After tending bar in Wilkes-Barre for 53 years, Donahue’s owner Joe Philistine ready to cut himself off
WILKES-BARRE — In his youth, Joe Philistine dreamed of becoming an engineer on a train, an achievable aspiration in the 1940s.
Bartender wasn’t on his list of career options, but looking back, he wouldn’t have chosen any other line of work. Now his 53-year career is coming to an end with the pending sale of Donahue’s Hourglass Lounge on South Main Street.
“I was made for it,” the 80-year-old Philistine said from behind Donahue’s bar. “I was made to be a bartender because I could relate to the customers. I used to read the almanac and encyclopedias. A little knowledge about certain things, especially sports, goes a long way in a bar. I didn’t realize that I was made for this job.”
According to Philistine, there were around 20 bars on the second, third and fourth blocks of South Main Street before the Agnes Flood in 1972. He’s not sure how Donahue’s survived—the water reached the bottom of the bar’s front windows — but the bar did have to close for six months for renovations.
“We didn’t get water until Friday night,” Philistine said of the destructive flood. “If they didn’t open the gates up in Elmira (New York), if they had waited maybe another half day (we would’ve been OK), but they were afraid it’d come over (the gates), so they let it go. That’s when we really got hit. It warped everything.”
Philistine had to make alternate living arrangements since he was unable to access the apartment he lived in above the bar. When the bar changes hands at the end of November, Philistine will have to move again. Nov. 7 will be the last night that the bar will be open for business.
Selling the bar
The Burns family, which recently re-opened Wilkes-Barre restaurant Hottle’s after its closure in 2010, will assume ownership of the bar after the real estate closing later this month. Philistine said he goes back and forth between being comfortable with his decision to sell and seeking legal counsel to retain the bar, along with the apartment above it he calls home.
Philistine is the 10th of 11 children and the first birthed in a Wilkes-Barre hospital (his mother gave birth at Mercy Hospital, which is now called Geisinger South). His parents, both Italian immigrants who settled in Hazleton between 1901 and 1909, met when one coal miner worked up the nerve to ask another about his sister.
Philistine grew up on Carey Avenue in Wilkes-Barre and attended Elmer J. Meyers Junior/Senior High School.
After high school, Philistine joined the U. S. Army and was stationed in El Paso, Texas as a radar operator from 1958 until 1960. Two years after he returned to Wilkes-Barre, his brother-in-law (the Donahue who lent his name to the bar) asked him to help out for a couple of months.
A couple months turned into five decades of bar tending and Philistine inherited Donahue’s from his sister, Bonnie, in 2010.
Philistine has served and observed generations of young people who visited Donahue’s to discuss the great questions of their time.
“In the 1960s, customers were rebellious but in an intellectual way because of Vietnam,” Philistine said. “Rebels, but they had a cause. The war kept on going and every night we’d hear about somebody killed. At first, college students were exempt and then they got away from that, they said it wasn’t fair, I guess, so they went to the number system. After the war was over in the ’70s, they didn’t have too much to rebel about so I called them rebels without a cause.”
Philistine recalls the young clientele of the ’80s as individualistic and independent, the ’90s as informed, mature and uninhibited by the curve balls life threw at them, the 2000s as seemingly obsessed with the idea of life on other planets and the 2010s as sympathetic.
Interacting with and observing the next generation is one of Philistine’s favorite parts of the job. It’s also going to be one of the hardest to leave behind.
“I hate to give it up because I’ll just be another old man living someplace without any youth around me,” he said. “This is what I love. I’ll be in an old man’s home — who am I going to see, old people? Not that old people aren’t nice, but am I going to talk to them about the Yankees? Maybe some old people like to hear about the Yankees, maybe I’m misconstruing old age, but I feel that once I get out of here, I’ll become Methuselah.”
Drinks and trivia
Sam Brand, of South Wilkes-Barre, like his mother before him, first visited Donahue’s during his time at Wilkes University.
He’s been going there regularly for the last six years for Philistine’s “drink of the night.” Brand said he never knew what was in the drink because the bartender improvised each one. And Philistine’s propensity for breaking into an Italian opera song while tending bar will always be a fond memory.
“That style of bar and bartender doesn’t exist anywhere else anymore,” Brand said. “The nostalgia was nice, but not only that, having somebody who cared about his customers like Joe did was nice as well. Joe and I are both fans of trivia and I think that’s what I’ll miss the most. Joe is a walking encyclopedia; we spent hours trying to stump each other. That’s what I’ll miss the most.”
These days, Donahue’s is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Philistine used to tend the bar nightly but is no longer able to stand for long periods of time. He doesn’t have the money to take on an employee as, according to him, the bar operates in the red.
Philistine’s health, along with Donahue’s financial hurdles, forced him to make a decision about both of their futures.
“I wasn’t feeling good and my legs were hurting. Up until then, I put them (Eileen Malone Real Estate) off, but I said, ‘come on over,’” Philistine said. “I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ After it was over, I tried to reverse it, but then I got sick again and thought maybe I did the right thing. When I feel good, I don’t want to sell it. When I feel bad, I want to sell it.”
Several attempts to contact Eileen Malone Real Estate and the owners of Hottle’s Restaurant were unsuccessful.
Patron and a pal
Kevin Dougherty moved to Wilkes-Barre from New Jersey 17 years ago and has been a patron of Donahue’s for almost the same amount of time because of its welcoming atmosphere. Dougherty sometimes helps by serving customers and restocking the bar when Philistine has to take a break.
“A bunch of other people tried to help him out over the years but I don’t think Donahue’s would be the same with an absentee owner,” Dougherty said. “Joe’s getting out at the right time. I think he would tend bar forever if he could, but I think he sees the writing on the wall and there’s a point where he’s not going to be able to do it.”
Donahue’s L-shaped bar against the wall was moved to the center of the room after the flood, but the person tending remained the same. Philistine was at Donahue’s when a glass of beer was 10 cents and a shot was a quarter, and he’ll be there, for a little while longer, quizzing customers about sports, history and the arts.
Customers coming from nearby Bart & Urby’s Thursday night trivia promotion field Philistine’s questions and encourage Donahue’s first-timers to have their handwriting read by the bartender.
Philistine used to watch a 15-minute live television program in the ’50s that featured a graphologist. The graphologist pulled people from the audience and analyzed their handwriting, attributing meaning to things like the amount of space between words and how they cross their Ts. At program’s end, the graphologist described some of the things she’d look for in a person’s handwriting and what those particulars meant.
“I must have picked it up without even thinking about picking it up,” Philistine said.
“One night there was nothing to do so I decided to try it. I had someone write ‘roses are red/violets are blue,’ which told me they were pretty generous. It turns out he was generous; he took care of his mother and brother. I’m only an amateur, but I have years of experience with human beings. I have a few indicators (from the graphologist), but the rest is from people’s mannerisms. I get it from that, too. We’re different. It’s what we are. It’s not really mysterious.”
Reach Gene Axton at 570-991-6121 or on Twitter @TLArts.