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Topics: Arts & Culture

The Del Rio: Hippie hotbed

By Ernie Harburg
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Del Rio, Shakey Jake. Bentley Library.

Ann Arbor character, the late ‘Shakey Jake’ stands in front of the Del Rio. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

We don’t serve capitalist pigs!

If you went to U-M between 1970 and 2003 you probably visited—or at least heard of— the Del Rio bar. It was the dimly lit joint downtown with the tin ceiling that remained the city’s “hippie” bar right up to its turbulent final days. Its charms included cheap but good burritos and “DetBurgers,” free, live jazz, and an eclectic collection of customers and employees. Some visitors, either amused or irritated, called the waitstaff the “hostile hippies” because they were far from obsequious. Few, though, were as rude as a waitress in the early years who once slammed the door on two men in suits, shouting, “We don’t serve capitalist pigs!” She got away with it because, for most of its existence, the Del was idealistically run as a collective. The staff—which included many U-M grads and drop-outs—voted on hiring, firing, salaries and menu choices (with ongoing fights between the meat-eaters and the vegetarians).

Del co-owner and U-M research scientist Emeritus Ernie Harburg recently published Liberty, Equality, Consensus, and All That Jazz at the Del Rio Bar (Huron River Press), an insider’s account of a quixotic experiment in democracy disguised as a bar. TV chef and former Del cook Sara Moulton writes of the book, “Harburg’s memoir brings it all back: the bans, the brains, the booze, the fizzy mixture of high-mindedness and bad behavior.”

Some excerpts:

At some point, says early Del employee Larry Behnke, it became impossible to separate the Bar from the city of Ann Arbor, which had become one of the national hotbeds of anti-Vietnam war activity . . . and a thriving counterculture scene.

“So much was going on,” marvels Behnke. “Not only protests and demonstrations, but art and film. It was incredible!”

The Del Rio attracted groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society and Ann Arbor Women for Peace. A few of the Del Rio staff had helped start and were part of a film group whose showing of Flaming Creatures on the campus was raided by Ann Arbor police for containing scenes of “frontal nudity.” It was also popular with counterculture “pub singer” Patti Smith, whose occasional visits with her husband Fred, of MC5 fame, gave “Delroids” a thrill. And once, Alice, a regular customer and self-proclaimed lesbian alcoholic, seriously offered to immolate herself as the Buddhist monks were doing in Viet Nam to protest the war — but she wanted to accomplish this in front of the Del Rio Bar! It took several days for bar co-owners Torry and Ernie Harburg to persuade Alice to drop this peace action from her agenda. (Alice later became a university professor.)

Running a bar without a manager

“The popularity of pot made for a very mellow bar…”
All the employees gathered regularly on the second Sunday of each month to discuss the intricacies of running a bar outside the traditional management structure. The meetings themselves were at first raucous affairs. Ernie Harburg recalls, “We’d have wine and cheese and we used to yell at each other until finally we learned how to modulate our voices and be courteous.”

Employees were hired by group (cooks, bartenders, waiters, and door tenders, who checked IDs), and given a three-month probation period. But the groups dragged their feet on firing. Once, recalls co-owner Betty Vary, it took three long, emotional meetings to fire an alcoholic employee whose work habits were giving his fellow workers grief.

“It was like firing your brother or sister!”

There were deep conflicts at times between the goal of an “open” society and factions in the Bar. In the late ’70s, the Bar discovered the majority of cooks were lesbians or “liberated” and did not want to hire men. At the hiring meeting, Rosie, then one of the informal Del leaders (who later became a lawyer and prosecutor), and Ernie tried to hire a well-qualified male . . .The cooks refused. They said men smelled. During the next month the waits, dorts, barts, and a few customers emotionally “boycotted” the cooks, who finally (tearfully) gave in and hired Brett Eynon.”

Employee dramas

At the tearful closing party in 2004, a nude woman strolled through, like a character out of the rock musical “Hair.”
Former waitress and later teacher Diane Black (1972-80 and 1984-90) recalled more than one occasion when she had to prepare someone’s order herself because the cook was outside on a pot-smoking break.

“The popularity of pot made for a very mellow bar,” recalled Larry Behnke. Still, there was no shortage of personal dramas at the bar. Cook Julie Detwiler, split with her husband — for whom the DetBurger was named — during the years she worked at the Del, and she recalled serving customers with tears streaming down her face.

“Customers would ask, ‘Are you okay?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m not okay, but I can still serve you.’” She remembered standing in the kitchen, weeping, her concerned co-workers hugging her and saying, “Julie, we all want to help you.”

Notes from long-ago meetings give further insight into the Del’s culture and complications: ”Loans. Three people want one. How much do we have? There’s $350 in the kitty. Mary wants $150 to go to Greece. Pete wants some for Arizona and Joy needs some for expense. Well, Mary might not need that much . . . So let’s split it four ways, OK? Now Barb wants sick pay. Anyone object?”

