’s SavedYouAClick for a welcome antidote for such link-bait question-mark headlines.)
And speaking of Twitter, Post editorial page editor Scott Butterworth re-tweeted my inaugural Free for All Watch column, which I am taking as proof positive that my brave work is finally being heeded. While the editors did not choose to run any letter similar to the one I predicted would appear (and really, how could they?), I remain convinced that I am the power behind this week’s outpouring of love and good will for D.C.’s paper of record.
My Saturday morning breakfast ritual is to turn to the Free for All page in the back of the A section of the Washington Post and fill up on righteous indignation along with my English muffins. Free for All is an entire newspaper page devoted to letters to the editor, almost all of them ranting about the many failures of the daily paper. I call it the Grumpy Old Man page, though women are equally represented among the aggrieved.
As a grumpy old man, my name has appeared on the Free For All page with sad regularity. I rose to defend the honor of Alfred E Neuman, nit-picked sloppy illustration for a design story in the Local Living section, and complained about bicycle regulations, among other vitally important issues. That level of pedantry is not out of place on Free for All. Basically, the editors are damned if they do and damned if they don’t on any and every topic.
Thus, I am something of an expert at spotting what will get a rise out of Post readers. One of the most common types of Free for All letter is the complaint about what does or doesn’t appear on A1. In this inaugural post for the series, I will predict next week’s Free for All. You will surely be reading something along the lines of this:
What possessed you to waste precious space on the front page of the newspaper with what is for all intents and purposes an advertisement for a Hollywood movie? [“For real-life Alexander, the days are pretty good,” A1, Oct. 11.] Even to the point of using not one but two stills from the film as illustration!
How very nice for Alexander Viorst that his mother wrote a book about him (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), and that it has now been turned into a big-budget Steve Carell movie. But such stories, if they must appear at all, should be relegated to the Style section and not the front page of what used to be a great national newspaper.
Grumpy Old Man, Silver Spring
P.S.: You also misspelled the name of the movie’s co-star. It is Jennifer Garner, not Gardner. She is the wife of Ben Affleck, Mrs. Batman, for heaven’s sake!
Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer
By Mike Lankford
Chronicle, 264 pp., $22.95
This is an unexpected pleasure—a book about musicians that concentrates on what it means to play music and not on the tragic consequences of twisted genius or the cruel wages of fame. There is nothing about the recording industry, no tales of hotel rooms petulantly trashed in Mike Lankford‘s Life in Double Time: Confessions of an American Drummer. Lankford was carefully watching the crowds who were watching him and has written as authentic a report from the bandstand as I’ve come across. Who would suspect such insights from a guy who smacked things with sticks for a living?
Though the book does indeed go into depth on the subject of drums and drumming (and is therefore a must for any percussionist), Lankford makes his personal obsession charmingly accessible. If you’ve never considered playing an instrument, his wry and perceptive storytelling will at least let you understand “the tribal joy of breathing with others and seeing the results magnified.”
Born in 1951, Lankford belongs to a generation of musicians for whom craft was as important a guiding principle as art—often more so. As improbable as it sounds, the highest compliment you could pay to a high-school band in the ’60s was that it sounded “just like the record.” A pimply 16-year-old kid could count on plenty of girl reaction if his onstage Mick Jagger impression was deemed “authentic.” Many a white suburban Otis Redding found out what r-e-s-p-e-c-t meant, too. Believe it or not.
In this post-punk world, one can become a musician by the sheer act of proclaiming it so. The punk revolution so thoroughly tore down the wall between stage and audience that now it’s not how well you play, it’s that you play that counts. If you are in the know, you are in the band. Fiddle with an instrument until it produces enough sound for your purposes, and count on getting booked into a club to perform. Craft is not the issue it once was.
