The Chukker - Tuscaloosa, Alabama

(This article was written circa 2003, when Will Harris and Brooks Cloud attempted to revive the Chukker. The revival was short-lived. Its last night as a club was October 31, 2003. The building and its surrounding block were razed in 2007 to make way for Tuscaloosa's Government Plaza.)

Rich Marcks rolls a thick layer of white paint over the front of 2121 Sixth Street. Marcks knows the routine; it's the same thing he did seven years ago, in 1995, when he began work on the famous "Liberty Egality Fraternity: Vive le Chukker 1956" mural on the same building. Now, watching Marcks paint over his own work, one has to wonder whether it makes him sad. "Sad? I can't tell you how many times I've painted over stuff I've done," he says, laughing. "I've done this at around 12 bars in Europe. So no, it doesn't make me sad." "Of course," he adds, "none of those bars were The Chukker." That's a popular sentiment among many Chukker patrons and employees, both past and present: There's no other bar like The Chukker. They talk about the bar with a reverence usually reserved for childhood homes and alma maters, not what you'd expect for a little dive bar in the middle of downtown Tuscaloosa. But to its regular patrons, The Chukker has served as a meeting place, a melting pot, a music venue, a watering hole, and much more. It's like home, some say, the only bar in town where they feel comfortable. The Chukker's reputation depends on whom you ask, but there are two constants: great music, and a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere. The Chukker's 11-month absence opened a large void in Tuscaloosa's entertainment scene, leaving many waiting and wondering when, and if, it would ever open again. But the wait will soon be over. And the May 10 grand opening can't come soon enough for the dedicated patrons of Alabama's oldest bar.

The sound of music

The Chukker first opened in 1956 under the ownership of Bill Thompson or "Chukker Bill," as he was known to most people. Bruce Hopper, who owned the bar from 1980 to 1989, says Chukker Bill found his inspiration for the Tuscaloosa landmark when he spent time in San Francisco while serving in the U.S. Navy. "Bill's favorite bar in San Francisco was called The Chukker, so when he came back to Tuscaloosa, he decided to open up his own Chukker here." The San Francisco bar was named for the polo term "chukker," which refers to a 7.5-minute period of play in a polo match; the word derives from the Hindi word cakkar, meaning "circle" or "turn."
Local artist and longtime Chukker patron Bob Weston, hard at work on the jungle mural. The largest of several murals in the bar, the jungle scene covers the entire left wall of the main room.
When it opened, The Chukker was also a restaurant, entertaining lunch and dinner crowds. "They served really good steaks and had a full kitchen," says Hopper, who possesses one of the few remaining copies of The Chukker's early menu. Chukker Bill sold the bar in 1968 to Earl Hilyer, who currently owns Jackie's Lounge. The bar changed hands again before Bob Callahan and Lewis Fitts bought it in 1974. "Bob was the person who expanded the bar to include two sides," explains Hopper. Before 1974, The Chukker consisted of the single room on the left-hand side. The expansion included the addition of the entire right-hand side, where the stage stands today. The stage wasn't put to much use until 1980 "Callahan only booked bands once or twice a year," says Hopper when Bruce Hopper purchased The Chukker. He was the first person to begin booking bands on a regular basis, scheduling up to 200 nights of live performances per year. Hopper was also the first person to charge a cover. Hopper says he never saw one cent of the cover charge, which is exactly the way he wanted it. "The band always got 100 percent of the door. It was a partnership: If I had a good band that packed the place out, I made good money behind the bar and they made good money off the door."

A musician himself, Hopper was committed to giving the local music community a place to showcase its talents. Knowing how difficult it is for a new band to book a show, he tried to guarantee one night per month for each local band to perform. "Which night they played depended on popularity," he says. "The better, more established bands got the party nights, while the newer bands might get a Monday or Tuesday." Hopper didn't just stick to local bands, of course. With the top 40 and country and western genres already accounted for in the Tuscaloosa entertainment scene, Hopper says he tried to offer everything else, including punk, blues, and jazz. George Hadjidakis, owner of Vinyl Solution, partnered with Hopper to book bands in the early '80s. Hopper says Hadjidakis knew a lot of the up-and-coming acts that could draw a large crowd. "I would do good across the bar, and the next week he would sell all the band's records. So it worked out well for everybody," he laughs. The Hadjidakis-Hopper partnership brought several legendary performers to The Chukker, including the Descendents, the Replacements, and the as-yet-unknown Indigo Girls. "I brought the Replacements twice," Hadjidakis says, standing underneath a flyer that hangs in Vinyl Solution advertising one of the band's famed shows.

