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Feature: The Coral Gables

  • Author:
    Bill Castanier
  • Published:
    Winter 2012

We take a nostalgic look back at the iconic Coral Gables, which for several decades served as the epicenter of social life for MSU students.

If East Lansing's Coral Gables had a theme song, it would have to be "Memories are Made of This."

Sitting on the border between East Lansing and Meridian Township, the Coral Gables has been more than a roadhouse, bar and restaurant for tens of thousands of MAC and MSU students since it first opened in the 1920s with the fancy pants name Fleur-de-Lis Inn.

It's been a place where MSU memories were made, recalled and then shared decades later.

Take Lois and Everett Downing of Mason. During World War II the couple went on their first date at the Gables. Lois was 16, Everett20. It was a blind date. It was a friend of a friend sort of thing and Lois still remembers their first dance and surprisingly the song that was playing, "You Belong to My Heart" by Bing Crosby.

Lois remembers the Coral Gables as the "hotspot" back then especially when the big bands played. "A lot of soldiers met there when they came home on leave," she recalls. "You grew up fast with soldiers thinking 'Hey, will I ever see this place again?'"

Two weeks aft er that big dance Lois and Everett were engaged.They married when Lois graduated from high school. Later Lois attended MSU. Occasionally "when we could get the gas," she says, they would go back to the Gables. This past summer the Downings returned to the Gables for their 65th wedding anniversary party. Lois had "their song" played.

And they danced once again, like college sweethearts.

Their legacy of memories extends to their son Dave Downing, '77, '84, station manager of Lansing Community College's WLNZ Radio. A teenager in the late 1960s, Downing was a part-time disc jockey at WILS Radio in Lansing and spun records at the Gables for private parties. He recalls people oft en requesting the Beatles' "Hey Jude" as the last slow song.

"I think it had something to do with it being a seven-minute song," he says.

"Everyone remembers going to the Gables," says Al Rose, who worked there as a bartender and ID checker in the late 1960s. Rose said men drank mostly beer, but women oft en preferred Whiskey Sours, Singapore Slings or Tom Collins. "Nothing fancy," he says.

Over the years nothing fancy were key words as the bar and restaurant concentrated on cold beer, good cheap food and loud dance music.

Rose, who has retired from a career in law enforcement, says contrary to its reputation, the Gables was tough to sneak into. "ID checkers saw it as a badge of honor to confiscate fake Ids," he remembers.

Many MSU students of that era had their first legal drink there as the Gables would give the 21st-birthday celebrant one free drink and a small pizza.

Others may have met their future spouse on the dance floor, attended a daddy-daughter Sorority event, seen the Miss Michigan pageant, appeared in the Show Bar when Playboy recruited center folds or attended a meeting of one of the many social clubs that regularly held meetings there.

Many MSU groups, such as the Vets Club, the Sailing Club and the Ski Club, held their meetings at the Gables. Controversial speakers Allen Ginzburg and Timothy Leary reportedly spoke and read poetry at the Rathskeller aft er being banned on campus. Indeed, the bar was so popular with MSU students that an article in the MSU Alumni Magazine (Summer1976) called it "The Pioneer Land-Grant Tavern," a moniker longtime owner Tom Johnson bestowed on his establishment.

Okemos resident Phil Weichman, '69, a bartender at the Gables in the late 1960s, says those years marked the beginning of the end of its heyday. When East Lansing went wet in 1970, numerous bars such as Lizards would open and give the Gables stiff competition.Newer night clubs such as The Stables sitting right across on Grand River Avenue and Grandmothers on Michigan Avenue would siphon off student crowds.

Although the Gables first opened in the 1920s as a roadhouse, it went through many changes over the decades. In the 1930s it was known as the Green Gables, a square dance Hall boasting a roller rink. In the 1940s it evolved into a big band showcase known as the Coral Gables Ballroom and attracted wellknown musicians such as Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and the Ink Spots.

