In April 1992, when U.S. prosecutors won the conviction of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega on drug and racketeering charges, there was but one place they would ever consider going to celebrate: Tobacco Road, for years their office’s Friday night haunt, and which might be, or might not be, the oldest bar in Miami.
The feds closeted themselves in the famous upstairs room, where early Miamians gambled and drank illegal liquor and later some of the greatest American blues performers rocked and rolled on a floor so ramshackle it actually shook. With the press barricaded outside, the prosecutors carried on in boisterous fashion.
That’s when the phone rang at the bar downstairs, recalls long-time Tobacco Road co-owner Patrick Gleber. It was the White House of President George H.W. Bush, who had invaded Panama to grab Noriega, calling to congratulate the winning team.
Not many dive bars have occasion to field phone calls from the White House. But that’s the kind of place Tobacco Road is, or, rather, was: A narrow cavern, just 22 feet wide, where vagrants rubbed shoulders with celebrities, cops, lawyers and lawbreakers in a convivial atmosphere of grungy, forbearing decorum, and where very little that happened — and lots happened — surprised anyone.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
At Tobacco Road, which hosts its final hurrah Saturday night, equal treatment was the rule. Status and privilege got checked at the door.
An overzealous doorman, Jerry Berlin, once sent supermodel Cindy Crawford back to her limo to dig up ID. Another time a naked man seeking admission was sent away with, depending on who’s telling the story, a polite admonition: “Sir, we have a cover charge.” Or, “Sorry,we have a dress code.”
Much, much more than just another bar, the Tobacco Road building in its numerous incarnations has been a vital link to Miami’s topsy-turvy history — to its early development, the freewheeling days of Prohibition, its steep decline in the 1960s and ’70s as Miamians fled for the ‘burbs, and to the bar’s own golden age in the 1980s and ’90s as one of the country’s premier blues and roots-rock venues.
For 30 years, the downstairs belonged to the beloved house band, Iko-Iko, whose amalgam of blues and New Orleans swamp music, played on a tiny corner stage, won it a national rep.
“It’s like someone’s died,’’ said Iko-Iko’s leader, Graham Wood Drout, of Tobacco Road’s closing. “I’ve gone through all the stages — grief, anger, resignation, all of it.’’
If authenticity and longevity seem suddenly in short supply in Miami, there will be another precipitous drop in that quotient when Tobacco Road wraps it up for good at the usual closing time of 5 a.m. Sunday, a victim of the massive wave of glitzy development that’s burying the last remnants of a rough, colorful riverside district with its origins in the city’s earliest days.
Developers who purchased the Road’s 99-year-old building and most of the surrounding block from Gleber and his partners for $12.5 million have a permit to demolish, but have submitted no plans for what would replace it. Longtime employees got Gleber’s blessing to open a new Tobacco Road at an old electrical shop building at the rear of the block — God bless ’em and good luck with that — but few think it could ever be quite the same, even if they pull off what seems a long shot.
“The building is very important and it will never be duplicated,’” said Mark Weiser, the lavishly bearded “longhair” — his word — who booked acts at the Road for 25 years. “There was something about the molecules in the wood. They realigned after 100 years. There’s a big difference between a plank that’s 100 years and one you pick up at Home Depot. That’s what Tobacco Road was made of. Old Dade County pine. I think that had a lot to do with it.”
When the building goes, it will take with it a long, near-mythical history of sometimes sordid misbehavior and illegality, police raids and drug busts, much of it actually true.
Though now it can be told: The Tobacco Road everyone knows and loves is nowhere near 100 years old. That’s a fable that Gleber and his founding partners, Kevin Rusk and Michael Latterner, have gleefully embellished since buying what was then a dump in a scary, dangerous neighborhood in 1982.
Tobacco Road really dates to the late 1970s, when an ex-cop named Neil Katzman bought a long-lived bar known as the Chanticleer and, later, Shandiclere, according to extensive research by Miami-History.com blogger Casey Piket.
Katzman baptized it Tobacco Road, reviving a name — after the novel by Erskine Caldwell — that the bar held only briefly in the early 1940s. The original Road was shut down for “lewd behavior,” apparently of the same-sex variety, in a notorious police raid, Piket recounts on his blog.
