“Farewell to the Hat” Party in Leadville Today
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
You might want to pull up a bar-stool for this one, as there’s some saloon news in Leadville Today that could put a few tears in your beer. The Manhattan Bar – aka the Hat – has been sold, with its new owner taking possession on June 1. So to commemorate the occasion, the Cerises and bar-crew are holding a “Farewell to the Hat” party today, Saturday, May 26, from noon to 8 p.m.
This latest chapter in the Manhattan’s story started in 1974 when the Cerises (Wally Sr. & Dave) opened Buckhorn Sporting Goods, a Leadville mainstay located in the retail space next to the bar, providing camping and fishing gear to locals and tourists. Then in 1978, the Cerises bought the entire Manhattan building, which includes the two commercial spaces at street level, as well as the 4 upstairs apartments.
The bar, which originally opened in 1943, took its name from the mining claim that bore the same, and whose profitable strikes provided the construction funds for the building, which dates back to 1888. But 40 years ago, it was a red-headed entrepreneur named Dave Cerise who took over running the Manhattan Bar, while his 21-year-old younger brother Mike ran the sporting goods shop next door.
Of course, in the late 1970s, America’s highest city was rocking and rolling from Moly production. Businesses like the Hat were open nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ebbing and flowing to the work schedule at the Climax Mine, which was running three shifts, 24/7. Lake County’s cash cow was extracting some of the world’s purest-grade Molybdenum in a 20th century method that had payrolls – and Leadville bars – packed.
Most watering holes saw a steady stream of customers, however the Hat was slowly becoming a magnet for the leather-wearing, Harley-riding crowd. And on any given Saturday throughout the 1990s, the parking spaces out front hosted a long-line of motorcycles, a somewhat intimidating sight to some passersby.
Yes, these were bikers, albeit bikers of a different kind than the ones Leadville sees today. They smoked, they drank, and they used bad language. But underneath those leather exteriors were political activists, as the Hat became the unofficial headquarters of A.B.A.T.E. (A Brother Active Toward Education), advocating for motorcyclists’ rights. The Hat has always been the working man’s bar; here’s where you’ll find your builders, your pipe-fitters, your truck drivers.
In fact, when it comes to “community updates” this corner bar is usually a more accurate news source than the word from a local politician or spin-doctor. The regulars at the Hat can tell you the economic pulse of this mountain community better than any survey. Who is hiring, and where? Who can’t make payroll? And most importantly, who is buying the next round, cause he’s the guy with money in the bank!?!
In 1990, there were more red-headed bar owners in Leadville than anywhere else in the country. And at the corner of 7th and Harrison, you could find that bar’s “ginger” in perpetual motion. Dave Cerise, while slight in stature, was a man on the move, hauling buckets of ice, restocking the coolers or breaking up a bar brawl between two burly bikers. And this red-head was a far from the fiery, temper-driven tavern owners that could be found a bit further down the avenue. Dave was friendly, quick-witted and in the end, a peace-maker.
But by the turn of the century, the Hat’s reputation as Leadville’s dive bar grew with each drug bust, bar brawl and domestic dispute. Note: I clearly remember one such disagreement which happened just a couple of barstools down, that involved a leveled shot gun to the back of a patron’s head from a disgruntled, misunderstood wife. No shots were fired, but shots of whiskey certainly were taken after the incident was resolved in a more civilized manner.
During these darker years, one guide book described the Hat as follows: “Manhattan Bar, Leadville. A bar of rather dubious reputation, it nonetheless is one of the more well-known establishments. Most know it by its nickname.”
And while a new millennium carried with it the promise of an improved Leadville economy, the truth was that times were still tough, and many of the Hat’s patron’s were not seeing regular work. As the beer and whiskey went down, the number of unpaid bar tabs went up.
But the Cerises pushed on and kept the neon light burning bright. The Hat had became a misfit harbor for those with no place to go over the holidays, as Dave’s wife Carla would put out a bountiful Thanksgiving feast. The pool table in the back was adorned for the occasion, with side dishes consisting of wild mushrooms gathered from the woods, in addition to cranberry sauce, and more elk and venison than bird, depending on how the hunting season went.
During festival weekends, The Manhattan is standing-room-only, as the crowd streams in and out, after parades or in between ski joring runs. And because of its corner location, patrons have had to endure interactions with an ass or two when a burro fails to make that the hard right turn onto W. 7th Street during the annual Boom Days Burro Races. The Hat is the place for reunions with old friends, as the conversations and rounds run well into the night, spilling out on to Harrison like the neon glow from its dominate sign on the Avenue.
And who can forget, when in 2004 Hollywood came calling, with the announcement that Leadville’s downtown strip would be featured in the movie “Silver City.” Remember that incredibly costly sheet-medal sleeve that the director had custom-made to run up the entire length of the 30 foot, neon sign? Its temporary emblazoned letters read: “El Rincon,” which loosely translated in Spanish means “corner bar.” Rent the movie, and it’s easy to see how flawlessly the Hat played its role as the corner bar for migrant workers. Unfortunately, the film’s reception at the box office was about as endearing as the local’s response to El Rincon’s meager 15-second appearance in the movie. All that time in making the El Rincon sign, all that money spent, for a fleeting feature in the film! Alas, Hollywood and America’s corner bar may never see things from the same perspective, but it sure was fun to have the movie stars hang out in Leadville’s own version of Manhattan.
Sadly, that neon signed dimmed a bit in January 2014 with the passing of Dave Cerise. Dave was the Hat’s backbone, its boss-man, he was the place where the buck stopped, along with many a Budwesier!
Since then, his brother Mike, and wife Sherry have taken over the bar’s ownership, with a reluctance that has been (fortunately) over-shadowed by their loyalty to long-time bartenders, like Sam and Silver. They have kept the place open, providing jobs for people. Besides, why shouldn’t they hold out for the opportunity to get back at least part of their family’s investment after 40 years?
So when the news came about the sale – which officially takes place June 1 – it was hard not to be happy for the Cerises. It’s no easy task owning a bar on Harrison Avenue. Many think it is, and many have come and gone! But after 4 decades in the bar business, you look back, and that’s a life. So, a sincere thank you to the family and bartenders for putting up with all the beer-drinking rowdies through the years. Congratulations on the sale, and all the best to the Cerises!
Unfortuantely for many of the Hat’s regulars, that may be the only good thing about the sale of their corner bar. Only time will tell how it goes with the new owner. Will the red-neck wind chimes remain? What will happen to the hen house? And what about the reasonably-priced upstairs apartments; will four more workforce residents be kicked to the curb for another Air B&B?
The word on the curb is that “nothing will change.” At least that’s what they were told in an employee meeting (!), the first, sure sign that the gentrification process has begun! Alas, back in the day, an “employee meeting” at the Hat consisted of a shot of whiskey in between shifts, followed by a brief overview: “There’s a check in the register for the Coors delivery, and tell Larry no more credit until he’s paid off his tab.”
But for today, it’s time to tell your Manhattan story. The party starts at noon and will include their famous pool table buffet. Come, join the celebration, as glasses are raised up high, in a grand toast to our beloved Manhattan Bar:
“Before we end and then, begin, we’ll drink a toast to how it’s been! Cheers to the Hat!”
The Manhattan Bar is located at 618 Harrison Avenue, on the corner. You may also connect with them on The Manhattan Facebook Page.