The bar at the Skylark Lounge shows every one of its 59 years. In front of each vintage stool that lines the long, Formica countertop, faded, worn-away patches suggest the oily and beery hands of patrons who've been saddling up for a setup since the early '40s, when the lounge opened at 58 Broadway. Today the aged Skylark comes pretty close to being the perfect place to wet your whistle, as well as a benchmark for the Baker neighborhood. The area has grown a lot over the past decade, although its blossoming has never drawn the attention -- or the partying throngs -- of LoDo, which enjoyed a parallel rebirth.
Five years ago, Scott Heron assumed the Skylark's liquor license and furthered the joint's metamorphosis from an all-day, all-night booze hall to a stylish and tastefully nostalgic neighborhood tavern as favored by local characters as it is by rockabilly fans, scooter enthusiasts, honky-tonkers and guys with flames painted on their jackets -- and the women who love them. He also turned it into a music venue, with live bands -- mostly plucked from the twang and rockabilly realm -- taking the stage (er, the cramped corner) on Thursday and Saturday nights. Watching Halden Wofford sing through a vintage microphone beneath swoony black-and-white photos of Rita Hayworth, well, that's what you call a good night in Denver.
"For many years, under different owners, this place helped keep the neighborhood drunk," says Ronnie Crawford, a ridiculously fit sexagenarian bartender familiar to Skylark regulars as the guy with the ponytail and the organically generated perma-grin. "But when Scott came in, he really had this vision for a massive turnaround. A lot of bar owners buy a place so they can sit around and drink all day, to support their habit. But he had a vision, and he's turned this into a truly friendly, comfortable and happening little place."
But by this time next year, that happening little place -- or, at least, all of the staff and stuff inside of it -- could be homeless, if a certain worst-case scenario plays out. Heron's lease on the current location expires in December 2003, and the building's landlord has decided not to renew the contract. So the Skylark is hoping to fly down the road to a new, larger building at 140 South Broadway that Heron recently bought.
While some who've elbowed their way through crowds packed tighter than a hooker's miniskirt might speculate that the proposed move was motivated by a need for more space, Crawford says the current locale is working just fine. Fact is, the Skylark isn't particularly keen on moving the bar down the street. Neither are its regulars. And neither are some members of the surrounding community.
Charlotte Winzenburg of the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association says her group has a battery of concerns that commonly arise when a new bar or liquor-related business sets up camp near bungalow- and Victorian-lined neighborhoods: "Noise, parking, people peeing on our cars -- the usual." Whereas the current Skylark location is separated from nearby homes by other commercial buildings and has only one operational entrance, the new site backs right up to homes and would also put a parking lot at the mouth of the neighborhood. Winzenburg has been the driving force behind a grassroots campaign to let neighbors know just what kind of establishment may be moving in on their territory.
"We have absolutely no qualms with the applicants," Winzenburg says, "and from what I understand, the Skylark has a very good reputation. But it is our job to be sure the residents have all of the information they need to make an informed decision about whether or not to support their application."
On Monday night, members of the Baker Historic District and the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association met with scores of area residents, business owners and the Skylark staff to discuss the bar's application for a transfer of its cabaret license. Should either neighborhood group officially oppose the transfer, it could derail the approval process, leaving Heron with no liquor license, a large empty building, a sublime jukebox and a whole lot of retro decor on his hands.
But at the meeting, it immediately became clear that Heron's credibility wasn't in question. Throughout the two-hour session, which involved some rather exciting moments of shouting and passionate shushing, he was showered with compliments, many with their own vintage ring: Heron was variously referred to as a "decent person," a "stand-up guy" and, my favorite, a "fine gentleman." One supporter pointed out that Broadway needed individuals like Heron to fill the vacant buildings and further propel the neighborhood's upward swing. "Do you want a 7-Eleven in there?" he asked. "Or a big movie storage house? You don't know the name of the guy who owns the 7-Eleven." A WWPNA representative countered that it wasn't Heron the group was worried about but the overloaded bladders of patrons who might frequent his bar -- "They go everywhere, on everything," she said. And besides, she added, a liquor license can theoretically outlast whatever business owner claims it at a given time.
Although it collected votes from residents of both neighborhood groups, the WWPNA board will focus on West Wash Park concerns when it announces its official position later this week. The Baker group plans to meet again, separately, with Heron before it takes a stand. So far, though, Baker president Barbara Scott has been hesitant to assume that the Skylark's southbound move would be bad for Broadway or those who live close to it.
"The West Wash Park group wanted us to come in with them and oppose it from the start. I felt like it was too early to make a decision, whereas it seemed like they'd made up their minds," she says. "Everything that Scott's done with the Skylark has been an improvement to that location and to Broadway, and I think he has a legal right to own a business."
Members of both neighborhood groups, as well as other Denver residents, will get a chance to voice their opinions at a hearing on Wednesday, January 29; it starts at 6 p.m. at the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses.
In the meantime, here's my opinion: I'd hate to think a place as well run as the Skylark, which has a good reputation with the city, the cops and community boosters, could have its wings clipped by whose who fear the worst even when dealing with the best.
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