And the business about holding the city’s first liquor license, supposedly issued in 1912? Baloney, says Miami historian Paul George. There were plenty of bars in Miami before that, he said. In any case, the building didn’t even exist until 1915, according to Miami-Dade County records — and by then the city had barred the sale and consumption of alcohol, a ban that would not be lifted until the end of Prohibition in 1933.
The truth is far more prosaic. For the first 20-plus years of its existence, city records show the two-story, wood-frame building at 636 South Miami Avenue was a home and a bakery, part of the first commercial strip to be built south of the Miami River, Piket said. It wasn’t until later that someone put a masonry front on the building, today painted in the familiar sickly Tobacco Road green.
The building wouldn’t be listed as a licensed bar in city directories until 1938, when it appears for the first time as the South Side Bar, though there’s little question an illegal speakeasy operated upstairs at some earlier point, Piket said. Shelving behind a door held a hidden compartment for liquor bottles.
George said Gleber and his partners were canny to capitalize on the building’s grotty atmosphere and vivid history at a time when few people dared venture into the neighborhood, by day or night.
“It’s the lore every city has,’’ George said. “These guys were young, and it became an instant hit. The people who convened there were also young, and the beer was cheap, and they liked the grittiness of it. It feels like it’s been around forever.’’
The partners gradually fixed and cleaned the place up, turning the bar into a safe haven even as the occasional drive-by shooting in the early years still sent people scurrying inside. But Gleber and Drout said the element of danger was always part of the appeal.
“It was the perfect time in Miami. Nobody messed with us,’’ Gleber said. “Tobacco Road always had this edge. You had to be very comfortable in your skin to come in to Tobacco Road.’’
To be sure, Tobacco Road is, under whatever name, the oldest extant bar in Miami, and neck-and neck for title of oldest in the county with Mac’s Club Deuce in Miami Beach, which also opened as soon as Prohibition was lifted, according to owner Mac Klein — who, by the way, really is 100 years old. The Deuce will now reign alone.
Not that all that stuff really matters so much now.
What really matters — the building, the history, the intimacy, the stories, the music, the smoke, the furtive sex, fused into Dade County pine and ground in with decades of spilled sweat and beer into the floorboards — will be dust and memories.
Like the legendary night when Koko Taylor, late Queen of the Blues, was on stage upstairs when the power went out mid-set. Someone found an acoustic guitar, and she sang by candlelight in the stifling heat.
The memory still “raises the hairs on the back of my neck’’ recalled Drout, the Iko-Iko leader, who counts it as one of the best musical performances he’s heard, and he figures he’s seen thousands.
The greats often seemed to enjoy playing the dank upstairs as much as the audiences who packed the room, so close to the musicians you could see the sweat roll down their lips. That was never more true than the night Sun Ra’s avant-garde swing jazz big band -- around 20 strong -- led dozens of audience members in a snaking dance around the cramped room.
John Lee Hooker played the room four times. It wasn’t just for the money, which wasn’t much. In those days, many bluesmen and women were happy to play for around $1,000 on a Thursday night, Weiser said.
“We were there at the right time. We were able to bring these musical legends in. Lucky for us they were undervalued. We never made a fortune, either. But the people that did come would fill the room,’’ Weiser said. “To see these musicians so close, that’s a special thing that didn’t exist anywhere else.’’
Weiser and Gleber helped rediscover forgotten performers and brought them new audiences. When Diamond Teeth Mary McClain, half-sister of ur-blueswoman Bessie Smith, came out of retirement at an advanced age, she became a regular Tobacco Road performer.
So did W.C. Baker and his band, veteran Miami blues musicians who had been relegated to playing steakhouses. Their extended Tobacco Road residency in the mid-1980s became such a must-see that every star who happened to be in Miami dropped by.
By the late 1990s, as the last of the old blues greats died off, so did Tobacco Road’s stature as a venue for national and regional acts. Regulars aged and business leveled off, and competition nearby ratcheted up with the development of West Brickell, though the Road could still pack them in for special occasions.
But the old building faced severe maintenance issues and, with access and parking issues caused by construction of the mammoth Brickell City Centre across the street, the Road was losing money, Gleber said.
“Tobacco Road was the people. It was the employees. It was the musicians,’’ Gleber said. “Am I going to miss the building? Yes. When we took over 30 years ago, nobody would have given a rat’s ass if they tore it down. What made it great? Everyone who walked in the door made it great.’’
MiamiHerald writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report.