Last call: 2004

The Del was never a big money maker for its owners, but its last decade was particularly difficult. A number of new bars had sprung up as competitors, and newcomers, including the students, were less enamored of a place that seemed stuck in the Woodstock era. Also, newer employers were much less committed to the bar’s idealism than were their predecessors.

In 2002, the Del owners began moving toward more traditional management, but a mutiny didn’t occur until a new hard-line manager fired some old-timers and announced strict rules. Furious Del employees, joined by some customers, picketed the bar — and owners Harburg, Rick Burgess, and Betty Vary decided they’d had enough. The bar closed in December 2004. At the tearful closing party, a nude woman strolled through, like a character out of the rock musical “Hair.”

“It outlived its era,” reflects Betty Vary. But Harburg recalls with pride, “We had a hell of a run.”

Ernie Harburg

Ernie Harburg

Ernie Harburg owned the infamous and beloved Del Rio in Ann Arbor. He is a research scientist emeritus, epidemiology, and a research scientist emeritus, psychology, at the University of Michigan.

COMMENTS

  • David Graff - 1979

    I was visiting family in Ann Arbor around the Holidays in 2004 and we decided to go out for lunch. How about the Del Rio? It happened to be their last day of business and I spent lunch calling distant friends with whom I’d spent time there so we could enjoy being together again at the end. Wish I’d had a few more numbers, then I could’ve stayed all afternoon! I have to say it was pretty much the same physically, but felt like it had become a lot less in the 25 year interim. Good memories, however, never get old.

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  • Deborah Schmidt (Fine) - 1978

    Being an Arborite, I remember hanging out at the Del Rio with my friends. I went to high school with the Harburg twins so I was well acquainted with their father’s bar. Too bad it had to close.

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  • John Edmond - 1978

    I was a cook at the Del Rio for a short period in 1978 and I have often said it was one of the best jobs I ever had. On my last day–before heading off to law school– Ernie Harburg told me I was a good cook and that if I ever wanted a job I could always return. I often thought about that comment and was dismayed when I heard that the Del Rio had closed and I would never be able to return to my gig as a short order cook. I also was exposed to some great music at the bar — Jorge Ben, for example.

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  • Dylan Foglesong - 1996

    Bummer. Have not been to Ann Arbor in years. Did not know the bar had closed. Change can not be stopped. Looks like the Yuppies take over is nearly complete.

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  • Martha Kazmierzak - 1974

    On a personal note, the “Del” brings back so many personal memories. My husband Tom Kazmierzak, know as Kaz, and I dated at the Del Rio in the mid-70′s. It was truly a family place, we spent many hours sitting at the bar,creating friendships and supporting each other, of which some continue on to this day. I remember the excitment when we brought our first adopted child to meet everyone at the Del Rio, Ted, now 20, continues to share that the Del’s salads were the best he ever had anywhere!

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  • Carol Kent - 1977, 1981

    Thank you for the great article on the Del Rio—I only wish I could walk in, right now, and get one of their large burritos! It should be mentioned that Ernie was also one of the founding partners in 1977 of The Earle, that now-venerable Ann Arbor dining institution. Having known Ernie Harburg since the 1970s when I served as his administrative assistant at his UM Program for Urban Health Research, I’d also like to give a little more detail about his fantastic career as a social scientist and researcher. Ernie, and a crew of dedicated nurse-screeners, carried out the 1966-67 Detroit Blood Pressure Study, door-to-door, even as the city smoldered from the July ’67 riots. That pioneering study looked at socioeconomic stress (dividing the city into low-stress and high-stress residential areas), race, and blood pressure. Building on that effort, Ernie and his teams through the 1980s continued to look at heredity, stress, skin color, ethnicity, anger-coping styles, handedness (right, left), and other intriguing variables related to high blood pressure. A master in so many areas, Ernie is definitely one of a kind! I can’t wait to read the entire book and reminisce about my friends Torry, Ernie, and Betty and the rest of the cast of Del Rio characters!

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  • Dennis Allen - 1989

    I first moved to Ann Arbor in the 1960s and am still here. I’ve worked at the “U” for over 40 years and am an alum. The Del Rio, along with other establishments, represented a time in the history of our town, before the ascendancy of the current corporate culture, when Ann Arbor seemed to be near the center of the “counter culture” world. There will never be another time like that and I for one mourn it’s passing. Those of us who were there will always remember fondly those “revolutionary” times!

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  • Justin Martin - 1987

    Ah.. the Del Rio. From my arrival in 1980, until it closed it was my respite. I loved the unhurried atmosphere, the open disdain for commercialism, the quirky staff, and good food. We all mourned the day it closed. Like others before it, the Star Bar, Mr Floods Party, Pretzel Bell, and The Sun Bakery, Ann Arbor has lost part of its soul. These days Ann Arbor is a shadow of its former self, living only in stories. Perhaps that\\\’s a welcome change for those who live there today. But high rise condos, martini bars, and high price steak houses can be found anywhere. I myself left the city a few years after the closing of Del Rio and now live along the shore of Lake Michigan in a quiet little village. But I pine for the earlier days in Ann Arbor and afternoons at The Del.

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  • John Savage - 1986

    I was not a regular at Del Rio. I only remember going there a few times. The last time was probably in the late 80′s with my pal Steve N. I remember that we drank Southern Comfort. Which was probably the last time for that too.

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  • Mike Woolson

    “HIPPIE HOTBED”? Give me a break. The Del didn’t even open till 1969, so most of its life was well after whatever the hippie heyday was. Placing it as some icon of 1960s counterculture is naive to say the least, and reflects the sort of unenlightened bias Ann Arbor suffers from the more conservative parts of the state. There certainly were hippie hangouts in Ann Arbor, but the Del was just not one of them. I was not a Del Rio regular, but I certainly went there, and many friends worked there over the years. Any of them would be offended to have it tagged as a hippie joint, as am I. Its influence and impact extended far beyond the very narrow band described in that thin
    article.

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  • Chuck Meibeyer

    I spent the years from 1970 to 1975 in Ann Arbor and have many fine memories of the Del Rio, including the DetBurger when I was eating meat, and good vegetarian burritos when I was not. I loved the Sunday afternoon jazz. I was just back in town for my daughter’s law school graduation and I was profoundly saddened to see it had closed. Now I know why. Wonderful to be reminded of its spirit.

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  • elaine wangberg

    This brings back the “revolutionary” years at UM and many fond memories. Back then, students were interested in equality and not materialism. I also remember Dominicks (canning glass jars for wine) fondly. Those years changed my life. I “grew up” to be a Proferssor and a Dean.

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  • Daniel Webster

    I was a Research Associate working for Ernie on studies of alcohol use within families, and Del Rio was my favorite place to consume alcohol in the wonderful few years I spent in Ann Arbor (1983-85). I loved the vibe there, the music, the down-to-earth crowd, and I still remember their great pizza (with whole wheat crust). Ernie – I will never forget your infectious laugh and warm manner. Thanks for the memories!

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  • alan woronoff

    I remember they had the largest and best veggy burritos anywhere. And their beer selection was awesome–it was here that I learned to love Bass Ale from the tap (and none taste as good as Del’s since). Thanks for the story.

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  • Jerry Swift

    On a spring morning in 1972 I finished my last exam as a student (after four years in Engineering School and three in Law) and in celebration I spent the entire afternoon at the Del Rio (starting with a DetBurger for lunch). I specifically remember the sun light streaming in the windows during the late afternoon, listening to the music and delaying my departure as long as possible because I suspected that life was going to be, to a certain extent, downhill from there. Since I can honestly say I have not spent a better afternoon since then, I guess I was right.

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    • Hallie Blanchard - 1978

      Jerry, I can see it now as you describe it. I cooked there 80-81, and I loved the sun streaming in those windows.

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  • Marsha Katz

    i was in Ann Arbor from 1963 to 1999, and at UM from 1963-65, 1973-75, and a few years of grad school in the 80′s. So many Del Rio memories….a friend Jim who bartended for a while, the music, the first and only place I ever drank Golden Cadillacs, the pure comfort of pure Ann Arbor in what I think were its very best years. Can’t wait to read the book, and thanks so much for the memories!!!

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  • Patricia Combs

    This story really brought back memories, for the Del Rio was me and my roommates’ favorite hangout. Even In ‘n’ Out burgers in Los Angeles, where I now live, can’t compare to the memories of those at Del Rio’s. The funny thing is, though, that my roommates were part of the Ann Arbor counterculture, not the student population. I was the only student in our house. The three of us met while working as waitresses at the Gandy Dancer, and I needed a place to live after my dog-hating landlord evicted me. Had I known of the DelRio’s politics, I would likely have sought a job there! On my last day at the Gandy Dancer’s, I actually told off two intoxicated and rude male clients for being “chauvinists.” Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end! Now I am a family lawyer in L.A., with two grown sons and a lengthy marriage to a Berkeley grad who just can’t seem to get it through his head that Michigan is the best public university in the world.

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  • Mark Lipson - 1973

    I lived in Ann Arbor in the 70′s and played at the Del Rio with jazz groups many times. I have many fond memories of having played there. The Detburgers were fantastic! I also remember many great jazz groups playing, especially with Ron Brooks on bass and Danny Spencer on drums. Danny moved out West quite a few years ago…a brilliant drummer. I miss the Del, along with the other places I used to play, including Mr. Flood’s Party (with a stage the size of a postage stamp), and the Blind Pig. It was always interesting playing there in the basement in the summer…no ventilation, everyone smoking, and no air conditioning!