Aft er being destroyed by a fire in August 1957, the Gables was rebuilt by then owner Tom Johnson, the man who masterminded the bar atmosphere so attractive to MSU students. Johnson opened several other "Coral Gables" bars across the state, along with the Old Crow Bar in Saugatuck, which continues operating to this day. When the East Lansing Gables re-opened in the late 1950s, the Big Band era was being ushered out by the emergence of Rock and Roll. It did not take long for the Gables to adapt to change as it began featuring many rockers, including the likes of Chubby Checker and Little Richard- now Hall of Famers.

In the 1960s the Gables became the place for MSU students to go for weekend entertainment.Its famous Show Bar could legally hold 350, but on a good night it might have packed twice that number. Former patrons recall that up to a hundred couples might be dancing at one time to such tunes as "Shout!" And "Wooly Bully."

Robert "Boogie Bob" Baldori, '71, Lansing attorney and boogie woogie artist, played there With the Woolies-their biggest hit, "Who Do You Love," made the national charts-and attracted sell-out crowds.

"The Gables was packed to the max with lines out the door," recalls Baldori.

"We played there dozens of times." The bands were selected for how they could get the kids dancing, recalls Baldori. "Johnson wanted the kids dancing so he could sell more beer," he explains.

The Gables hired local bands like Plain Brown Wrapper, the Kingtones, the Otherside and the Cordarons. One popular group was the Sunliners, which morphed into Rare Earth ("Get Ready Cause Here I Come"). A group called Me and Dem Guys recorded the 45 single "Black Cloud" at the Gables one summer and it became the default house band for the 1966-67 school year.

Periodically, the Gables would host groups that had a national following, such as Baby Huey and the Babysitters, the outlandish Wayne Cochran and his C.C. Riders and the Four Freshmen.

There was seldom any trouble at the Gables, which employed very brawny "floor managers"-a euphemism for bouncer. More Oft en than not they were MSU football players.At that time, it was perfectly legitimate for football players to work. Owner Tom Johnson, who was recruited to play football at MSU by Charles Bachman-a sports career that ended aft er a car accident-hired such MSU gridiron stalwarts as Tony Conti, Ron Curl, Roger Lopes, Jim Nicholson, Gary Nowack, Roger Tasky, Charlie "Mad Dog" Thornhill and Robert Viney. Fights seldom broke out and were quickly broken up if they did.

Until the 1970s only men were allowed to be waiters in the show bar. Dressed in khakis and white shirts, they were trained by Johnson and current owner Alex Vanis to be efficient.They learned to move adroitly through the crowd clearing bottles and asking, "Can I get you another one?"

The bar featured Happy Hours and special nights, such as Ripple Night and Quart Night with Altes for 50 cents. There was also Spaghetti Night, Hot Dog Night, Vets Night and a never-ending array of other special nights. In the mid-1960s came the Flaming Hog Night, courtesy of Tony Conti, who came up with the outrageous idea as a marketing gimmick. "The big night was Thursdays," recalls Rose. "Lines began forming real early."

Thursday night became the defacto Greek night and a select group of sorority women and men known as the Society for the Advancement of Extra Curricular Activities (SAECA) would get there early and retreat to a small backroom where they would come up with new ideas for drinks and promotions-much like an advisory board for a company.

The members of SAECA also cranked out a weekly mimeographed sheet called The State Urinal. Typically 8-10 pages long, the publication featured one main article, a humorous essay and pages of bawdy one-liners. It began publishing in the late 1950s and adopted the rapid-fire, one-liner comedic style of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

The Urinal was meant to be savored and tossed, so few have survived the trash bin.Jamie (Bobit) Wiechman, '69, who worked as a cashier at the Gables, saved a handful of copies- which was fortunate, because the Urinal provides great insight into the student culture and ethos of the times.

The rag contained a wide range of content ranging from world events and political commentary to the love follies of fraternity and sorority members. Its humor ranged from satire and gossip to zany, inane fun.Some of the material was cute, some ironic ("Somebody should do something about apathy"), and some-"I think I asked Jamie to marry me, Phil"-prophetic. Phil and Jamie, both MSU grads, did marry and now live in Okemos.

