A ‘dive bar’ hopes bikers can forget those Chinese lanterns

By NICHOLAS A. JOHNSON

Arizona Sonora News

Back in 2013, the Bashful Bandit, a bar on Speedway Boulevard popular with motorcyclists, was chosen to be featured on a new national cable TV program called “American Roadhouse.”  The producers’ idea was to take their cameras into “dive bars” around the country, and give each of them a remodeling and makeover.

(Photo by Nicholas A. Johnson / Arizona Sonora News)

As it turned out, the series never aired, and the Bandit never got its moment on television.  But it did get its remodeling. Three years later, unhappy patrons and staff at the Bandit are still trying to put their place back the way it was, before the show’s producers took it apart

“The Roadhouse remodeling guys came in and just messed this bar up,” said Lisa Capri, a longtime bartender at the Bandit, adding: “This is a dive bar, and they tried to un-dive the dive bar, which you just can’t do.”

According to Capri and others, the television producers tore the place apart. They took down the “memorial wall” where patrons had tacked up everything from pictures of longtime regulars – both dead and alive —  to broken bits and pieces of motorcycles.  They pulled down the old neon beer signs and replaced them with Chinese lanterns. They removed the canopy of women’s bras that patrons had volunteered to decorate the ceiling, in return for free drinks.  And they installed what Capri called a “Zen garden” behind the bar, where customers would be able, if so inclined, to use small tools to rake designs in the sand.

Staff said that the producers told them their idea was soften the bar’s image – such as repainting the dirty gray walls a cheery yellow – in the hopes that the makeover might attract new clientèle, like students from the nearby University of Arizona.

But patrons had none of it.  After the TV cameras left, they pulled down the lanterns, started saving discarded motorcycle gear to re- decorate the walls, and got rid of the Zen garden.  And bras are again dangling from the ceiling.

“I don’t know why they expected bikers to play in some sandbox,” said Capri.

The Bandit has been around Tucson since the 1970s, and has a longtime reputation as a bikers’ haven.  Once upon a time, it was the hangout for members of the Dirty Dozen, a motorcycle club that was infamous for brawling and violence.

It still draws a biker crowd, and half the parking lot facing on Speedway is reserved for motorcycles.

“American Roadhouse” was supposed to air on the Travel Channel, a television station owned by Scripps Networks, which also owns the channels Food Network and HGTV.  Trailers for the program, including planned episodes at other bars, can be found online.  A spokesman for Scripps Network declined to discuss the series or the program about the Bandit, and the Travel Channel said the show was no longer part of its programming.

The series was the idea of Chuck Zito, who describes himself as a bouncer, bodyguard and stunt man, and who was also the former president of the New York chapter of Hell’s Angels.   The plan was for Zito to personally host each episode, traveling to different towns on his bike.  In a video posted online for the proposed program, Zito describes the roadhouse bar as a disappearing “iconic staple” of the American landscape.  “My goal is simple,” he says in the video.  “I’ll take the average dive roadhouse, and make it a place where people want to have a good time.”

Capri has been working hard to recover all of the things taken down by the American Roadhouse crew. She said the decorations used to include some beer kegs that patrons had shot up in the desert.  The producer removed them, but Capri managed to find one of the kegs and restore to its place in the bar.

Patrons love to tell stories of the Bandit’s years of being a tough biker bar, pointing out bullet holes in the ceiling, and talking about the time someone rode a motorcycle into the place.

“It’s calmed down a lot. At one time it used to be pretty rough in here,” Capri said.

Rose Ruggles, a Bandit regular, said she had a lot of stories from the wild days, including the time a bartender kicked out a man who got into a bar fight. Ten minutes till closing, she said, he came back in with a gun. “The guy I was sitting next to had a bullet graze his thigh,” Ruggles said.  “I’m not going to tell the rest of that story.  I wouldn’t want to get anyone in trouble.”

Even so, Joan Atencio, another patron, said she always feels safe in the Bandit.  “If I stay too late I know that someone will walk me home, and make sure I get home all right.”

Atencio said she first came into the Bandit when she was 18.  She is now 54, and is still there most weeks to play pool.

The aim of the producers of the TV show was to remake the biker bar so it would attract college students, but Capri said even in its toughest days, the bar used to draw occasional fraternity guys from the Arizona campus, usually on a dare.

“They used to send the college kids in who were trying to get into frats,” said Capri.  “They would have to come in and take pictures with the bikers to prove that they actually stepped foot in here.”

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