Sloshed Cause

Two landmark Valley cocktail lounges are on the rocks

Since Chez Nous first opened for business nearly 40 years ago, thousands of Phoenicians have gotten hammered inside the glitzy, smoke-choked cocktail lounge.

Now, it looks like it's finally the bar's turn to get smashed.

Pending the results of a city rezoning hearing next month, the snazzy watering hole at the southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and Indian School Road could be razed to make way for an Osco drugstore. If that rezoning effort is successful, insiders say the joint will be lucky to last through the summer.

Just Chez Nous: Liz Renay (left) and pal make the scene, 1999.
Vance Nardo
Just Chez Nous: Liz Renay (left) and pal make the scene, 1999.

To the club's current faithful -- many of them Cocktail Nation scenesters barely half as old as the bar -- news of Chez Nous' possible demise is only slightly less earthshaking than if they'd learned that the return of Prohibition was on the horizon. To regulars and staffers, several of whom have mounted a "Save the Chez" petition-signing campaign, the small 1,600-square-foot club is less a bar than it is a historic link to mid-century Phoenix nightlife.

"This blows my mind," says longtime customer Jim Cherry, a promoter who stages retro-themed cocktail events around the Valley. "Phoenix is the city that races to erase its past. There is a terror and a fear and a hatred here of any connection to a past generation."

Decorated with marbled mirrors, twinkling lights and tuck 'n' roll leatherette booths, with a fake waterfall trickling behind the bar, the club epitomized the vanguard of early '60s swank. A testament to the bar's uniqueness is a wall of plaques and awards from the local press, as well as framed mentions in national publications such as Rolling Stone and Details.

"It was the place to see and be seen," says John Bruman, a Phoenix engineer who's been frequenting the club since it opened. "If you were a junior executive on the rise, that was where you wanted to be seen."

Other notable guests over the years have included skin-flick director Russ Meyer, cult-film star Liz Renay, Don Ameche's brother and, on a more notorious note, several key figures in the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. (Bolles was killed when his car exploded in a hotel parking lot less than a quarter of a mile from Chez Nous.)

Reveling in its risqué reputation, the club has in recent years benefited from the resurgence of interest in the Rat Pack, swing music and martini culture. Now unofficial scout headquarters for Generations X, Y and Z, the eclectic result frequently looks like Ocean's 11 by way of Superfly.

Prior to his retirement, snow-haired bartender Frank Wesson regaled young imbibers with tales of a pioneering Phoenix go-go bar he once operated, while showgirl turned cocktail waitress Barbara Turco (also since retired) recalled her days as a dancer at New York's Latin Quarter.

Unlike his proactive employees, owner Bob Pavlovic seems resigned to Chez Nous' dark fate. Since autumn, when his landlord refused to let him sign a five-year lease, he's been operating on a month-to-month basis. Anticipating the worst, he's already scouting new locations.

"From what I'm able to ascertain, I have no legal recourse," says Pavlovic, who has operated the club since 1993. "None. [The landlord] has done everything according to Hoyle.

"It's a shame, though; we've had a helluva run," Pavlovic says, shrugging. "Look at this place -- you won't see anything like it in town."

Actually, you will -- but not for long: Another bar stylistically similar to Chez Nous faces an even more imminent demise.

Unable to come to terms with her landlord, owner Marianne Hagman will close the doors to her Copper Queen Lounge in north Phoenix forever following a farewell blowout Sunday night.

"I've had it," says Hagman, whose commanding Austrian-accented kvetching is as much a part of the Copper Queen's ambiance as its piano bar, copper-colored booths and a free-floating kidney-shaped ceiling.

"Look at this place; it's spotless," orders Hagman, who would have celebrated her 20th year as owner on April 1. "Some guy came in here with a check last week and I said, 'Get out of here! I'm not giving this place away.'"

Hagman says she doesn't know -- or care -- what will happen to the building at Seventh Street and Glendale Avenue after she closes shop.

"Unless I get the price I want for my liquor license and goodwill by the end of this week, I'm out of here. And I'm taking everything with me -- the piano bar goes in my garage."

Warm up the ice cubes.

 
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