Mac's Club Deuce: An Oral History

Mac Klein (right) meets a young John Travolta.
Mac Klein (right) meets a young John Travolta.
Photo courtesy of Mac Klein

On September 19, 1914, Mac Klein was born — just 49 years after Robert E. Lee's army fired the last bullet of the Civil War and two months into World War I. The Ford Model T was celebrating its sixth year on the road. Miami Beach didn't exist, and neither did chocolate chips or penicillin.

More than a century later, Klein spends most days in the creaky wooden office of Mac's Club Deuce, the legendary South Beach bar he's owned for 51 years. Saturday, September 19, he'll throw his 101st-birthday party in the joint.

What Mac's Club Deuce has done in South Beach is nothing short of a miracle. Miami Vice threw its cast party here. Playboy named it one of the best bars in America. And Anthony Bourdain says it's one of his favorite spots in the world. In a city that changes like an indecisive chameleon, an island always for sale to the highest bidder, Mac's joint has remained a pristine, neon-lit paradise untouched by outside forces.

A lot has happened in the Deuce's 51 years. Some of the chapters in this history book have faded away, and some have been soaked in beer, rendering entire pages blurry and fragile. A fair number of its authors are dead or missing. Still, there are those who were there and remember — or at least they swear they do.

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These are their stories. This is the oral history of Mac's Club Deuce.

War and Peace: The Early Years

Born on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1914, Mac Klein grew up during the Great Depression.

Mac Klein: I was a cantor when I was a kid. I went to the Catskills in the summertime, and I used to sing in little Jewish hotels because they couldn't afford entertainment. When I went to high school, after the first six months of school, I had to leave. My father couldn't afford to send my older brother to school and me too. So I got a job for $15 a month in East Hampton, Connecticut, on a farm. I worked for a whole year with one cow, a blind horse, and 3,000 chickens. And you know something? That was education.

In 1939, Klein was deployed to Europe for World War II. He was shipped to France and was among the first American soldiers assigned to duty behind enemy lines.

Klein: I can't tell you the things I did while I was in service.

Ash Swanson, Club Deuce doorman since 2009: He was behind German lines, like two months before the invasion. He had to find tank positions, troop movement. It's serious, heavy-duty shit. And he's told me this story twice of how he got shot. I think he's got one or two Nazi Luger bullets in him. They can't get 'em out.

Klein: I spent a lot of time in Coventry [England, the site of a U.S. Army medical base]. I remember the doctor saying to me: "We want to take the arm off." I said, "You better not be around when I wake up." I do recall those words.

Swanson: So, the story goes, he was on reconnaissance and saw a tank in the distance, either going toward them or moving near the people on duty. The Germans on the tanks saw movement and sprayed the machine gun. Luckily, it only hit him twice.

Klein: After close to a year in English hospitals, they sent me to Tilton General Hospital in New Jersey. Leaving the hospital, I needed warm weather. I came to Miami Beach.

Klein moved to Miami in the mid-'40s and soon became a regular at Club Deuce. Two decades later, on February 3, 1964, he purchased the bar.

Klein: When I bought the place, the owner died practically the same day my daughter was born. I came from the hospital to have a drink and celebrate the fact that I became a father. There was a woman sitting in front of the door, and the place was closed. I said, "What happened?" She said, "Mr. Harold, he died."

What attracted me to it? The people who were the customers of the Deuce were the people who came here to work. They were basically working people. This bar reminded most of them of their hometown bar.

Cocaine, Don Johnson, and Neon Lights: The '80s Boom

In the '80s, Miami Beach transformed from a sleepy town full of the elderly and working-class into the nation's cocaine-trafficking capital when a pastel-clad duo named Crockett and Tubbs turned the nation's attention to South Beach.

Mac Klein: Believe it or not, in 1985 you were liable to see somebody from the district attorney's office sitting on one end of the bar. You were liable to see a thief on the other end. And the lawyer on the other end. And they didn't even talk to each other. All on the same case. Miami Beach was a thriving town. It had life. Crime has life.

