The All-American Rathskeller: From Prohibition To Ponies
It’s a cold Wednesday morning in State College and half the town is still asleep, waiting for Old Main’s bell to ring nine times. The CATA buses quickly make their way down College Avenue as a handful of students head toward campus to ready themselves for yet another day of classes.
As they walk down Pugh Street towards Old Main, they pass stores both old and new. Sadie’s is new to the street, baking fresh dough waffles that can be smelled a block away. Next door, Duke Gastiger surveys the taps and takes the day’s inventory, a job he’s done for the last 30 years, and a job only four men have done before him.
[pullquote]The way the Rathskeller has changed hands, the owner has always sold it to someone who would be a good caretaker. It wasn’t necessarily a short-term profit scheme.[/pullquote] For 82 years, The All-American Rathskeller has seen four individual owners and one partnership. Known to most as simply the Skeller, the State College staple opened its doors on November 9, 1933, three days after the end of prohibition in the United States. Throughout the years, those five owners have shared a common bond: They have never seen the Skeller as a business, but rather a home where family comes together to relive old memories.
“The way the Rathskeller has changed hands, the owner has always sold it to someone who would be a good caretaker. It wasn’t necessarily a short-term profit scheme,” Gastiger said. “This is a family institution.”
In Germany, where the beer is plentiful, “Rathskeller” simply means “an underground meeting bar or tavern,” When the Skeller is handed down to another owner, it has never been about money or profit. There’s a specific criteria each new owner must meet, whomever it may be. Most importantly, they must see the bar as a place that students and alumni hold very close to their heart.
In 1933, “Pop” Flood was the owner of the Green Room restaurant, a casual State College diner in the location now occupied by Spats. When the 18th Amendment was repealed, Flood and his wife saw opportunity in a desolate underground storage basement located directly underneath the Green Room. They decided, in that location, to open the doors to the Rathskeller and Gardens.
At this time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not served one full year in office, the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, and the Skeller became the fourth licensed bar in the state and the first in State College, which now houses more than 30.
However, after one year of maintaining the Rathskeller and Gardens, Flood wanted to shift his focus to the Green Room, selling the bar to C.C. “Doggie” Alexander in 1934. After the purchase, Doggie ran the bar for 35 years and made perhaps the biggest contribution to the Skeller. Separating the bar from the Green Room, Doggie named his newly purchased tavern “The All-American Rathskeller.”
In 1948, one of the establishment’s most famous patrons became a fixture of the Skeller. That year, for the first time, Harry Neideigh plopped himself at the bar and ordered two pony bottles of Rolling Rock, the signature drink of the Skeller. From that day on, and for more than half a century after that, Harry arrived almost each day. He would regularly order screwdrivers, his favorite drink, and always sat at his now-famous spot right near the entrance.
Neideigh, also known as “Coach Spaghetti,” joined the Skeller staff in 1955 as a cook in the back kitchen. His legend was far greater though, as one of the most memorable customers to regularly embark on drunken adventures in the Skeller. Comfortably perched on his stool six days a week, Neideigh would entertain anyone from bartenders to students who walked through the door.
“Harry was one of the most interesting, but lovable characters the Skeller has always known,” Gastiger said. “Six days a week, Harry would be here from the time we would open to the time we would close,” One story says that Neideigh never trusted banks, and would keep most of his money in cash at his home and in his pocket. Six days a week, he would carry up to $6,000 in his pockets at the Skeller at a single time, and nobody ever bothered him about it.
On Sundays, though, the Skeller closes its doors. It was then that Neideigh would occasionally find himself at Zeno’s. Unlike at the Skeller, however, Neideigh’s antics were not always welcomed. One Sunday, after relentlessly trying to get the bartender’s attention, he was finally able to order his beloved screwdriver. Harry decided to pay with a $100 bill, an amount often frustrating for bartenders to make change for on a busy day.
It was obvious the bartenders were ignoring Neideigh’s merciless attempts to order a second drink after quickly downing the first. Once he finally got the attention of the bartender, he ordered another screwdriver, and befitting his sharp and painful wit, Harry paid with another $100 dollar bill. As he was escorted out, Harry realized the Skeller was the only place for him.
In 1958, Doggie ended his shift and passed the bar on to Dean Smith, better known as the “Dean” of the Skeller.
Every owner of the Skeller has added his unique flair to the bar. Of course, Doggie changed the name and installed the welcoming and friendly environment that still thrives today, but not many owners had as large as an impact as Dean Smith did.
