Some time in the mid-1970s, waiter Larry Behnke pinned a large sheet of paper to the bulletin board that hung in the kitchen of the Del Rio Bar. Behnke, also an artist, had written at the top in bold, psychedelic lettering: “What the Del Rio Means to Me.”
After a few days the sheet was filled with responses, ranging from the thoughtful to the droll to the pitiable – with some that were just plain wacky.
“A nice corner bar that suffers from delusions of grandeur.”
“A place where you get paid to have fun, where you can be crazy without being committed, and where customers and employees are more important than money.”
“It’s my substitute home where people are nice to me.”
“The Del Rio means a million things to me, which I refuse to limit to the narrowness of words and the confines of space.”
“The Del Rio is benevolent despotism.”
Probably a majority of Ann Arborites never walked through the door of the funky old saloon that used to sit at the northeast corner of Ashley and Washington. But for plenty of those who did, the Del Rio was more than just a bar. It was a state of mind, a way of life, a second home – a tiny world unto itself.
Born of the idealistic spirit of the late 1960s, the Del Rio was a combination bohemian sanctuary and bold socioeconomic experiment that somehow survived racketeers, recessions, and Reaganism to become a three-decade-plus Ann Arbor tradition whose passing in 2004 is still mourned by many.
Here now to help assuage those feelings of loss is “Liberty, Equality, Consensus and All That Jazz at the Del Rio Bar,” a history of the idiosyncratic watering hole published this month by Huron River Press. The book is a dream-come-true for all those longing to return to their favorite old hippie hangout – if only for a time, and only in their minds. But even those who never set foot inside the Del Rio will find it an absorbing read.
The book’s primary author is Ernie Harburg, one of three partners who founded the Del Rio nearly 40 years ago. But as Harburg freely acknowledges, he had “a little help from his friends” – especially Larry Behnke, an authentic Ann Arbor hippie who worked at the Del from 1972 to 1983, and for six years lived in a 1969 Chevy Step-Van that was often parked by the back door of the bar.
During his stint at the Del Rio, Behnke kept a regular journal. “After work I would usually write a page about the night’s events,” he says. “I felt like the historian of the place.” Later he turned his voluminous journal entries into an anecdotal chronicle of the bar. The resulting manuscript was never published, but Ernie Harburg has included a healthy crop of excerpts in “Consensus.” Behnke’s appealing and often amusing yarns add an extra dimension to Harburg’s more journalistic approach, making the book something of an artful mélange – much like its colorful subject.
Mirroring Ann Arbor
The story of the Del Rio is in many ways the story of the transformation of Ann Arbor from the heterogeneous, real-world community of yesteryear to the gentrified yuppie playground of today. In the late ’60s, the small business district west of Main Street was a rough-and-tumble working-class neighborhood where violence and vice were part of the everyday routine. Ernie Harburg remembers that, in the first year or so that he was operating the Del, he could read a book by the flashing lights of police cars.
But the arrival of three classy new bars – Mr. Flood’s Party, the Del Rio, and the Blind Pig – in the early ’70s would begin to change all that. Mr. Flood’s was opened in the summer of 1969 by youth-savvy entrepreneurs Ned Duke and Robert “Buddy” Jack, and the arty décor and live jazz, country, and blues music soon attracted a different sort of crowd – younger, hipper – and wealthier.
A year later came the Del Rio. Ernie Harburg, his wife Victoria (“Torry”), and friend Rick Burgess bought an existing blue-collar bar of the same name and proceeded with an extreme makeover. Out was the Naugahyde and Formica; in were antique wooden tables and chairs and the original brick walls. Out was the yellowed drop-panel ceiling; in was the elegant hundred-year-old pressed-tin ceiling that had lain hidden underneath. Out was the ’50s-era jukebox; in was a state-of-the-art sound system and an eclectic collection of hundreds and hundreds of homemade eight-track tapes, from Charlie Parker to the Beatles to Bach. And every Sunday night, Rick Burgess and others would play live jazz – at no charge.
Despite the mighty effort, however, success would not come overnight to the new and improved Del Rio. It would take time before the crew cuts made way for the longhairs. Plus, there were all the usual difficulties involved in starting up a new business venture. Such as the disastrous choice the partners made for the bar’s first manager, who had previously managed Mr. Flood’s. He was there for only a short time during the first year, and was hired because neither Burgess nor Harburg knew management, recalls Larry Behnke. But he didn’t bother to pay taxes or keep accurate books, Behnke says, and almost killed the new bar.
A New Way of Managing
Ironically, however, it was this debacle that paved the way for what was perhaps the Del Rio’s most distinguishing feature: management by consensus. When that first manager was let go, managerial duties were assumed by the rank-and-file workers, who eventually came to the conclusion that there didn’t need to be a manager. The owners agreed, and turned the day-to-day running of the bar over to the employees. Eventually this would evolve into management by consensus, with owners and employees having equal say.
It was not an arrangement that the Harburgs and Burgess entered into lightly. The Del Rio was like a family; and they vowed to abide by the family’s decisions, even if it didn’t always go their way.
Luckily – and perhaps a little surprisingly – the system turned out to work exceedingly well. The mostly young, nonconformist workers created the sort of environment they felt most comfortable in, which also happened to be a powerful attraction for the younger, hipper crowd that was starting to frequent the Main Street area.
Take as an example the relaxed attitude toward drug use during the Del Rio’s early years. This was a consequence of the time (the swinging ’70s) and the place (back then Ann Arbor was known to some as “the drug capital of the Midwest”) as well as the managerial power wielded by the staff. And it wasn’t only the customers who were high – often it was the employees, too.