Carol Honigmann, Deuce bartender from 1980 to 2010: In the afternoon, it would have been mostly a lot of old, retired guys who sat in the same seat every day and drank the same thing every day. They always had their routine. And then in the evening, it would be a whole different story, because in the '80s, South Beach was kind of scary.

Klein: I used to lock the door. We had the cocaine cowboys. They were killing each other on the street. But you gotta remember one thing — that Miami Vice, you had them exactly the same time you had the cocaine cowboys. So if you wanted to do away with one, you'd have to do away with the other, because what good is Miami Vice without the cocaine cowboys?

Sergio Bonilla, regular: It's hard to say [if I saw any of the actual drug lords]. Some guy drives up in a Lamborghini, and he orders everybody drinks and gives the bartender $100. How the fuck do you get that money?

Honigmann: I saw a few people snort cocaine off the bar in those days. It was [a big deal] to us, but it wasn't to them. It was nothing we allowed. They got kicked out instantly when you saw behavior like that going on. We used to have a phone in the back, so if I had to call the police, they didn't see me doing it.

Bonilla: There were drugs everywhere. I walked into the men's room — there were three or four women and two men breaking cocaine out of a thing that looked like a monster roll of cheese.

A montage of Deuce regulars who have died, collected by a current bartender.
A montage of Deuce regulars who have died, collected by a current bartender.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Burley

Klein: I enjoyed the thrill of the cocaine cowboys. I enjoyed the thrill of Miami Vice. The wonderful thing about Miami Vice, for the first time, people all over the world saw the town. They saw the beauty of the small hotels on Ocean Drive, with the pastels colors, with all the beautiful colors.

Michael Talbott, who portrayed Det. Stanley Switek on Miami Vice: You know, the crew used to go down there. If we were filming at the beach, after we wrapped, we'd go to Club Deuce for cocktails. I've walked out of Club Deuce with the sun hitting me right in the eyes.

Honigmann: [Miami Vice] put in all the neon [in the bar] — that was part of the agreement. They filmed in there, but the neon would all stay when they were done filming.

Talbott: I have very fond memories. I'm sitting at the bar — you know, it's got that funky bar in there — and they're like sweeping around my feet, but they never closed. And it's 5 in the morning. And finally some of the guys in the crew said, "Jeez, maybe we should go home now."

Honigmann: Oh, [Talbott is] great. He's a very nice man. Now Don Johnson, on the other hand, was a jerk. I remember one time somebody wanted to take a picture of him and he had, I don't know if you'd call him a bodyguard, but whoever was with him took the camera and exposed the film.

Miami Vice filmed multiple scenes inside Mac's Club Deuce, and when the series came to a close in 1990, the cast threw their wrap party at the bar.

Klein: They were my favorite, and I think I was theirs. You can see that I had a different relationship with them than everybody else had. The only place they wanted to have their goodbye party was this little bar. They all worked behind the bar themselves. Don Johnson got behind the bar, and I said, "Here it is. Let's have a party." And we did.

Honigmann: It was extraordinarily busy. Michael Talbott got behind the bar and was talking to people and being a gracious host himself.

Talbott: It was wild. We took over the whole joint. Drinks were on Universal Studios, so I'm giving away booze like it's going out of style. I'm sure Mac did very well that night as far as profits. I don't think he could keep up writing down how many drinks I'm giving out. I think he was using just a pencil and paper. That night, if somebody came up and said, "I'd like a Tom Collins" or a mixed drink or a blender drink, I'd just give them a Scotch. I said, "We don't do mixed drinks. We don't do blender drinks. What do you want, an umbrella?"

Drunken Tales

Although Mac's Club Deuce experienced a bump in business from its Miami Vice fame, the bar never went Hollywood. Through every era, Mac's has maintained a reputation as a locals' dive where anything could happen. Often, it does.

