Tapping an 8-decade-old keg of memories

1930s tavern celebrates over 80 years in the business

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

A mysterious walk-in cooler, a noted local politician, and a movie-memorabilia collector-turned-celebrated-restaurateur are all tied to a local bar, coffee lounge and music school known as Friendly Tap, celebrating 80-plus years in the business. 

What has become three businesses in recent years has been evolving since it was purchased by Rob Pierce in 2007. 

On the ground floor at 6731 and 6733 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn, just east of Oak Park Avenue, is the Coffee Lounge and Friendly Tap, respectively. Up above in this two-story brick structure are living spaces, a typical set-up for this type of 109-year-old building — shop below, flat above. 

The Friendly School of Folk Music now occupies the former apartment above the coffee shop. The five-room apartment rented out for $25 in 1936 and boasted "hot water heat." 

The rent had increased to $35 two years later and couples living in the rentals above proudly announced their engagements and weddings in local newspapers during that decade. 

Now, lessons in piano, violin, guitar, bass, banjo and drums as well as vocal training take place there. 

While bedrooms were converted to music rooms and a kitchen was removed, many original and older elements in the building are intact. Original tin tiles hang on the soaring first-floor ceilings. 

Exterior decorative brickwork remains, while some at the top was removed during a 2000 repair. Craftsman-influenced elements still beckon at the exterior entry. 

And there is a wood-sided, walk-in cooler situated in the bar, thought to be from a long-ago butcher shop of unknown origins, or so the story goes, handed down owner to owner. 

Part of the mystery may lie in historical context. David Olsen, president of the Berwyn Historical Society, stressed how times were hard during the Great Depression. Businesses came and went.

"In looking through a 1933 Berwyn Life on microfilm, I saw that a butcher in nearby Cicero attempted suicide, 'apparently despondent over financial reverses,'" he said.

At the turn of the 20th century, streetcars ran along Roosevelt Road, then known as 12th Street, continuing through the 1930s. Now people park cars in front and can see live music and attend weekly trivia nights and open mics at the 6733 side of the building. 

Information on either storefront is scarce prior to the 1930s. But in 1936, three years after the repeal of Prohibition, Leader Wine & Liquor opened at 6733 Roosevelt Road. 

According to the Oak Park Telephone Directory, Leader opened a second location on Cermak Road in Berwyn two years later. By 1943 this location is no longer listed. 

Leader Wine & Liquor advertised in the 1954 directory, "Complete Stocks – Free Delivery." Delivery service had become the norm and many local liquor stores in Berwyn, Forest Park, Elmwood Park and Cicero advertised their speedy, free and fast service of alcoholic beverages. 

With Oak Park staying dry until 1973 and River Forest holding out until 1997, this convenience in the 1950s and 60s made cocktail mixing an at-home affair.  

Kelly Hohman, daughter of Bob Rolder, said her father had a connection to the establishment for many years before he purchased Leader Wine & Liquor in 1968. 

After World War II, Rolder returned to his full-time job on the Sears, Roebuck and Co. receiving dock at Homan and Roosevelt in Chicago. In 1948, he also started working part time with Leader.

"He became a driver for them," Hohman said. "It was more of a liquor store with a stand-up bar. My parents' first date was delivering."     

Twenty years later, living in Oak Park with his family, Rolder had a steady job at Sears with good benefits, having worked his way up to foreman. But he decided to use some of his Sears stock to purchase the liquor store and turn it into a full bar. He also coined the slogan still used today, "You are a stranger here but once," his daughter said.  

As for the Friendly Tap name, Hohman believes her dad renamed it because "he was a huge Cubs fan and maybe the name was similar to the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field."  

The name was also representative of the owner, who "would give his shirt off his back" to his customers, according to his daughter. 

After one year, Rolder cashed in more Sears stock and purchased the entire building and owned 6731, as well as the apartments above. Currently at the 6731 location is the Coffee Lounge, which hosts weekly story hours and a monthly craft and vintage market. That storefront space housed several businesses since the 1930s, including a pair of meat markets.

By 1943, Emil Vacin opened a currency exchange at the location. As reported in The Oak Parker in 1937, Vacin had started a political career and was serving as Berwyn's city clerk. 

He operated Oakwyn Currency Exchange for nearly three decades until he was elected Berwyn Mayor in 1969, serving for eight years. 

The name Oakwyn was popular along Roosevelt Road, the border between Oak Park and Berwyn. Several other businesses used the name, including a hobby shop, grocer, pharmacy, florist and even a leather center in Cicero. One of the most prominent was the Oakwyn Movie Theatre, on the nearby northwest corner of Oak Park Avenue and Roosevelt in Oak Park. 

After the currency exchange left and its owner was serving as Berwyn's mayor, several businesses occupied the 6731 space in the 1970s, including Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood Hair Salon and later Pete the Barber, according to Hohman. A 1977 phone directory lists Windy City Heating & Air Conditioning at the address, which advertised "emergency 23½ hour service." 

The next known tenant at 6731 was Horrorbles, the scary-movie memorabilia store, which lasted from 2006 to 2009. Its owner, John Aranza now owns Autre Monde on the same block with wife Christine.

Now Friendly Tap is gearing up for a celebration of its own. An early May tradition since Rolder owned the place, it will be held this Saturday, the Day of the Kentucky Derby.

Some of Hohman's best memories are the gatherings of family and friends at Friendly Tap on Sundays, the early May anniversary with a cookout, and "Derby Day," which Hohman said her dad started. 

Although the origins of the walk-in cooler may never be resolved, it still keeps the beers cold today, and the place, still friendly and warm, keeps traditions alive.

The Friendly Tap Anniversary celebration is May 5, and includes watching the Kentucky Derby, all-day drink specials ($5 Mint Juleps, Margaritas and Sangria), pulled pork sliders and live music beginning at 6 p.m. with The Packastanleys, Moco Magana and Blue Lincolns.

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