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A Round for the ‘Skeller Rats’: From Case Studies to table carvings, the All-American Rathskeller holds special memories for Penn Staters and locals alike

by on January 01, 2018 11:23 AM

Maybe there’s a little stick to the floor. Those cobwebs could be from the Eisenhower presidency. The ceiling probably wasn’t originally that color. There are some anatomical anomalies drawn in black Sharpie on the Big 10 mural.

Fans of the All-American Rathskeller wouldn’t have these things any other way.

So when news broke in early December that the Rathskeller and Spats, the restaurant above it at College Avenue and Pugh Street in State College, would not continue there, it was met with outrage and sadness.

Outrage at the building’s new owners, the Herlocher family, and sadness for business owners Duke and Monica Gastiger and the potential loss of the rich tradition and history of the Skeller.

They attacked the Herlocher’s Dipping Mustard Facebook pages with ferocity, driving down the score of the five-star rating system, which later had to be removed from the page. They went back weeks on Herlocher posts, promising not to buy their product anymore and shaming them for the announcement. On Twitter, people were just as vocal, joining the conversation through the hashtag #SaveTheSkeller.

The Herlochers then released a statement to Onward State saying they “are committed to maintaining the character of the location” and that the “new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.”

While the new tenants and their plans have not yet been announced, what was clear is the special place the Skeller holds among its previous and current patrons and employees.

The Gastigers have owned the Skeller since 1986 and have become as much of a staple of the place as owners past like John O’Connell and Dean Smith.

Hundreds of comments have flood the Skeller Facebook page in the wake of the announcement. The post announcing the inevitable closure (set for January 27) was shared more than 400 times and gathered nearly 500 reactions.

“Will forever be my dad's favorite,” one person wrote on the Skeller’s Facebook announcement. “Also mine and my fiancé’s. State College won't be the same when we visit.”

“So sad that I won’t be able to go to The Skeller or Spats on my next visit to State College!” wrote another person. “Thank you Duke for all the wonderful memories!”

“Duke, thanks for giving a girl a spot to work at, and a place to call home,” wrote a former employee.

“What a shame! (S)pent many nights at the Skeller drinking cases of Rolling Rock ponies when I should have been studying for classes the next day!” a former student wrote.

How does a bar have such a line to so many minds?

The Skeller claims the title of the oldest continuously-operating bar in the state. For 84 years it’s served Penn State students, professors, State College locals, and visitors.

Much like fraternities and sororities, it’s a place students could go where their parents may have belonged.

Nearly 1,700 people have worked there over the years, its owner says. It has institutional value.

“The employees are the reason for our successes,” Duke Gastiger says. “The lifeblood of these two places — Spats and the Skeller — has been the employees.”

It’s a place of relative freedom. Gastiger says he tried to allow patrons as much freedom as possible, so long as the nights are safe and no lasting damage is done. People carve their names into tables — which had to be replaced every eight or so years. They scrawl on the Big 10 mural and anywhere else that’s open space.

“For all of the freedom that the kids have here, and we really try to let everybody have fun as long it's safe fun, we don't mind if they carve their names in the wood,” he says. “Especially in bathrooms or in the table. They've been amazingly good over the years. Really there are very few problems and there's almost no vandalism.”

The bar became famous for its drinking ritual, which goes by the monikers “Casey Day,” “Case Race,” “Case Study” and “Box of Rocks.” Essentially one day per year the Skeller would offer cases of Rolling Rock pony bottles for purchase, and patrons would spend the day drinking their way through as many as 1,000 cases.

“For here, it became not as much a drinking event as just a great social event,” Gastiger says. “It was another reason for alumni to come back, sit with friends, share cases of Rolling Rock and just have a blast all day. We had more fun those days and never had a problem.”

Gastiger says on the nights before Case Studies, there would be a line to get into the Skeller, and one waiting for the doors to open in the morning.

Gastiger is adamant about the “sense of place,” and says in the past the Skeller has transferred hands in a way that ensures a continuation of the values and aura that have been installed over the years.

“It's never been on the market,” he says. “What has always been important to the owners previous is that when they sell it to somebody who is going to be a good shepherd. So, you're almost handpicked. It wasn't so much a matter of money as wanting to find somebody who could be true to the Skeller tradition.”

He tended bar there in the 1970s. Later, while working as a food and beverage director for Hyatt Ohio, he got a call from “Fast” Eddie Hill, who would go on to be his business partner.

Hill “called me out of the blue and said ‘If you wanted to buy a bar in State College, which one would you buy?’ I said ‘Of course the Skeller.’ He says ‘Do you want to buy it?’”

John O’Connell owned the bar from 1980 until 1986 when he sold it to Gastiger and Hill. It was in 1983 that under “Johnny O” the Skeller broke the reported record of most cases of a single beer sold in a day. The story goes that O’Connell had challenged a bar in Germany with Rathskeller in its name to a drinking contest. Legend has it the Skeller was packed by noon on the day of the bar’s 50th anniversary and people drank through 903 cases by 2 a.m., just months after O’Connell was quoted in The Daily Collegian saying he was worried about a workers’ strike at the Latrobe Brewing Company. He told the Collegian reporter that August that his 6,500 cases of Rolling Rock in stock might last only until the first home football game.

Before O’Connell came Dean Smith, known as the “Dean of the Skeller,” who owned the joint starting in 1958. Students from this era could go to the Skeller after they turned 21 and receive a card declaring them on “Dean’s List.”

It was under Smith’s reign that the Skeller expanded into the back room and the back bar was installed at the location of the old stage. The stage was moved across the room and it was here that many State College bands got their start.

Preceding Smith was Carey Collins “Doggie” Alexander, who took over the bar just one year after it opened and prohibition was repealed. He purchased it from “Pop” Flood, who owned the Greenroom Restaurant along with The Rathskeller & Gardens. But Flood wanted to focus on the restaurant, so the story goes, and Alexander watched over the “rats of the Skeller” until 1958.

The Skeller’s history isn’t without its dark spots, either. On Oct. 26, 2003, five Rathskeller employees had a confrontation outside the bar with Salvador Peter Serrano that resulted in Serrano’s death. After years of court battles, the Skeller owners lost a lawsuit with their insurance company over payment to Serrano’s family, an amount that was reached outside of court.

Over the years, Gastiger and other owners have walked a fine line of trying to modernize, clean, and renovate without disturbing too much of the aura that people remember.

That includes retaining the plethora of one-of-a-kind memorabilia accumulated over time. Gastiger said those items belong to his corporation and were part of the agreement when he bought it from O’Connell.

For decades, the Skeller earned its All-American name by employing athletes who worked for pay or meals. Athletes also often patronized the bar, and signed photos of Penn State legends, including Joe Paterno, adorn the walls.

In November 1977 Town&Gown looked back at the history of the Rathskeller, reprinting a 1975 story from The Penn Stater written by former T&G editor Jo Chesworth. Chesworth made reference to players past who visited the bar, such as Lenny Moore, ’56; Jesse Arnelle, ’55; Rosey Grier, ’55, and Mike Reid, ’69.

The Skeller features oddities like a passionate plea penned by a former bartender printed in the Collegian, urging students to adhere to the unwritten rules of drinking at a bar. For example: “Never ever ever tell a bartender to give you a strong drink. That means you automatically assume their drinks are not good, and in essence you are telling them they are doing a bad job. Asking for a strong Captain and Coke will get you a whole lotta Coke and a smidgen of liquor that wouldn’t give a 2-year-old a buzz.”

Timothy Leary, the famed former professor turned psychedelic advocate, once bought a table. Gastiger says Leary loved the carvings in the table that had held so many drinks and considered it modern art. Leary later sent a check for a dollar, as well as a handwritten note.

Personal photographs also have their space in the Skeller. The Gastigers have put up photos of their family and employee vacations. Old legends such as “Coach Spaghetti,” a former longtime Skeller employee, have their place among the athletes and owners. The walls hold shrines to employees who passed away suddenly.

Also on the wall: “To Duke: Best Wishes,” wrote former Penn State president Bryce Jordan. Graham Spanier makes an appearance as well, in the form of a framed shirt that says “Graham Spanier drinking team,” from a time when the former president attempted to crack down on alcohol.

Last call for Duke’s Skeller is slated for January 27.

In the meantime, Gastiger says he’s giving his employees the option of finding other work and that he’s not forcing them to stay on through the closing days.

“I have six employees that have worked for me more than 20 years,” he says, and he considers them family.

Some will go on to help him at RE Farm Cafe in Patton Township, a planned farm-to-table restaurant with special Gastiger culinary flair.

 

Sean Yoder is a freelance writer from Bellefonte.

 

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