Sergio Bonilla: I'll say this, [Miami Beach went] from a sleepy town to a party town because there was so much drug money, and the drug dealers had so much money that they would set up clubs. They didn't know how to run them, you know what I mean? So they'd lose money in the place. So finally they brought in guys who manage clubs from New York here, and those guys ran the place. So that's how it got to be a party town. It was brought up on drug money.

An infamous attack-by-iguana inside the Deuce. The iguana survived.
An infamous attack-by-iguana inside the Deuce. The iguana survived.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Burley

Ash Swanson: There's a bunch of things, a lot of rumors of people getting shot in the alley and coming in here. But one of them was right after Hurricane Andrew, in '92. So there's a lot of construction people that come from all over the country who were sent to South Florida to rebuild it. So I guess this one afternoon we had two crews (once again, I was not here). It was like guys from Texas, Anglos, and some Latino, Mexican builders. Two sides. Words were exchanged, and I think the Mexican guy picked up a machete, went over there, and almost whacked off the guy's arm. He turned around, and the guy went bam!

Melissa Burley, bartender from 1995 to 2009: After Andrew in '92, a lot of people came to repair homes and came from Georgia and all different places, working on stuff. It was a rough crowd for a while. A lot of money, a lot of cash, big drinkers.

Swanson: The clientele here is perfectly mixed. Most of the locals like coming here. If they don't come here, there's a couple of reasons. Either they're banned, because they got eighty-sixed, or something else.

Burley: Sure, we'd eighty-six people, but you'd warn them and say, "Hey, 84... 85..." We didn't have a list then, but now they have a big list. Mostly you'd let people come back. Sometimes you just need a little time out. You'd have to piss off a bartender, and we have a lot of tolerance.

Swanson: It's a great list. It just has the name and what they drink. It's a full eight-and-a-half-by-11 page on a clipboard with a full two rows of all these names, like "Bethany — gin and tonic."

Honigmann: Mac's is like walking into the bar in Star Wars because you never know who you're gonna be sitting down next to. And everybody basically got along. We always had the best-looking transvestites.

Colin Savage, bartender from 1991 to 2011: All the stories you heard about the drag queens and the gays, it's true. The Deuce bar was the only place where people could come out in drag and were not frowned at.

Swanson: Every now and then, you'd be at the bar and some poor guy from Ohio... and we'd be snickering away, going, "Look for the Adam's apple!"

Honigmann: Guys used to say to me: "Is that a woman, or is that a man?" And I'd say, "If you have to ask me that question, then you should know the answer."

Swanson: The other famous story, you may have heard about it: when the guy had the iguana on his shoulder.

Burley: [I was there] by lucky happenstance. I had just gotten off work, and all my friends were sitting at the bar. My sister was in town, which is why there happened to be a camera, in those days before digital cameras.

Honigmann: I can't remember her name. She was a transsexual. She had given somebody some money to get some drugs. And he never came back, the guy with the iguana.

Swanson: He came in and he had this iguana, like, for tourist pictures, with a leash on it. So he came in, and all of a sudden a girl came in and asked him for her money. She's like, "You owe me fucking 40 bucks."

Honigmann: He never came back with the drugs, so the next time she saw him, and he had the iguana with him, she grabbed the iguana by the tail and swung it around and said, "I want my money! I want my money!"

Burley: "Tara, put the iguana down!" That was the funniest overheard line at the Deuce.

Honigmann: She let the thing go sailing. And it hit the cigarette machine, landed on the floor.

Burley: Someone jumped into EMT mode and tried to resuscitate it. Finally, we could see the iguana breathe.

Swanson: It hit the cigarette machine. It just bounced off, and it survived.

Honigmann: It was a big one. It was a pretty big one.

Burley: Tara was already eighty-sixing herself but stopped long enough to flash us on her way out.

Savage: What happens at the Deuce stays at the Deuce.

