By Tony King photos by Scott Duncan
This year, the venerable downtown drinking establishment known as Old Ironsides (or just ‘Old I’) celebrates its 75th Anniversary. Since 1934, this family-owned and operated institution has provided its loyal customers with a hangout, a home away from home and warm, home-cooked meals. For three quarters of a century, this corner bar has proven itself to be as unsinkable as the legendary warship that inspired its name.
When approaching Old Ironsides from S Street, the first thing you’ll notice is the giant mural of the USS Constitution on the brick wall. As owner and matriarch Billee Jean Kanelos explains, the bar was named after the turn-of-the-century warship (nicknamed “Old Ironsides” due to the ship’s seeming imperviousness to cannon fire) back when her father, William Bordisso, first signed the deed for the property in 1933.
The restoration of the ship made headlines, capturing the imaginations (and penny contributions) of children across the country. Two of these children (junior members of the Bordisso family) just happened to be present during the change of ownership of the 10th and S Street property. “They asked my Father what he was going to name the business,” recalls Billee. “He said he didn’t know. ‘What do you think I should name it?’”
“Of course they said ‘Old Ironsides!’,” says Billee, recalling the young boys’ enthusiasm. “Because at that time, [the restoration of USS Constitution] was all everybody was talking about.” Forged in the excitement of the post-Prohibition era, Old Ironsides would go on to become the go-to destination for workers from the immediate area, morning, noon and night.
Inside, Old I looks and feels like a bar should– a comfortable, lived-in space with vintage liquor bottles, beer steins, beer signs, commemorative plates and nautically-themed decorations covering the back bar. Smack in the middle of all this is a lit-up chrome and glass plaque in the shape of a ship’s wheel stating: “Since 1934, Old Ironsides, Same Owners.”
The lacquered bar rests at your chest as you park your keister on one of the gold-flecked bar stools. On the wall opposite is a mural of powerful rolling waves above the digital jukebox which separates the slinking cherry red vinyl seating on either side. Between the mural and the seats, on a strip of wood paneling that stretches the length of the wall, are four mirror encased portholes.
Just off the main bar is the “back room” which operates as Old I’s restaurant seating area during the day (lunch is served from 11:30 AM-2 PM weekdays), and as the bar’s music venue at night. On any given night, you can find live music (bands, open mic or dance clubs). It’s fair to say that Sacramento’s music scene would be severely lacking without Old Ironsides, and this is due in no small part to the booking and promotions provided by daughter Kim Kanelos [see this month's Musical Chairs].
During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Kim actively attended shows and dance clubs around town. During this same time period, Old Ironsides would close at 11 PM. “I used to think, ‘God, people need to come here. It’s such a cool place. They would love it if they could come here for music,’” she remembers. “I had started to talking to people, but I didn’t know how to go about anything- to try to get something going down here.”
By chance, Danny O’Grady and Grant Hudson were looking for a home for their dance club, The Voodoo Hut. They approached Kim to see if they could host it at Old Ironsides. “It was really successful,” says Kim, noting Old I’s live music snowball effect. “I started booking shows on the weekends. We had an experimental jazz night on Thursdays. We added a comedy night. Then a talk show. It was like boom, boom, boom!”
The first bands Old Ironsides booked in 1991 constitute a who’s who of Sacramento underground rock luminaries: Dutch Falconi and His Orchestra, Sex 66, The Brodys, Whiskey Park, Nar, and Pounded Clown. Of course, this was back before the remodel when, instead of a stage, bands played in front of a fireplace. “We used to joke that you had to get the key to the bathroom from the lead singer,” Kim laughs.
“I remember [Old Ironsides] before the remodel and it was an especially cool place,” says Mark Miller of Alkali Flats and The Poplollys. “Right when you’d walk in the front door, there was a fireplace and bands would squeeze in. I remember seeing Supercharger there. It was pretty amazing.”
“We used to have a liquor store here,” Billee says, pointing to an old black and white picture on the wall. “It just phased out. Big liquor warehouses came along and they started selling booze in the grocery stores.”
“When we started doing the live music, we had to remodel,” recalls Kim. “The Old Ironsides Bottle Shop was still there, so we just got rid of it and put the bathrooms back there. It just made sense.” By 1994, Old Ironsides had a proper stage, a sound system and a growing reputation as a local live music destination.
Kim’s philosophy when it comes to booking shows at Old I is to keep the rotation fresh and interesting. “I always believe that you shouldn’t try to draw from the same people every night,” she explains, “because they’re not going to go every single night. That’s why we brought in the comedy nights and the dance clubs.”
For the last nine years the indie/Britpop dance club Lipstick has been a continuous Tuesday night draw for Old Ironsides. “Moving Lipstick to Old I totally took it to another level,” says Shaun Slaughter, who DJs the club with Roger Carpio. “The combo of a great venue and a staff that totally got what we were trying to do and gave us the space and freedom to do our thing really made the night blossom.”
For its 75th Anniversary, Old Ironsides is pulling out all the stops. On Wednesday the 28th, the popular Moe Bettermann variety show makes its return, as well as a variety of bands that have graced Old I’s stage. Then, on Sunday the 22nd from 1 – 6 PM is the party blow out, featuring hors d’oeuvres, $1 PBR, cocktails from the ‘30s on up, and DJ Larry Rodriguez spinning music from the ‘30s to today. On hand will be family members Sam Kanelos, Sr., Billee, Kim, Marla, Sam Jr., and Janell Pantages.
If that’s not enough celebration for you, Old Ironsides is serving up dishes from its past (ribs, steamed clams, corned beef and cabbage, Swiss steak, French dip, etc.) every day this month, with a different vintage cocktail featured throughout each day. Oh, and how about a martini special that runs from 4 – 8 PM every day in November?
Old Ironsides has weathered many storms, from its origins at the tail end of Prohibition, through the turbulent 1980s, to today’s Great Recession. Like its battleship namesake, nothing seems to be able to sink this boat. Here’s to one of Sacramento’s finest cannonball-deflecting landmarks. May she see 100!
Old Ironsides, 1901 10th Street, Sacramento, CA, 95814. (916) 443-9751 www.theoldironsides.com