'Til Rick's do us part: A drunk history of Rick's American Cafe

By Melanie Kruvelis, Editorial Page Editor
and Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published November 5, 2013

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Like a (Rick’s) Virgin

One night in 1976, a young student on a four-year dance scholarship at the University wandered into a popular local bar and disco called the Blue Frogge with her friends. She encountered an attractive and charismatic waiter, a drummer in a local band and, like her, an aspiring artist.

She asked him to buy her a drink. The two spent the evening talking about their shared love for music. Even though he was four years older than her, they connected.

That student was Madonna.

The waiter was songwriter and producer Steve Bray, who Madonna dated on and off during her five semesters in Ann Arbor and continued to collaborate with throughout her musical career. The place they met? Located at 611 Church, the Blue Frogge eventually became an iconic Ann Arbor establishment: Rick’s American Cafe.

We went to Rick’s, not looking for love, but searching for an explanation for the staggering popularity and longevity of the famed bar. Before setting out to write this story, we had never walked through its double doors, never descended the oft-packed stairs that lead into the hazy basement that doubles as one of the city’s most popular bars.

In our minds, the place was shrouded in Three Olives-soaked mystery, but we dove in with open minds and mouths, ready for whatever Rick’s could throw at us. The first things thrown — well, handed — were two glasses filled to the brim with a thick pink concoction known as a Mindprobe, the house drink. We’d tell you what’s in it, but no one really seems to know.

On our very first trip to the bar, we brought a whole crew of Kerrytown-dwelling Rick’s-virgins. Mindprobes in hand, and leftover pasta we ate communally from a Tupperware, we made our way to the sweaty and slippery dance floor. It probably wasn’t a sight typical to the average Rick’s night, but surprises became a recurring theme during our Rick’s expedition.

Unlike Madonna — who recalled the story of meeting Bray in a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, saying “those were good days” — we didn’t find love. But we did discover an entire subculture built around the famed bar, a subculture that has persisted through decades of changes.

Into the Groove

Love it or hate it, through the years, Rick’s has become one of the most talked about fixtures of campus nightlife. In August, it was named one of the top-25 college bars in the country by The Daily Meal. It’s the only club in Ann Arbor that’s ever had a (now-defunct) website devoted to its line. In both 2008 and 2011, The Michigan Review, a conservative publication, deemed it the “worst bar in Ann Arbor,” saying “You might have taken home a good hook-up a few times, but you probably also took home a nasty case of Syphilis, as well.”

Our first mystery to solve about the bar: Rick. Is there a Rick? Who is he?

Chris Hesse, general manager of Rick’s, laughed when we asked if he had ever met Rick.

“There really is no ‘The Rick,’ ” he said, leaning back in his chair in the office tucked away just to the left of the steps that lead down from Church Street into the dark world of Rick’s.

We spoke with Hesse the day after Halloween, one of the busiest night’s for the bar. It was 11 a.m. on a Friday, and the bar that had — just nine hours before — held hundreds of inebriated cats, zombies, vamps and Mileys was now occupied by employees wielding mops, cleaning up the sticky mess of glitter and spilled drinks leftover from the night’s celebrations. The silence and (slightly) brighter lighting were bizarrely jarring: This was Rick’s during daylight, our glimpse behind the curtain.

Hesse told us that the man often confused as the original “Rick” was Rick Novak, a manager and partner of the bar in the ’80s. But it wasn’t Novak who gave the bar its name.

Rich Johnson and Steve Crowley originally opened Rick’s, and based it on their favorite place to go out in Colorado, also called Rick’s American Cafe. After opening up in Ann Arbor, Johnson and Crowley expanded, establishing a Rick’s East Lansing.

Named after “Rick’s Café Américain” — the swanky nightclub and gambling den from the 1942 classic film “Casablanca” — Johnson and Crowley transformed the Blue Frogge into the bar and dance club it is now in 1979.

Back then, it wasn’t a given that the dark, crowded basement would be, well, so damn crowded. On Dec. 3, 1978, Michigan raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 19 — and just 18 days later, raised it to 21.

In the years following the law’s passage, many hoped that the new age limit wouldn’t be enforced. More thought it would be pointless to enforce. “It’s an impossible situation,” Michigan State University President Edgar Harden said in 1978, after the legal age change was passed. “I don’t see how you can have students drinking legally at 18, and the next day say it’s illegal.”

But as drinking ages rose across the country, eventually culminating in the federal Drinking Age Act of 1984, crackdowns on underage drinking hit Ann Arbor — and they hit hard. According to the 1982 edition of the Michiganensian, bartenders and managers alike were shocked not only by the fines bartenders could incur by serving the now-minors, but also the new tactics employed to ensure Freshman Drinker 2.0 couldn’t sneak a beer in local bars.

