Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bobby Baker lounges into the sunset, but his bar goes on

Posted By on Wed, Dec 19, 2012 at 8:30 AM

Bobby Baker has left the lounge.
On the night of his retirement party, at the bar he'd named after himself, 66-year-old Bobby Baker was busing tables.

It wasn't heavy work yet - the room hadn't quite filled up. At the bar, people were watching Baylor's football team pull out a surprise win over Kansas State. In the back of the room, a handful of bartenders from joints up and down Wornall Road drank alongside several of Baker's regulars - mostly older, gregarious men with a strong taste for Crown on the rocks - their conversations punctuated by hearty backslapping.

Baker occasionally reminded well-wishers that this was only his "semi-retirement party." It was November 17, and he had some time left before January 1, the day he plans to turn the Waldo bar over to his daughter, Becky Hamrich.

"It's made me a good living," Baker tells me on another recent day, sitting in the small, dark neighborhood favorite that he opened almost 19 years ago. "But I know what my dad means now when he used to say, 'Everything isn't always going to be peaches and cream.'

A plaque inside honors Johnny Baker.
"My dad bought his first bar for $900," Baker continues. "Pendergast was involved." Johnny Baker always claimed that his original bar was located in a drugstore under a Tom Pendergast office, around 18th Street and Main. The best of the old family stories are pretty much unverifiable - the beer deliveries arranged by the Mafia, the one about rounding up voters for Pendergast.

Whatever his affiliations or the origins of his business, though, Johnny Baker was a successful tavern owner by the 1950s, and his colorful work stories would ultimately lead his son into the same trade.
"It was one of the biggest country-and-western bars in the 1950s, a dance place," Bobby Baker says of Johnny Baker's, the Truman Road lounge where he got his first taste of nightlife. "It had an apartment above it, and it was a treat when me and my brothers could spend the night there on the weekends."

In 1973, he and his two brothers - Baker is the third of five siblings - signed a five-year lease to open another Johnny Baker's, at 39th Street and Waddell (the space that today houses Missie B's). Eventually, his brothers left. "It was a hard business for the wives to deal with," Baker says.

Johnny Baker died at age 88 in 1978, and the namesake satellite that his sons had opened in midtown closed the same year. After that, Baker returned full time to the trade he had learned in the Navy: welding. He worked for Wilcox Electric Inc., a Northland company that produced equipment for air-traffic control and navigation. When the work was slow in 1993, he and a friend, Joe Moretina, bought Caddy Shack, a bar just north of the River Market.

"I was in for a year, but then I sold out because it wasn't enough money for two people," Baker says.
During that time, though, Baker met Gail Mulvaney, owner of the self-named Waldo tavern Mulvaney's.

"We worked out a price, and I gave her a down payment," Baker says. It was Valentine's Day 1994, and Bobby Baker's Lounge was born. "On my first night," he says, "I bought three dozen roses for the ladies. I only gave away three, and the rest went in the trash."

Bakers been a fixture behind his bar.
To make ends meet, he lived in an apartment set up in the bar's basement. "I got up at 4:30 a.m., did the money and made the banks, then I had to be north of the river at Wilcox at 6 a.m.," Baker says. "I made bank deposits on my 10-minute break, slept on my lunch break, and got off at 2:30. I came back to the bar around 7:30, then tried to leave between midnight and 12:30." After five years of this punishing routine, he made his last payment to Mulvaney.

Competition was tight. "Around then, Waldo had Tanner's, 75th Street Brewery, Waldo Bar, Jasper's and Waldo Pizza," Baker says. "Kennedy's came in 1995 and did pretty well."

Baker says that first half-decade was a time of trial and error as he worked to figure out how to make regulars out of his new patrons. His father had sold hot dogs and pickled eggs; Baker imported mini pizzas from Waldo Pizza, across the street. He hired a six-piece band on the weekends and set up a martini bar in the back where he and another bartender wore bow ties and shook the cocktails.

As Bobby Baker's Lounge found a foothold in its neighborhood, Baker's daughter became interested in the family business. In 2005, Hamrich took a bartending job at the Johnson County biker bar Fuel. She went on to similar gigs at Tommy Farha in Waldo and Pockets on 103rd Street. "My dad didn't want me working behind the bar here after dark back then," she says.

Over the past decade, Hamrich also worked off and on for Baker. "My dad and I are way too much alike,"
she says, explaining the breaks she took from the lounge. She told him that the only way she'd stay aboard full time would be if she could eventually buy the bar from him.

Baker reflects in the corner booth.
In January, then, the shaker gets passed. Hamrich says her changes are going to be minor. She already has talked her dad into ditching the joint's captain's chairs for stools so that she can fit more people at the bar. She also wants to refresh the jukebox and replace the tile-and-grout bar with one made of wood. To ease the flow of traffic in the tight room, she plans to yank out the booths, in favor of high-top tables.
But the idea is for Bobby Baker's Lounge to go on feeling like Bobby Baker's Lounge.

Unlike her grandfather, Hamrich doesn't foresee a bar empire. "I'm not greedy," she says. "One place is good enough." And she's keeping it simple by not pursuing Sunday or 3 a.m. licenses.

Bobby Baker says he's going out on a high note. "All the people that come in this place," he tells me, "I love 'em. You can say whatever you want about the younger generation, but being around them helps keep you young. There's always someone to laugh with."

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