“If our evening shift began at 7 p.m.,” recalls former waiter Larry Behnke, “we would all gather at the wait station and do a shot of tequila together at 9 p.m. By 10 or later we would gather at the pizza oven exhaust vent to share a joint.”
“I can remember only a couple of times when someone came to work tripping on acid,” he adds, “but we discouraged that because the customer would get poor or no service. We could give great, happy service when we were buzzed on pot or beer, since our customers were similarly altered. It was like we were all partying together.”
At one point Behnke worked with an editor from New York on his Del Rio manuscript. “She didn’t believe we functioned as well as we did, considering all the weed and booze and acid we consumed.”
Although in general the owners shared the workers’ lack of concern with regard to drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, and even LSD – as long as it didn’t get out of hand – they took a “hard line on hard drugs” (as a notice posted in the bar was titled). Anyone involved with hard drugs like cocaine or heroin on the premises would be banned from the Del Rio. In this the employee-managers were in (mostly) complete agreement with the owners.
But consensus didn’t always work perfectly. It was very difficult to fire anyone, because the employees were reluctant to take such drastic steps against one of their own, even when someone was caught outright with a hand in the cookie jar. Ernie Harburg also remembers one instance in particular where he feels that collective governance worked against the common good.
“I was deeply frustrated that we were unable to reach consensus about forbidding smoking in the bar,” he says, “because half of the staff smoked.” This included Harburg’s wife Torry. After much debate the group did agree to get rid of the cigarette machine and establish a small non-smoking section. But on the whole Harburg still feels that the battle over smoking represents a failure of the consensual decision-making process. That failure must have been all the more painful when Torry passed away in 1981 from lung cancer.
There were also other problems with the Del Rio’s lack of management. While it contributed greatly to the laid-back atmosphere that many Ann Arborites loved, it could also make the bar seem cliquish to infrequent patrons, and would sometimes turn workers and customers into adversaries. For instance, bartenders had absolute control over the music, both in what was played and how loud. No one – not even the owners – could force them to change either.
But in most respects the Del Rio’s system of collective management was quite successful. Compare, for instance, the traditional way that bars have dealt with troublemakers to the method employed at the Del. Instead of a bouncer instigating a confrontation that could lead to violence, the communally-minded staff (occasionally joined by a few customers) would all gather round the miscreants and quietly order them to go. Not even the toughest muscle-bound, bar-hopping badass could bear the disapproving stares of so many people for long. The rowdies would soon leave, almost always peacefully.
As the years passed and the countercultural scene faded away, the Del Rio kept as close to its hippie roots as was possible during the Reagan-led return to conservatism and materialism that epitomized the ’80s and ’90s. Ann Arbor was changing – whether for the better is open to debate – and the Del resisted as best it could. As Harburg explains in his book: “The local downtown restaurant and bar scene grew, with most of the newcomers part of a national chain. But the Del – defiantly true to its unconventional underpinnings – stayed open, holding a sort of monopoly on the glory days.”
Over the decades the Del Rio had acquired a loyal group of followers – “an irreverent, bohemian mix of artists, poets, musicians and working folk,” wrote Laura McReynolds in a 1994 Ann Arbor News article, “who don’t simply frequent the place, they help define it” – and became something of a local institution. Those who weren’t so into the free-spirited atmosphere would go for the fresh, cheap, and flavorful food. One of the Del’s offerings even earned a measure of national recognition. The Washington Post once rated the Detburger – named after its inventor, Bob Detwiler, who worked at the bar in the early ’70s – as one of the 20 best burgers in the nation.
The Detburger was really just a well-made cheeseburger covered with pizza toppings, but with one all-important difference: the patty was steamed in beer. Celebrity chef Sara Moulton has demonstrated the preparation of a slightly-enhanced Detburger on television, and included the recipe in her book “Sara’s Secrets for Weeknight Meals.” Moulton’s passion for the Detburger comes as no surprise to those who know that she worked at the Del in the early to mid-’70s when she was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.
Despite the popularity of its unique fare, however, the Del Rio would ultimately succumb to the pressure to be profitable. Ironically, it seems as though it was management by consensus that was the major contributor to the bar’s downfall. By the turn of the twenty-first-century, competition had become so fierce that the owners felt a major change was in order – including a switch to a more traditional management system.
“The bar’s operation as a collective no longer seemed feasible,” writes Harburg in “Consensus.” “In years past, a few dedicated employees had always emerged as informal leaders. But over the past decade, this had happened less and less frequently. Most of the employees of the ’90s lacked the idealism of earlier workers and weren’t committed to a collective.”
When the switch finally came, however, the owners discovered that the current crop of employees were in fact very committed to the concept of communal governance. Not only did several veteran workers quickly resign, many of those who left (or were fired) formed into picket lines that marched the sidewalk in front of the bar. The owners, all well into their 70s, decided that they simply didn’t have the time or energy to cope with this latest crisis. When no buyers could be found, the Del Rio closed its doors for good, following a gala last-night celebration that went on into the wee hours of January 1, 2004.
But the legacy of the Del stretches on, in the lives of the people that worked and played there. “It helped me to follow my dreams,” says Larry Behnke, who today lives out the ultimate hippie fantasy – a geodesic dome home powered entirely by solar electricity – on 20 wooded acres in northern Florida, which he purchased with money saved while working at the Del Rio. “It gave credence to our being happily unconventional.”
Editor’s note: Ernie Harburg will be in town to sign copies of his new book on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Book Festival. The event will be held at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, 2935 Birch Hollow Drive.
About the writer: Alan Glenn is currently at work on a documentary film about Ann Arbor in the ’60s. Visit the film’s website for more information.