Star Watch

The Deuce has always been a magnet for celebrities who found themselves in South Beach. From Humphrey Bogart to John Travolta, dozens of famous faces have sat for a beer at the curved bar — and discovered that their social status had been stripped at the door.

Mac Klein: Most times, they came in, they had a drink, and that was it. They didn't want attention, and we didn't give it to them. Nobody would ask for autographs here. And I made sure.

Carol Honigmann: They could be [regular] people, and nobody would bother them. Matt Dillon, when they filmed There's Something About Mary, he came in with Cameron Diaz quite a few times — really, really nice person. He had a mustache for this movie, and one of the regular customers said, "You know, that looks just like Matt Dillon, but he doesn't have a mustache." So he walked up to him and said, "You really look like Matt Dillon." And he turned around and said, "I am Matt Dillon." He was floored.

Melissa Burley: Did you hear when Kate Moss was almost denied entry? She didn't have her ID. And George [the doorman] was like, "Sorry."

We're like, "George, let her in."

"She has no ID. We just had a meeting. You gotta have ID. I'm following the rules."

"George, let her in." So she gets in, and she's drinking. Johnny [Knoxville, who accompanied her] goes and plays pool. She's sitting right next to Alex, a regular. I couldn't just say, "Alex, you're sitting next to Kate Moss." Everything's fine. They have fun; they leave. And then I say, "Alex, that was Kate Moss. She's the hottest woman in the world." And he was like, "Yeah, I thought she was cute."

Honigmann: Lauren Hutton used to come in a lot. She was marvelous — wonderful, wonderful person. And she'd come in and be in blue jeans and a white men's shirt, and she'd be drinking beer out of a bottle, no glass, and getting up and dancing — because they could be [regular] people and not be bothered. Nobody would bother them.

Ash Swanson: Irvine Welsh actually included the Deuce in the beginning scene of his novel Crime. Some detective is on vacation and meets these two girls, and the adventure continues. It starts right here.

When celebrities like Kat Von D (right) show up, they're treated like just another customer.
When celebrities like Kat Von D (right) show up, they're treated like just another customer.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Burley

Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting: The Deuce is more than a bar, even more than — as Ash would say — "a way of life." It's one of the last real slices of genuine Americana. The Deuce is the set of the movie that made everybody of my generation want to go to America. It's precious. That was my homage to it.

Trip Robinson, regular and yacht designer: Dweezil Zappa was the bomb. He was sitting right here. I was drawing one of my yacht designs. I was sitting right there. He pulled up and said, "You want a drink?" This was like four years ago. I started drawing, and he said, "Wow, you're talented." He goes, "Listen, I'm having a party back at my condo." So he bought rounds all night; he was buying for everybody. And Moon [Zappa] was at the apartment when we got there later. He had all his dad's stuff — it was a fucking shrine. So everybody leaves, and I wake up on the couch, and there's a note on the coffee table that says, "Trip, there's eggs and everything in there. This is how I like them." So I make like three dozen eggs and omelets and chopped ham. He comes back with Moon. We all sit there and we just eat. He had a contract two months later under his dad's estate, and I designed his 80-foot yacht. You can look it up right now — it's called Moon to Stars.

Dweezil Zappa, musician: Not one ounce of this story is true. I have never been to that bar. I don't go to bars because I don't drink. Never owned or stayed in a condo in Miami. Did not have eggs with that person.

Swanson: We had Chef Batali — he was here with Jimmy Fallon back in '09. I think there was some sort of food event going on. Batali, Fallon, there's a couple other people, and they're all hammered. So they left. Batali left his little satchel, booky thing here. We closed, and I found the bag. I found the Batali information, you know, his whole appointment book, like "Martha Stewart cooking program," a camera, some pens, whatever. So we figured it was his. There was a number for the manager, and we called it. So before he came to pick up the bag, I went back and took some pictures with his camera. And I'll just leave it at that. One was of a poster. The rest, I'll leave at that. He might have thought we had a sausage line.

