A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bird is the word

(Above, the cover of "The Ugly Pugling" by Wilson the Pug, which is set at the Albatross)

Happy birthday to the Albatross pub in Berkeley, which will celebrate its 45th anniversary Oct. 7.
The Albatross - or, as the regulars call it, "The Bird" - was founded in 1964, the same year as the Free Speech Movement. It's located on San Pablo Avenue, exactly one mile from the Cal campus.
(Back in the day, alcohol sales were banned within a one-mile radius of campus, so if you travel a mile in any direction from Cal, you'll find a cluster of bars.)
But The Albatross isn't a conventional bar. It isn't a place to get drunk or pick up someone for a one-night stand.
Instead, it's the closest thing you'll find in this country to a real, old-fashioned British pub, short for public house.
Which isn't to say it doesn't have an extensive collection of local and international beers, wines and whiskies; it does. But the alcohol is incidental to its real purpose, which is a place for the whole community to hang out.
"Have you ever had the feeling when you walk into a public place that everyone is checking you out?" says marketing consultant Marshall Platt, who uses "The Bird" as a place to meet with clients.
"The Albatross is the exact opposite of that. You feel appreciated as soon as you walk in. Everything there says, 'Relax.' People are throwing darts, people are munching on crackers, and there are dozens of board games to play."
Local jazz or bluegrass musicians play live four times a month. Sunday night is Trivia Pub Quiz Night, when competitors vie for free t-shirts or drink coupons. Tuesday is Dart Tournament Night in the dart room, which features six professional lanes.
"We sell used dartboards because the players are so good here, they wear out the bull's-eye before the rest of the board," says co-owner Wendy Halambeck. "So they're good for learning on."
Halambeck and her partner, Linda Zsilavetz, bought The Albatross in 1997 from its original owners, brothers Bob and Val Johnson. They replaced the Formica tables with wood, cleaned 33 years of tobacco residue from every surface and crevice, and added a pool table.
But they kept all the old traditions. Small brass plaques honor deceased longtime patrons at their usual spot at the bar, including Howard Albert (Jan. 24, 1911 - Feb. 28, 2004), Horst Duhnke (May 22, 1922 - Feb. 3, 2005) and Jules Spillman (March 31, 1941 - June 11, 2007).
"Jules' wake was held here," says Halambeck. "And so was the reception after the funeral."
The Albatross also has its share of famous patrons, including George Cleve, musical director of the Midsummer Mozart Festival; two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn; and Wilson the Pug, who (with a little help from his owner, Nancy Levine) has authored four published books, including "The Tao of Pug" and "The Ugly Pugling," which features the Albatross as its setting.
Wilson is a frequent patron because the Albatross is dog-friendly until 8 p.m.
"For him, it's a big treat," says Levine. "You can buy unlimited popcorn for a quarter, and Wilson is a big fan of popcorn. He gets lots of attention, music and popcorn - all things that he loves."
The celebration runs from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.albatrosspub.com or call 510-THE-BIRD.