The Great American Saloon Series

Cheers to the Bull & Finch

Some bars should never become famous.

By From the March 2014 issue

Cheers Bar, Boston by André-Puerre du Plessis (Flickr Creative Commons)
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It’s fitting, in a fit-in-with-the-crowd kind of way, that my first visit in several decades to the bar that inspired the television program Cheers comes a few minutes after disembarking from a flight at Logan Airport. Walking down those familiar steps into a drink den foreign to anyone who watched the sitcom, I spy six blond children, presumably out of a Gymboree catalog but not from Boston, parading around the same bar that seventies streakers once traversed and local drunks once gambled upon. My table stands sandwiched between German accents to the left and English accents to the right. “Our international guests often ask about tipping,” the menu, tacitly admitting its clientele, announces. “No service charge or gratuity has been added to your bill. Quality service is customarily acknowledged by a gratuity of 15-20%. Thank you.” The note strikes a more polite chord than the nickels that bartender Eddie Doyle once hurled back at cheapskates to convey the native custom to foreign customers. 

Those descending the idiot-box-famous stairs now do so as much for souvenirs as for suds. If one wants a vacation from Boston without leaving, Cheers makes for a great escape. Its fauxthentic sports memorabilia mimics the man caves of Boston transplants from Tampa to Tempe. The non-rhotic accent of the locals is unheard in hard-R orders of “Budweiser” or “Chowder.” Cheers is where tourists go to get a feel for Boston by meeting other tourists.

Beyond officially changing the name from the Bull & Finch Pub in 2002 and opening a replica of the television bar in nearby Faneuil Hall, the owner continues to cash in on a twenty-years-dead sitcom by offering “Lilith’s Pan Asian Salad” for $14.95 and “Carla’s Meatball Sub” for $12.95. The ambiance isn’t very Lilith; the prices, not quite Carla. Surely this hometown hideout is where FBI’s Most Wanted Whitey Bulger avoided detection for 16 years. 

Like the arriving passengers on John Winthrop’s Arbella, 2014’s visitors to Cheers appear blissfully unaware that the place had a past. And like the newcomers who implored the king they freed themselves from to free them from “barbarous names”—replacing the mouthful Mashauwomuk (bastardized in the English tongue into “Shawmut”) with the bland Boston, among other offenses against past inhabitants—today’s visitors enter a bar whose name has been erased by a force, centrally placed above the alcoholic’s wooden altar for worship, more intoxicating than all its liquid holdings combined. 

They were hooked up in Boston with a guy who owned a limo and knew every bar in Boston,” Eddie Doyle explains of Taxi writers Glenn and Les Charles, in town to find inspiration for a bar-based sitcom. “They hated every bar in Boston. They thought it was a lost cause. They went back to the Ritz hotel and asked, ‘Is there any bar in Boston worth going to?’ The concierge told them ‘Bull & Finch.’”

What happened next is television history. But the untelevised tale of what happened before is the story of Boston, the 1970s, the sexual revolution, and the evolution of bars from retreats for the extended family of a neighborhood to traveled-to destinations full of strangers. The plot more outrageous and the characters wilder than on Cheers, the Bull & Finch Pub would make for great television if it hadn’t already made for great television.

We sat down at a table with two girls,” Dennis Flynn recalls of the first time he stepped foot in the Beacon Hill bar. “I turned to one, and in a voice that everybody in the bar could hear, I said, ‘I don’t care if the bunny died. I’m not going to marry you and I’m not going to pay for the abortion.’ And the whole place cheered. I found a home.”

From that night in 1969 until the late 1980s, Flynn, along with an eclectic cast of accountants, art dealers, iron workers, stewardesses, unlicensed pharmacists, and Emerson College co-eds, would make the semi-subterranean level of a five-floor neo-Georgian brick mansion a home away from home. The clientele transcended class distinctions and, more significantly for the times and the town, the cramped bar welcomed all sexes. Whereas a combination of stuffy Brahmins and Irish-Catholic traditionalists had made women as populous in Boston’s watering holes as they now are in its gay bars, the Bull & Finch attracted customers by attracting attractive costumers.

