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 Montpelier Magazine

Madison's Waterin' Holes
Students congregate at the hot spots of yesteryear

Story by Chris Edwards
Design by Lynn Allgood ('03)


IN THE 1930S, MADISON COLLEGE students crossed two-laned Main Street to get to the Bluebird Tea Room, operated by one Mrs. Gussie Travis. From 1948 to 1967, that red brick house, reborn as Doc's Tea Room, was still the place to hang out.

First came Doc's Grill, a six-seater opened circa 1946 by Harold "Doc" and Viola Loewner on East Market Street. Norman Dean recalls, "The college kids would come around Fridays and line up around the bank building." Two years later, the Loewners moved to the ex-Bluebird.

Their "Doc's Tea Room" was dry, of course, like all of Harrisonburg. Yet Dean, who worked there and became owner in 1963, recalls, "Every night we had crowds till 10:30 or so when we closed." Fortuitously, in that strict era, "It was considered 'on campus.'" The jukebox played six tunes for a quarter. By the '60s, a hamburger cost 30 cents. The ceiling sported about a hundred college pennants, many donated by customers. "They'd say 'you don't have our pennant,' and then in a couple of weeks we'd get one in the mail."

The site at 1007 South Main Street that replaced both Doc's and the adjoining Esso has hosted a progression of bars and eateries, including JM's and the current Buffalo Wild Wings.

In bygone years, says Leona Armentrout, downtown merchants recognized students because "they dressed in suits and hose." Armentrout, now 87, once worked at The Famous Restaurant, which was in business for more than 50 years. (Its site on North Main would later house Joker's and currently a Mexican restaurant.) Nearby, the old Kavanaugh Hotel's restaurant was "where the bluebloods of Harrisonburg would go on Sunday after church" - and students on Parents' Days and graduations.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year is Kline's Dairy Bar, where lines of parched Madisonians still wend around the building and across the parking lot for a cone or cup of its famous old-style ice cream.

On Main Street east of the courthouse, students frequented Julias' (named for owner Gus Julias), beside the Virginia Theater, and Friddle's. "You'd go to a movie, then to Julias' for a Coke," Dean recalls.

The Top Hats, like Doc's Tea Room, had a name not quite in sync with their style. Band members chose "Top Hats" to ease parents' jitters about links of rock to delinquency. Then they got too well known to change it, explains electric bass-player Charles Mathias. For a decade starting in 1958, they played Top 40 rock, rhythm-and-blues, Righteous Brothers, Kingsmen and Rolling Stones sounds. Mathias (who later owned Charles Mathias Menswear) and electric guitarist Bill Hunter (later of Ace Electronics) attended Madison in the early '60s. Singers were the late Larry May and Eddie Clatterbuck. Hunter's current band, Blue Suede, resurrects the sound.

The Top Hats were the lead act in a faux log roadhouse at Crafton's Park near Staunton. Madison students often drove U.S. 11 to Staunton, which preceded Harrisonburg for brew on-premises. Another jumping Staunton joint was the Rocket Room, a former fallout shelter.

In the 'Burg, the Top Hats played Doc's on Tuesdays. "That's where we met all our girlfriends," Mathias says. To allow serving space, they only played 15 minutes per hour. Gigs also included Rivenrock Park graduation fests and backing visiting celebs J. Frank Wilson and Tex Ritter. If a fight broke out at a dance, the band kept playing. That was rare, Mathias adds: "It was a completely different era." Men wore sports coats and ties. Almost everyone came with dates.

A decade later, says Bob Driver ('81), "Harrisonburg was a big blues town. The top of the heap was the Elbow Room." Through the late '70s, acts including Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Prine played the Elbow before going big time. Driver played guitar in a vintage jazz/blues group, Belzona, and in Biscuit Busters with his roommate and classmate, "irreverent Reverend" Billy Wirtz ('78), who returns for boogie piano and satire gigs.

By those years - when 18-year-olds could buy beer - the Harrisonburg bar scene was bigger than it is now. Hot spots of the '70s and '80s included Martin's Garage (a former garage) which Touch of the Earth recently vacated; Gatsby's, The Other Place and Mystic Den on the present jail site; and the Scotland Yard disco and Generation Gap on South Main. Melrose Caverns near North 11 was a party mainstay.

Spanky's, opened by Roland "Spanky" Macher and family on Water Street circa 1974, became a perennial. It has continually served sandwiches with names like Betty Boop, the Wheezer and the Bouncy, accompanied by pitchers. Graffiti on the wooden booths and tables is encouraged. JMU graduates return years later to unearth their markings, notes alumnus and assistant manager Matt Derham.

Several alumni have stayed in town to start or operate gathering spots. Dave and Julie Liss Miller ('88) recently expanded and relocated Dave's Taverna, where townsfolk and Madison clientele rub elbows to partake of Greek fare and London club atmosphere. 

Calhoun's - an '80s bar and jazz club opened on Court Square by alumnus Craig Moore ('86) - closed when Moore opened the upscale Joshua Wilton House, but a new Calhoun's Restaurant once again thrives on Court Square.

In the '70s, Luigi's Pizza opened where Kinko's stands today on South Main Street. Luigi's has been on South High Street since the early '80s, says Auburn Mann ('89), who owns it with alumnus Chris Fulcher and Daily Planet musician Bob White. Regular crowds enjoy the pizza, sandwiches, beer, a ceiling Elvis, guitar wall hangings and hip-high booths.

The Little Grill has stood on North Main for about 70 years, but it was in the '80s that students started discovering its poetry readings, social outreach, velvet Bob Dylan and veggie dishes such as "Go Ask Alice." It's been alumni-owned since 1985 - first by Driver, now by a cooperative that includes recent owners Melanie ('90) and Ron Copeland ('91).

Since the 1930s, Madison students have sought out Harrisonburg haunts to satisfy their hunger for off-campus socializing. These hot spots have induced them with burgers, pizza and pitchers as well as more refined house specialties and kept them coming back with pop fare ranging from jukebox rock to live Top 40 to poetry. What gathering spots will make future JMU alumni nostalgic for the 'Burg? The answer awaits new student generations' tastes for food, tunes and good times.