Which makes Lankford’s book almost an archaeological report—from the distance of 30 years. None of the many bands that Lankford played with wrote an original song. That wasn’t their purpose. The point was to play a variety of music together and to play with precision. By that standard was satisfaction judged. When a musician isn’t offering much that is obviously new, but is lost, as Lankford puts it, “so deep inside a tune, it became like four walls around me,” critics not unreasonably dismiss the result as “mere” musicianship, selfish expression.
But when the band is on, locked in the pocket, a willing audience will respond and join in the fervor. This was Lankford’s goal each night when he picked up his sticks: to connect with the beat and his bandmates until they found that “special something that puts a twirl in a girl’s skirt.”
Double Time is filled with charming observations, as Lankford describes his development from geeky gawker at the teen club—paying closer attention to the stage setup of bands like “Dewayne and the Belldettas” than to the girls—to accomplished journeyman. When the drum bug fully hit, “melody ceased to exist for me,” he writes. On his first exhibiting drummer tendencies—while listening to a song on the car radio—his mother was so startled she drove home and took his temperature. “That was the start of my becoming a suspicious person,” he notes.
Lankford nicely charts the dynamics within the high-school music community—a fragile hierarchy where a fortuitous solo at a jam session can solidify a reputation. For a week. Lankford and his fellow fledgling musicians also confront “the girlfriend factor”—the irony that guys start bands to meet girls, but that, once met, girls have a tendency to “complicate things” to the point where bands fall apart. Some may wish to dismiss the Yoko Paradigm as sexist twaddle, but all my experience confirms Lankford’s. Then again, as he admits, “nothing is as unstable as a band.”
The meat of the book begins in the early ’70s, when fresh-faced 20-year-old Lankford answers a blind phone call and finds himself sitting in with the group Salt & Pepper. He becomes the “salt” in a trio that includes two middle-aged black veterans from Chicago, Vince and Dennis. (Why they didn’t just change the band name instead of always insisting on hiring white drummers is not explained.) Dennis operates a Hammond B-3—that singular-sounding furniture-size keyboard that underscores so much of rock, R&B, and jazz—playing bass parts with attached pedals. Vince is an apparently inspired guitarist.
After the first week, the trio packs the van and drives immediately to the next gig, 1,200 miles away, nonstop. Lankford spends the next three years on the road with Salt & Pepper, playing six nights a week, every week of the year. There are no vacations.
Vince and Dennis had played together 30 years by the time Lankford joined and seemingly knew every tune ever written. To their young protégé, life on the road was an exciting adventure. The elder duo had a handyman’s approach to music: It’s a skill with which to earn money. So they spread their talent as broadly as possible. In some clubs, Salt & Pepper was a soul band, in others a rock band, in others a country band, and in certain swanky hotels, a mellow jazz group.
Lankford, on the other hand, was carried away by the “idea” of the road: “Without an idea you just got a van and equipment and a couple of weird guys in front and a job you’re driving to. This was different. After a gig we wouldn’t go home but drive to some place else, and then some place else. An endless string of some place elses.” The most important thing about going on the road, he writes, “is that you go and stay on the road. It has to be open ended or you’re missing the flavor.”
One of those flavors was heroin. Lankford tried it, once.
The not-unexpected reason why Vince never completely traded on his talent was his fondness for drugs. That was also why Dennis kept the band booked 365 days: idle veins, etc.
Lankford is curiously blasé about his decision to sample. He professes to hate needles, but he didn’t just say no when offered the chance. Equating the drug’s effect with “slipping into angel skin,” Lankford makes a strong case for the complexity of the drug issue. That night the band’s performance was particularly inspired—Lankford claims to have experienced an epiphany about keeping time. Addiction is not just a moral weakness, he contends, noting that “the danger with heroin lies in waking up that one taste bud you didn’t know you had.” Lankford was aware enough to recognize a lesson and move on.
Claiming immunity to stage fright, Lankford relates clear-eyed accounts of performing in places that should have scared him. He witnessed murders, nearly got stabbed, and was branded with a white-hot coat hanger. Lankford’s account of van-club-hotel, van-club-hotel—with gas-station rest stops and diners in between—is exhaustingly exhilarating.
Ultimately, the grind took its toll, and Lankford said goodbye to Vince, Dennis, and the road. When he left Salt & Pepper, Lankford abandoned music completely, to the point where he claims to have virtually stopped listening to it or seeking it out in clubs.
While Lankford’s notes from the stage are engagingly specific, the “confessions” part of the book’s title is a bit misleading. We have no idea what he did in the 15 years he wasn’t playing music, nor what he does now. Press materials mention that he’s a graduate of the Iowa State writer’s program, which shows.
As Mick and Keith have demonstrated, giving up rock and roll is difficult. Eventually, Lankford’s now-middle-aged friends talked him into joining a weekend group. Slowly, reluctantly, he found his way back into music.
At first he scorned his contemporaries for “pretending” to make music. But finally, timekeeper Lankford came to a deeper understanding of the nature of time—that life is to be savored moment to moment, not with an eye to the set list. Playing music is a great way to spend time. And there’s only one reason to play: for the hell of it.
So the next time you’re at some wedding, don’t laugh too hard at the band. They may be having more fun than you.
My piece on the Fabulous Hubcaps takes over most of the front page of the Washington Post Style section today. The assignment called for 1,200 words. I wound up with nearly 13,000 transcribed words. So I think I undersold the piece. Coulda been a magazine feature, ’cause there was sooo much fascinating, fun, and relevant info that did not make the cut. I will say that I’m glad to be able to use the serial comma again. Also, when will publications stop putting a K in the abbreviation of microphone? It’s mic, not mike. Mike is a person.
But these are personal peeves and not aimed at any of the fine staffers and friends at the Post. Go, newspapers!
Above is a photo I took last week of one the last remaining Little Tavern buildings. Like most of the rest of the chain, it had been turned into something else, in this case a Chinese carryout, Golden House. (I have placed orders there on more than one occasion. Not bad.) My plan was to snap pictures of what few remaining LTs existed so that I could post them on the article I wrote about the fabled D.C. diners.
Below is a picture I took today. I have no explanation, other than the new X-Files movie just opened.
(Originally posted July 28, 2008.)
I’d been meaning to go to Laurel to see if its Little Tavern Shop was still standing and snap a pic if it was. The Laurel location was the last operating restaurant in the once-proud chain, and one that I had never been to. (Shame on me, I know.) I’ve posted my previous LT articles here and here, and planned to add fresh images.
So imagine my surprise to find that not only is the building still standing, but you can get a burger. All praise Harry Duncan!
So many of the old locations have become takeout spots, been repainted, expanded, and otherwise mashed into the landscape. The Maryland Historical Trust put this shop on its registry (“an excellent example of mid-twentieth century roadside commercial architecture”), an honor not accorded similar outlets in D.C. While it was initially alarming to see the big “DONUTS” marquee, kudos to the signmaker for reworking the original Little Tavern typography into the new Laurel Tavern.
Inside, the place seems even more crowded than the old shops were. The stools and counter have been replaced by a glass case filled with donuts. And the grill has been replaced with donut-making machines, looking as vintage as the building and coated with sugar. I should have asked if the new owner acquired the equipment from the old Krispee Kreme on Rt. 1 in Alexandria. That would be fitting.
A small hand-written piece of paper taped to the side window proclaims “We have Burgers!!” I dared not dream it was true, and so first ordered a glazed, which looked fresh and was. If a Little Tavern has to be replaced, fresh donuts is not a bad option.
When I asked if they actually made the old-style hamburgers, owner Jin Kwon said, “Small ones. Yes. I just make these,” and opened a heating tray. She pulled out a three-pack, a trio of tiny burgers stuck together. Apparently, there’s a deal if you buy ‘em that way. Not quite the bygone bagful, but enough for breakfast today.