“It was a conscious effort,” explains bartender Doug Coulson. “We really looked after the women. There would be rows of guys hovering behind them. We ensured they really felt comfortable. We knew the guys were going to stay around and drink if we had women there.” Other taverns in the city hosted impromptu bare-knuckle boxing matches on a nightly basis, but the Bull & Finch catered to an amicable crowd whose idea of a good time didn’t involve indoor reenactments of the Boston Massacre. “I don’t remember any fights whatsoever,” Sheila, then an underage secretarial student, remembers. “I don’t even remember bouncers dragging people out.”

In pre-1970s Boston, public houses kept women—even ones accompanied by a date—at the table and away from the bar rail. “Most of your bars in those days was your neighborhood bar, and if there was a woman there she was a stone-cold alcoholic,” Flynn (your correspondent’s uncle) explains. “But women felt free to come in here, and it was great for that reason.”

With Doyle blasting Chuck Mangione’s Land of Make Believe, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack from behind the bar, the Bull & Finch came alive on what patrons dubbed the world’s smallest dance floor. “If you couldn’t get laid in the Bull & Finch, you couldn’t get laid,” Flynn explains. With patrons dashing off to the boiler room for a quickie or across the street to the Boston Public Gardens to smoke a quick joint, the Bull & Finch unleashed more drama than Diane Chambers. On at least one occasion, a couple partook in the marital act unnoticed amidst a crowded bar of revelers. 

Cotton Mather surely rumbled in his grave over the iniquities of the Improper Bostonians. The Bull & Finch sits on the very land where the Puritans set the city’s intolerant tone by running William Blaxton, the peninsula’s lone inhabitant who had graciously invited the newcomers to settle, off his own mound of earth for religious nonconformity. Diagonally across the street from the Bull & Finch on the Boston Common, city fathers hung Ann Hibbins from a tree for witchcraft in 1656 and H.L. Mencken hilariously bit moral crusader Frank Chase’s half-dollar piece 270 years later right before his arrest for selling a copy of the American Mercury that contained a story about a prostitute. Within eyeshot of the Bull & Finch stands the Park Street Church, gathering spot for Chase’s Watch and Ward Society, and the State House, where the Know Nothing Party held every seat in the legislature save two after 1854’s landslide elections. But by the 1970s “Banned in Boston” had largely been banned in Boston. The Bull & Finch’s Impuritans embarked upon a crusade to repent for their uptight city’s sins against sin.

But others caught on to the business model, nearly putting the Bull & Finch out of business. Women customers meant more customers—female and male. “When Quincy Market opened up, our business dried up,” Doyle says of the 1976 urban renewal project that reinvigorated Boston a few blocks east. “All of our clientele went down to Faneuil Hall. I was walking out with 10 or 12 bucks a night.”

Doyle, an avid jogger, organized the Boston Barley Hoppers, which transformed pub crawls into pub gallops. The joggers acted as pied pipers for the Bull & Finch, spreading the good word throughout the streets of Boston. The tight-knit community ventured beyond the boundaries of the cellar saloon for deep-sea fishing trips and golf tournaments. Organized activities yielded to spontaneous ones. Patrons could occasionally be spotted partaking in human wheelbarrow races from Arlington to Charles Streets. Before America noticed the Bull & Finch on Cheers, Boston magazine did, naming the Bull & Finch Boston’s best bar in 1982.

Boston beauties and Beacon Hillbillies occupied the bulk of the barstools. A third group traveled further to quench their thirst. British pub décor, now a staple of American bars but then a curio, attracted BOAC stewardesses and pilots. The English woodwork motif for the bar extended to rugby shirts for its tenders. The unusual offering of Whitbread and Whatneys in the age of Schlitz and Budweiser, coupled with dart boards—another then-rarity in American bars—brought in the Brits, notorious for their seeming obtuseness toward the American custom of tipping. The darts, if not the dark-stained wood and the darker-stained beers, also attracted the unemployed, whose issues with gratuities proved more economic than cultural. Happy hour united the various constituencies, ensuring that half-empty pockets filled the bar beforenightfall.

There was an innocence to the less-than-innocent age. In surely a before-the-fall moment for the Bull & Finch, Dennis Flynn succumbed to a $750 challenge to shave his head bald in a Cambridge bar, a style that remains to this day. Kojak aside, the cueball cast as strange a styling in the 1970s as Dennis’s longstanding 1870s muscleman mustache did. Finding his appearance insufficiently shocking, he trekked across the Charles River to the Bull & Finch, where he made a grand entrance in his new look completely nude. The barkeep served the familiar patron in unfamiliar (un)dress without incident. Naked was normal in the 1970s.