Through Smith’s tenure, the Skeller grew to new heights. The back area was dug out in the early 60s and a third bar was added. That third bar was originally added to back room, and sat where the current stage is now. Later, it would be moved to the corner to make room for the some of Skeller’s most famous bands. A few years after the third bar was added, the Skeller began to sell liquor for the first time in its history as the result of Pennsylvania legislation passed 33 years after prohibition’s repeal.
Smith’s many additions to the Skeller were historic, but on a football Saturday in 1972, he left perhaps his greatest mark.
That day, a group of alumni were sitting in the back corner booth adjacent to the fireplace, drinking Rolling Rock pony bottles as quick as they could order them. Considering the rate at which they were imbibing, it was suggested by members of the large group that it would be in their best interest to simply buy an entire case of ponies for the table. Smith allowed it, of course, and would consistently sell pony cases, also known as cases of Rocks, until he sold the bar in 1980. However, he could not have possibly known it would be the origin of a mainstay: The Skeller Case Race.
Looking to make as large as an impact on the Skeller as Doggie and Dean did, John O’Connel bought the bar and made the Skeller Case Race an annual tradition.
1983 marked the 50th anniversary of the Skeller. O’Connel, in celebration of the bar’s illustrious history and relationship with Rolling Rock, called on its loyal patrons to “come on down early, we’ll try to set a case drinking record!” The bar was filled by noon, and by closing time at 2 a.m., 903 cases had been sold. Although O’Connel’s tenure only lasted six years, the impact he had on the Skeller was monumental.
In 1986, Duke Gastiger and Eddie Hill purchased the bar from O’Connel and became the fifth and current owners of the Skeller. However, in 1993, the partnership split and Hill sold his interest to Gastiger, making him the sole owner and caretaker. During his tenure, Gastiger has laid witness to some the Skeller’s most memorable moments.
One of the most prominent days in its history was the day the Skeller set its case sale record. That original case of Rocks sold by Dean Smith was purchased for only four dollars. When the bar was bought in ’86 by Gastiger and Hill, they were selling cases of Rocks for $7.50. [pullquote]Come on down early, we’ll try to set a case drinking record![/pullquote]As Gastiger continued the Skeller’s Case Race tradition, he saw it become just short of a State College holiday. When spring was near, the Skeller would set a date for those willing to come down and purchase as many cases as they wanted. In 1991, the original record was broken when 943 cases of Rocks were sold. In 1993, ten years after the original case race, the Skeller sold 1,003 cases, once again setting a new record. Three years later, the Skeller sold a total of 1,053 cases of Rocks, the most cases of beer sold in a single day.
Throughout the ’90s, the Skeller became Rolling Rock’s largest retailer in the United States, selling more than 28,000 cases in a single year. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and the case race tradition ended in 2008. Originally selling for four dollars, the last case of Rocks was sold seven years ago for $19.
Although the Skeller has had a very beneficial relationship with Rolling Rock, Gastiger and his staff still looked at other alternatives when the Latrobe-based brewing company began raising its prices. The Skeller contracted with Dick Yuengling, an avid Penn State fan, and came up with a beer recipe that they both believed students would really enjoy. They called it “Skeller Beer,” and to the surprise of some, it did very well.
The Skeller hired a marketing corporation and began a statewide distribution of its own beer with the historical name. They even began marketing a spring break package which included a six-pack of Skeller Beer, a Rathskeller t-shirt, a bottle opener, and six condoms. Needless to say, it was not the most well-received offering in the town, despite an impressive number of packages being sold.
Unfortunately, yet another obstacle from Pennsylvania’s difficult history with alcohol halted the Skeller’s success.
A few years after the Skeller Beer was launched, Gastiger received a letter from Pennsylvania’s Attorney General informing him that the business behind Skeller Beer was illegal. The law he was violating, passed during the prohibition era, stated that a business can only share interest in either distribution or manufacturing, but not both.
“Now, I wasn’t going to give up my interest in the Rathskeller,” Gastiger stated. “So we had to get out of the beer business — it kind of died from there, and eventually Yuengling stopped making the beer for us.”
Although the Skeller was forced to retire its popular beer, Yuengling decided to carry on the formula. In 1987, Yuengling introduced its famous Lager, which, unknown to most, is an ever-so-slightly altered formula to Skeller Beer. Today, Yuengling’s most popular beer is that same Lager, replacing the porter as their best-seller in the post-Skeller Beer era.
“Yuengling didn’t make a lager at the time, so we kind of led them to understand what the young market was looking for as far as the taste of beer goes,” Gastiger said.
[pullquote]I remember seeing these guys walking past Pugh St. with this crossbeam slung over their shoulders. Then all of a sudden, these students come back into my view and start walking towards the Rathskeller.[/pullquote]In the middle of November, 1990, Penn State football was playing top-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend. The highly anticipated game pitted legendary coaches Lou Holtz and Joe Paterno against one another, a game State College looked forward to all season. In a historic victory, Penn State was able to pull off the upset on a last-second field goal, sending State College into absolute hysteria.
“When Penn State hit that final field goal, State College exploded. It was absolute pandemonium,” Gastiger said. “Everybody was running and screaming throughout all of town, and there was actually snow on the ground. So, of course, we had a snowball fight inside the Skeller.”
Even though the game was held in South Bend, a bold group of students decided to rush into Beaver Stadium and tear down the goal posts. Carrying a 23-foot long goal post (before the NCAA shortened the width), the students made their way into town and carried the crossbar down College Avenue.
“I remember seeing these guys walking past Pugh St. with this crossbeam slung over their shoulders. Then all of a sudden, these students come back into my view and start walking towards the Rathskeller,” Gastiger said. “They actually wanted to bring the crossbar into the bar.”
Although it would have looked great on the Skeller’s wall next to all the historic memorabilia, Gastiger had to turn them away for obvious reasons.
Through the years, the Skeller has served as a gracious host to an insurmountable number of students, alums, and local celebrities alike. Not long after the Notre Dame game, the Skeller played host to a patron whom Richard Nixon once described as “the most dangerous man in America.”
Timothy Leary, an American writer and psychologist best know for his psychedelic drug activism, found his way into the Skeller in 1991. He was brought to State College for a colloquy on campus against his arch-rival, G. Gordon Liddy, better known as the Chief Operative of the White House Plumbers, a covert special investigations unit.
Leary stopped into the Skeller for lunch during his visit to Penn State, taking a particular liking to the booth tables that had accumulated countless signatures throughout the years. Leary asked Gastiger’s partner Ed Hill if he could purchase a table, but Hill respectfully declined. Instead, they decided to ship a table to Leary’s house, which he framed and hung as a “Pop Art” piece on his wall. Days later, he sent them a check for one dollar and thanked the Skeller for its gracious service.
The signatures on the tables and in the bathrooms are a common theme seen inside the Skeller. During the Sunday of an Arts Festival in the early 1990s, two men showed up asking to use the bathroom.
“I heard a knock on the door, and there were these two men standing there, one of them my age and a much older man,” Gastiger said. “So I opened the door and said, ‘Sorry, we’re closed,’ to which the other man responded, ‘I know, but do you mind if my grandfather uses your bathroom?'”
Slightly confused, Gastiger digressed and continued to make small talk with the younger gentleman.
“All of a sudden, the old man walks out and shuffles up to where we were standing, and looks at his grandson with a smile on his face and says, ‘It’s still there,'” Gastiger said.
Questioning what the older gentleman was referring too, Gastiger eventually learned that the older gentleman had inscribed his name on the bathroom wall on the day the Skeller opened its doors in 1933.
Looking back to that specific signature, Gastiger said, “That’s when you have an idea of how important this friendly meeting place is to some people.”
The Skeller is a place where friends can come together, buy a beer, and reminisce about their college days. “That is the sole purpose of the Rathskeller,” Gastiger said.
Although many alumni come back to the Skeller to relive memories, times change as younger generations continue to revamp the typical social habits seen not just at the Skeller, but throughout all of State College.[pullquote]The times between happy hours in the afternoon were fun times because people came to here to talk and have a drink.[/pullquote]
“In the late 80s, we used to have a line to get into the Skeller by one o’clock in the afternoon, because happy hours on Fridays were big back then,” Gastiger recalled. “Everybody would come from class, and you’d share a case of Rocks with a bunch of buddies. It was easy because you could have one or two [ponies] and then go about your day.”
“Culturally, what has changed is the time that students go out. It’s not unusual to not get a crowd until 10:30 or 11 o’clock at night,” Gastiger said. “That’s not always the way it was. People would come out earlier in the mid-afternoon around 3 or 5 o’clock and have some beers and then go home to have dinner, and then come out again around 10 o’clock.”
Today, the focus has shifted to drinking, rather than talking and socializing much like it was in the 80s and 90s.
“The times between happy hours in the afternoon were fun times because people came to here to talk and have a drink,” Gastiger said. “It was much more social. People didn’t always come out with the idea of getting drunk.”
Gastiger often looks back at social events that would take place at the Skeller and bring the community together, rather than separate it, like State Patty’s Day.
In the early 1980s, Penn State’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity began hosting the annual “Phi Kappa Psi 500.” Unlike your traditional bar tour, the Phi Psi 500 was more an athletic event than a pure drinking event. The first Phi Psi 500 originally listed six bars on the course, one of them being the Skeller.
After its debut, the event became a family friendly competition, in which spectators would line the streets and watch the runners sprint down College Ave. to chug their next beer. At the time, Pennsylvania had not yet passed its open container law, allowing a far more joyous and public occasion, as spectators were able to drink in the street and watch as the students ran by.
“In its heyday, we would see thousands of people lining the streets,” Gastiger said. “It was a fun event, and really low key at the time.”
If anything, the Phi Psi 500 was a de-stressing event in State College, a fun time for students to distract themselves from endless schoolwork. As part of the race, students would chug pony bottles as fast as they could. Since a pony bottle was only 25 cents at the time, students would tape quarters on their arms in order to create a quicker race.
“There were so many runners at one time, my partner and I spent the better half of a day ripping the scotch tape off quarters,” Gastiger said. “I believe the take on one of those days was $450 in quarters.”
Much like Earth Day, Gentle Thursday, or even the Skeller’s Case Race, Gastiger referred to these community gatherings as “feel-good events” with the sole purpose of releasing excess energy that students had in their systems.
“One of the issues we face now is there’s not a lot of defusing. There’s a lot of pent up energy, and the bars are the focus of that because kids still want to have a good time and the only place where students want to release that energy is in the bars,” Gastiger said.
State Patty’s Day serves as a modern example of this diffusion in a different sense. As State College has grown, events of this nature have become less focused on community bonding events and more divisive, as the residents of State College resent those who partake in these activities.
“I see State Patty’s Day as students trying to reinvent that release day,” Gastiger said. “The difference I think is that in the early ’60s there were 22,000 students. There was no I-99 to Pittsburgh or 322 to Philadelphia, and therefore there wasn’t an outside element that the town had to worry about.”
In a sense, State College has become the victim of its own growth over time. Throughout the years, students and townies may come and go and drinking habits may change. The Skeller, however, refreshingly resists this changing of the guard.
Although men like Kerry Collins and Kyle Brady both worked as bouncers at times, the Skeller’s staff is usually in it for the long haul. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen three staff couples get married,” Gastiger said. “We have an amazingly low turnover.”
[pullquote]Whatever it may be, there’s a reason why people start working at the Skeller and they stay for not just a year or two, but for 10, 15, or even 20 years.[/pullquote]On any given night, it’s hard for the staff to rush students out the door at 2 a.m., but what’s even harder for some of the bartenders or servers is making the decision to leave at all. Bruce Lombard, who has been working at the Skeller for more than 20 years and can be found behind the bar in the pool room, agrees.
“Whatever it may be, there’s a reason why people start working at the Skeller and they stay for not just a year or two, but for 10, 15, or even 20 years,” Lombard said.
Over time, the Skeller’s layout has been expanded, and minor renovations have been done to keep the famous basement intact. However, it still maintains that dated, historic feel that makes it unique not just in State College, but amongst bars in general.
What once were horse stables are now booths, with the original benches from the depression era. The main bar remains the same hunk of wood that has been in place since 1933, and unlike most of the tables in the bar, remains untouched and well-respected amongst the loyal patrons of the Skeller.
Given its antique vibe and lower key atmosphere compared to that of, say, Indigo, the Skeller is thought by some as a place for old folks and alumni.
“There’s a misconception that it’s just an alumni bar,” Lombard said. “But there’s a reason why alumni come here. Alumni come back to the Skeller because it was cool when they went to school here. When [students] come back as alumni, it just proves how great this bar really is.”
[pullquote]Everything’s the same, even the same dust.[/pullquote]Although a large number of alums can be found ordering Jack and Cokes on a Saturday night during a football weekend, on any given night, the Rathskeller holds crowds both young and old. It’s the type of bar where it’s not uncommon to see three or four generations of Penn Staters all sitting at one booth, drinking the same beer.
“People come back to the Skeller not because they necessarily want to drink, but because they want to see their friends and relive those good times,” Gastiger said. “We work very hard to not change it. When people want to come back, they want familiarity.”
That frozen-in-time vibe is one of the reasons why it’s typical to see grown men and women acting like they’re 21-years-old again in the Skeller’s friendly confines. There’s a saying among the staff that goes: “Everything’s the same, even the same dust.” The Skeller certainly has kept the same dust in its bar for the last 82 years. Everything, from the bar, to the booths, to the pictures hanging on the wall, serves a purpose, just like a relic in a museum.
“That’s what this place is now — alumni want to come back to a place that has a special meaning to them,” Gastiger said. “Luckily for us, the Rathskeller is one of those places.”