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The Glory That Wasn't (and Isn't) Larry's

It was the living room of the '60's counterculture, and the strange mix of people that is drawn to the infamous campus-area bar has given it a national reputation.

Columbus Monthly

November 1979

By Laura Wallencheck Gustafson

"There's no place quite like Larry's," reads the graffito on the restroom wall.  It is signed, "Chris from S.F. who used to live here."  And it sums up the feelings of the people who over the years have made the OSU-area bar a genuine legend.

Larry's is the dump of a place on North High Street that Woodruff Avenue dead-ends into, its green facade and two gray doors wedged between a taco joint and a photo studio.  Either door admits patrons to a small foyer.  They can read the bulletin board on the right wall if they lean over the tangle of bicycles.  Almost any item, service, entertainment, or cause is advertised - for sale, for notice, or for participation.  In a sense, this community bulletin board is Larry's equivalent to the door of the family refrigerator, but, when you open the wood-framed glass door into the bar itself, you know you're not at Mom's.

The green neon sign outside, reading simply "Larry's," replaces an older one now stored in the basement.  "The Lawrence Grill" opened in 1934 in a rented space at 2040 N. High, back when civilization ended at Morse Road.  The little Paoletti family business served food, beer and wine while the institution of higher learning across the street encroached northward.

Back in the last '60s, some of the people who now frequent Larry's wanted to burn down the place across the street, or denounce it, or wake it up.  They would come panting in to recuperate after a day on the bullhorns and barricades.  It was a visionary time, and some of the best, and worst, visions in Columbus were born of musings and anger over a bottle-cluttered table at Larry's.

Nowadays, many of these same philosophers settle in at the same tables, 10 years older, to rouse the younger rabble with tales of the days they closed the gates at 11th and Neil and stared down rifle bores at 15th and High.

The younger listeners weren't there, of course.  But many of them wish they had been.  They come into Larry's wearing Army surplus clothing and leather-laced hats: if fate has decreed they miss the revolution, they can at least look the part.

But it was not any kind of counterculture revolution that set Larry's on its present course.  It was the most respectable of all conflicts, World War II, that did the trick.

Most male OSU students were drafted and sent off to fight the Germans and the Japanese.  Those males who remained on campus were either 4-F or were soldiers assigned to special on-campus military programs.

Uncle Sam fed the soldiers, so they eschewed the cuisine at the Lawrence Grill in favor of The spirits.  Dan Paoletti, who works the bar part-time today, says that when his grandfather "realized we were selling more wine and beer than food to the soldiers, he pulled the white tablecloths off the tables."

And that was the end of The Lawrence Grill . . . as a restaurant.  The kitchen is still in operation; regulars report that it produces some of the best pizza and sandwiches in the area.

But Larry's fame is not based on its food.  It is based, instead, on the feel of the place itself.

"Sometimes," Dan Paoletti says, "older-type people will come in, usually around homecoming time, sit at the bar, order a beer, and look around.  After a while, they wave to me, shake their heads, and they all say, 'it hasn't changed . . ."

And it hasn't, at least not the important things.  The room is longer than it is wide, the original bar running along the north wall, the original dark booths lining the south wall, and ranks of tables and mismatched chairs scattered in between.  The floor area is divided roughly in half lengthwise by the spine of an old radiator (it's the best place to sit in the winter) and three supports bearing coat hooks and wine posters.  Ceiling fans hang over the booth aisle and, in the steamiest weather, they rotate lazily to stir the haze.  There have been peanut shells on Larry's linoleum since long before they became trendy.  Generally, the decor is faded Formica and sticky mahogany, uneven ceiling tiles and hard wooden bar stools that don't spin well, if at all.

So why do people come?  "If Woody Allen came to Columbus, he'd jam at Larry's," says an engineering graduate student, and sometimes amateur jazz musician.