“Streaking was huge,” bartender Coulson points out. “People would bet someone, usually a woman, to streak. It didn’t happen every day but it happened 20 to 30 times.” When a particularly attractive woman succumbed to the dare, casting aside clothing became contagious. “So, the dart players took off their shirts and then their pants. They started shooting darts nude for an hour or so.” In the Eden of freedom, the Bull & Finch’s unregulated regulars didn’t know enough shame to reach for fig leafs. 

But then came a new decade, when streaking fell from fashion and naked unleashed new hazards. “I remember one guy at the bar rail and a story came on TV about AIDS,” Doyle recalls, “and he started swearing: ‘Here I am in the prime of my life and this has to take place.’” When microbes joined the bacchanal, the bacchanal became funereal. “People were more careful and not as ready to jump in the sack with anyone that came along,” Doyle notes of the decadal shift. “It was a sad time when you think back on it.” A patron remembers the social disease that afflicted gays as initially too exotic to extinguish sexual fires on its own. She recalls, “The bigger concern of everyone was herpes, not AIDS.”

At the very least, they could still drink away their sorrows. And a new stimulant offsetting the depressant meant that they could do so into the next morning. “There was definitely cocaine all over the Bull & Finch Pub in the 1980s,” concedes secretarial student Sheila. “It was very socially acceptable.”  But last-call booty calls became, like bell bottoms or mood rings, a casualty of the changing times. Drinking to employment misfortune yielded to drinking to sexual misfortune as the ’70s morphed into the ’80s. 

A third event would follow the revitalization of Quincy Market and the advent of AIDS in making the Bull & Finch regulars irregulars. It proved to be the cataclysm that the resilient beer joint couldn’t survive. 

Cheers premiered Thursday, September 30, 1982, on NBC. Seventy-three of the 77 other shows on primetime television attained a higher Nielsen rating that week. Initially, the show, rather than the bar it modeled itself upon, seemed doomed. But like the Bull & Finch Pub, the critics loved Cheers. Just as the best-kept secret on Beacon Hill couldn’t be long kept, the best-kept secret on primetime slowly spread. As the television bar became a national phenomenon, the local bar became one too. The Bull & Finch morphed from a bar where everybody knew your name to a tourist trap overflowing with complete strangers.

Patrons who treated the barroom as their living room initially carried on oblivious that so many Americans watched their barroom in their living rooms. “It was never on,” Flynn says of Cheers. “It was just dismissed.” Others dispute this characterization. Doyle recalls the program playing, owner proud as a peacock, on a 19-inch television overhanging the bar. Coulson, no longer an employee by this point, recognized character Norm as fellow patron Mike Shaughnessy. “Oh, my God! Norm is just like Mike!” he recalls thinking. Mike “was a big guy, really friendly. He just had his seat.” Like the TV barflies, Bull & Finch barflies followed routines. Night after night, they occupied the same seats, drank the same drinks, and maintained the same office hours.

 Meeting at the Bull & Finch, and holding their wedding reception upstairs at the Hampshire House, bartender Doug Coulson and waitress Mary Roddy may have been the closest thing to a real-life Sam and Diane. As the theme song affirmed, the Bull & Finch was a friendly place featuring the same recognizable faces. But in so many other ways, particularly square footage that grew larger on the small screen—a fact never lost on the visitors—the Bull & Finch and Cheers diverged.

The mainstays didn’t frequent the bar to complain about inaccuracies in a TV show. They came to drink, and under the influence they didn’t initially grasp how the nationalization of a neighborhood bar necessarily destroyed that neighborhood bar. “When the show started in 1982, I would recognize almost everyone who would come into the place,” Doyle, by then in his ninth year serving drinks, notes. But then strangers behaving strangely began to appear. “We noticed people coming in sporadically, looking around. People would try to swipe the placemats or snatch the salt and pepper shakers and run out the door. We thought that was kind of weird.” Television has that effect on people.

Initially, the real-life Norms, Cliffs, and Frasiers put up a fight. “You get real sick of people asking you where Carla is,” Sandi Russell, then 43, confessed to People magazine in 1990. The barroom bulwark reported that “a few times I even roped off our area to keep them out. I used to get semiobsessive.” The establishment issued “regular cards” to enable the loyalists to skip the lines and the bar to retain its character through retaining its characters. 

