THE HOLLYWOOD STEAK
HOUSE AND SHERMAN’S TAVERN
Before there was Masterson’s, there was the Hollywood Steak House. It was part diner, part full restaurant, half-surrounded by customer parking. The Steak House, as it was known, was "the" meeting place for denizens of Old Louisville in the early 50's. University of Louisville students who rented rooms in nearby homes, lived in dorms or Confederate Street fraternity houses frequently had meals, a burger or coffee there. It was a bright, white circular hub in the mostly residential neighborhood around Third and Avery. At the big round counter people lingered over steaming cups. Sloping mirrors near the ceiling made it easy, no matter where one sat, to see who was coming through the door with whom. The juke box, operated with a nickel from Formica table or counter, played popular favorites; Kaye Starr’s throaty "Wheel of Fortune" Theresa Brewer’s bubbling "Music, Music, Music, or Nat King Cole’s "Too Young" a poignant theme for many of us then.
A great place for wee hours breakfasts, the Steak House hosted prom night couples in tuxes and pastel formal gowns. At the rear two huge booths on either side were much coveted for groups of eight or ten. Waitresses wore handkerchiefs with colorful crocheted borders peeking from the breast pockets of their white uniforms, a widespread fad of the time.
Across Avery Street, for those of the University crowd who were old enough, or passed as such, there was Sherman’s Tavern. It sat in a row of shabby, grey, wooden structures containing a variety of small businesses which came and went. Sherman’s however, thrived a bit longer than most.
A few steps up from the sidewalk was the wooden door, propped open when the weather allowed, and just inside to the right was the long bar. There, city bus drivers (the bus barn, formerly the streetcar barn, was nearby) or workers from the Chess & Wymond cooperage around the corner stood for an after-work beer. Beyond the bar in the big rear room was where the booths, the juke box and all the fun waited.
On each side were separate semicircular banquettes in red vinyl which could seat five or six, with chairs often pulled up to accommodate one or two more. Different cliques sought their peers at these. Out-of-training football players sometimes shared one booth, but more regularly there were the Greeks, usually Lambda Chi’s, KA’s (Kappa Alphas) and Teeks (Tau Kappa Epsilon). But an amorphous group of NROTC boys made up the more faithful of the undergraduates there, singing sea chanties, trading midshipman cruise stories and downing pitchers or bottles of Falls City or Sterling. Seated with them in more serious moments, one could also join in critiquing the popular books of the day, Catcher in the Rye or the Mike Hammer books, or quoting humorous passages from Bud Shulman’s satirical Barefoot Boy with Cheek and The Feather Merchants..
At another booth sat a loosely defined group some referred to as The Intellects, an older crowd whose members at first glance seemed to huddle conspiratorially in dark clothing under clouds of pipe and cigarette smoke. They were a diverse group - some graduate students along with several younger faculty from the English and Humanities Departments. Names resurface now so many years later. Making rare but celebrated appearances were Bill "Doc" Eckstrom, English professor and later Department head for whom the University’s Eckstrom Library was named; George Perle, a music instructor with a mop of curly dark hair, who later became a renowned composer, music theorist, and winner of a Pulitzer prize for music. Often Warren Oates was there. At the time Warren was acting with the University Play Shop and later, some may remember, became successful in Hollywood. But the core group then included a couple of union organizers, an artist or two, a married couple who were both social workers and a couple of journalists. These last were Emil Aun, editor of the Voice of St. Matthews and Bill Bauman, editor of an insurance company magazine and aspiring playwright. Others in the group were Phil Zimmerman, owner of a downtown bookstore; Arthur Lerman, a talented pianist who later abandoned the concert dream to join his family’s department store chain; Ben Fonaroff, a brilliant recent Master of English on his way to a doctorate and college professorship; and Bill Thorne, a psychologist in the personnel department of International Harvester who later became a psychiatric social worker for the VA..
Much more serious discussion took place with this, at one point they centered nervously around the just-beginning McCarthy investigations where it seemed anyone could be suspect for just about anything. Later, most of the group were enthusiastic Adlai Stevenson supporters, dejected when he lost the presidential election, twice..
But more than politics, the talk centered on books, theater and art. Those years were great ones for the Art Center Association on First Street where such successful artists as Romauld Kraus, Ulfert Wilke, and Eugene "Bud" Leake were teaching University-credited classes.. I hasten to add that these gentlemen were not, as far as I know, patrons of Sherman’s but their names and work did not go unmentioned there.
A student at U of L once wrote a column in the University paper, decrying the existence of Sherman’s as an unworthy campus watering hole, comparing it unfavorably to those ivy-covered establishments nestled in northeastern school tradition.. The article, best I can recall, seemed somewhat elitist and I doubt that many readers agreed with him. Sherman’s was a unique spot in a certain special time, wherein this once-young, part-time student listened wide-eyed, learned much and will remember fondly, along with those coffee-driven vigils at the Hollywood Steak House.
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