The interior of The Chukker, sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s. During that period, the bar was located near the front door.
Like everyone else involved in the bar's history, Hadjidakis remembers the first time he entered The Chukker. "It was 1973, and it was still just the one room with pool tables. I wasn't old enough to be in there yet. Yeah, I got kicked out." In 1989, Hopper sold the bar to Bill Gipson (now deceased) and Richard Lindsay. Bill, known as "Mr. Bill" to almost everyone in town, also owned the Big Cigar Company in downtown Tuscaloosa. Mr. Bill owned and operated The Chukker for nearly three years before selling it to Ludovic Goubet, Frannie James (who was married to Goubet at the time), and Robert Huffman in 1991. Goubet and James bought out Huffman's share in early 1995; Goubet bought out James's share later that year and remained more or less the sole owner until March 2002, except for a brief partnership with Dave DeMoya. A former manager and bartender at The Chukker, DeMoya, or "Big Dave," is for many the single person most closely associated with the bar in the 1990s. "I wanted to buy the bar because it has so much history, and it is a revolutionary bar to be in Tuscaloosa, Alabama," Goubet says in a thick French accent. "It goes along with my idea of a bar, a nice place that's not pretentious. You know, a kind of dirty-looking hole in the wall, but with good art." Under Goubet, the bar saw performances from the likes of Sun Ra, Richard Thompson, R.L. Burnside, Dick Dale, Morphine, At the Drive-In, Man or Astroman?, and Sublime (who put a photo of The Chukker in their CD liner notes). The bar also sponsored art shows and poetry readings.

Of course, there have been many legendary musicians who have entered The Chukker over the years. Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers (performing under the name Allman Joys) have both graced the stage. The Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter supposedly shows Keith Richards playing pool there. And, as Hopper remembers, R.E.M. once brought an entire auditorium to the bar.
"The night they played Foster Auditorium, Michael Stipe said, "I don't know where y'all are going after the show, but we're going to The Chukker!' That night got pretty insane, having all of Foster Auditorium trying to squeeze in." But toward the end, those crowds dwindled, and in June 2001, The Chukker finally had to close.

The downward spiral

"I think that the biggest reason [for the bar's decline] was that we lost all the parking when the city built the new courthouse," Goubet says. He's speaking about the new municipal courthouse built across Sixth Street from the bar. "Definitely, that hurt us a lot. We lost probably about 60 percent of the business on the weekends because of the parking situation, even worse when it rained." But Scott Hamner, bar manager and longtime Chukker enthusiast, says the real problems included snowballing maintenance woes and Goubet's reluctance to resolve them. "[The decline] was sort of a steady thing. Ludo wouldn't put any money into The Chukker. The jukebox would break and he wouldn't fix it, so then we'd all be standing around in silence. The bathrooms would keep breaking down and he wouldn't spend any money to fix them. Things gradually became worse and worse, which is what [the new owners] inherited, a building that needed a lot of repairs."

