Dubliner Pub: “Do you think I have a crystal ball or something?”
By Bruce Johansen, TC Daily Planet · February 22, 2014 · This article is part of the series, Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change, an oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
Tom Scanlon will tell you that he doesn’t have a crystal ball. He’ll also tell you he has a thing for shoes. The owner of the Dubliner Pub—and, until recently, the Turf Club—grew up in the village of Tarbert in County Kerry, Ireland. He arrived in the United States in 1965, landing in Saint Paul, where his uncle was a fire captain. The firehouse, located at University Avenue and Vandalia, is visible from the Dubliner’s front windows. “I never thought I’d end up on this corner myself for 30 years. I never would have believed that if you’d told me.”
Growing up an Irish farmboy
When asked about his childhood in Tarbert, Scanlon replies, “Well, it certainly was a little different lifestyle. It was a small farm, a dairy farm, so we had to milk cows every day and we walked to school. I got my first pair of shoes when I was about nine, I think.” This explains his love of shoes. “I have a lot of shoes,” he laughs, “I buy them everywhere I go. I’m not kidding you, I buy shoes everywhere I go.”
Running the farm required a large family, 13 children to be exact. “They had to have a lot of kids to work the farm because they couldn’t afford to pay for any help.” He calls it “a labor pool.”
Farming wasn’t the life for Tom. Like his siblings, he left the farm to seek opportunities elsewhere.“We knew where we were going as soon as we turned 20, 19 or 20. We knew where our destiny was, it was pretty well set.” On his eighteenth birthday Scanlon moved to Manchester, England, where he stayed for two years. Then he moved to the United States, where he’s set down deep roots.
Over the years Scanlon has watched St. Paul’s University Avenue undergo a series of changes. The incoming light rail marks a new chapter.
The Avenue and bar that Scanlon first knew
University Avenue as Scanlon encountered it in the 1960s and 1970s, was the big commercial thoroughfare. “It was full of car dealerships.”
Scanlon confesses he has more vivid memories of his first car than of the street that’s been such a prominent setting in his life. “It was one of those big Plymouths with those big wings coming out the back. I think every immigrant must have had one of those.”
As for University Avenue, Scanlon recalls that, “I used to take the bus down here, the old-fashioned buses, back in ’65, you know. The streetcars had just left. Now they’re putting them back in again.” He adds, “I just missed the streetcars the first time. I don’t think I’ll miss them this time.”
Porky’s Drive-In, just east of Vandalia until its demolition in 2011, was emblematic of the car culture that had formed. “That was a big deal. We used to go there for burgers at lunchtime. Yeah, Porky’s was one of our big stops. I was always fascinated by the waitresses, the girls coming out…the carhops.”
Also a part of the mix was Cole Sewell, the manufacturing company where Scanlon worked as a shipping and receiving clerk for five years, before going into real estate for the next 13.
Bars went hand-in-hand with the manufacturing firms, he says. “There were a lot of taverns on the street then….My god, right back here, right behind us where the trucking company is, there was a 3.2 place….I can’t remember what the name of it was, but they used to sell everything. They used to sell clothes and shoes….I didn’t buy any shoes there. I didn’t have any money yet!”
By 1983, the year that Scanlon purchased the Ace Box Bar from Tom Lenhart, things had changed fairly dramatically on University Avenue. “It was rough. It was going downhill. There was a beat-up gas station across the street….There was a lot of unsavory characters on the corner.”
Long a popular hangout for truck drivers, the Ace had developed a reputation, a reputation that Scanlon says was undeserved. “It (the clientele) was truck drivers and they just like to drink.” Others made assumptions based on stereotypes. “Just because they look a certain way, people already automatically say, ‘Oh well, I wouldn’t go in there.’” He adds, “I hear people talking about all the fights there used to be and I say, ‘Well, I’ve been here 30 years and I’ve never seen one, and actually I’ve never seen the truck drivers fight. Never.”
Scanlon is slightly fuzzy on details, but thinks that the Ace Cafe, as it was called, predated Prohibition. Its original location was in the Specialty Manufacturing Company building at University and Raymond Avenues, where it filled the space previously occupied by that company’s lunchroom. It’s home to Café Biaggio today. His understanding is that the Ace closed during Prohibition and moved to University and Vandalia, where it officially re-opened in 1933, becoming the first tenant of the building where the Dubliner is today. However, “rumor has it that it never closed during Prohibition.” Its new location was more remote, he says, so avoided attention of the police.
