Good Times, New Times at the Historic Pastime Bar
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
One of the truly unique things about Leadville is that its history is still very much alive. It’s not fabricated, or imitated, or re-created. The same brick buildings that once saw such notables as Doc Holliday, Horace Tabor and the Unsinkable Molly Brown cross their thresholds, are still standing. You can walk right into those same old saloons, and order up a beer and a burger, in the very spot that these Leadville Legends once stood.
So it’s important to note that a new chapter is being written in the history books of The Pastime Bar & Cafe at 120 W. 2nd Street in Leadville. And if history repeats itself – as it has over and over again in this legendary mining town – the odds are favorable that the last operating business from Leadville’s notorious Red Light District on old State Street will continue to shine its neon lights, beckoning folks in for good times.
This Thursday, Dec. 31, at the stroke of midnight, as party-goers ring in the New Year, the Pastime will officially change hands from Roy Seme, to Dawn Todd and Nathan Fisher. Congratulations! And as tradition would have it, in such a town as this, there’s a big party planned. But before you hear about the new plans, it seems good order to take a look back.
Chapter One: The Beginning
For anyone who enjoys a bit of entertainment with their suds and spuds, the Pastime Bar was unmatched at the height of Leadville’s rebel-rouser days. When the joint first opened back in 1878, it was a dance hall and gambling saloon on infamous State Street (now 2nd Street), the former Red Light District. The Pastime’s early history cites different names and owners for the business, among them Maxey Tabor, son of Horace Tabor.
In 1879, it was known as the Atheneum Theater. In those early days, it was considered the most popular, the most spectacular amphitheater in Leadville. During this short-lived entertainment craze, theaters offered physical endurance contests – male and female running and walking matches. The races, prize fights, and wrestling bouts were often special Sunday afternoon features. At the Atheneum, one of the most popular acts was a trapeze artist trundling a wheelbarrow back and forth across a tight rope, which hung directly over the heads of patrons, enjoying the merriment below.
And while the new owners are more likely to continue with the dollar-bills-stuck-to-the-ceiling tradition (ask when you visit) to honor the bar’s heritage, they also plan to bring some new flavors to the historic cafe.
“I’ve always wanted to be a chef, to have a restaurant where I can cook some of my famous BBQ,” said Fisher who hails from Michigan, but has lived in Leadville for 8 years and currently works in the flood and fire restoration business. “So when the conversation came up with Roy (Seme) to buy the Pastime, we were like ‘Yes, let’s talk!’”
Chapter Two: Good Times on Old State Street
Since the 1920s, The Pastime has been characterized by owners who did not buy and sell overnight, riding out the ups and downs of business in Leadville. During the Camp Hale days (1942+), Army officials had declared State Street off limits, due to its lingering reputation. This made it perfect for local folks looking to find an uncrowded place for dining, drinking, and dancing, especially on Saturday night.
Over the years, old State Street was plagued by a series of fires, taking a building or two at a time, until most of the old bordello and gambling halls vanished into history. The early 1950s brought the last great fire to the street, leaving only The Pastime and The Pioneer, located next door, which presently operates as a condominium complex.
But if there’s any kind of fire that the new owners need to be concerned about, it’ll be from the heat coming off the BBQ smoker, trying to keep up with the demand for Nate’s famous BBQ. Even the smoker itself is one-of-a-kind, made locally by Mike Abeyta.
So what can BBQ aficionados look forward to? Nate’s BBQ will be dry rubbed with those special flavors smoked right into the meat. Fisher has family recipes that he has been perfecting since he was a young boy. Those seasonings will be rubbed into the same first class Scanga beef and pork that Pastime regulars have come to expect. So look for some brisket, pulled pork, and beef back ribs on the rack, in addition to those famous Pastime burgers.
As for BBQ sauces, Fisher has three recipes that diners can add – to their liking – at the table: a green chili sauce, Nate’s famous BBQ sauce, plus a slightly hotter version of that same recipe, which Fisher kicks up with some cayenne pepper and of course, a couple of secret ingredients.
If it’s making your mouth water, then head down to The Pastime this Thursday, Dec. 31 at noon when the new menu will be unveiled. One of the other things that locals will notice right off is the expanded homemade side dish options the new menu will offer: baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw and baked macaroni and cheese, to name a few. In addition, The Pastime will now offer a children’s menu. And don’t worry, those famous burgers aren’t going anywhere . . . except in your mouth! Why mess with success, explains Dawn, when the Pastime has repeatedly received the best burger in town award among locals for the past nine years.