Burley: Quentin Tarantino drank a lot of Jäger.

Honigmann: He was very laid-back, very quiet. He would just kinda sit back in his chair and watch everything that was going on, like he was planning his next movie or something.

Swanson: You should ask Birdman about his Eddie Vedder story.

Sean Gould, AKA Birdman, local musician: I looked around, at the corner, and there was this little fellow. I said to myself, That guy looks like Eddie Vedder. I walked over to him and said, "Excuse me. Are you Eddie Vedder?" He said yes. I said, "Do you mind if I hang out and talk for a second?" He said, "No problem."

We sat there from 12:30 a.m. till closing time, talked the whole time. He asked me about what I do. I told him I got a workshop studio with old-school analogs and guitar amps in Little Haiti. Standing outside the Deuce, he told me: "You mind if I come over and record some stuff?" I thought he was messing around, and about 30 seconds later, he's like, "No, I'm serious. Can you get a band together and we'll jam?"

That was a Friday night. Of course, I go home and call up everybody, all Saturday afternoon basically. Only 17 people showed up. I sent my girlfriend over. She picked him up and drove him to my warehouse. He walked in and saw the drums, guitars, recording equipment, and he said, "Wow." He grabbed his guitar, and we jammed for, let's see, he got there at 10:30 p.m. and he left, I wanna say, it was daybreak.

Klein: Would you believe that I forget all the stars who come in? Forgot them all. I was never awed by them to begin with. I was less awed by them after I got to know them. They were just ordinary people — frightened, frightened, frightened. When you're on the top, there's only one place to go: down. So you're frightened. I was never on the top, and I never cared about going down. It meant nothing to me. And especially at 100, you don't give a goddamn about anybody. I can talk to the president of the United States the same as I'm talking to you.

Burley: We're not catering to them. They're still paying for their drinks. They can just be people.


Modern Love

As Miami Beach grew richer and Mac Klein made it into a new millennium, a new face launched the bar into the national spotlight. In 2006, chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain featured the Deuce on his Travel Channel show No Reservations, calling it one of his "favorite places on Earth." He'd go on to feature Mac's two more times — on his show The Layover in 2011 and on his most recent effort, Parts Unknown, in May 2015.

Ash Swanson: When the Anthony Bourdain show ran, our web traffic spiked. It went up tenfold. It went up to like 14,000. It just shot through the roof. Two weeks later, they had a rerun, and it spiked again.

Mac Klein: He came down here one day, and somebody had brought him in here, and he kept writing that it was his favorite bar. I'm sure you've seen that. And another person, what's his name, with the kinky hair... Guy Fieri. Guy Fieri said it was his favorite bar. Now I've got these two people who despised each other. It's their favorite bar. What happened is that Anthony Bourdain was bigger than him and was able to give more publicity. [Fieri] got mad. And I got stuck with Anthony.

Swanson: A lot of people were impressed with the show because it was really well done. It portrayed Miami in a unique way. They went for the stuff not everyone goes for. Imagine Condé Nast going into Little Haiti looking for oxtail soup. They'd be shitting bricks with a security detail.

Klein: Now, Anthony Bourdain, I like. People call me from all over the world telling me: "You're the only person who we ever saw on the Anthony Bourdain program where he never opened up his mouth." I never gave him a chance to say a word. If you saw the show, you see that I started talking and it didn't end until I ended.

Ron Sykes, tourist and patron: We discovered the Deuce thanks to Anthony Bourdain. That's the only reason we come down here [from Virginia Beach] — to come here and to go to the Raleigh Hotel. That's it. Eat and drink and come to Mac's.

Klein: A few weeks ago, a man comes in with somebody. One person was from the Beach, and he brings his friend and says this man is from Iceland. He came down to visit the Club Deuce and hopes he can take a picture with Mac. We take a picture. And he says — you know what he says? "Your name is on practically every bar in Iceland." He says, "We drink and we say, 'To Mac!'"? They have a picture of me on the wall there.

On September 19, 2014, surrounded by friends, customers, employees, and family, Mac Klein turned 100 years old. The party was held at the Deuce, and drinks were $1 all day.

Klein: You know something? I get calls from all over the world now, from people who, when I was 99, didn't know I was alive. Just the idea of becoming 100 instead of 99 — the amazing difference is that one year. At 99, they didn't know I was alive. At 100, my God, they found out I can talk. They found out I have a mind of my own. Because you know where you're supposed to be at 100? I hate to tell you, but it's the truth. But here I am. I'm the living example of what you shouldn't be at 100.

Larry Schatz, regular: On his birthday two years ago, everything was 99 cents. Then last year, it was a dollar. This year, it'll be a dollar and 1 cent. He says, "I'm getting old! It's costing us too much money!"

Steve Wasserman, liquor distributor: It was a fun night. I believe he even danced.

Klein: Being 100 is the greatest experience that ever happened to me. It opened a completely new world. All of a sudden, people I never knew in my life ask, "How come? What do you do to live this long? How come you still have your senses? How come you can still talk? At 100 years old, you should be lying under the ground somewhere."

Anything goes at the Deuce — even a drunken Superman attempting to fly.
Anything goes at the Deuce — even a drunken Superman attempting to fly.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Burley

The greatest thing in the world is to have a reason to get up in the morning. The trouble with people — they live, and sometimes they reach the age of 70 and the biggest thing on their mind is death. The biggest thing on my mind when I get up is life. What can I do? I'm still looking to do different things. And I enjoy every moment of my life.

Given Miami's fickle nightlife scene and South Beach's astronomical real-estate prices, Club Deuce's long-term fate is uncertain.

Sergio Bonilla: I hope it maintains some of the flavor that was here. And I think it will. I mean, nothing is exactly the same. It's way different from 1980, and in 2025, it'll be a lot different. So it moves on, but I hope the people who come have enjoyed this place as much as I did and get as much out of it as I did.

Klein: I think 20 years from now, nobody in the world can figure out what's gonna happen. See, we live in a very unrealistic type of world. You used to get up in the morning, leave your house, and know what to expect. Now you get up in the morning, leave your house, you haven't got the least idea what to expect.

The contractors who come in here are building like crazy because there's nothing else to do with the money. You don't get no interest for your money, so why put it in a bank? So what they do is they put it in the ground... Everything is changing. But when you're in here, it's the same as yesterday. It's the same as last week, last month, last year.

Swanson: It's one of those things that nobody likes talking about. It's horrible thinking about your utopia going under. And you know it's going to happen, you know? It's like driving your favorite car or hanging out with your favorite dog — you can only have it so much; then it's gone. Which is weird to feel about a bar, because you're not supposed to be here in the first place, technically speaking. You're supposed to be out there riding a bike, being healthy, reading a book, and being more socially interactive. But, you know, this provides a lot for people.

Melissa Burley: Who knows? Anything can happen, right? But Mac has been able to maintain. We'll see what happens. It'll be a sad day if there's no Deuce here. It'll be a different Miami Beach. I don't come here that often anymore, but it's great to know it's here. And it's always the same. It's nice; it's comforting.

Irvine Welsh: I hope it stays exactly as it is. Forever.

Klein: The truth is, coming to work is what keeps me who I am. I work seven days a week. It's nice to be able to get up in the morning, have coffee with your wife, she drives you to work, and after leaving the woman you love, you meet the people you love. I've reached a point in life where I don't care whether I make money or lose money. It doesn't mean anything. How much can you spend? And I ain't got enough time to spend all of it. I have nothing negative to say — nothing at all. How can I say anything negative when, at the age of 100, I'm here in front of you, and you're gonna put me on the front page? I can only say thank you.

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