Features & Columns

A History of Local Watering Holes
at Forbes Mill Museum

New exhibition at Forbes Mill Museum explores the history of South Bay watering holes
Forbes MillMARGE IN CHARGE: Marge's Tavern once occupied the corner of Alma and Almaden in the 1930s and 40s. Proprietor Marjorie Bertlow is one of the two women embracing in the middle of the photo. She's the woman on the right, standing close to the bar.

Thanks to Amy Long, The Forbes Mill Museum in Los Gatos is now filled up with bar paraphernalia. As I bust in for a sneak preview of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name: A History of Local Watering Holes," I'm surrounded by relics from Los Gatos, Campbell and Saratoga drinking establishments, all strewn about on tables in front of me.

A few arbitrary knickknacks from long-gone San Jose bars like Bini's and Marge's also give those bars righteous due. Obviously, the tiny space in the Forbes Mill showroom can't accommodate a comprehensive taxonomy of every single bar in the valley's history, so curator Amy Long took a modest and simplified approach when compiling the show. The opening celebration goes down this Saturday, May 31, 3-7pm, making Forbes Mill the first location ever to historically contextualize the 13 US Colonies with the Bodega in Campbell.

"When the pilgrims first came over here, the first thing they built was a tavern, after they built the church," Long explains, as we sift through piles of artifacts, faded photo binders and other sordid ephemera. At first, I think she's talking about Los Gatos, but then she continues: "There's a saying that the American Revolution was born in a bar, which is absolutely true, because the tavern was the gathering spot."

From there, Long explains the timeline for the whole exhibit, from the beginnings of the US Colonies, through wars, saloons in the Old West, Prohibition and speakeasies all the way up to the Salisbury Steak at the Black Watch. That's right—the Black Watch actually had a restaurant component back in the '60s. According to the vintage menu Long shows me, the Chicken Saute [sic] with Mushrooms au Sherry Wine was $2.25, the Merchant's Lunch sold for $1.25 including tax, and tea was $0.15. I wonder if Black Watch offers a modern-day equivalent for the Merchant's Lunch? I mean, do 400 hairdressers from the surrounding blocks get discounts on a noontime shot of well bourbon?

But I digress. Other Los Gatos legends presented in the exhibit include the woodworking heroes who built #1 Broadway from scratch back in the '70s, plus the role that stained glass accoutrements played in the architecture of fern bars. And of course, the Pet Rock story and its connections to Carry Nations had to be included. Just had to. All of which are stories directly intertwined with how the identity of Los Gatos evolved over the last half of the 20th century. Even the story behind the infamous Kamikazes at Black Watch will be among the sordid tales of this awesome exhibit.

"A good history exhibit tells a story," Long declares. "It's not just people standing there looking at things and objects. When people see a condensed paragraph on a card on the wall, they don't realize all the work that went into it."

Very true. Thankfully, the show doesn't focus entirely on Los Gatos. San Jose gets mentioned as well. For example, I never knew the celebrated crossroads of Almaden and Alma was once home to Marge's, a neighborhood tavern owned by Marjorie Bertlow, 20 years before the Bear's occupied the same parcel of land. One glorious photo in particular shows what looks like San Jose police officers hanging out, fully uniformed and boozing it up. Marge's was an important watering hole, says Long.

"In those days, it was very uncommon for a woman to run a bar," Long tells me.

Also very true. Some other joints getting ample dedication in the exhibit include the Bank in Saratoga, Bini's in San Jose and the Bodega in Campbell. Yes, you can see obligatory shots of Pat Benatar, Elvin Bishop and the Tubes, circa-'79 to '82, back when Campbell was the suburban world capital of classic rock in the South Bay.

Again, Where Everybody Knows Your Name is not a comprehensive exhibit, (I complained about the exclusion of Double Vision, The Last Call and Otto's Garden Room), but in any event, the exhibit shall indeed call to everyone's attention the importance of watering holes and their ubiquity in American history. Good on Forbes Mill.