by Geoff Rushton
Generations of Penn Staters and local residents have forged a shared experience at The Phyrst in its basement location at 111 1/2 East Beaver Avenue, establishing a State College landmark and creating countless memories.
Now for its 50th anniversary, the basement bar is getting its own documentary, telling the stories of its history and traditions like the Phyrst Phamily, table wars, the hydrant and the cowbells and the people who have made it a community over the past half century.
The Nittany Valley Society announced on Wednesday that it is working on “The Phyrst 50: A Bar in a College Town,” a documentary to premiere this fall, telling the stories of the bar’s history and those who have helped it become a local institution.
“The project treatment describes a story that is at once unique and timeless: The greatest college bars become their communities in microcosm,” according to a news release. “Ownership, employees and regulars join wave after wave of new arrivals to forge something meaningful. Joined together through space, time and spirit, they imbue a place with a soul.”
In 1967, Don Bartoletti, then a 22-year-old landscape architecture student, signed a $250-a-month lease on the space to create a bar that would be a welcoming place for everyone, from businessmen to students to war veterans to visitors.
Two years later he was joined by Ernie Oelbermann, a 44-year-old World War II veteran and father of six, and together they would begin to build The Phyrst as a place that ultimately would connect generations.
“There’s this line, ‘If every generation thinks only of itself, then the world never gets any better.’ And that’s what those two guys understood through their life experiences,” said writer/director Eric Porterfield of production company BlueWhite TV. “So it’s a story that’s universal on one hand, but on the other, it’s a rare and unique story that needs to be told about this bar that we all pass every day, not really realizing or understanding why it’s still there.”
In the film, the story of Bartoletti and Oelbermann will be connected to those of community members for whom The Phyrst became a meaningful place. It will include interviews with owners, staff and patrons all the way back to the bar’s opening and will feature rare archival images and footage along with new footage.
The documentary also will have original music and Bellefonte artist Brian Allen of Flyland Designs has created an original logo and poster.
Production has already begun and principal filming on the project will take place throughout the summer, including at The Phyrst’s day-long 50th anniversary celebration on Aug. 5.
A premiere is scheduled for Nov. 10 at The State Theatre.
The nonprofit Nittany Valley Society is taking on the project as part of its mission to conserve local culture in Central Pennsylvania.
“We’ve got a great creative team behind this project. The people from The Phyrst and Happy Valley Restaurants have been extremely supportive, and we appreciate it,” said Chris Buchignani, president of The Nittany Valley Society. “But maybe the most surprising and gratifying aspect has been the outpouring of interest and support from the many people who hold the bar close to their hearts. Folks like the members of The Phyrst Phamily band gave The Phyrst its character. Their involvement has been critical.”
The Oelbermann family has been supportive of the project.
“It is with great anticipation that I, along with all of the Oelbermanns, await the making of the film,” said Kathy DiMuccio, daughter of long-time Phyrst proprietors Ernie and Becky Oelbermann and a member of the Phryst Phamily band. “I have been keeping Becky updated on the project weekly, and she is very excited about it. She knows how excited and proud Ernie would be. The production process so far has been very welcoming for so many of the people who have made The Phyrst become The Phyrst. The Phyrst was home to many, and no matter how many years have gone by, we always remember home with such fondness and love.”
“The Phyrst 50” has several corporate sponsors and a crowdfunding campaign has been established on the film’s website, Phyrst50.com. Individual donors will have access to special perks such as a digital download of the film, recognition in the credits and tickets to the premiere.