Louie Bender, '71, an active member of SAECA in the early 1960s, says he jumped right in "with both feet and a full beer mug."

"A couple people took notes and sorta put them into sentences," he describes the Urinal's journalistic methodology.

Bender says he spent too much time with SAECA, flunked out of MSU, and was draft ed and sent to Vietnam. He returned to campus in the fall of 1968 and was able to parlay his previous SAECA experience into a humor column for the State News. In one column, he wrote about infiltrating Freshman Orientation using a Mission Impossible-style strategy.

When John Hannah left MSU's presidency in 1969, Bender threw his hat in the ring. The Coral Gables would become his campaign headquarters and Alex Vanis would spring for bumper stickers and buttons. "Alex put 'Louie Bender for MSU President' on the marquee out front," Bender recalls.

Bender would later win an excellence for teaching award as a graduate assistant at MSU.The award might have been based on his unorthodox teaching methods. He once had a stripper perform in his class on non-verbal communication. He later taught at Rutgers University before going into private business.Now retired, he and his spouse divide their time between East Lansing and New Jersey.

Although MSU students went to the Gables primarily to drink and dance, they were just as likely to have visited the Il Forno Room for a homecoming lunch with parents or the basement Rathskeller for a quieter atmosphere.

Maureen (Michel) Jordan, '71, of St. Louis, MO, for example, remembers taking her father to the Rathskeller for a Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority event.

Peter Secchia, '63, industrialist, MSU philanthropist and former U.S. Ambassador to Italy, remembers being the first liquor bartender for the Gables in 1959. "They had just gotten the liquor license," he recalls. "I had tended bar on the Jersey Shore and while I was with the marines, and I taught the guys how to mix drinks."

Secchia says Tom Johnson loaned him money so he could finish his education at MSU. "One day a motorcycle gang stopped by," recalls Secchia. "Johnson did not want them there and told me to take care of it. I was In pretty good shape then. We ended up having a fight, and ever since I was his hero."

Many academic campus groups met regularly at the Gables. For example, Excalibur, the senior men's honors society, met there weekly for lunch while donning special sport coats. Former Gov. James Blanchard remembers wearing his blue blazer with the stylized X on the pocket for a weekly Excalibur lunch.He says MSU luminaries such as Duffy Daugherty, Biggie Munn or political scientist Wesley Fischel would stop by to speak. Other members of Excalibur who met at the Gables include the late Dallas Cowboy star Pete Gent, author of North Dallas Forty and Ken Beachler, the first director of MSU's Wharton Center for Performing Arts.

"We thought more of ourselves than anyone else did," says Blanchard, who as governor would schedule some of his staff holiday parties at the Gables. While in town recently he and his wife popped into the Gables. "This town has changed a lot but the Gables has endured," he muses.

The Gables has indeed endured, but former MSU students will hardly recognize it today.Alex Vanis, '54, a graduate of MSU's The School of Hospitality Business, has completely transformed the place. Vanis and investors bought the Gables in 1968 from Tom Johnson.With an onslaught of new bars around town,Vanis decided to end live bands in 1985. He converted the Gables into a family restaurant and a meeting place catering to older patrons. Vanis' son Stewart, '00, helps run the Gables today.

Visitors oft en wonder about the significance of a giant duck that guards the back entrance to the Gables. The 10-foot, paper-maché figure was the informal mascot of the World War II veterans group that began meeting at the Gables aft er the war. Some believe it might have been a part of a Homecoming or Water Carnival float. It remains intact.

Besides the duck, a large cartoon mural in the Show Bar still survives, though hidden behind a false wall. The mural depicts MSU celebrities from the 50s and early 60s. Today the people portrayed are unknown, although the hulkish, scowling figure chomping on a cigar is clearly Tom Johnson.Vanis says he might uncover the mural some day soon.