If Woody Allen did show up, and it was a Monday night, there would be a jazz group already there waiting for him, in a spot near the back where some tables have been shoved aside.  There is no cover charge for the 'make-you-forget-it's-Monday" music.  Instead, 20 cents is added to the price of each glass of wine or beer.  This pro-ration system is based on the theory that the more you listen, the more you'll probably drink, in which case it's only fair that you pay for a greater share of the vibes.

But, aside from the music on Mondays, many of Larry's customers come because Larry's is the surrogate living room of the counterculture - the real counterculture of the '60's and early '70s and what passes for it in the late '70s.  There is a mix of fading flower children and pipe-smoking intellectuals, foreign students who long for the atmosphere of a European cafe and ex-Beatniks who yearn to return to the days of the coffeehouses.

Larry's is, in the words of its official T-shirt, the meeting place of the "Epistemological and Metaphysical Society of Lower Woodruff Avenue."

There is usually a philosophical discussion in progress among the old regulars.  Frequently, one or more graduate seminar groups will be thrashing out some problem.

Someone looking for a lively discussion can always find one.  The quiet types can shuffle in and, on Sundays, grab a cup of coffee and share with other patrons the various sections of the Dispatch and the New York Times that are scattered over the tables.  There are chess boards available at the bar.  On Sunday evenings, a hot game of "Risk" begins around 6 o'clock.

Some of the people who come to Larry's do so because, in the old days, it was the only place they could go.  The rumor persists that Larry's is a "fag bar."

The rumors started in the '50's, when Larry's was, for a time, a fraternity bar, of all things.  The fraternity men came, as the soldiers had before them, for the beer.  But it didn't sit too well with some of them, back in those less-enlightened years, that the Paoletti family refused to turn away "niggers and faggots."

The reputation, whether deserved or undeserved, persists.  An anonymous male calls in once a month or so to warn he's about to come down and "blow the queens away."  Very young students sometimes catcall as they walk past in the wee hours of the morning.  A newcomer to Columbus, asked if he wants to visit Larry's says, "But I heard that was a fag bar."  Former OSU students whose careers encompass two decades react the same way.

So it is probably a good thing for the sake of history that there is documented evidence of the bar's fraternity heritage.  A group of Greeks, it seems, once slave well into the night on a crepe-paper homecoming float, only to have it melt in a heavy rain.  A weathered photo shows the float's soggy remains bearing the placard:  "The hell with it - gone to Larry's."

After a valiant attempt to keep Larry's their own exclusive territory, the fraternity men finally took their self-styled integrity and their business elsewhere, leaving Larry's to those whose main color concern was whether the wine was red or white, or the beer dark or light.

But the fraternity influence, if gone, is not entirely forgotten.  For the past 12 years or so, the Saturday of spring finals week has been highlighted by Larry's Prom.  On that magical night, the area the Monday night jazz group occupies is cordoned off with crepe-paper streamers (in memory of the deceased float) and the customers pretend they're having a dance.

One year it was by "invitation only," except someone forged invitations so everyone came anyway.  That was also the year costumes were the thing.  The place, attendees report, was so packed it was difficult to keep the finery from getting jostled off in the crowd.  To the strains of Debussy, Herbie Hancock and Mongo Santamaria, the Happy Robots, Pimples, Pirates, Roller Derby Queens (with skates), and New Year's Babies mixed until closing under the eyes of the Beethoven poster.  Things have since calmed down; the only dress requirement for this year's Prom was that patrons be dressed.

Not that it's always anything goes at Larry's.  The staff is under strict orders to eject anyone smoking pot on the premises, or sleeping.  Children tagging along with their parents can't order beers, of course, so they must content themselves with sipping a soft drink and mooching an occasional cashew from someone at another table.

The resident dog, like the carriage horse in Emerald City, never looks the same twice and manages to become completely invisible when a newcomer remarks, "hey . . . a dog!"

Although Larry's accommodates anyone who walks in, feels comfortable and doesn't "act outrageous" (e.g., "lights firecrackers." cites Dan), a few people can't come back.  About 10 years ago a "list of undesirables" was posted, banning certain persons who hung out at a defunct burger joint next door.  The personae non gratae, in true radical fashion, picketed for admittance.

A former waiter recalls that police assistance was requested several years ago to convince some rowdies to leave.  The peace-breakers had, the waiter says, insulted his friend, and when invited to go away, they began shooting.

There are a lot of stories about Larry's - some true, some not, and some downright confused.  A few examples: you can't park at the back door because the gravel covers the roof of the basement bowling lanes (true).  Larry's was a speakeasy and the first area bar to open legally after Prohibition was repealed (maybe).  Folk-protest singer/musician Phil Ochs got his start at Larry's (true).  The booths (or seats or tables) contain secret panels concealing secret compartments in which contraband, type material was stored in "those days" (this from a 19-year old who assures you he's been a regular since 1960).

And just  about everyone claims to remember that Larry's appeared on a list of the 10 (or 20) bars in the U.S. that are "must-sees."  No one can recall in which national magazine it was printed or in which year.  (Votes are evenly split between Playboy and Esquire.)

Whether or not the source of the honor can be pinpointed, people in such places as San Francisco, New Orleans, New York and Montreal have heard enough, or read enough, about the place to ask visitors, "From Columbus, huh?  Have you ever been to Larry's?"  The question is asked far more often than might be expected for a worn little bar that didn't serve high beer on Sunday until three years ago.  But the potables have never been the attraction at Larry's; the people always have.

There are, very definitely, "Larry's people," and each inwardly relishes the label.  Each has private reasons for turning in at the door and shares an amazing degree of benign tolerance for the strange collection of humanity at the other tables or in the aisles.  Some have been regulars since the new sign was hung; others became regulars on their first visit.  All consider Larry's their bar, and very few understand why.

Bill has been at Larry's "for about eight years," he thinks.  "I don't know why I work here . . . . That's an answer in itself.  I guess it's because of Larry.  Where else could I have a boss who pauses behind the bar last week asks me what I might know about Julian the Apostate?"  The waiter lacks a few credits for a doctorate in philosophy.  He lives upstairs in "a messy room."

Larry's isn't for everyone.  Someone's mother once spent here first - and last - visit sitting in the corner of a booth, crying.  Those who aspire to become Larry's people have to know the rules.

Larry's regulars operate on what could be termed the Snowball Theory of Social Intercourse.  New arrivals stop at the bar and place an order or flag down a waiter if one happens to amble by, look around to see who else is in the place, try to overhear some of the conversations and check out which dog is on duty.

If they see no one they would care to sit with, they sit alone; within a few minutes, someone they may or may not know will probably pull up a chair and sit down.  Unless the conversation is very personal, would-be joiners are never discouraged.  Soon, a small crowd may be gathered.  The growing collection of empty beer bottles is pushed to the end of the table; periodically, a waiter comes by, throws the empties with a flourish into a tall can and brings more beer.

There are long-legged young women in cutoff jeans and hiking boots to admire; poets who have been accepted for publication to rejoice with; artists who have just been granted a big commission to celebrate with.  There are even a few scholars trying to study in the midst of the chatter and the music and the shattering glass.

And amidst this real-life floor show there is the mournful-looking man behind the bar, dressed in a timeless long-sleeved pastel shirt with white buttons and loose-fitting trousers, looking like Marlon Brando in the final scenes of The Godfather.  When he's not moving to fill some order or other, he will be standing with one arm leaning on the bar, a cup of instant coffee in his hand, his thumb hooked around the spoon still sitting in the cup.

Larry Paoletti's hair is white, perhaps from 30 years of struggling to make money while keeping the beer affordable for even the poorest graduate student.

Ask him what it is that makes Larry's what it is, and he is likely to shrug, look away for a moment, then look back with a slow smile that never quite makes it to his eyes.

Larry gave up an engineering career at Rockwell International to run his family's refuge for the counterculture, but he insists the bar is nothing special - just a beer joint like so many other campus beer joints.

He stands behind his bar, watching the people who call his place home, dumps their ashtrays, serves them their beer and waits for their latest ideas to form in the haze rising above their heads.

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