THE BEER PARLOR

Okay, children, tuck yourselves into bed while grandpa tells you why he still enjoys that bottle of beer.   It all began when I was young. But let’s ignore the 1950’s and move onto the early 1960’s, a time when, I have to say, drinking beer was an enjoyable experience.

You children know when your Mommy and Daddy take you with them to the pub, it’s a fun experience. People laughing, walking around, having a bite to eat, watching the game on TV, trying out new beers and wines and non-alcoholic drinks for you. All in all, a fun experience.

But, things were VERY, VERY different in the 1960’s. When I tell you just how different, you’ll think I’m from another planet, that the world you know has nothing in common with the world I describe. Yet, trust me, little ones, it was the same world and it should tell you just how much one thing can change in a very short period of time.

Let’s set the stage. Edmonton, 1964.   I was young, fresh out of college, single, and fortunate to have a wide circle of friends.   And what these friends and I did – all too frequently you might think – was drink beer. And our preferred venue was NOT a pub (new Canadians from the British Isles would try using that term but were quickly corrected) but at an establishment called a BEER PARLOR.  In fact, the BEER PARLOR was pretty much the only public place to drink in those days.  I should add that we played the usual sports, softball, basketball, hockey, touch football, and volleyball (okay, curling, too) but when the game was over, we drank beer. We all had jobs and worked hard. When 5:00 came around chances were we went for a beer.   At the BEER PARLOR.

The beer parlor was always situated in a hotel. Don’t ask me why but it probably had something to do with the lobbying influence of the hotel industry.   And the beer parlors were big, much bigger than the pubs of today. Our favorite beer parlor was the Kingsway Hotel and it sat upwards of 400 people. Even the small hotel beer parlors had seating for 200 patrons or more.   The BIG beer parlors in Edmonton were – besides the Kingsway – the Corona, the Riviera, the Izba in the MacDonald Hotel, the King Eddy and the Prince George. Smaller beer parlors included the Cecil, the Grand, the Lincoln, the Strathcona, the Park, the St. Regis, the Mayfair, the Jasper, The Dover, the Cromdale, the New Edmonton, the York, the Transit, the New West, the Selkirk, the Yale, the Drake, and probably a few more I’ve forgotten. A few, notably the York and the New Edmonton, were rough places where carrying a cosh of some sort was considered a more or less sane preventative measure. Anyway, if you were a beer drinker, there was no shortage of venues (If your tastes ran to scotch or rum, it wasn’t so easy. More about that later).

Not long before 1964, it was impossible to drink a beer in the company of a woman unless the beer parlor had a separate “Ladies and Escorts” section.   Mercifully this law had been scrapped.

Still, the consumption of beer was a singular exercise.   A patron ordered whatever beer was on tap (one kind only) and it came to him in 2 glasses of approximately 7 ounces each and costing 10 cents each.    No one ever asked what brand or type of beer it was. It was just beer. Some patrons ordered “two and a juice” or beer with a glass of tomato juice. Mixing the two was reputed to help with a hangover. (Beer parlors also served wine but in all those early years of regular attendance at beer parlors, I never saw anyone order a glass and have no idea what kind it might have been, probably the cheap swill we used to call “porch climber”, a vile concoction imbibed only if after-shave lotion was considered the next best alternative.

Standing up to drink beer was not allowed. Sit down, boy, and stay there. The patron was not allowed to sing or dance at any time. The tables were small and round with a terry-towel tops and ashtrays (people could smoke anywhere back then, especially in a car or place of work). If a group wanted to put two or more tables together, they’d better ask permission or risk being ejected. And, if a patron did get tossed for any reason, he likely had to ask permission to ever be able to return. For some reason, the hotels had a long memory for misbehavior. (A seldom recalled legal quirk of the times was the so-called “Interdict List”. A throwback to 19th century England, this was a way to ban people who abused alcohol or were deemed a public danger. Ostensibly enacted to protect the family – a wife whose husband habitually overdrank could apply to have him placed on the Interdict List – it was broadened to be used as a way to keep Aboriginal people away from alcohol. Here it was used so commonly as to become known at the Indian Act).

A patron could not eat in a beer parlor. No food was sold in a beer parlor. The beer parlor sold beer; the patron’s job was to drink it. There were no television sets hanging from the walls, no radios giving weather reports. It sounds very austere, but the act of gathering with friends for a social evening drinking beer, easily managed to overcome the bleak ambience.

Oh, and here’s a really interesting wrinkle to having a beer in 1964. When the clock struck 6:30 pm (if a patron didn’t get there until, say, 5:30, this was one of the fastest hours he ever experienced), everyone was asked to vacate the place and go home for dinner. The beer parlor would re-open at 7:30.   Alberta’s fundamentalist government wanted to make sure its beer drinkers lived up to their familial responsibilities.

When a patron returned to drink, he sat, reasonably quietly, until 11:00, at which time last call went out and the place cleared by midnight.   Understandably, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays were the busiest. On Sundays, EVERYTHING in town shut down. (Thursdays, because in Edmonton, retail shops were allowed to remain open until 9:00 pm, instead of the prescribed 6:00 pm.   Downtown beer parlors were jammed on Thursdays – except for the Cecil Hotel whose down-at-the-heels patrons were repelled by the thought of using beer money to actually shop.) A typical scene at any time was a throng of inebriated beer drinkers ordering beer by the tray (“Bring us a round. Yeah, 30 beers should do it!”), brought by a weathered waiter who had worked for the hotel for years. Unless a patron wanted to be ignored all evening, he tipped the waiter after every round with 2 glasses of beer (occasionally money but beer was easier). The waiter would quickly duck behind a post or wall and, lest his boss see him, polish off both glasses in less than 5 seconds.   This skill of drinking quickly was almost universal among waiters and just as universally admired by the patrons. We regularly commented, “How, after all those “tips” could that waiter stay on his feet, much less balance a tray of 30 glasses of beer?”

Beer drinking was a cash business. There were no credit cards, no debit cards, and definitely no tabs being run. When the tray of beer appeared at your table, you paid with coin of the realm.

Of course, every beer parlor had its bouncer. As one can imagine in those concentrated drinking venues, fights were not uncommon, although it must be said, not as common as one would first think. The bouncer at the Kingsway was a big amiable ex-football player who came from Minnesota in the early fifties to play in the Canadian Football League.   His unique bouncer technique began with the fact that he did not like fights and liked breaking them up even less. At the first sign of trouble, he would wade in and attempt to disarm the combatants with friendly banter and jokes, hoping his size would give them pause for thought.   But, if this failed and fighting did break out, he would turn HIS BACK to the fight and, with arms spread wide, urge everyone to remain calm and stand back. This left the two fighters to wear themselves out or stumble outside where the battle became someone else’s problem. Strangely, it was a fairly effective style. Not to mention a good way to avoid getting hurt.

When a young man and his friends finally called it a night, they walked to their cars and drove home. Alcohol levels were often well beyond the now-unacceptable 0.08. (Or is it now 0.06?) Drunk drivers in Edmonton after 10:00 pm were as common as street lights. I make no apologies for this. It was simply the way things were. Just as a lot of people used to smoke. (As an empirically-researched aside, it seems to me that avoidable auto mishaps and the incidence of cancers are no less today. I could be wrong.)

I hope you’re beginning to appreciate just some of the huge changes any senior in his seventies has witnessed. Don’t get us started on computers. Or cars. Or clothing. Or television. Or . . . um, maybe I’ll leave that alone.

As bizarre as this public drinking scene may seem now, buying liquor for private consumption was even more of a head-shaker.   The sale of liquor was limited to the ALCB (Alberta Liquor Control Board), and their network of government-owned and operated liquor stores.   These stores were, deliberately, scarce, as befitted a powerful blue nose community in Alberta. Hours were limited – usually 10:30 to 5:30 Monday to Saturday.   Each store generally had a long L-shaped counter along the back wall and one side wall. In the public area were a number of stand-up desks upon which were lists of the liquors and beers carried and their sizes and prices. Small pads and pens were provided.   The buyer perused the list, wrote down the items he wanted, THEN PRINTED AND SIGNED HIS NAME! (what the ALCB did with this information is unknown. I habitually signed as Stan Mikita, then star forward for the Chicago Blackhawks.) This was handed to a cashier who double-checked the calculations and took the money. The buyer now moved to the other L-half where a uniformed staff of order-fillers took the slip and retrieved the order. Beer was sold in cardboard boxes holding one dozen bottles (no cans). Liquor was sold in 26 ounce bottles or 13 ounce “mickeys”.   As befits any organization with more demand than supply outlets and a true bureaucratic disdain for customer service, Saturday afternoons and holiday eves were occasions for long line-ups (An interesting aside was the government’s belief that vodka, being colorless and odorless, was a threat to decent society and, consequently, its sale was outlawed.)

In 1964, liquor lounges as they were called. were beginning to pop up around town and signalled a sea change in the way people entertained themselves. Up to this point, chinese restaurants were popular eating places, not only for their food, but for their tolerance for patrons bringing their own brown-bagged bottle to the table and asking for glasses.  The emergence of liquor lounges began with establishments like the Golden Door on101 street, the Paddock on 188th avenue next to the Cromdale Hotel, the Toby Jug in the basement of Ciro’s Restaurant on Jasper Avenue and 103 street and a few others, mostly in the hotels. Within a short time, dancing venues appeared like the roof of the Caravan Hotel on 103 st and 100 ave, and the Embers on 106 street south of Jasper. Then came the motif lounges like the Beachcomber on 100 st. north of Jasper and the Steak Loft on Jasper and 100 st. Edmonton was finally coming of age, alcohol-wise.

Still, it was the beer parlors that defined the times. As the decade wore on, newer and bigger beer parlors appeared in new hotels like the Edmonton Inn and the Rosslyn and the Sands.   Many of the smaller hotels disappeared, victims of a rapidly-changing marketplace.

But for those of us who lived it, the cries of “Bring us another round!” and “Two and a juice!” will always resonate.

Ah, I see the little tykes have fallen asleep.   Exciting stories like this will do it every time.   Eat your heart out, “Princess Bride”.

Robert Alan Davidson

July, 2016

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