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A see change at Bertha's

Once in awhile, as Tony Norris says, you wake up from a snooze and do something. Norris, 68, decked out in a white turtleneck, is talking about the current affairs of Bertha's - his Fells Point pub that'll turn 35 next year. Why wait for some snappy anniversary? In this new year, Norris has awakened from a snooze and changed the place a bit.

No big changes, mind you. For some folks, Fells Point has changed enough in recent years - with the arrival of mega-bars, the demolition of St. Stan's rectory to accommodate more condos and parking enforcement as rigid as any totalitarian regime. Change has largely spared Bertha's - the landmark bar at Lancaster Street and Broadway, a couple blocks from the harbor. Its iconic, globetrotting "Eat Bertha's Mussels" bumper stickers still multiply and morph into witty word offspring. Still with the jazz and Dixieland bands here. Still with the hot buttered rum and Scottish afternoon tea. Still with the industrial-sized men's urinal. Still with owners Tony and Laura Norris.

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So, what's with the flat-screen, high-definition Vizio television hanging to one side of the bar? People could watch sports on it. This happens at other bars, you know.

Amid the green stickers and garage-sale ceiling mobile, the high-def intruder hangs like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, says bartender Bernard Lyons. What is this thing that has descended into the universe of Bertha's? Will it inspire creativity and aggression in modern-day cavemen? Does this Vizio creature come in peace? Next thing, people will want the new TV turned on. The bartender shakes his head.

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One afternoon last week, we sat with Norris at the sunlit table across from the restrooms and under the red Christmas lights, jaundiced sailfish with chipped bill, dusty bagpipes and puffy mannequin suspended in a diving suit. Lord help us if the screws don't hold; falling accordions have got to smart. But customers are safe - and hungry. A bowl of mussel chowder with Saltines appear from Lyons - an Englishman himself who came in for a beer at Bertha's seven years ago and left married. There are satisfying details in-between, but for another time. More pressing business awaits with the proprietor.

There's been benign grumbling over the new TV, Norris says. He has a flat-screen at home and liked the picture so much that he bought another one from Costco. People complained about the old set here, didn't they? How the reception was spotty, how you had to stand on the bar to manually change channels.

So, Norris put the new 32-inch TV up last Wednesday. After a quarter-century, he retired the Montgomery Ward TV, which can now be gutted and hung in the rafters with the rest of the petrified cast of instruments and seafaring fare. The TV was from the Last Supper, goes the joke. But the new TV seems so un-Bertha's-like.

What's next? A new paint job? A new bulletin board? Getting rid of the mini-stage in the corner by the leopard-skin backdrop?

"Is the paint bothering you?" asks Norris' son, Andy, perched on a ladder over our table. He's applying a new coat of brown paint over the chalked initials of customers who felt compelled - as so many do - to alert others that they were at Bertha's. It's not enough to get a free green bumper sticker (Bertha's has 40,000 printed a year); people chisel their initials into the walls and doors. Please not into the wood, Tony Norris beseeches, but they do anyway.

Norris wants a new bulletin board - maybe Bob Eney can put the felt on it. He can do anything, this handyman. Eney, 77, still opens the restaurant in the morning, still is the artistic heart and soul of Bertha's. Using a twist on his own name, he painted "Bobina," the Rubenesque woman over the bar. And they did get rid of the stage to give musicians more room.

Surely, there's no talk of changing the slogan? More than three decades ago, Norris and his wife came up with those three magic marketing words: Eat Bertha's Mussels. Not a question or request, but a directive. No phone number on the stickers. No address. Not even a hemisphere given. Initially, Laura wanted to include an address, but they both settled on their vague yet emblematic calling card.

Their inaugural goal: Get a sticker on every car in America. They didn't quite achieve that, but the logo did go global - with sightings at China's Great Wall, the South Pole, an Arctic station pretty darned close to the North Pole and the Louvre in Paris, as well as on an army tank in Belfast, Ireland, with honeymooners in Hawaii and in swanky bars in New York.

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The slogan continues to inspire artists who jumble the delicious letters into various reincarnations such as "Eat Russell's Crow." There are particularly salacious ones involving Tiger Woods and former President Bill Clinton, but propriety demands restraint. A few years back, the bumper sticker inspired a song by musicians John Roberts and Tony Barrand:

Now a sailor came to Bertha's with a problem most severe / His manly pride had been atrophied from a voyage of forty years / A couple of plates of mussels, now he sings in a different key / His jib boom's set right, he'll be in there tonight and he'll never go back to sea.

Their CD is for sale at Bertha's. But the sticker is not for sale - it's still free, still trademarked.

Bertha's did need a paint job, however. And one bathroom needed special attention: They put white tile in the women's restroom because women would write some real awful stuff about other women, Norris says. It's harder to write on tile. The guys, well, they just write dumb stuff in the men's room, which remains in its natural state.

As happens in dark bars, the afternoon inconspicuously segues into evening; there's a knot of regulars in now. Eney, a true Fells Pointer, sits at the corner stool sipping dry red wine and drawing spiraling artistic symbols on a cocktail napkin. Behind him on the wall, one of his napkins is framed: "I promise to be good now. Bob Eney." Eney does not recall making such a pledge. But the napkin makes him and others here smile tonight. Another regular, Don Hetz, a refrigerator mechanic, warms himself with a bowl of chowder. Then, suddenly roused, Hetz says, "You guys get a flat-screen TV?"

"Don't get me started," says Lyons, his day shift expiring.

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Lyons, a jazz-concert promoter by night, puts on a new CD from Tom Waits, whose smokehouse voice sets a conciliatory mood. It's just a new TV, after all. It could be worse when the TV is off, Lyons imagines - people just staring into that black monolith. Shouldn't people look at one another in a bar?

Norris says he might put a curtain over the TV. Maybe the curtain would have Bertha's menu on it. When people want the thing on, they could pull a rope and up goes the curtain. Either way, he will find a way to Bertha-rize the flat-screen TV.

Waits wails on. Paying no mind to the new TV, Eney switches to tomato juice. He donates his latest napkin creation to Hetz, who collects these things. Lyons takes one of his Camels outside to smoke. Since November, Bertha's has been smoke free. The owners wanted to beat the politicians to it. That change wasn't wildly popular, either. But sometimes change can be healthy.

Sometimes change can be crystal clear. Have you seen high-def TV? Norris asks. It's a great picture.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com


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