Ritz Cafe party celebrates its past (and future)

The iconic Oak Bluffs bar will get a new owner by month’s end.

Janet King (right) with two of her longtime friends Joanie Levine, who worked at the Ritz from 1984-1986, and Mike Hochman, who made the trip from New Jersey. He's been coming to the Ritz for 41 years. — Photo by Susan Safford

It could be argued that there is a last call party every night at the Ritz, the Oak Bluffs bar and Island institution. The bar’s impending sale prompted Janet King co-owner and manager for over 30 years to host a more final version of the last call party on Saturday.

The party started at 3 pm with a busy house that by 5 pm grew into a packed house with a line out the door. As the evening progressed, the pool players were retired; the pool table was pushed into a corner to make room for the music. Longtime Island musician Mike Benjamin was the first of many to play.

The night wore on, the oxygen thinned and the sweat flowed heavy as the crowd danced shoulder-to-shoulder. Mike Benjamin returned with his band and friends to play rhythm and blues standards and hard-rocking tunes by the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers. The band was loud and good. The dancers didn’t stop until the band turned off its amps as required by law at 1 am, in spite of cries for more music.

“There was a line out the door all night: it was crazy,” Ms. King said. “I just can’t believe how much people love The Ritz. I wanted to put a sign up the next day saying, ’Okay I’m not selling The Ritz now.’ I collapsed around 11 and had to go home.”

The bar has been a hangout for off-duty fisherman and carpenters for decades, developing a rather salty reputation at times for what has often appeared to be its underemployed clientele. Ms. King said, “The stories were usually a lot worse than the things that really went on here.”

Over the years Ms. King has kept the bar as a place for year-rounders, with reasonable prices for both drinks and food when it is served. She has been an unwavering supporter of local musicians as she made it a consistent source of live music.

In the middle of the afternoon, soon after opening — whether by design or just circumstance — Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a song about the death of the musician Buddy Holly with the line “The day the music died,” played on the sound system.

There were the usual patrons, joking and laughing at the bar as well as many infrequent patrons and former patrons who have since moved on to families and lives that don’t often leave time for a bar life. There were those who wanted to pay their respects at the Oak Bluffs version of the “Last Waltz,” such as Allen Look of West Tisbury, who came to experience the event after his grandson’s little league game. “The Ritz is a classic,” he said. “This is the end of an era. It has never been on my regular schedule. It always seemed a little too edgy for me except for the times I ended up here. I didn’t want to miss it.”

Adrian Higgins and his wife, Meg, of West Tisbury left their two children with his parents before they came to celebrate the spot where they first met in 1999. “I’m not one of the Ritz regulars” he said. “That’s a special breed. But it’s a place I like to go to hear music.” He said he remembers first going to the Ritz with his father, Tony, and his carpentry crew when he was about seven.

Friends of the Ritz came from off-Island. Ms. King said friends drove in from New Jersey to help celebrate.

There were photos of times past on display, including a poster-sized photo of the late longtime regular Oliver Hazard Perry, better known as “Johnny Seaview,” whose memory evoked dozens of stories.

The evening was similar to the last Ritz final call party in 2008, which was followed by a re-opening party when the prospective owner failed to come up with the cash at the closing. Ms. King does not expect that to happen again. She has a purchase and sale agreement and a deposit in hand and expects the next Ritz party to be when the new owner takes over.

Years ago, the building was a fish market. Buddy Pease bought it and turned it into a bar before selling it to Burt Combra. Mr. Combra owned it for six years before selling it to Arthur Pachico and his wife Shirley in 1967. Arthur’s stepdaughters Janet King and Christine Arenburg have run the bar for the past 30 years. On June 23, Ms. King and Ms. Arenburg will pass the keys to new owners.

Ms. King said the new owner is a music lover who likes the Ritz and has indicated that he plans few changes other than throwing on some paint and reopening the kitchen. She said he plans to close for little more than a week after the closing and will be open for the fourth of July.

Ms. King’s family acquired five paintings by Melvern Barker, an artist and author and illustrator who lived and fished on the Vineyard in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s when her family purchased the bar. A large 1956 Barker painting of Menemsha hangs behind the pool table — fishermen at work, lobster pots, fishing boats. A second Barker painting hangs to the right of the front door — fishermen in a boat’s crows-nest excited to spot a couple of swordfish. Both pictures have a brownish tint, the almost cartoonish look of a Thomas Hart Benton painting and the look and feel of an earlier time.

Ms. King said she and her family will take the paintings home when the Ritz is sold, but she hopes the look and feel of an older time will remain.

As Mr. Higgins said, “There is only one Ritz.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the song “American Pie” was about the death of actor James Dean. It is about the death of musician Buddy Holly.