You’re going out tonight?

Christmas night once was an excellent time to hit the bars.

By the time all the gifts are unwrapped and dinner is eaten, many young people have had their legal limit of their family for one day. That’s the way it was back in the late ’70s, and I doubt it’s changed much.

At that time, Wisconsin’s drinking age was 18, so the bars were full of college students fleeing their homes.

We gathered — of all places — in a tiny restaurant lounge. It seems an unlikely place for that, but if you went to the bar at Nino’s Steak Round-up, you ran into someone you knew almost every night during Christmas break.

The lounge at Nino’s seemed a vaguely sophisticated place. It had exactly one beer on tap. Special Export, brewed in Wisconsin, was a bit of a premium brand. It came from the same brewery as the more popular, less expensive Old Style. (It was as Michelob is to Budweiser.)

There you were — 18, 19, 20 — and drinking a beer that wasn’t something you drank in high school. If not Special Ex, then mixed drinks. Save for a brief and still inexplicable flirtation with the Vodka Collins, my mixed drink of choice was the whiskey sour. I couldn’t begin to tell you what brands of liquor went into them. Some sophisticate.

I spent many nights at Nino’s, but it wasn’t a place for music. It was a place you went to chill out, to shoot the breeze. Lots of people went there for a quiet drink. There was a stereo behind the bar, and I vaguely recall albums being played. It was the time of late-night free-form FM radio, so maybe they played that.

Truth be told, Nino’s was a place to go to escape the dreadful music played in central Wisconsin — and lots of other places — in the late ’70s. It was enough to drive anyone to drink, even on Christmas night.

One look at the WLS charts for the week of Christmas 1977, when I was home from school during my junior year in college, and I know why drinks were in order. Shaun Cassidy has two singles and two LPs in the charts. Two LPs titled “You Light Up My Life” are in the charts, one by Debby Boone and one the movie soundtrack.

So there will be no music from the week of Christmas 1977. There will, however, be music in the spirit of those Christmas night gatherings.

“Christmas Night In Harlem,” Louis Armstrong with the Benny Carter Orchestra, 1955, from “Santa Claus Blues,” 1993. It’s out of print.

Harlem is nothing like central Wisconsin, but this vibe is much the same.

“Oh, everyone is gonna sit up until after 3. Everyone will be all lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went after you fled the house on Christmas.


Filed under Christmas music, December 2009, Sounds

4 responses to “You’re going out tonight?

  1. We had a Nino’s in Waukesha. I didn’t go there much. Just down the road was Shakey’s Pizza. That was the place to hang out, especially after Friday night football games.

    I liked whiskey sour, as well. Once I ordered it with my parents at a restaurant and the waitress brought me a different mix of whiskey sour. I was told I should have ordered whisky AND sour to get the cocktail I wanted…I drank it anyways.

  2. My band had the Christmas day slot for five years running at a local club, Jose Murphy’s. The place was always packed, it was full of our friends and the families of the workers. It was a very nice time, we wouldn’t do our regular show – I was just thinking of this tonight as I drove home from my mom’s.

  3. whiteray

    Ah, Special Export! One of my fave beers back when I was just out of college and was gainfully employed. That and a long-gone brand called Erlanger. (I often wonder if anyone else recalls that one.)

  4. Marty

    The memories of Nino’s are forever etched into my mind. Good thing, too because I believe Nino’s is now a strip club. A different set of memories for a Christmas crowd these days.

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