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Opinion: Madera’s watering holes of yore

The year 2021 has barely begun, and it is not much better than last year. I’m with Lucy Van Pelt, who proclaimed we got stuck with a used year — and a crummy one at that!

OK, whining over.

I know without the help of social media, especially Facebook, my connection with those I consider friends would not exist.

Connecting with former Madera County Supervisor Ronn Dominici, he suggested I write a Gravy column about all the great watering-holes in Madera’s past.

While my meandering between the bars of yore will not come in any way close to Leon Emo’s, I am willing to give it a try.

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Before I was married, I spent a fair amount of time in the cocktail lounges of Madera.

My favorite had to be the lounge at Madera Valley Inn.

When my friends and I first began going there I was 19. If a bar also sells food one didn’t have to be 21 years old to patronize the establishment.

A man named Gib Virgo was the head bartender at MVI for many years. A dear friend (Malcolm Gatz) worked for him as a cocktail waitress.

Virgo left MVI, and for a while, and sold Cadillacs. He later opened his own cocktail lounge when he took over the bar at the Paseo del Sol Mexican Restaurant. When the whole block on the corner of Olive and Howard Road burned to the ground, he relocated his establishment to the 47th Place West shopping complex. They named the bar and grill he owned with Mikes Crafton “Someplace Else.”

It was a popular place to watch football, have lunch and hang out, especially on a Saturday afternoon.

Since Fred has never been a fan of the bar crowd, I usually went with some of my girlfriends. It was also a place I could go to by myself. Women were treated with respect and it was always a safe environment for a drink or a meal.

While MVI started out as my favorite cocktail lounge, it wasn’t the only one my friends and I patronized.

Across Gateway Drive from MVI sat Lucca’s Italian Restaurant that also had a full bar. On Friday and Saturday nights they had a live band, one of the few places to go dancing in Madera.

Next door to Lucca’s was The Village, a Chinese restaurant.

It, too, had a cocktail lounge called the Pagoda Room. The Wong family owned the Village, and brother Jimmy Wong ran the bar.

The funny thing about the Pagoda Room was Jimmy didn’t like girls in his bar. Today, it might be considered something of a sports bar; it had a television and guys would go in there to watch whatever game was on TV.

Jimmy Wong would serve women in his bar of course, but everybody knew he didn’t really approve of us as patrons.

My older brother (Rocky Hill) was a regular Pagoda Room customer after he came home from Vietnam. He even had a tab there I could use if I wanted.

One year I played on a women’s recreation softball team. Actually, we played 14-inch mush ball. Our team was sponsored by Alyce Gilchrist, and we were Alyce’s A. Her three daughters — Kathy, Sharon and Kim — played on the team. Our uniform tops were fitted green V-neck pullovers, with our team’s name on the front, worn with white shorts, green and yellow socks and tennis shoes. It is safe to say we had the best-looking and most expensive uniforms in the league. We even had regulation Oakland A’s baseball caps ordered from the team souvenir shop.

We had a pretty good season, even though we weren’t out there to win games. We were out there to show-off our cute uniforms and to have fun.

Our team coach was a farmer named Art Sciacqua. I seem to remember after our first practice he told us to run a lap around the bases and we all just laughed and headed off to our cars.

We would often go to The Village after games, but since Jimmy Wong really didn’t want girls in his bar, that made it more fun for us.

Beside we spent a fair amount of money there and put it on Alyce’s tab.

A person could make a pretty good night of it, hopping between the three bars on Gateway Drive near 4th Street.

A few blocks up the street was a real bar called Skeeko’s. They had bands on the weekend and catered to a more rambunctious crowd. Cowboys and bikers are really not a good mix. Fights in the parking lot were inevitable.

If I remember right, there were a few bullet holes in the wall at Skeeko’s from past evening when things got out of hand.

I found it fascinating that cowboys and bikers don’t mix. In my youth, I ran with both crowds. The only difference I found was, cattle prods notwithstanding, that you couldn’t put an electric start on a horse. Other than that, the differences are minimal.

Madera was once the home to two bowling alleys. The Parkwood Bowl had a bar called the Tangerine Room. The Madera Bowl in downtown called its bar the Maple Room.

The Tangerine Room relocated to Bethard Square and changed its name to the T-Room, since most people called it that anyway. They sometimes had live music on the weekend.

When the Madera Bowl closed, it turned into the Disco Depot. They offered dance lessons until the disco craze faded away almost before it got a good foothold in Madera. The disco fad reminds me of Nehru jackets. About the time the fashion reached Madera, it was pretty much gone from the rest of the country.

Among these party places, only two remain. Skeeko’s is now called Casey’s, and last I heard it was up for sale. Someplace Else is now called Backstreet Bar.

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Long days and pleasant nights have a great weekend.

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Readers may contact Tami Jo Nix by emailing or following @TamiJoNix on Twitter.

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