Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Detroit’s Lindell AC - The Nation’s First Sports Bar



Johnny in front of the original Lindell Bar

In 1949, Greek immigrant Meleti Butsicaris with his sons—Johnny and Jimmy—leased the ground floor of the run-down Lindell Hotel and opened their bar on Cass and Bagley avenues. At first, they couldn’t afford to have a sign made with a different name, so they went with the hotel’s signage and called their tavern the Lindell Bar and the name stuck. The bar was near Briggs Stadium, where the Tigers and Lions played, and the Olympia arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings.

Legend has it that a young New York Yankee second baseman—Billy Martin—suggested to the brothers they change the drab atmosphere of the bar with an athletic theme. That would not be difficult. In addition to being co-owner of the bar, Johnny Butsicaris was also the official photographer for the Olympia. He had plenty of original sports photographs he could use. It was not long before sports memorabilia adorned the walls with autographed photos of Detroit sports stars, signed team jerseys, bats, and hockey sticks--even a jock strap belonging to Wayne Walker, a Detroit Lion linebacker. The new look helped define the bar’s clientele.

Jimmy with Andre the Giant.
The Lindell soon became a hangout for Detroit sports figures and players from visiting teams. It wasn’t long before local sports writers and celebrities performing in Detroit found a home at the Lindell. National celebrities like Milton Berle and Jayne Mansfield would stop in. Local celebrities like Detroit’s favorite weatherman Sonny Eliot and Detroit News sports columnist Doc Greene were regulars. Even the Beatles and their entourage went to the bar after their Olympia concert.

The most notorious event in the history of the original Lindell Bar was a publicity stunt for a wrestling match between Detroit Lion defensive tackle Alex Karras and wrestler Dick the Bruiser. Karras needed the cash since he was no longer drawing his NFL salary. The week before, Karras was suspended from the NFL for the 1963 season for admitting he bet on football games.

Karras and the Bruiser in publicity still.
Karras was a friend of Dick the Bruiser from Karras's one season as a pro-wrestler. The Bruiser wanted to help his friend in need. The original idea was born in the mind of Dick the Bruiser. He proposed a publicity stunt in the Lindell Bar to increase the gate at the Olympia match. What began as a publicity stunt became a full-blown bar brawl. In the process, the Bruiser wrecked the bar. The scheduled wrestling match the following Saturday night earned Karras $30,000. [See the link below for more information on that incident]

The Butsicaris brothers took Karras on as a business partner with his $30,000 from the wrestling match. After the bar brawl, the three partners moved the location of the bar to Michigan and Cass avenues. They had no choice. The Lindell Hotel was condemned and scheduled for demolition.

Detroit News sports reporter Doc Greene suggested adding AC (Athletic Club) after the new bar’s name as a sly reference to the Detroit Athletic Club, an exclusive members-only club. Only the city’s business elite and socialites were members. Even famous sports figures could not enter the club without a special guest invitation from a member.

Doc Greene got many of his exclusive sports stories sitting at the original Lindell Bar. He did not want his bosses to know how much time he spent there getting his exclusive stories. In his Detroit News sports articles, he would write he was interviewing this or that athlete at the Athletic Club. It became an inside joke at the bar. Greene would call his wife and say he would be home soon when he was finished at the Athletic Club. As a tribute to Doc Greene, the reincarnated Lindell Bar became the Lindell AC.

Johnny’s son Mel Butsicaris remembers working the night an elephant was brought into the sports bar.

Sonny Eliot behind the bar at the Lindell AC. Photo courtesy of Mel Butsicaris.

“The most talked about photograph in the bar was not of an athlete or celebrity. Back in the 1970s, Bell Telephone and the Yellow Pages had a slogan about an elephant never forgetting, but you have the Yellow Pages for help. They were making a commercial across the street with a baby elephant.

Sonny Eliot
"You don’t see an elephant in downtown Detroit too often, so my dad and I walked over to watch. My dad told the film crew to come over to the bar and he’d buy everyone a drink. As a joke, my dad said while petting the elephant, ‘Bring your friend along.’ About an hour later, the front door opened with this guy pushing this beast through the door. We still can’t believe it, but the elephant fit through. We worried if the floor could handle the weight. Everyone had a good laugh when Sonny Eliot started giving the elephant Coca-Cola to drink. Shortly after, the Coke acted as a laxative for the animal. We used snow shovels to clean up the mess.”

Alex Karras and Curtis Yates
In 1980, CBS filmed a made-for-television movie in the Lindell AC bar called Jimmy B. and Andres. It was based on the true story of Jimmy Butsicaris, who wanted to adopt an African-American boy. Alex Karras starred with his wife Sharon Clark, and as the young boy, Curtis Yates. The bar was sanitized as a restaurant for the movie. The spin off became the ABC sitcom Webster with Emmanuel Lewis playing the child’s role.

Jimmy Butsicaris died in 1996, and his brother Johnny died in 2011. The Lindell AC sports bar, said to be the first in the nation, closed its doors in 2002. The building was scheduled for demolition to make way for the Rosa Parks Transit Center.

More information on the Alex Karras/Dick the Bruiser bar brawl: