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Snapshot: The Phyrst turns phifty

by on August 01, 2017 12:51 PM

For many locals, it’s a place that might be older than they are, where they can grab a beer at the end of a long day. For students, it’s a place where they could very well see their faces on the wall from their 21st birthday celebration. For owner Mike Fullington, the Phyrst is where his family lives.

“You walk in here and you immediately feel like you’re family,” he says.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the bar on East Beaver Avenue in State College is still packed even on a quiet summer Tuesday night. Fully-staffed with bartenders pouring drinks and cleaning up spilled Corona, its old charm is still visible in the stained-glass windows and 10-foot medieval door its original owners built.

Opened in 1967 by Don Bartoletti and soon joined by Ernie Oelbermann, the Phyrst will celebrate with a performance by the Phyrst Phamily on August 5. The band, for which Ernie was legendary, was a Saturday night sing-along staple for decades.

Bartoletti passed away at a young age, and Oelbermann died in 2015. The bar has changed hands a few times, but Fullington says it’s still a place for everyone.

“Since the Phyrst was opened, it’s been a place where everyone feels welcome,” he says. “You could be next to a guy in a tuxedo or next to a guy in PJs on any given night.”

Tim Riefel, who Fullington says has been a regular at the Phyrst for 15 years, says it’s where the locals come. Over Thanksgiving break, when students are home, Riefel says the bar is still serving drinks to a full house.

Fullington joined the bar 14 years ago as a manager, and became co-owner eight years ago. Before his time, though, he says Bartoletti planned on opening more locations. A long-running joke, he says, is that Bartoletti wanted to open another bar named the Second, but now people mistake Local Whiskey above the Phyrst as that.

Working behind the bar, Jennifer Laing says people don’t realize how close the Phyrst family actually is. Even wedding parties have come through the bar.

She jokes, “A bride will walk down in her wedding dress and I’ll say, ‘You spent how much on that dress and you’re walking down here in it?’”

It makes a good point, though. That wedding parties find the Phyrst a good spot for a nightcap goes to show how much of a family the dimly-lit Irish bar represents.

Future spouses meet at the Phyrst, Fullington says. Some even propose there — like one that was planned for a recent day. It won’t be the first time it’s happened, he says, and it won’t be the last. He says as long as the Phyrst remains a place where anyone can walk in and grab a beer, it’ll be a fixture in State College. 

The Nittany Valley Society will feature the 50-year history of the Phyrst in a documentary film this fall. The Phyrst 50: A Bar in a College Town, will premiere at The State Theatre on November 10. Find more at

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