On any given night at the Ritz Cafe, Don Groover might be playing the guitar or Johnny Hoy could be wailing on the floor. One of them might invite Sabrina Leuning up to belt out a tune if she’s in the house. And when the crowd gets going, between asking for whiskey sours or whatever beer is on tap, the floor begins to bounce with the pulse of dancers.
The Ritz is a true neighborhood bar — a dark, honky-tonk blues joint that’s a little rough around the edges, but that’s just how regulars like it.
But after owning the Ritz since 1967, Janet King, along with her four siblings, is selling the Circuit avenue institution at the end of the month. A last call party is scheduled for Saturday night.
“It amazes me how people feel about the Ritz,” Ms. King said in an interview Thursday morning at the Ritz. Bar stools were neatly tucked under the countertop, tables and chairs arranged. “I’ve always let everyone in from 21 to 87. Where other places are strictly for more of the young people or older crowd, everybody comes here and I love that.”
Ms. King has signed a purchase and sale agreement with a buyer from Texas whose name is not yet known, but who is said to have Vineyard ties. She hands over the keys June 23, at which point the bar will close for a few days for painting and small renovations. It will reopen by July 4, according to plan.
But first there’s a party to attend to. On Saturday, the last call party will begin at 3 p.m. and carry into the night. Musicians are invited to stop by and play a set. There will be food, and, of course, drink.
“It used to be a lot of fun, I had lots of energy, enough energy to keep going until 2 a.m.,” Ms. King reflected. “It’s too late for me now; I need to get some sleep.”
She said she hopes the music tradition continues. The new owners are fans of the music scene at the Ritz and “the local aspect of the whole business,” Ms. King said. “They’re going to keep it pretty much the way it’s been all along.”
The building at the bottom of Circuit avenue was built in 1930 and was originally a fish market and apothecary. Then it was a fruit and sweets shop, an ice cream parlor and the Topside Package Store. In 1944, Richard L. Pease opened the Ritz Cafe. Herbert A. Combra Jr. ran the cafe for four years until he sold it to Ms. King’s stepfather, Arthur Pachico, in 1967.
Ms. King began working at the bar as soon as she was old enough. When Mr. Pachico died in 1986, she decided to carry on the family business. Her siblings Chrissy Arenberg and Steven Pachico also help manage the bar.
When Ms. King took over, she turned her attention to the music scene in Oak Bluffs.
“The music is the greatest thing here, we have the best music,” she smiled. “The Island has a really wonderful musician base. It’s incredible to watch them.”
Over the years the likes of Mike Benjamin, Barbara Hoy, Second Power, Pinto Abrams, Mark Grandfield, Susan Tedeschi and Maynard Silva have played there. Johnny Hoy summed it up best in his song Little Red Door:
Hey, Janet, want to dance?
She’s the queen of the Ritz
She’s the judge and the jury,
with a smile on her lips.
But when you walk through that door, boy
you best behave
‘Cause they got a fate worse
than death down there -
she could bar you for life.”
Don’t bother asking for a blended drink; cash is preferred. Ms. King’s drink of choice?
“Maker’s Mark in the winter and rum in the summer,” she said.
Hand-written signs advertise the latest additions to the bar menu — hard cider and a note of apology: “PBR is now $3.50, sorry.”
The glow of one of three cigarette machines in town bounces off the dark walls in the far corner, even in the mid-morning light. Cigarettes are $10 a pack. Ms. King remembers when the bar would be the first stop for some at 9:30 a.m.
“All the working guys, the same guys every morning, would start their day at the Ritz and they’d go off to work,” she said.
The bar now opens around 11:30. Last call is at 1 a.m. Bar stories and lore abound.
“The stories that go with the Ritz start when I was very young, I can tell some crazy stories,” Ms. King said. She offered one that took place in the mid 1980s.
“There was a guy who passed through here, a big guy, who came in in the summer,” she said. “He made friends with everybody and drew caricature pictures. He drew them of all of us. He made friends with a few of the local people, and one in particular. They would drink together then they would end up standing on either end of the bar floor and would run together and butt their heads. On one particular day, they ate a piece of raw meat together.”
A picture of the late, legendary Johnny Seaview, lasso over his shoulder and a Stetson squarely on his head, hangs off the banister. Ms. King said a couple of women came into the bar the other day and began taking pictures of themselves next to the picture. When their husbands came in, they were thrilled to show off the photos.
“One of the women said, look we’re getting our picture taken with George Bush,” she laughed. “I would give anything to have Johnny Seaview alive to tell him people think he was George Bush.”
Then there are stories about the Chili Fest, parties for horse races and annual Halloween fetes.
“All of us had different things we could tell,” she said.
Corralling the late night crowd out of the bar always takes effort. Janet King won’t take no for an answer.
“Getting people out of here was always a challenge,” she said. “You try to do it nicely. Sometimes I dream that I’m getting people out. Recently I had a horrendous dream of trying to get them out, I’ve done it many, many times over the years.”
The music is booked for the season, the bar is stocked for the nights ahead and photographs are flooding in of good times at the Ritz. Ms. King may continue to tend bar over the summer, but that’s still to be determined. When she finally does go, she said she’ll miss the people and the music the most.
“On a good night, I sit here and listen when everyone is happy and the music is great, it’s so nice,” she said. “Now I’ll get to come in here and just sit and listen.”