On display near the entrance of the Coral Gables are some classic menus from the past. Retired MSU Professors Jim and Gloria Kielbaso of Okemos remember actually ordering from some of those menus. They frequented the Gables as young graduate students in 1963. Gloria would drive up from Dayton, OH, with her friends to visit Jim, then a graduate student in forestry. When they married they would continue to frequent the Gables.

"It was the only place to go," Gloria recalls, who adds that recently Jim hosted a 60th birthday celebration there for her.

Nancy Kara, '73, was a waitress in the IlForno Room from 1970-73 and remembers her experience with Fondness. "It was family-owned and they treated you as family," she says. She recalls wearing "cute, as in, not so cute" outfits consisting of red button-up jackets and a skirt with a zigzag hem. She said during the week it was mostly students in the restaurant but on weekends parents would take their kids to lunch and dinner. "That's when you got the tips," she remembers.

When it opened the Gables was smack dab in the middle of the countryside. Across the street was Northwind Farms, where race horses were bred and trained. In the 1960s Northwind was converted into a blues bar. The trailer park sprawling behind the Gables today used to be a horse training track and an airport.

John Patenge, '73, remembers as a young boy riding his bicycle to the Gables from his home just east of it on Park Lake Road. "When I was 10 or 12 it seemed like an exotic place," he recalls. "You could hear the loud music outside." Later, he recalls, his Okemos high school football team had their banquet in the Rathskeller Room- courtesy of Tom Johnson, who had two sons on the team.

Recently, another sports banquet was held at the Gables. The family of Academic All-American Don Japinga, co-captain of MSU's 1965 National Championship football team, held a post-funeral luncheon there to commemorate his life.

It was just another of many events that have evoked nostalgia for several generations of Spartans whose MSU experience included the Gables.

Memories are made of this. Thanks, Coral Gables.

Bill Castanier, '73, writes the Michigan literary blog and is co-founder of He is the literary columnist for City Pulse, a weekly Lansing newspaper. While a student, he was a waiter at the Coral Gables in 1968 and in 1970, something he did " for fun" and not for money.


Students no longer have to venture outside of East Lansing, or even off campus, to find social life-the way pre-1970s students migrated to the Coral Gables. Today's students have many options, including many popular alcohol-free activities on campus.

Some examples:

Ufest, a free Welcome Week event held at the MSU Union, features outdoor activities, live music, games, freebies and food.

Sparty's Spring Party, sponsored by the Student Alumni Foundation (SAF) and the Union Activities Board (UAB), offers live music, laser tag, sumo wrestling, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and food from local vendors.

Fall Welcome Cookout and Sparticipation allows students to mingle during Welcome Week and to see some 600 student organizations. Cookout eats are provided by MSU Culinary Services. The event ends with a Spartan Spectacular fireworks show!

Izzone Campout-a 24-hour event at Munn Field for students wishing to be members of the Izzone during basketball season. Campers enjoy live entertainment and visits by Tom Izzo and members of the men's basketball team.

Homecoming Week sees many student activities, including a Spartan Sprint 5K, Hayrides with MSU history lectures, Sparty's Flag Find, pumpkin-decorating craft night, Ice Cream at the Rock, the MSU Homecoming Parade and, of course, the football game!

Weekly UAB activities include free Cosmic Bowling & Billiards on Tuesdays, weekly craft nights, Open Mic Nights on Thursdays, first-run movies screened before they are even on DVDs every weekend at Wells Hall and more.

Midnight Madness in the Breslin Center kicks off the men's and women's basketball season. It includes promotional giveaways, opportunities to get athlete autographs, appearances by the Spartan Marching Band, cheerleaders, MSU dance team and Sparty.

Special Themed Dining Hall Events are put on by Culinary Services throughout the year in the residential dining halls - from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration Dinner to the annual Halloween spectacular at Akers Dining Hall, these events give students the opportunity to spice up their week while dining on campus.

To see the photos of these events, please go to Flickr: