Vic's Supper Club
Vic's Supper Club
Which Way Is Left In Canada ?
by Chuck RitenouR
Vic's Supper Club
In June of 1982, I joined the Cash Brothers Band. There was no one named "Cash" nor were there any brothers. As with most young musicians, we dreamed of the road. We dreamed so hard that the dream came true. At 29 years old, I was the oldest and most experienced member and I should have known better. We travelled over ten thousand miles in less than five months. These are my memories and my truths. I have left last names out as it is for them to write their memories and their truths. While on the road, I kept a journal documenting places, mileage, expenses and our compensation. I have left some of the details out as I find them as boring now as I did then, though the IRS found them fascinating.
Our drummer, Chuck was the band leader and his wife Penny was in most aspects the brains of this endeavor. Chuck had been in contacted with an agent out of Appleton, Wisconsin who was more than happy to send us out across the midwest for 20 per cent of our gross pay. Chuck was 23 years old and had quit school in the middle of the tenth grade. Penny had a high school diploma and read magazines, thus making her an authority on any and everything. I had lived with Chuck and Penny in Tallahassee Florida while working with Bobby Watt and Mama's Pride, a very popular country and western show band. When that band finally fizzled out, Chuck convinced me to throw in with him and hit the road. Having nothing much else to do, I joined as lead guitarist and vocalist. Also he suggested that to avoid confusion, I should use the name "Charlie". To keep him from being confused, I did. Within a few days, Chuck had hired two more fellows seeking adventure and glory on the road.
Hollywood was the bass guitarist. He was 20 years old, blonde, thin, handsome and also a hemophilic. Something we learned during our adventure. He always pressed his shirts and pants himself and was very particular about the shine on his shoes. Hollywood played reasonably well, but could not carry a tune in a dump truck. He looked very good in the band promo picture and that was enough for Chuck.
Mike was hired after much thought as our second lead guitarist and vocalist. He was 19 years old and had a wife and baby. He was looking for an excuse to leave town and I guess this was good enough for him. My first impression was that he was very skiddish and a bit unstable...but that described most of the young musicians I knew at the time. He was an excellent player and singer. I remember his older brother came just before we left to try to talk him out of going. After a few weeks, I wished his brother had been more convincing.
We rehearsed a few times and put together about 60 songs which were being played by every other cover band in the country. The movies "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Urban Cowboy" were dictating the band's repertoire. So, we loaded the sound equipment and drums into Chuck's brand new Ford Econoline van. My old Chevy van had a new rebuilt engine. We loaded the guitars, amps and lights behind my rollaway mattress and prepared to hit the road. There was a large ice chest between my two front bucket seats. Mike and Hollywood were going to follow in Mike's 1974 Lincoln with most of our stage clothes in his trunk and back seat. My girl friend of about 4 years, Bean also came along as company for Penny and an extra driver.
We left Tallahassee, Florida on July 1st at six in the morning and headed to our first road gig in Shawano, Wisconsin. We were looking at about 1,211 miles and 24 hours of driving with only gas, grass and bathroom breaks. We were hoping to get there by the morning of get there by the morning of the second of July. The gig began on July 3rd. By getting there a day early, we could rest up before we had to play. Mike's Lincoln over heated a few times on the blistering highway. We made it to Shawano in under 24 hours. We made it but were totally unprepared for Shawano culture.
Arriving very early in the morning, we discovered that Shawano was a very small and sleepy town. Nothing was open. We parked in the parking lot of the only Hotel in town and slept in our seats. At noon, we tried to get rooms. The hotel manager would not allow "Bean" and I to share a room since we were not married. Instead of three rooms we settled for two with the guys in one and the girls in the other. There was limited hot water so we showered in shifts. There was no cable TV so we generally just slept. There were two diners, but no "fast food" restaurants, one grocery store and one gas station. We bought three pounds of balogna and two loaves of bread to live on while we were there. One of the rooms had a gigantic microwave, so I bought a five pound bag of russet potatoes and a pound of butter.
On July 3rd, we went down to the Union Hall to set up our eguipment and do a sound check. Being from Florida, we had a huge Confederate flag we used as a back drop behind us. There was quite a bit of grumbling as we put it up and after a bit of discussion we took it down. Apparently, there were still some folks in Wisconsin who think the South will not rise again. We met several members of the Menominee Tribe of Native Americans at the local diner. They were fishing guides. I remember telling one of them I had some Cherokee ancestors. He stood up in disgust and said, "I wish I had a nickel for every damned white man that said he was part Cherokee " as he left. The others just laughed. Chuck said, " what'd you expect from a "yankee" Indian."
Musically, it was a success or at least enough of a success to convince us to continue on. The good news was our next job wasn't that far away. We were headed to the mining town, Beulah, North Dakota and a place called "The High Chaparral" only a hop ship and a 742 mile jump from Shawano. Beulah has been called the Energy Capital of North Dakota and at the time we were told there were 6,000 miners living in the town without much entertainment. So we headed west and picked up I 94 west across Minnesota. While traveling across Minnesota, I was catching some sleep and Bean was driving. We were doing about 85mph. She woke me as we were passing a maroon Pontiac Bonneville and asked, "What's written on the side of that car? The more I speed up to pass it, the more it speeds up." I looked over and read aloud, "Minnesota State Police" just as the lights came on. The officer was very friendly and only issued us a warning as Bean explained we were in a band and was seperated from the lead van and was only trying to catch up. How were we to know that a few minutes later, Chuck and Penny would be pulled over by the same trooper and tell him the same thing. Chuck was very upset and even said I should have to pay half of the ticket (which of course I didn't). He said the guy laughed as he wrote the ticket and said, "I've already heard that one today."