Chapter Three: The Semes on Second Street
In fact, the last operating business on historic State Street has always pulled in the crowds. It was back in 1938, when Roy’s father, Frank Seme purchased the building and business and renamed it The Pastime Bar and Cafe. The business’ hospitality and popularity continued into the 1950s. At one time, there were 13 girls on the floor, and two bartenders. The Pastime remained in the Seme family, as Roy along with his wife Jerry, kept up the family tradition with their daughters Lorinda, Tina, and Tammy, until Jerry’s recent passing in March 2015.
Yes, it was this family that made sure that the last remaining saloon from Leadville’s notorious Red Light District, where there once were 64 saloons, kept its doors open during Leadville’s most recent bust cycle. And while the place won’t be the same without the Semes, especially that fiery red-head, the Pastime’s historic significance to Leadville will be maintained. The beautiful back bar with its oriental style, different from any bar – old or new – in Leadville, has its roots in Oro City. The booths are reminiscent of the Gay 1890s decorating style, complete with large hand painted mirrors over each table that pay tribute to Leadville’s colorful past.
That heritage will be preserved. In fact, one of the advantages of passing the ownership baton to a former employee is that the old stories will be passed along to visitors, not in guidebook fashion, but rather in the tradition of oral histories, and tales told over cold beers.
As most locals know, new owner Dawn Todd has worked for the Semes on and off for years, mostly between 1999-2009. While Dawn was born and raised in Leadville, it wasn’t until June 6, 1999 that she stepped foot in the Pastime, it was for dinner with her family, which today includes 23-year old son Brandon and (almost) 5-year-old daughter Madison, who she has with Nathan.
It was during that first meeting, that Jerry announced she was looking for a new bartender, and asked Dawn if she had any experience.
“I told her ‘No,’” said Dawn, recalling one of their first conversations. “And Jerry said, ‘well, good then you’re not ruined!’” Sounds about right for anyone who ever had the privilege of working for the former owner and one-of-a-kind redhead, who notoriously ran the front half of The Pastime for more than 30 years. The stories of fallen employees were legendary, as Red ran off more than her share of barkeeps and kitchen staff who could not live up to her stringent work ethic and meticulous cleaning methods, still talked about to this day.
During her time working for the Semes, Dawn was fired twice and quit twice, she recalled as she shared a recent discovery in the PT’s office. The Semes had kept rudimentary human resources records which they maintained over the years, to note any infractions, especially those that resulted in termination.
“On the back of my card,” laughs Dawn, “it says in Roy’s handwriting: DO NOT rehire unless she changes her attitude! Jerry and I had our ins and outs! So many times, we’d fight and make up, and fight and make up.” Not a terribly unusual situation among Leadville watering holes, of which Dawn has worked just about all of them, from the Manhattan to the Dollar to the old La Cantina. But come 2016, she’ll be running her own show at one of the most notorious saloons in Leadville!
The Next Chapter: From Bordellos to BBQ
So, to celebrate the change in ownership, The Pastime will be throwing a New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball on Thursday Dec. 31. DJ Dawn, as she was known back in the day, will be throwing down some good dancing music, there’ll be drink specials and a midnight toast, as well as some giveaways for party-goers wearing a masquerade mask. The party starts at 9 p.m. and will ring in the New Year until 2 a.m.
Then starting in 2016, The Pastime Bar & Cafe will be open 4 days a week: Thursday thru Sunday. The bar will be open from 11:30 a.m. and the kitchen, as follows: Thurs – Sat from noon – 9 p.m.; Sundays noon – 8 p.m. (maybe later on game days). Remember it’s cash only, at least for now, so hit up the ATM first.
The couple plans an official “Grand Opening” during Leadville Ski Joring weekend on Saturday, March 5, promising an Old West good time down on historic State Street. Stay tuned for details but until then, the neon lights will continue to burn bright at The Pastime Bar & Cafe.
The Pastime Bar & Cafe is located at 120 W. 2nd Street. Readers may connect with them on Facebook at: Leadville’s Historic Pastime Bar & Cafe. Phone: 719-486-9434.