Artie's Party

Once a front in the war against racism, Brownie's gin joint is now the trenches in the battle against yuppiedom

In the oldest bar in Fort Lauderdale, one of the town's oldest living patrons sits waiting for his bottle of Bud Light to arrive.

Artie Yerpe, age 90, is not happy about this whole light beer phenomenon. If it were up to him, he'd order a glass of Crown Royal straight up, the way he used to drink it back in the '40s. But his daughter, Cathy, whom Artie lovingly refers to as "the warden," has organized this birthday bash for him, and really, what kind of person would he be if he started a fight about it?

Artie sighs. His sprightly face is nearly hidden beneath a low-slung baseball cap, and his stubby legs hug the stool's rungs. His checkered shirt hangs half out of his pants, and his smooth face is lined only with contemplation. He seems uptight but relaxes a bit when bartender Ursula Spath, a woman with sharp bangs and a sharper tongue, arrives with the drinks.

Brownie Robertson, the original owner of Brownie's Bar & Tavern, booked Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway
Colby Katz
Brownie Robertson, the original owner of Brownie's Bar & Tavern, booked Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway

"Happy birthday, baby," she says.

Artie raises his bottle in acknowledgement. He slowly brings the Bud to his lips, takes a swig, and swipes at his mouth with a napkin. Then he grins, a wide open-mouthed grin, the kind seen mainly on the faces of 3-year-old boys.

"I was born on the bottle," he says, "and I'm gonna die by the bottle."

Everyone laughs.

Artie first arrived at Brownie's Bar, on Andrews Avenue just south of downtown, in the '60s, after the big-band explosion. He missed seeing the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway perform there. But he has heard about it often enough. And he sees their pictures on the wall -- framed portraits of "Brownie" Brownlow Robinson with his arms wrapped tight around Louis Armstrong's shoulders. This was a big deal in the '30s. Brownie, see, was probably the first white bar owner in Broward County to allow black entertainers to play at his place, although the clientele has remained mostly white.

Back in 1935, Brownie, a former booking agent, leased a place on the 1400 block of South Andrews called the Trianon Ballroom. He knew good music when he heard it. And these singers, he knew, were good. However, soon after opening, the popularity of big bands died down, as did interest in the Trianon. So he closed it down, made a brief foray into the roller-skating business, and concentrated his efforts on Club Brownie, a combination bar and package store next door that opened in 1938. It boomed.

On the Saturday of Artie Yerpe's birthday party, Brownie's joint remained a true beers-and-balls kind of place. Its small shack-like frame hides a cave-like interior. Inside, it's dank and musky, and the air feels heavy. There are faded posters of beautiful women on the walls and pictures of Brownie progressing through the ages. The tile floors are dirty, and the stools are scratched. Everything from the etched carvings on the wall to the rich pine wood bar to the well-used dart boards contrasts with the sleek modernity of the hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of construction underway a few blocks to the north. Indeed, Brownie's lies smack in the middle of the gentrification zone.

Across the street, T-Birds bar, one of Brownie's oldest competitors, was recently bought out by a medical establishment. And Brownie's too is feeling the pressure of new urbanism. The current owners of the bar recently put in a deli/coffee shop on the side of the place in an attempt to attract younger customers.

However, the core of Brownie's clientele is still the regulars, people who find comfort in a place that does not discriminate or judge. Some of them do not seem to accept or understand the exigencies of modern life. Still, a lot of them drive cars.

Artie himself has a 1989 Chevy pickup, an odd vehicle for a city dweller. He simply does not understand why more people don't have them.

"It's just so practical," he says.

"Don't mind him," Paul Voight responds jokingly. "Artie was born on a Mennonite farm in Pennsylvania. He doesn't know any better."

At 4:30 p.m., "the warden" comes over to check on her dad and to see how he's holding up. Artie shoos her away. "I'm fine," he says.

Artie waits until his daughter turns her back, then launches into a narrative about women these days. "I may lose my appetite for food," he says. "But not for ladies. Ladies are beautiful. I know this -- I've had 90 years of experience watching them."

Then he smiles. "Hi, Ursula," he calls out to the bartender. At age 52, she still has great legs, and she shows them off in a pair of short shorts. Her white bunchy knee socks are stuffed into a pair of white patent leather shoes. Her eyes are big, made bigger by the layer of black eyeshadow she packs around them.

When she waves back, Artie murmurs, "Thank God for Viagra."

Artie's monologue is halted when another customer, who goes solely by the name of Wally, comes in hawking lettuce and bananas for $1. Spath buys a head of lettuce and then on second thought dishes out some money for cauliflower too.

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