back in the day
a look back at South Wedge buildings and businesses of yesteryear
desperado’s & more
by rose o’keefe
Tracking down an urban legend is mighty tantalizing to a history buff. Given that the legend was of Bob Dylan playing after hours at Desperado’s bar on South Avenue, I was hooked. Since I didn’t know it’s street number, as a fully certified pre-digital researcher, my first thought was to trot down to the Central Library – one of my favorite places in the city. I’m a big fan of the local history division, so it was fun sorting through City Directories from 1957 to 1990 for the street number of a demolished bar.
There is one huge clue that I missed: Today, that location is known as Star Alley, a pocket park maintained by BASWA, where Third Thursday concerts fill the air with music from May to October.
The very helpful librarian in local history confirmed that Bob Dylan had held two concerts at the War Memorial on Nov. 17, 1975 and on Sept. 23, 1978. But, unless I wanted to pay and sign up for digital content and then sort through a gazillion references to Bob Dylan, there was no way to find out more. Thanks to help from RIT, City newspaper has archived papers, but they don’t go back far enough.
Where did I hear this legend in the first place? The last time I had my hair cut at the Style Studio (928 So. Clinton next to Angry Goat) I told Mark Frances I was doing a history of Desperado’s for the SWQ and it just so happened that he had a photo album to prove he and his band Third Degree had played there. Mark confirmed that the 1975 date was the one for Dylan’s after-party.
After a few hours of letting my fingers do the walking, I got a glimpse of neighborhood life back in the day when the 600-block of South Avenue had places called dinette, restaurant, grill and tavern. Barber’s Grill at 662 was listed in the directories from 1957 to ’82; Desperado’s tavern, owned by John DeTando, appeared off and on from ‘83 to ‘89. Third Degree played there from 1988-1992 and Mark said Rich Stein took over the space as Living Legends in 1990, and one of Mark’s clients helped paint the western-style mural outside.
Once I got home, and wondered when Desperado’s had been demolished, I googled Star Alley, and there, easy as pie, was the address! Still didn’t answer the question, but I do know BASWA has been maintaining the pocket park since at least 2009. After thinking it over, I asked FB friend Snow Bird Josh Canfield if he knew? Not him, or another Snow Bird, Pat Deegan, nor longtime South Wedger, Gloria Monacelli. After thinking some more, I asked Democrat & Chronicle music critic Jeff Spevak on FB (so modern!) and still got no answer.
Therefore, the case of the urban legend about big-time fame and fortune having a blast in one of the funkiest ever biker bars that was collapsing on itself when the city got around to demolishing it, is hereby closed.
Just because I spent hours scouring the big books, here’s more. Keeping company along the block, Johnny’s Dinette was across the street at 651 from 1957 to 1977. Nearby was Charlie’s Restaurant at 656 which was followed by Bill’s Little Restaurant then McGregor’s Restaurant and Open Door Grill between 1957 and 1967. The Odd Fellows, now at 357 Gregory, were listed at 668 off and on from 1957 to ’77.
Kelly’s Restaurant was a fixture at 659 from 1957 to 1972 when it was listed as a restaurant, before being listed as a tavern in 1973 until 1989, but 659 was listed as vacant in 1990 and I remember one brutally cold winter night when the blue house next door burned down from a fire said to be started by squatters.
There was a branch library at 715 South until a fire in 1979, when it moved to 685 South (now home to Mise en Place) before Critical Care moved there in 1989. Star Supermarket had held down that corner until about 1969. South Avenue Hardware was listed at 666 in 1957; White Radio and Sound was listed in 1959, with competition from Monarch Appliance open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (!) at 642 South, selling a 17” mahogany TV for $199.95, along with a give-away of a free Buck Rogers Space Ranger kit. White’s lasted until about 1977 and Snake Sister’s Café made the listings from ’79 to ’86.
Good enough for now, but not without the following. Full disclosure #1: I’ve been getting my haircuts at the Style Studio since 1984 when Mark had his salon on South Clinton near Meigs Street; #2: It was Toni Beth Weasner’s idea to do the history. She is the wedding coordinator for my daughter Suzanne, who babysat Mark and Toni Beth’s girls, Heather and Erin; #3: Jim Chittenden, one of the partners at Johnny’s where my husband and I ate several times, moved on and became the very pleasant, successful car salesman at Dorschel Toyota who sold us our 2004 Prius and our 2010 Yaris.