‘A diamond in the rough,’ a ‘beautiful lady with no makeup on’
Others failed to appreciate what Scanlon saw in the bar. Most viewed its location—in a dying industrial area—as a detriment. It was also in desperate need of cleanup.
“I always thought it was kind of a diamond in the rough,” Scanlon says, “I really did.”
He remembers the bar’s condition the first day he walked in. “I would say that the dust on the back bar there was probably, I’m not exaggerating, an inch thick….I’d say it had never seen a vacuum cleaner.” Scanlon’s general sense was that, “It was a place that needed a little bit of loving care.” Actually, he says, “It was a place in dire need of a facelift. I mean it was definitely a beautiful lady with no makeup on.”
Beyond a major cleanup, Scanlon resisted making too many changes. “When I first came here I wanted to really get the place in shape. They (the patrons) didn’t want it. They wanted it left alone. It’s their place.” Among other things, that meant sticking with canned beer. “Their big deal was to stack up the cans on the table. You couldn’t move them.” Beer in cans and whiskey, “That was it. It was a fairly basic program.”
While business remained steady, Ace Bar’s reputation stuck. “It’s pretty hard to tackle a bad reputation,” observes Scanlon. “Like this one old guy told me when I was a kid, ‘If you get the name of getting up early in the morning, you can stay in bed all day.’” And, he adds, “That’s kind of what the Ace Bar was. Because it had a bad reputation you could have given out candy to every kid in the city and you’d still have a bad reputation.”
Reputation aside, business was solid. “We kept it the Ace Bar because we had a good clientele.” Fisher Nut Company had a huge plant nearby, which meant lots of thirsty workers. Dart Transit Company also provided a large portion of the bar’s customer base, before moving to Eagan. Bartusch Meat Packing was another source of patrons, its night shift showing up at 8:00 every morning.
Overall, Scanlon thinks the Ace Bar’s presence was good for the Avenue at a time when it was in decline. “I kind of felt like I was a bit of an anchor, that kind of changed it.” Scanlon’s wife, Geri, credits Tom with connecting with working people of all nationalities.
Ace hit as manufacturers move to suburbs
By 1996, many of the large manufacturing and transportation firms, including Dart, had relocated to the suburbs. With them went many of the Ace’s—and other neighboring bars’—regular customers. However, Scanlon traces the disappearance of University Avenue bars to broad social changes that run even deeper than the shift in the local jobs base.
“The type of people that would come in and drink all day—we had several customers who’d come in and drink a shot and a beer all day, starting at 8:00 a.m.—those type of customers aren’t around anymore.” There’s no longer any day business. “That’s done for.” As a result, most of the bars up and down University closed, including such staples as Cromwell Liquors and Johnny’s Bar, which in 1986 became the first to serve Summit beers on tap. Ace Bar was second.
“This place (University Avenue) was pretty dead and derelict for several years. I don’t know how we hung on. We didn’t make any money.”
Scanlon recognized that his bar was in danger of shutting down. As with operating a small farm, he says, “We had to do something else; either die or do something else.” This meant being responsive to new customer preferences. “They want better beers and they want the music, they want food, or they want to play darts, play games, do dancing.”
So, reading all of the signs, Scanlon renamed the bar and changed its format in 1996. The Dubliner Pub became his second go at an Irish bar. Just owning a bar and having a liquor license, “I don’t think that’s going to work anymore….It’s gone. Those days are gone. It’s history.”
Going Irish and the case of the missing sign
Scanlon’s on Grand was a testing ground. “I bought O’Connell’s on Grand Avenue in 1986 because I wanted an Irish bar. I ran that until ’92.” After closing Scanlon’s on Grand, Tom says he languished for a few years, and then decided to stick to his roots and convert the Ace into an Irish pub.
Besides the name change and a new emphasis on Irish music, there were physical and cosmetic changes as well. The bar was painted and walls were repaired. A new bar was installed to replace the front bar, which had been “modernized” in the 1960s.