When working for an agency, you don't get all the information needed to play the next gig. Beulah was an example I will not soon forget. We pulled into the High Chaparral parking lot at about six in the evening. The club owner met us at the door and asked," Where the hell have you been? You were supposed to play at happy hour from 4pm til 6pm." We apologized and called our agent who spoke to the owner who handed the phone back to us. I walked into the dance hall. I had seen it in movies but never had I played in a place that had chicken wire around the stage. I asked if it was necessary and the owner relied that was the reason they served beer in cans. He also told us not to let anyone know we had women with us as he could not guarantee their safety what with all the miners and all. He then told us a story about a local prostitue who tried to leave town. He said a group of miners followed her and brought her back. I said, "where we're from they call that kidnapping." He gave us a free dinner and after eating, gave us directions to the Holiday Inn.
At the Holiday Inn, we met Dan Foral and the guys in the Dan Foral Band. Dan suggested we call our agent and leave. He said the High Chaparral was night mare and if we could avoid playing there we should. He said he had a friend that owned a supper club in Lewellen, Nebraska and he could probanbly get us a quick gig there. After about 30 minutes of phone calls, it was all set. We spent that night jamming and sleeping on the floor in the Dan Foral's room. Then the following evening at about 9:30 pm, we were once again on the road in search of Vic's Supper Club. Dan took me aside and asked if I'd be interested in joining his band should he need a guitarist. I said I would. Dan gave me one of his cards and I gave him the number of my parents in Virginia. I hadn't called them since leaving Tallahassee, but assured Dan that I would be checking in with them periodically.
Lewellen, Nebraska is next to Lake Ogallala and Ash Hollow. It is where the Oregon Trail began and was also a hub for settlers travelling west by the Santa Fe Trail and the Overland Trail. There were many pitched battles between settlers and the Brule' Sioux. In order to get to Lewellen, we had to take a small state truck route through South Dakota. I believe it was either route16 or possibly route 79. This twisting two lane road took us through the Bad Lands of South Dakota. The scenery on this trip was beautifully indescribable. Bean and I took many pictures with my cheap Kodac camera. That night for the first and only time in my life, I witnessed that miracle called the "Northern Lights". We stopped our little caravan on the side of that narrow little road and stared at the sky. We eat our last balogna sandwhiches. I had a few bottles of cheap champagne on ice. Somewhere in the middle of "we don't know where the hell we are" South Dakota, we drank champagne and smoked a peace pipe in honor of the Menominee Tribe. After a few hours, stunned by Mother Nature's Lazer Light Show and Florida home grown, we resumed our quest for Vic's Supper Club.
A mere 579 miles from Beulah, we arrived at Vic's Supper Club at noon on July 14. We were tired and starving. The Supper Club was open and so we went in. Vic was about 6 foot 6 inches tall and must have weighted about 290 pounds. He took one look at our ragged little band of road warriors and said, "come with me." We went through the back of the restaurant to what looked like a shed with several sides of beef and pork hanging on hooks. Vic pulled down a huge piece of beef and said, "You look like you could use something to eat. How do you like your steaks?" I was the only one that liked my steak rare. He smiled and said," well, I'll cut your steak the size of my thumb." It had to be about 2 and a half inches thick. Vic did the cooking himself and about 30 minutes later, we were all enjoying the best steaks ever. To this day, I compare steaks to that of Vic's, none have ever come close.
The population of Lewellen, Nebaska according to the sign at the town limits was 345. Vic said, "don't let that old sign fool you. This place will be packed. People from as far as Oshkosh will be here. Dan said you are one hell of a band." Then he smiled and said, "you'll eat free while you're here." After eating, we began setting up our equipment for that night's show. It took a couple hours getting the volume set just right. We rehearsed a few tunes.
There was one old man sitting a the bar. His was a genuine cowboy and his name was Early Bird. Early Bird was thin and looked like leather that had been left out in the sun too long. I walked up beside him and introduced myself. He bought me a drink. I sat there for a couple hours and listened to his stories of Lewellen 80 years ago. Early Bird was 96 years old. I nursed my Jack and water as he downed several of the same. At that time, I didn't know we would use Vic's Supper Club as a refuge several more times nor did I realize the bond of friendship that would be forged with the citizens of Lewellen.
That night's show was unbelievable. Just as Vic had predicted, the place was packed. There were senior citizens, teenagers, young adults and babies. We met the town's widowed minister who danced with a different lady every song. At every break, I sought out the company of Early Bird. He reminded me of my great grand father, Harvey. That night after playing, we were all invited to a "polish luau" on the banks of Lake Ogallala. There were huge pots of corn on the cob, cabbage, potatoes and polish sausages and cases of iced down beer. We brought down our acoustic guitars and were among the last to leave well after the sun came up. Mike met a 17 year old girl named Dorie, fell in love and forgot about his wife and child for the night. "Hollywood" met a couple who said we could bring our dirty laundry to their place before we left and invited us to stay for a cook out.
I have played many places in my 43 years as a musician. I have played bars, festivals, and arenas. Some of them are but a blur in my memory. I will never forget Vic's Supper Club and Lewellen Nebraska.
At the end of our second week on the road, we had barely made enough money to cover our expenses. Mike and Hollywood were homesick. The road had lost a bit of its romance. I began to think it might become a test of will and survival skills. We had just enough money between the six of us to make it to the next gig with a few dollars left over for food. Things were not turning out the way we thought they should.