Former owner Bob Callahan (foreground) with a few Chukker patrons, circa 1975.
The Chukker's music audience vanished, Hamner says, because Goubet "burned a lot of bridges with bands." Without audiences to pay covers and buy drinks, the bar stopped making money. "I will say that when [Goubet] first came to The Chukker, he worked really hard, and he made it the way many people right now perceive it. When he got there he got Sun Ra, Richard Thompson, some really good jazz musicians. He really did try to bring some different types of music, and he had a lot of ideas about it, but toward the end he was really burned out," says Hamner, who, along with general manager Traci Tannehill and bartender Sandra Sahm, will return to work at The Chukker when it reopens. When Goubet moved to South Carolina in 2000, the situation deteriorated further. "His moving away made a big difference. He wanted to try to control things, but he was away, so it would always be the wrong thing to do and it wouldn't work out." "For me, after almost 10 years of being there every night, it was time to quit," Goubet says. "So I told everybody by word of mouth that I wanted to sell for about three years and that and my lack of interest for it at the end just created a vacuum that sucked it out."
When interviewed for this article, Goubet waxed philosophical about the bar's decline. "We closed it knowing it was going to reopen," he says. "So it wasn't closing, exactly. The decision was not to close it, the decision was to make something happen that would bring people to think about what they lost." But in a rambling, vituperative 1,400-word e-mail Goubet recently sent to friends, he displays almost palpable contempt for Chukker patrons, Tuscaloosa, Americans, and rock n' roll.
"In order to avoid further lies and false rumors on my subject," the e-mail begins, "I am sending you, my friends, the facts about the sale of The Chukker and a few other things." The e-mail paints an unpleasant picture of the last few years of his ownership of The Chukker. In one passage, Goubet lists some of the better-known acts to play at the venue, then complains, perhaps justifiably, about the behavior of many of the lesser rock bands that performed there:

"I will not mention the rock bands because that would take forever, but I will mention that those bands were the worst to deal with, and that they for the most part had no respect for the P.A. and the stage, spilling beer in the monitors and throwing microphones on the floor. I remember the drummer for the Cunning Runts telling me, after destroying his drum set and subsequently a brand-new $250 microphone, that it was all part of the rock image to destroy everything on stage, but certainly not to pay for the damage. The Cunning Runts were not the only band like that unfortunately, and after replacing a dozen microphones, boom stands, and toilets that for some reason always got broken during those shows, I gave up. Fuck them and fuck rock. It is the truth that toward the end I lost complete interest in The Chukker and its customers. I just could not put up anymore with all those sorry asses always blaming somebody else for their demise."

Former owner Ludovic Goubet (second from right) remembers a three-night performance by Sun Ra's orchestra (shown here with Goubet and his then-wife and business partner Frannie James) in 1992 as a particular highlight of The Chukker's history. "He played with a 15-piece band, all dressed up, and it was just incredible. It was definitely the biggest show we ever had."
Asked about the e-mail, Goubet acknowledges that "It can be interpreted in the wrong way." But he stands behind it, every word of it.
Goubet had a longstanding distaste for most of the bar's happy hour crowd (the "sorry asses"), and the feeling was mutual, he says. As for the rock bands' misbehavior, he says of course it wasn't every band. But it was enough of them. Given that his own interests lay elsewhere, Goubet says, his patience thinned quickly. "I didn't even care for rock 'n' roll myself, since I'm a jazz musician and I'm much more interested by more intellectual music. I don't want to be pretentious, and I like rock 'n' roll too, but you know, The Chukker has always been the place for young bands, for new bands to start. And so we kept that going, we'd give a chance to any band to play, but then if they turn around and then destroy microphones and stuff, it does piss you off, there's no doubt about that."

The town changed, too, says Goubet. "When we took over The Chukker, there were about 40 bands in town. There was a lot of creativity, there were a lot of things happening. So we felt very confident at that time that The Chukker was going to be great, you know? Well, now, if you really look at the town, slowly but surely, in the time of 10 years, there's no more original bands, it's all like cover bands, except for a few bands. There's not like 40 of them. There was maybe more dreams, people had things they wanted to do with their life in the beginning, and then it ended up just being a drunk bar." Ultimately, says Goubet, he got sick of Tuscaloosa. Twenty years ago, he writes in the e-mail, he was in Paris, surrounded by world-renowned musicians, "and every night was filled with concerts by the masters, dinner in fine restaurants, long conversations about jazz and philosophy." He spent his summers on the Riviera, sailed across the Atlantic. "And you really think that I was going to waste my life in a place like Tuscaloosa?" he asks. "Hell no."

The restoration period

The Chukker's new owner, Will Harris, is winding up the two-year trip from negotiating the purchase to closing the deal to refurbishing the interior to booking the bands for the opening night party on May 10. Harris and Brooks Cloud, his business partner in The Chukker, Inc., also comprise two-thirds of the owner-management team of two local newspapers, The Strip and Tuscaloosa Business Ink.
"We've made physical improvements to the building to comply with current building codes, but we've also done many things just to make it a nicer place that have nothing to do with regulations," Harris says, adding that he and Cloud purchased not just the business, but also the building itself. The long list of improvements includes new wiring, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems, and accessibility for the handicapped. "This will be the first time in its history that The Chukker will have handicapped-accessible restrooms," he says. Accomplishing that required knocking out a wall in the men's room area.

In addition, improvements to the bar, the sound and stage areas, the courtyard, and the building's facade are being made. By opening day, the bar itself will have been replaced and expanded, says Harris. At press time, construction had begun on a custom-built bar, with an appearance that, though strikingly different from the previous bar's, will complement the rest of the interior. While the basic layout of the building won't change, the space will be used a little differently. The courtyard has been cut in half, a move made by the owner of the vacant building between The Chukker and Alta Apartments. To accommodate that change, says Harris, "There will be a privacy fence, new seating, and new lighting, and there will be door people at both ends. We plan to use the back gate as a door, there will be two entrances."

Some of the changes restore aspects of The Chukker to their original appearances and functions. "We're raising the stage back to its previous height," says Harris. "We're building a new sound area, where the sound man will operate from. And we replaced all the P.A. equipment." The improvements to the facade include the new mural by Marcks, which will feature a Chukker "coat of arms" representing the history and culture of the bar. Harris says that although a few elements of Marcks's original mural will remain, all the French flourishes will be gone.
The interior murals painted by Bob Weston, Mike Dement, and Marcks will remain. But perhaps the most beloved piece of artwork in the bar, the Sistine Chukker ceiling, painted in 1974 by Tom Bradford, is badly in need of restoration. "The Sistine Chukker is practically sacred," Harris says. "We're doing everything we can to save it, but it's in really bad shape." While the physical improvements to the building have been quite an undertaking, Harris and Cloud plan to do much more than just a cosmetic overhaul. "I felt the need to restore The Chukker to its former glory," Harris explains when asked why he decided to purchase the bar. Harris made the decision over two years ago, when he heard Goubet was interested in selling. "The Chukker has a national reputation for being one of the top music venues in the South, as well as the 'cool bar' in the area," he says. Harris, as well as many others, felt the venue had been falling short of its reputation for the past few years, at least on the entertainment side of things. "On a national level, we want to restore its reputation as the best place in the area to see quality, original music. Locally, we want to return it to its former status as a critical part of the Tuscaloosa entertainment scene."

Harris and Cloud worked together to map out a detailed plan of The Chukker's upcoming entertainment schedule. "We'll have live music on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday," Harris explains. Cloud says that in keeping with Chukker tradition, the bar is committed to showcasing great local and national acts, all originals, no cover bands. "Bands are being booked as we speak," he says. At press time, The Forty Fives were scheduled to headline on Friday, May 10, and The Penetrators on Saturday, May 11; opening acts were yet to be signed. "On weeknights, we'll have everything from foosball and dart tournaments to poetry and open mic nights. There won't be any days when we don't have something scheduled," Harris says.

Harris seldom drinks and has thus never enjoyed visiting bars where the only thing to do is sit on a stool. The reason he enjoys The Chukker, he says, is because it takes an active role in bringing people together. "It's not a just a concrete bunker for people to sit and drink." That "more-than-just-a-place" feeling is what has made The Chukker so successful over the years, Harris says. Indeed, the devotion of both longtime and recent patrons seems almost cult-like at times. Evidence of that loyalty can be witnessed each year between Christmas and New Year's, when diehard patrons return to The Chukker in droves for the annual "Chukker Nation" party. But despite the fanaticism of some of their customers, the new proprietors, who are both in their late 20s, don't seem worried about their ability to relate to the "old-school" crowd. Asked whether he and Cloud were apprehensive about becoming the new owners of Alabama's most legendary gin mill, Harris just laughs. "Owners?" he chuckles. "The Chukker belongs to the people. We're just giving it back."