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  • Steve Burling

    My wife and I had regular lunches at the Del — a couple of burritos, a small Greek, and that fabulous salsa (Mama Jewel’s?). Or a half a pizza. We still mourn its closing.

    I remember one of the waitstaff chasing a fur coat-clad woman down the street, yelling, \”Get back to Birmingham or wherever the hell you come from!\” after said woman had become abusive over being unable to pay with a credit card.

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  • Mike Levine - 1995

    It’s incredible to me that no one mentions the zapata. More than anything, that’s what I miss about the Del Rio. Please, someone make me a zapata!

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  • Ken Bawcom

    I guess I was an irregular regular. I liked the Del quite a bit. I’m also proud to say I made the three arched windows installed on the west side. I under bid them so badly, I think I made about $6 per hour, instead of the $15 I intended.
    Det burgers were great, and at the time, the Del Rio was the only place in town to offer jalapenos on pizza! I remember the regularly changing art on the walls, and the huge tape collection. Also, they donated dinners to us Ann Arbor Film Festival screeners. Thanks, Del!

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  • Sean Bond - 1988

    This is sad indeed. Between Del Rio, Bird of Paradise, Mr. Floods party and the blind pig, that area was kind of a link between the University folk and the real people of the world, at least insofar as Ann Arbor is the real world. I take solace in the fact that it\’s a generational thing; the students of the \’then\’ mourned what Del Rio replaced, and those of the \’now\’ will mourn the loss of whatever has replaced it. Thanks Del Rio. You were my \’now\’. I loved you and your kick ass green colored hot sauce. You were an educator and a restaurant! While I know it now, I had no idea at that tender age that hot sauce could be green.

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  • dahlia petrus - 1986

    I wonder what happened to the hundreds of (music) cassettes lined up behind the bar?:)

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  • Stehen Grossbart - 1979

    I had my first Det Burger in 1975 while still in high school on a visit from the suburbs while still in high school. They did’t check ID very carefully if I recall. After arriving in Ann Arbor in 1976, the Del Rio was not a typical place to go for a freshman, but it beat the blue frog or dooleys and always had great food. Over the course of my 13 years and two degrees in Ann Arbor, I stopped in more than a few times – still probably my most frequently visited bar. I was thrilled that I took my daughters there for their first and only Det Burger in 2004. We all were very sad to see it closed the next time we were in town.

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  • PALLINE PLUM - 1969, 1977

    MY TODDLER SON, PETER, AND I BECAME REGULARS AT THE DEL RIO IN 1973 AND FOR YEARS THEREAFTER.

    WHERE ELSE COULD A PRE-VERBAL JAZZ FANATIC FEED A HABIT FOR GUITARS AND SAXOPHONES?

    OH, HE WAS SUCH A PASSIONATE BABY…WE WOULD STAND IN LINE OUTSIDE ON SUNDAY AFTERNOONS, PETER CALLING OUT \”GUITAR, GUITAR!\” (ONE OF HIS FIRST WORDS).

    IF THE DOOR OPENED EVEN A CRACK, HE WOULD RUSH UP TO THE MUSICIANS AND BEGIN DANCING. IT WAS CLEAR FROM HIS DIFFERENTIATED MOVEMENTS THAT HE LISTENED WITH CONCENTRATION AND DISCERNMENT, AND OF COURSE THE MUSICIANS LOVED IT!

    20 YEARS LATER, WHEN I VISITED ANN ARBOR, PEOPLE WOULD STOP ME ON THE STREET AND ASK ME ABOUT \”ANN ARBOR\’S FINEST JAZZ CRITIC\”!!

    (MY TASTE BUDS ALSO CLEARLY REMEMBER THE ANTIPASTO SALADS. THERE WAS SOMETHING ABOUT THE CHEESE!)

    I\’M SORRY WE\’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO GO BACK TO THE DEL RIO.

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  • Don Eggen - 1975, 1978

    I was in Ann Arbor from 1971 to 1978. Del Rio and Floods and the Blind Pig were some of my favorite hangouts. The food, music and beer were the best … and it was a great place to hang out. Probably spent too much time there! I get back to A2 each Fall, and now I know why the Del is closed after driving by a couple of years ago. Lots of fond memories. Thanks Ernie and the Del crowd.

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  • rosemary keywest

    I worked at the Del Rio from 1972-1980 and it was a great, fun place to work. Thank you to my Del Rio family for so many incredible memories. And..to correct Ernie, while I did become a lawyer, I have always been a public defender both in practice and in heart. RIP Little Ricky and the Del.

    Reply

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