So…how do these 21st century models stack up to the Deathballs of yore? Well, they’re small (good), damp from the warming drawer (good), covered in greasy chopped onions (good). Asked if I wanted ketchup and mustard (of course!), Kwon applied same from separate yellow and red bottles. The single mutsup/catard concoction was a model of efficiency in the old days, but once it all mixed together the effect was the same.
The first bite was truly nostalgic nirvana. But — the beef is too spicy. Pepper, I think. Which is to say, there is spice where the old meat was just gray. Not unpleasant, but not what I was expecting.
Still, they warmed me up all the way back to Silver Spring. And, in that patented Little Tavern way, I can taste ‘em still.
Ironically, the Laurel shop is across the street from the Laurel Tastee Diner, which is the only Tastee location I haven’t been to. Guess I gotta start spending more time in Laurel…
The area’s last Little Tavern may not make it to the millennium.
The sign reads “Lease or Build to Suit.” No big deal on a fast-changing corner in suburban Maryland. Unless, that is, you like your burgers greasy, cheesy, and little. That’s because this ominous notice of real estate transition hangs from the last Little Tavern near D.C., an outpost on busy Viers Mill Road in Wheaton. Has the eatery that has stood for decades along the suburb’s original commercial district slung its last greaseball?
Inside, Tony the cook dismisses the huge banner with a laconic “Just negotiating the lease, just scare tactics.” His full attention is turned to starting a run of the large-sized burgers. But if you turn your gaze past Tony and out the window, you’ll see that what until very recently was a half-block of low-rent office buildings is now rubble—bulldozed, the cook says, to extend a parking lot. The rubble heralds a future much friendlier to T.G.I. Friday’s than to the venerable local burger joint.
Up and down Viers Mill Road and Georgia Avenue, the ‘burb that was once described as “a funky ethnic enclave” is in danger of defunkifying. Wheaton Plaza is planning an expansive “revitalization.” Not long ago, a bright new car dealership went up across from the aging Little Tavern, which still boasts a Ms. Pac-Man in one corner and a Street Fighter II machine by the door.
Defunkification is also a pretty good way to describe what’s happened to the rest of the region’s string of Little Taverns. What had once been a mighty chain of more than 50 locations had dwindled to fewer than five when former Tavern employee Al Wroy bought the business in 1992 (“Places That Are Gone,” 11/10/95). Although a new tavern opened in Ocean City this summer, and there are two shops remaining in Baltimore and one in Laurel, the Wheaton shop is the last option for most D.C. epicureans in search of distinctive dining.
Wroy won’t say much about the sign that obstructs half of his view. “That’s just standard,” he says. “They will put a sign up on your building to force you to come to the table on their terms. It’s just a standard thing that landlords do.”
But he won’t comment further about his last local franchise’s future. “When you’re in negotiations, you don’t say anything about it,” Wroy explains softly over the phone. “I don’t own the property, the landlady has sold the property, and the new owners…I feel they have other plans for the property, but I really can’t tell you what. They always try to make you feel like they have other tenants for the property.”
“I wish I could answer you more,” says the understanding Wroy. The landlord’s real estate agent did not return a phone call by press time.
Sitting at the Wheaton restaurant’s empty counter, manager Cynthia Johnson Brown isn’t talking about Little Tavern’s birth way back in 1928, or about how Arthur Godfrey used to pitch its burgers on the radio, or about the “Buy ‘Em by the Bag” slogan that was the chain’s claim to fame.
Maybe that’s because Brown is spending a weekend afternoon watching cars drive up and down the hill outside, toward Rockville or Silver Spring—or to the Shoney’s up the block. Shoney’s just went 24-hour, adding competition in what had been Little Tavern’s exclusive niche. “To make a long story short, we would like for more people to come visit us,” says Brown. “I’m trying to save a part of our history. I need all the customers I can get my hands on. And then some.”
With Godfrey’s ads long gone from the airwaves, Brown appears to be Little Tavern’s only weapon against an endless stream of competing burger advertisements. This afternoon, she’s giving Ronald McDonald and Dave Thomas a run for their PR money.
“It’s still a family place,” Brown announces. “I get a lot of couples, this is where they met. Right here in this Tavern. There’s this one man—I don’t know his name, but I know him by face. And he said he remembered when they built this. And he’s like 86, 87 years old. He comes in, gets two burgers, nothing but onions only. Last time I saw him was last year—I thought he might have expired. But he came in last week. And I was really glad to see him. I was really glad to see him. He said he was under the weather and all that. But he came in, ‘Got to have my two—onions!’ He said, ‘You still here?’ I said, ‘You still here?'”
“And then this one man who had had open-heart surgery…” Brown adds. “Believe it or not, this is where his wife had brought him, because he really had a taste for it. She said, ‘If that’s what it takes…’ and he came twice. And that made me feel good, so I made him a little something special. I threw in a few extra burgers. He don’t get out of the car, but he’s like this—thumbs up!—so everybody was happy.”
Brown agrees with me that Little Tavern hamburgers are the best in the world.
“Yes they are. Yes, they are. You can’t beat ‘em. You cannot really beat ‘em. And one thing, over 30 years and still—fresh meat. Our meat is not frozen. You’re getting fresh meat. We’re giving you the best service we can. We hand-roll our patties, our balls. We’re still the old-fashioned way.”
The old-fashioned way is quickly becoming older-fashioned: Soon we will be referring to recent events as occurring “in the last century.” But perhaps history can save the Wheaton Little Tavern. Brown suggests that her shop has been submitted for landmark status. But a call to Gwen Wright, historic preservation coordinator for Montgomery County, proves this statement wrong.
“The Wheaton Little Tavern has never been evaluated for historic preservation status,” says Wright. Four Tavern structures in the county were looked at in the early ’90s. The Bethesda location, now a Chinese carryout, got the nod.
“My sense is—although I don’t really know this—my sense is that the County Council that designates, that makes the final decision, it was a little bit of a leap of faith for them to designate the Little Tavern, so they said, ‘We’ll do one,’ and it was the one in Bethesda,” says Wright, adding, “The one in Wheaton was never brought up.”
A glance at the Montgomery County Code suggests that the last Little Tavern might be a shoo-in if anyone were to nominate it. The code has nine criteria for determining a structure or area to be historic. Among them is whether the site “is identified with a person or a group of persons who influenced society.” Of course, Little Tavern is the country’s second-oldest restaurant chain, after White Castle. Founder Harry F. Duncan once claimed to have invented the cheeseburger. Consider the history of America without the cheeseburger.
Another criterion is whether the building “embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction.” The application for the Bethesda Little Tavern, built in 1939, makes much of the “symbolic nature of the design,” noting that “all of the Little Tavern Shops were built in a style reminiscent of an Old English tavern as a way of conveying a pleasant, familiar environment. However, in order to evoke the notions of speed and efficiency associated with fast, inexpensive meals, the design utilized the newer technology and materials of the ‘moderne’ era—neon lighting, tile, formica, metal alloys, and vitrolite.”
Do Starbucks use vitrolite?
And according to the regulations, a site may become historic if it “represents the work of a master” [pass] or “possesses high artistic values” [pass]. Also, if it “represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community, or county due to its singular physical characteristics or landscape.”
Well, Wheaton without Little Tavern would be like D.C. without baseball or congressional representation. Or, er, uh…
Anyone may nominate the Tavern for landmark status, says Wright. “That would mean filling out the appropriate forms and submitting them to the county. And certainly that could happen. I think I had a call last week from someone with historic preservation in Silver Spring, asking about the process regarding the Wheaton Little Tavern.”
“But just because it’s designated doesn’t mean that it will stay a Little Tavern,” Wright warns. “Historic designation does not control use—it just controls the facade. Historic designation cannot force a landlord to grant the existing current Little Tavern a lease. It could be designated historic and still become a Chinese restaurant.”
Coincidentally, the day after speaking with Brown, I run into Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan at one of those typical MoCo dedication ceremonies. I ambush him with questions about the Little Tavern, pointing out that Silver Spring’s Tastee Diner was saved from the wrecking ball. There is a proud county history of supporting good bad food.
Duncan—no relation to the chain’s founder—chuckles and says he’ll look into it.
Back in Wheaton, Brown smiles and shakes her head. “For all the old customers, or the ones who don’t believe we still exist, we’re here, we’re here—11143 Viers Mill Road. Please come and visit. Please come and visit.” CP
Reprinted from Washington City Paper
Remembering Little Tavern Restaurants, D.C.’s Greasiest Greasy Spoons
Club LT. The LT Lounge. Deathballs.
In 1928, Little Taverns began springing up on the Washington landscape like pimples at a Lisa Loeb concert. With their steep-pitched, green-tiled roofs, the restaurants resembled miniature Swiss chalets—or very large cuckoo clocks. Inside, a greasy grill and maybe a dozen stools invited customers to partake of a menu that was Henry Ford basic: any food you want as long as it’s a hamburger. By the mid-’40s, there were 50 Little Taverns, and Arthur Godfrey pitched their charms on the radio.
Today, D.C. diners in search of a high-fat diet have exactly one choice: The last tavern sits on a sloping lot in the “Wheaton Triangle,” down the street from Chuck Levin’s music store, across from Wheaton Plaza. (For the serious commuting gourmet, two LTs remain in Baltimore, and one in Laurel.)
Little Tavern was founded by Harry F. Duncan, who spent more than 60 of his 93 years in the Washington metro area. Duncan claimed that his was the nation’s second-oldest chain, after White Castle. (He also claimed to have invented the cheeseburger, in Louisville, Ky., during the ’20s. He died in 1992, so we can’t grill him for specifics.)
The burger baron had a gift for clever marketing. His slogan, “Buy ‘em by the bag,” was not a desperate threat, it was an exclamation of value. At a mere nickel a burger, a bagful of 20 Little Tavern patties could be had for a buck. Two bits got you a meal of three sandwiches and a cup o’ Joe. (And McDonald’s used to hype “change back from your dollar”!) My family’s picnics sometimes began with a stop at Club LT for a couple bags to go. This was, I hasten to point out, considered a treat and not child abuse.
And what burgers they are! The “famous” Little Tavern hamburger is about one-fourth the size of the average modern patty, barely larger than the paper-thin slice of pickle sitting on it. The grayish-looking meat is hand-packed, with chopped onions smushed in, and rolled into a ball to be set on the griddle. Flame, grease that cooked 1,000 other burgers, and a square little bun transform it into the affectionately christened “deathball.”
But the real secret of the LT burger is storage. No heat lamps for the Little Tavern: Burgers are kept under a damp towel in deep drawers beneath the grill. Opening this meat humidifier releases an aromatic cloud of steam. Your order, warm and slightly moist, comes served on a tidy square of wax paper.
Condiment options are three: catsup, mustard, or a concoction of both—the latter generously squirted out of its own dispenser in a murky, bilious orange blend. Is it mutsup? Castard? Whatever—it’s the only way to eat a deathball.
Open 24 hours a day, LT used to be a night light for night owls. While the shops drew their share of ne’er-do-wells, deathballs probably saved as many lives as they ended. For hearty-partiers wobbling back to bed, a quick stop at LT was an effectively sobering experience.
But the good things in life never last. By the ’70s, stagflation had rendered the bag o’ beef concept impractical, and “large”—i.e., regular-size burgers—had been added. When the century and he had reached their early 80s, Duncan decided to concentrate on other businesses in retirement-friendly Florida. In 1981, he sold the 30-unit LT chain to GEW Inc., headed by lawyer Gerald Wedren. The barrister had big plans. A “dress code” was established. Over the institutional white shirt—so effective at showcasing grease stains and sweat—slipped a green, logo-imprinted, hardware-clerk-style apron. The staff also wore matching paper army-style garrison caps.
Other “improvements” included broadening the menu to include fries (never a culinary success) and a steak ‘n’ cheese sub, and adding lettuce and tomato to the topping options. The “buy ‘em by the bag” motto was resuscitated, but now the Tavern bag held only three burgers, and several dollars had to change hands.
Most misguidedly, the new management tried to get swanky. In 1987, they appropriated the “Club LT” nickname for a faux diner at The Shops at National Place. A more un-LT-like place would be hard to imagine. This sop to respectability predictably lured the Washington Post’s Phyllis Richman, who, in a March 1988 Weekend review, bemoaned the new diner’s burgers: “They miss the old LT’s minced onions and pickle slices which add a flavor punch.” “Sucker punch” would have been more precise.
Wedren threw in the spatula four months later. Atlantic Restaurant Ventures Inc. (ARV), a Clinton, Md.-based firm that also held the local Fuddruckers franchise, acquired the chain, which had shrunk to only 22 units. Profits fell, and in 1990, ARV sold the now-20-unit chain to ARV co-founder and former President Roger Kisiel for $1.6 million.
That wasn’t the end of the deal. In November 1991, ARV sued GEW for fraud, charging that Little Tavern’s worth had been misrepresented. In filing the lawsuit, it came to light that Wedren had a silent partner: Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). A teeny tempest swirled around the upscale, consumer-crusader Metzenbaum’s involvement in such a downscale endeavor, but the grease failed to stick. The case never went to court.
The Kisiel era continued, and so did the downward trend. By 1992, landlords were foreclosing on Little Taverns all over town. Before the wrecking balls arrived, Al Wroy, who had joined the Tavern team under Wedren, stepped in and renegotiated with landlords and vendors. In December of that year, Wroy took responsibility for the chain.
Wroy oversees his four-Tavern empire from his Bel Air, Md., bedroom. “You don’t need a fancy office when you have to paint stores, buy new ice machines,” he notes. “Every penny goes back into the business.”
Wroy is currently negotiating for a fifth store, and his business plan calls for 15 new taverns to open over the next 10 years. None in the District, however. “The District is too hard to run a business in. Too many laws, too many fees, too difficult for a small business to make a profit,” he says, adding, “Nothing against the public there, of course.”
Perhaps Wroy can restore Club LT to its former “glory.” Perhaps not. When even McDonald’s is offering carrot sticks, and a Twinkie can claim to be “low-fat,” the greasy spoon seems doomed.
The (near) death of the deathball also speaks to the bottom-line business chic of the late 20th century. Little Tavern began with a visionary entrepreneur—“Plop some cheese on that sucker!”—who built a successful enterprise with sweat equity. Duncan shepherded his modest shops for more than half a century, but once he was gone, it was less than a decade before his legacy was, too. (A sad commentary: Placing a call to the Silver Spring Boys Club that Duncan founded—a building that still carries his name in 10-inch-tall letters—yielded the response, “Never heard of him.”) Duncan’s chain had become a mere “investment opportunity.”
After taking control of LT in ’88, Fuddruckee Kisiel was quoted in the Post thusly: “We can impart to the Little Taverns a knowledge of the hamburger business that hasn’t been imparted heretofore.”
As these pictures warn, knowledge is not to be confused with smarts. And a hamburger is sometimes more than just a hamburger.
(NOTE: This article originally appeared as a photo essay with wonderful photos by Darrow Montgomery that I don’t have. I snapped the pix for this post. Check this site for historical images of the wonder that was.)
(See also: Death to the Deathball
Reprinted from Washington City Paper