But the tour buses kept coming. The bald and mustachioed Dennis Flynn challenged the occasional sightseer to drop a quarter balanced atop the nose into a paper funnel inserted in the pants. As George Washington began his proboscis balancing act, Flynn would pour a beer into the funnel. In one of many instances in which tourists conscripted regulars to serve as props in their pictures, seventies nudity snuck into eighties photography. When the bar effectively doubled as a store, hawking Cheers gear and knick-knacks, regulars showed their disapproval by periodically raiding the merchandise. 

By the 1990-1991 television season, Cheers was the highest rated program on television, and business was booming at the Bull & Finch. One side of the bar was annoyed; the other side enriched. Eddie Doyle, as he watched the loyalists disappear down Beacon Street, felt his pockets expanding. It was a long way from the $12 nights during the decade before.

The coup de grâce came in the form of Michael Dukakis, a swarthy, hirsute, secular suburban liberal in his second stint as governor. He would make as strange a buckled and cockel-hatted puritan as he did a snoopy-eared tank gunner. Nevertheless, the governor channeled the spirit of Cotton Mather to play killjoy to happy hour. Having lost a brother to a hit-and-run driver, and suffered as his wife imbibed rubbing alcohol and other elixirs not on the Bull & Finch cocktail menu, Dukakis crusaded—as much as a passionless technocrat could—to make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to ban drink discounts and giveaways. On December 10, 1984, just a few weeks removed from raising the drinking age from 20 to 21, Massachusetts called last call on happy hour.

Contemporaneously, the city elected a mayor—another Flynn, no relation this time—who made good on his commitment to shut down the Combat Zone, the flesh-drenched district that Coach once invited Sam Malone to explore. Arrested-at-the-Alamo Ozzy Osbourne, like William Blaxton, would soon boast official persona non grata status in John Winthrop’s City upon a Hill. Blue-laws Boston hadn’t died in the seventies; it had slept. This remained Cotton Mather’s city. Dennis Flynn merely lived in it. 

The sun had set on fifty-cent day drinks that had made the Bull & Finch a party during sunshine hours. And slowly the daylight drinkers at watering holes did, too. “Does anybody go to a neighborhood bar anymore?” fiftysomething Sheila, long removed from her party years, wondered. “The only people who go to a neighborhood bar during the day have a drinking problem.”

But in real-time party time, it doesn’t seem so. If there is honesty in the Bull & Finch redubbing itself “Cheers” after the establishment’s local character had been obliterated by an international television sensation, there is something Orwellian in the very name “Cheers.” Might the fictional comedy and the actual bar have been more appropriately called “Despair”? Like the television program, the bar served as an escape. Happy hours and “cheers” toasts—a taproom sitcom even—obfuscate what drives one to drink. One needn’t strongarm booze hounds into telling stories of streaking and sex, of coke and booze, of Falstaffian raconteurs and practical jokesters. The events outside the bar that led to the events inside the bar remain another story, one generally left untold. Before Michael Dukakis ended drunkenness at a discount, many a sad hour had gone into every happy hour. 

Something gained, something lost—laws cracking down on happy hours and shifting behavioral norms transformed bars from places where everybody knew your name to taxied-to destination spots that thrived on anonymity. The unaccompanied female barflies regarded as “stone-cold alcoholics” in the sixties had finally attained equality with their male counterparts, who would eventually be recognized as such too. Once upon a time, Norm and Cliff weren’t drunks. 

The cast that had made the Bull & Finch a live-action situation comedy more compelling than Cheers settled down to domesticity or settled into other haunts. 

The vacationing outsiders increasingly invaded. The Bostonians retreated. “The people used to hang there every day—the regulars—stopped coming in there,” Flynn recalls. “It took place after a while, but it gradually got dimmer and dimmer. There were times I would walk right through, walk out the back door, and go over to the Sevens,” a bar a few blocks down Beacon Street. Sheila, aging out of nightlife in her late 20s as the NBC sitcom peaked, recalls, “I never found a new spot.” 

Neither did recession casualty Eddie Doyle, who, in 2009, after 35 years behind the bar, found himself laid off. Flynn, who migrated to the Beacon Hill Pub and the aforementioned Sevens, laments, “You couldn’t recapture what it was for 20 years.”

Reruns and remakes never entertain quite the way they did on the original broadcast. 

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.