Tonya Bina: Grand Lake’s ‘The Rope,’ the place where you ‘could always go’
October 6, 2011
GRAND LAKE – When I first came to Grand Lake 10 years ago, in order to truly be indoctrinated into the town, I stepped onto the boardwalk and entered the long and narrow Lariat Saloon.
It was happy hour, and the opening door cast daylight on bar dwellers who turned their heads, squinted their eyes and wondered what my then-future husband had brought in.
The room was smoke-filled with yellow-stained placards and decals stuck to the ceilings and walls. TVs and female bartenders were the focal points behind the bar. We sat at one of the high wooden tables near “Fred” the buffalo head, next to the hind end of a horse; billiard balls clinked somewhere toward the back of the room. A dog paced the carpeted floor looking for fallen potato chips.
It was easy to like the place.
The Lariat – affectionately referred to as “The Rope” – never took itself too seriously. Evidenced by its cluttered walls, ceiling and shelves, it became the refuge for stuff wives wouldn’t let husbands display in their own homes. Like the bizarre “woolly booger” above the downstairs bathroom door, or the bottle of saki with a snake in it, “Arnold” the stuffed pig above the front door, a whale’s backbone, or the life-sized poster of Marilyn Monroe.
Few establishments (like Deno’s in Winter Park and the Crooked Creek Saloon in Fraser) have that sort of character authenticated by loyal patronage, unforced nostalgia and location. The Lariat’s true merit was its continuity through the years.
The late bar owner Gene Stover saw to it his business remained open from opening hours to legal bar-closing hours, no matter the season, no matter the holiday.
He did that not for his own sake, friends say, but to provide a dependable place where people could always go, even if it was during a shoulder season and the place was losing money by staying open.
For Thanksgivings and Christmases, the Lariat carried on the tradition of offering a gathering place for holiday “orphans” with a generous potluck dinner.
It became the spot where mourners gathered when a friend died; it became the birthday celebration place, the post-wedding-reception place, the bachelor and bachelorette party place, the Super Bowl and trivia place, the anniversary dance place, the fundraising place – a boozy surrogate “church” on Grand Avenue with Steve Cormey, Walter Holland and Nine-Toed Bob in the choir pit.
When our Jeep slid into the bank of Tunnel Road one icy winter, rather than call a professional tower, my husband went to the Lariat to seek help. There it was easy to find a friend with the chains and the will to help us out. It was that kind of place.
In any one summer night, the Lariat could attract an eclectic mixture of patrons such as the cook from next door, the hard-core whiskey drinker, the Yacht Club member, the bachelorette bride-to-be, the military officer, the town trustee, the competing business owner and the lover – gay or straight.
Where else in these times would you find yourself on a crowded dance floor, enthusiastically taking part in a bona fide Chicken Dance? The Lariat was anesthetic in that way.
The Lariat was the very place where Louis Heckert, the man who tapped every weekend on the dance floor wearing a loud polyester shirt, spent his last night before he was attacked by a bull moose the next morning.
It was also the place Lariat manager “Nine Toed” Bob Nicholls met the love of his life (now he’s more like “Nine-plus-20 Toed” with wife and new baby).
It’s also the place Skip McLellund took on the role of pool-table referee every Saturday night, sipping cold coffee, finding you in the crowd, tapping you on the shoulder when your name was up on the chalkboard.
The Rope has been closed since Sept. 9, and although Grand Lake has seen its share of business closures, few others have reverberated through town quite the same.
The establishment was shuttered for various reasons as the business sits in probate following the unexpected death of 30-year Lariat owner Stover, who died one year ago yesterday, Oct. 4.
Today would have been his 62nd birthday.
Those who personally knew Stover, the town’s former mayor and the guy who strove to have a place where one “could always go,” say he definitely would have hated the fact his Lariat is now closed.
The highlights that braided “The Rope” over the past 30 years are abundant. In moving forward, may the saloon doors swing open once again and the camaraderie continue; Gene would have wanted it that way.