A few years back, when Jamie and I realized that Los Angeles wasn’t going to be our forever home (housing prices and earthquakes being two of the prime reasons) and we were casting about for new potential headquarters, we visited our friends Mike and Carrie in Tucson for the first time.
We immediately dug the clean air, funky saguaros (I remember hearing that word for the first time, the way it’s pronounced natively ‘swah-ro’ and the long length of time it took my mind to understand that this mellifluous sound represented those tall stately cacti with arms that has become America’s symbol for ‘desert’) and vast blue sky. We admired the indomitable croppings of art that waved from bus stops, overpasses, mailboxes and whole houses.
We’d been considering other smaller-scale arty scenes like Asheville or Austin, but what really tipped the scales in favor of the Old Pueblo was a narrow, long bar with a ceiling like the underbelly of an old roller coaster, creepy animal trophy heads poking through the walls, a blue portrait of Bob Dylan, a chalkboard made out of an old car door, the best bartenders west of the Mississippi and an ever flowing current of talent and creativity in front of old storefront windows. Oh, and tater tots.
I’m talking about that long gone Tucson institution, Red Room. It was a subset of another institution, The Grill, an ancient (by the West’s standards) 24-hour diner that had seen better days, including what was left of the peeling, sixties psychedelic deer mural and ever-threatening-to-collapse ceiling – though their crispy, golden brown tater tots alone were worth a trip. Red Room was the satellite, the adjunct, the part of the establishment that actually closed at 2am. But to me it was the better part.
We felt right at home as we lounged with excellent Polish beer and watched talented musicians we would soon come to know: The Rosano Brothers (Dante and Marco), Chris Black, Hank Topless. It was a kinder, folkier Star Wars Cantina – with only slightly less bizarre clientele. Booking tended to focus on quality or some form of “interesting” – the musicians didn’t get paid and the sound system was for shit but there was always an attitude of playfulness, experimentation, going-with-the-flow that pulled us all in like a magnet. Plus you drank and ate for free, and you were gonna be hanging out there anyway so might as well whip out the guitars!
The bartenders were phenomenal – true mixologists working magic in that tiny space behind the old oak bar and in front of the towering wall o’ liquor. For what the Red Room lacked in width, it more than made up for in height. There were silver doodads I never quite understood, white and brown sugar cubes (actual cubes!), a medley of citrus in yellow and green, and above all a warmth that amplified the coziness already emanating from the dark red walls. Only good people seemed to work here.
There was no jukebox (one of my criteria for a favorite bar) but there was a photo booth (another criteria) and even though it was hardly ever working, it did post relics of its functioning past with suitably strange and funny strips of Imbibers Past.
Details about its demise still aren’t clear to me. Red Room seemed to be thriving, but it’s partner, The Grill, was apparently losing too much money in the wake of new constructions downtown and the whole ship went down. After a brief posting on Facebook, Red Room closed its doors forever. Then a fire soon after robbed any hopes of bringing it back. Many many people were frankly devastated, lamenting on the Internet and to each other what a loss this was for Tucson’s ‘keep it weird’ hopes in the midst of downtown’s current swanky resurgence. It was just a shame and every time I pass the empty, burnt out lot on Congress, gaping like a missing front tooth, I give a sad little sigh.
But one of the reasons for this sudden trip down Memory Lane was the Red Room revival at Tap & Bottle for Halloween. Almost all of the folks I remember from those days – in front of and behind the bar, on and off stage – were there. They even reproduced Blue Bob Dylan. Hank Topless, Amy Rude, Danta Rosano, and Golden Boots put us all in a nostalgic mood. Even George Rosenberg played piano as he always used to during happy hour. There was a photo booth – though it actually worked – and tater tots, though they were kinda soggy – and we were happy as clams. Turns out Red Room was really about the people, and we’re still here and still pretty weird.