“The front bar, in the ‘60s, they modernized in here. They put a low ceiling in here (to save heat), and they took out the front bar…and they put in a McDonald’s like linoleum because it was supposed to be easier to clean….” Scanlon says, “I hated that and I wanted to get a wood counter. Well then I got lucky…because Shannon Kelly’s (downtown St. Paul) went out of business and I bought that from them.”
Recovering the wood floors was another big project. “The floors had like seven floors on top of this floor….Dan Gleason (an architect friend, also from Ireland) was involved with that and he said the floor was in really, really good shape underneath all the floors.” Gleason was right. However, “That took a long time. I did that myself, every bit of it.”
Air-conditioning was added, too. “The air conditioning before was both doors wide open.” The one thing the original Ace Bar owners didn’t do was cover the windows, “Which surprised me, because you know how these other places have the windows closed up?”
Some relics from the Ace remain, the most notable being one of its exterior signs, which now has a home on the Dubliner’s back wall. Gleason, who helped select colors and do much of the interior work, urged Scanlon to save the old Ace Bar sign.
There were two of those, actually….They met together, so we were going to bring them down and clean them up. The other one was supposed to go right there, just below the window. And that night, Dan and myself cleaned it up and everything, and I said, ‘You know what, Dan, I think we better put them in the building.’ ‘No, no,’ he says, ‘Nobody’s going to take these.’ I said, ‘You know, I think I’d be more comfortable,’ so we took one in, and it was late, and I’m, ‘You’re right, nobody’s going to take them.’ The next morning the other one was gone.
Scanlon laughs about it now. “It’s probably hanging in some dorm room…..I thought for sure I’d see it somewhere, but it probably went to a scrapyard or something by now, which would be a shame.”
Dubliner Pub becomes destination neighborhood bar
New patrons, who shared a love of Irish music and dancing, began taking notice of the Dubliner. The result has been a new mix of people, some from the neighborhood, others from around the area who enjoy the music and welcoming atmosphere. “We have the destination people, the neighborhood people, the people driving by. We have a little bit of everything. It’s a very comfortable feeling in here at night, really.”
Scanlon also see the Dubliner as a “spawning ground” for many Irish musical groups.
Reflecting on the transition, Scanlon says, “I think it was more that the neighborhood changed than that we changed.” He insists that none of the old Ace Bar clientele was displaced in the process.
One person who reappeared, Scanlon says, was former Ace Bar owner Tom Lenhart:
“The funny thing about it was, about a month before he died, he came in here one day, and he hadn’t come in much, and he was looking around, and he said, ‘You know, Tom, is it okay if I go behind the bar?’ I said, ‘absolutely.’ He went behind the bar and he went down the basement. He died a month later. I thought that was kind of odd, how he’d come in, and he was kind of doing the nostalgia thing. It was spooky. He came in and he looked all around like he was saying goodbye to everybody and everything, you know.”
Geri Connelly Scanlon, who co-manages the pub, became Tom’s wife in December 2013. Tom credits Geri for helping the Dubliner to continue to evolve. “She’s kind of the architect of the latest changes,” he says of the former Avalon High School art teacher. “She’s made it pretty livable. She’s put a little bit more of an artist’s touch on it.”
Geri’s history with the Dubliner spans most of its history. “I was coming here…doing Irish dancing, so I’ve always loved it.” She loves it even more since the smoking ban took effect in 2006. Dancing and breathing in second-hand smoke was not a good combination. When Tom points out that he worked 30 years in a smoky bar and never smoked a cigarette in his life, Geri says, “You didn’t need to.”
Geri’s background as an artist, combined with her civic activities–she’s a member of the St. Anthony Park Community Council–are leading to a number of aesthetic changes, including a new exterior sign being designed by Creative Ironwerks. Also in the works is an installation that will be placed on the corner of the roof being created by artist Erik Pearson. It will consist of the shell of a 1952 Jeep filled with musical instruments.
Progress: ‘It’s like trying to keep out the ocean with a pitchfork’
The smoking ban was a big source of controversy, but Scanlon says it was inevitable. It’s like the light rail coming:
You know what, progress is a very difficult thing to stop. It’s like trying to keep out the ocean with a pitchfork. You’re not going to stop progress no matter how many meetings you go to. The smoking ban was going to come in and I recognized it right away. I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to have smoking. It’s a done deal…so you might as well go along with the program. And if you don’t, you’re not going to be around.’
Bars that were in operation when the ban went into effect are the ones that suffered most, Scanlon argues, and he thinks the same goes for businesses currently navigating changes along the Central Corridor.
“The impact was devastating at first. It (the ban) wiped out a lot of businesses….Somebody had to do it and it just happened to be us that had to do it. So I would have much preferred to come in five years after the smoking ban went into effect.”
In Scanlon’s view, the smoking ban changed the whole bar business. “And you can argue for the better or the worse. Most bar owners will say it was for the worst.” He sees himself as an exception, pointing out that he would not want to go back.
Taking a more historical and sociological view, Scanlon contends that what the ban did was accelerate changes that were already happening. “The beer and the shot guy” had stopped patronizing bars. “I don’t think the old-timers come in anymore….They drink in their garage.”
Dubliner’s owner has added a number of local taps to his beer selection, along with ciders. “What sold ten years ago you’re not going to sell today, except for Guinness. That seems to be a constant.” Whiskeys are a different story. “We’ve always had a good supply of different whiskeys, Scotches and Irish. We’re fairly deep in scotch and expensive Scotches and Irish whiskeys.”
Leaving the Turf behind
For eight years, from 2005 until 2013, Scanlon also owned the Turf Club, a mainstay at University and Snelling. Though it had never fallen into the state of disrepair the Ace had, the Turf was a big project for Scanlon, who purchased it from his friend Mark Johnson, who had purchased it from his aunt.
Over time, Johnson converted the Turf Club from a country western dance bar—which it had been for much of its history, beginning in the 1940s—into a successful music venue that booked mostly rock bands. Scanlon never worked the bar. What he did do was renovate the space.
“We took the ceiling down. It had a really nice art deco ceiling up there. We did the walls and painted it up and fixed it up.” Then, through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Angela Talle, perhaps best known for her mural on the side of the now-demolished Peace House in South Minneapolis, was commissioned to design a striking mural, which now graces the club’s eastern exterior wall.
City Pages reports that Talle used approximately half a million pieces of glass, mirror, and tile to create the huge Western-themed mosaic, which covers 800 square feet and features cowboys and horses resting on the prairie.
Between the two businesses, Scanlon was employing 16 people. Both Dennis, a son, the St. Paul firefighter, and daughter Ann, an ultrasound technician who now lives in South Carolina, have worked for him over the years.
In October 2013 the Turf Club was sold to First Avenue, which had been booking many of its acts. Before the sale occurred, Scanlon anticipated that of his two businesses, the Turf would benefit most from the incoming light rail line. The closest stop to the Dubliner is half a block away. The Turf Club stop is right outside its door.
Most importantly, Scanlon foresaw the Turf connecting with other clubs in downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, the light rail making it easier for club patrons to go from place to place without having to drive or park.
“If you go out for a night drinking in Minneapolis you’re going to have to pay 20-bucks for a cab in both directions. But this way you ride the rail, you can go to the Turf Club….It would appear to be almost custom-made for that type of club.”
While the Dubliner still attracts an after work crowd, the Turf Club’s clientele, post-smoking ban, is almost entirely driven by who’s performing. In that way, it’s almost 100 percent a destination bar or show venue. This means that the doors now open later than they used to. It’s been reported that there may be more regular events in the famed Clown Lounge, housed in the basement.
No crystal ball, anticipating slow, imperceptible change
“I don’t mind saying, that was tough,” says Scanlon, describing construction of the light rail line. It was more disruptive to the Dubliner than the Turf. “Now we did lose some people that never came back. When something like that happens, people go to a couple of different bars….It does change the dynamics.”
Once again he credits Geri for helping to build business back up. He says that she’s reached out to the neighborhood and made customer service and training of staff a priority. “She made it a more neighborhood friendly bar and got it back on track.”
When asked how light rail will impact the Dubliner, once trains are up and running, Scanlon asks, “Do you think I have a crystal ball or something?”
Many of the changes the light rail line brings, Scanlon says, will be so slow in coming that they will be imperceptible. “Did we ever see the course of history change? It changed without us knowing it. I was born by the ocean. The tide comes in and goes out without you noticing it. It goes out before you notice it.”