Blow out before wrecking ball
It’s been two months since thirsty regulars stepped inside the shabby bar on 17-92, but the red neon sign outside Tom and Jerry’s Bar and Lounge continues to flicker over the background of the night sky. The buzzing letters are the only sign of life from the run-down cinder block building. Visitors would have guessed it shut down years ago if it weren’t for its glowing calling card.
A deserted, cracked parking lot leads to the bar’s back entrance. The locked iron gate keeps wandering locals out, but a closer look between the bars reveals a chalkboard sign tossed aside on the concrete.
The dusty surface reads ‘Big Celebration: December 19’ in faded letters.
The old dive will be torn down by the end of February to make way for Winter Park’s Ravaudage development, putting an end to an era that began in 1946.
But not before local residents could celebrate one more last call.
It’s a cold Thursday night in December as the parking lot behind Tom and Jerry’s overflows with locals mingling and sipping drinks. It’s the final night that regulars can visit the local watering hole.
Customers cycle in and out of the bar with beer and mixed drinks to chat with friends and total strangers. But everyone has something in common tonight: refusing to miss the historic bar’s last hurrah.
Orlando rock band The World Famous Trans Ams give the night a rock-and-roll soundtrack from the rickety wooden platform outside the bar, jamming through a set of classic hits from AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” to Motley Crue’s “Girls, girls, girls.”
But customers inside can barely hear the Trans Ams’ rowdy sound over the scramble for drinks. It’s a full house inside the smoky, dim taproom. Locals line up elbow-to-elbow at the counter to flag down the bustling bartenders.
The ales, stouts and lagers run out quickly – there’s hardly anything left by 10 p.m.
Longwood resident John Nolan squirms his way to the front and orders one of the last frosty bottles. It had been years since he last visited the Winter Park bar, but he wouldn’t miss tonight for the world.
Nolan knew the bar well. He remembers the glowing sign outside even from his childhood, watching it pass by from a backseat window as his father brought him along on business trips to Winter Park.
“I would see Tom and Jerry’s and I would think Tom and Jerry cartoons,” Nolan said. “As a kid you think ‘Oh, Tom and Jerry’s. I want to go in there.’”
“My dad was like ‘No, not quite. It’s beer.’”
The run-down bar reminds him decades later of something the area’s lost over the years, he said.
“If you look elsewhere, they have places with heritage … Orlando just doesn’t have that,” Nolan said. “It’s all strip malls and prefab concepts.”
“History is knocked down for billions of dollars.”
The bar celebrated by hundreds of locals that cold December night first came to Winter Park 68 years ago – back when World War II was in its aftermath and the tense Cold War began to emerge.
Tom and Jerry’s rolled with the times. It served as a packaging house in the ’80s, where customers could pull up to a drive-through window, order a six-pack and drive off. The increasing awareness of drunk driving throughout the ’80s and ’90s eventually led to the window being sealed off.
But much of the bar remains the same as it was back in the 1940s and ’50s. The counters and walls have been repainted and touched up, but the tavern’s original cinder block skeleton underneath still stands.
Black-and-white photos on the walls of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack hint at the bar’s early years: a decade when big bands led by the likes of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington dominated America’s music scene.
It’s the bar’s thick layer of character and atmosphere that keeps Winter Park resident Jud French coming back. He’d been a regular at the bar since the mid-’90s, but his group of friends were stepping inside for the first time. They chat near a row of dimly lit dartboards across from the bar, taking in the joint’s dingy, rough vibe.
“This is, as far as I’m concerned, historic,” said French, looking around the dark, crowded room. “I like the atmosphere and I like coming here. It’s kind of sad; I understand progress, but it’s going to be replaced by something bright and shiny.”
“You can’t create this. When it grows organically and it’s been here and it has a history, a lot of people have a lot of memories tied up in it.”
The Trans Ams finish their outdoor set to roaring applause and raised drinks. Most of the turnout has left by 1 a.m. and the remaining few dozen night owls still outside make their way back into the bar as the night air gets colder and colder.
Drinks continue to flow as Tom and Jerry’s final hours start to run dry.
Toby Keith’s low key “I Love this Bar” calmly moseys out of the jukebox bolted to the wall beside the bar.
“We got winners, we got losers, chain smokers and boozers. And we got yuppies, we got bikers, we got thirsty hitchhikers...”
Emotions start setting in for bar manager Lucy Miller. Tom and Jerry’s had always been a meeting place. From Central Florida’s local music scene making a showing at open mic nights to groups of college students hitting a night on the town, the bar had a way of bringing people together.
Miller even remembers a customer popping the question to his lady during her tenure behind the counter.
Plans are now in motion to resurrect Tom and Jerry’s later this year at a new location in Hannibal Square. Bar owner Dan Bellows plans to bring the neon sign, the original liquor license and some of the old photos and decor to the new spot.
But while Miller intends to continue working at the new Tom and Jerry’s, she can’t shake the feeling that she’s saying goodbye. A new bar means new faces – perhaps replacing some familiar ones.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Miller said. “… All of your regulars become like your friends.”
The bar enters its final minutes of business as the bartenders shout last call at 1:28 a.m. The remaining dozen or so customers rush to the bar to buy whatever’s left. Just a few bottles of Crown Royal, Jack Daniel’s and Bacardi sit on the back shelf.
Winter Park resident Ted Zaffran gulps down his last drink. It’s been 45 years since he first set foot in Tom and Jerry’s as a college student. He was a long way from Florida State University, but felt right at home.
The tall, gray-haired customer lays a hand on a nearby high table and points at two sets of initials carved into the wood more than 20 years ago – “TZ + J.J.”
“My lady back in the day,” Zaffran said.
The carving leaves a fond memory for Zaffran, who enjoys the table so much that he picks it up and starts to walk out the door.
Some of the bartenders spot him and cry foul as a much younger customer with a shaved head and a black polo shirt stops him and puts the table back.
Zaffran eagerly challenges him to an arm wrestling match over the table and they lock hands above the faded carving.
The older man appears stronger than many expected. He’d kept much of his forearm strength since his days as a tight end on the Florida State football team.
Zaffran makes the pin after a 10-second struggle, but a violent scrap breaks out between the two over hard feelings.
Everyone left in the bar is told to clear out.
It’s a jarring ending to the last night of Tom and Jerry’s, a bar that no doubt had seen plenty of tussles in its 67 years of business. The sentimental celebration ended in a brawl – like a long, drawn-out goodbye suddenly met with a door slammed in its face.
But the conclusion seemed as chaotic and imperfect as the cracked, broken-down tavern itself – its coarse, rich character making it something worth celebrating in the first place.
The taproom on 17-92 may not be standing by March, but locals can take solace in one thing: it didn’t go quietly.