“One of the latest tactics for catching these lawbreakers is to send in burly, balding 19 ½ year-olds into bars to get served,” the Michiganensian reporter wrote, “and report the bartender to authorities who are planted at the bar.”

“It really is a sad situation,” one Rick’s manager told the same Michiganensian reporter. “Since the enforcement of the drinking age, our bars are only half full.”

Campus staples like Charley’s, which opened its doors in 1979, and old-timer The Brown Jug, established in 1936, and Rick’s endured the end of (legally) liquored-up minors. Hesse said he isn’t surprised by the initial hit Rick’s took after the legal drinking age changed.

He said current age restrictions on Rick’s actually work to its advantage. The new 21-and-over policy helped establish the reputation of Rick’s as a hangout spot for older students.

“I think one of the reasons Rick’s has sustained so well ... is that this has kind of been known as the senior bar,” he said. “It’s where the 21 and overs hang out. We like to think it’s the hardest bar to get into on campus.”

Not that the bar’s zero-tolerance policy stops underclassmen from trying.

“People get crazy trying to get in,” said LSA sophomore Jordan Roth, who bounces at Rick’s. “Girls have offered me numbers. Guys try to give me an extra $20.”

Roth said the pressure can be tempting, “but if that person gets drunk, then whoever was checking IDs is in big trouble. It’s not worth it.”

But for better or for worse, keeping Rick’s minor-free has built up its reputation as an exclusively upperclassmen bar.

“Senior year, everyone was very drunk and emotional all the time,” Recent alum Proma Khosla said. “And there’s no place better than Rick’s for that sort of business.”

“You say to yourself, ‘It’s gonna be dark, sweaty and crowded. And maybe there will be a stranger creeping on me.’ You know it’s gonna happen, and you’re fine with it.”

Hesse said he believes that regular customers know what they’re getting when they come to Rick’s and that the bar never tries to be anything it’s not. That understanding of the atmosphere and low-key look of Rick’s contributes to its endurance.

“People know what Rick’s is,” Hesse said. “We know we’re not a big fancy Chicago, Vegas, New York-style club, and we don’t try to be … I mean, if you look around, it’s a dingy, dark basement bar. People make of it what they make of it.”

Turn up the Radio

Age restrictions aren’t the only major changes Rick’s has undergone through the decades. Shortly after Rick’s first opened, it became known for its live music. The stage that’s now recognized for uncoordinated bumping-and-grinding-and-falling once hosted performers like Matt “Guitar” Murphy, a — you guessed it — guitarist in the Blues Brothers, who played Aretha Franklin’s husband in the movie of the same name, hit Rick’s several times in the early ’80s. The Pixies played there in 1988. So did Primus — a.k.a. the guys who do the “South Park” theme.

University alum Karen Carlson frequented Rick’s in the early 1980s.

“People would go to Rick’s for the bigger night outs,” she said. “If you were really wanting to go out for a big night, not necessarily a dressy night, but just a nice, long night of hanging out with your friends and having drinks and stuff, Rick’s was always on the to-do list.”

According to Carlson, the main appeal at the time was the live music. They went to Ann Arbor’s other popular spots, like the Union, which used to sell alcohol. But even when they started elsewhere, Carlson and her friends eventually made their way to Rick’s when they wanted to dance. Whereas the other bars cranked out radio songs and didn’t have a space for dancing, Rick’s offered interesting music and, according to Carlson, a “better atmosphere.”

“They had a dance floor; they had the bands; it was good,” Carlson said.

As it turns out, Madonna isn’t the only one who forged a special connection at 611 Church. On one of her Rick’s nights in 1982, Carlson started talking with a complete stranger. They danced; he bought her a drink. For months, she saw him around campus, remembering him as the guy she met at Rick’s. Almost a year after their chance meeting, the two began dating. Karen and Mark Carlson graduated in 1984 and married in 1987. Twenty-six years later, two of their three children are University students. Carlson said her daughter Sara — a senior in the Stamps School of Art & Design — goes to Rick’s with her friends, just like her mother used to.

“And then her friends will look around and say, ‘Hey, do you think our husbands are here?’ ”

Beat Goes On

According to Hesse, the general manager, the live music started tapering off and then stopped completely about seven years ago. Now, live performances only happen in rare instances. The Business School band, for example, plays a few times a year. But, as Hesse explained, for a bar to host live shows successfully, bands have to be booked consistently, four or five nights a week.

The recognizable, respected bands the Rick’s management wanted to book started getting too expensive, and there was also the risk of becoming too niche. If Rick’s booked an ’80s cover band, they ran the risk of losing customers who might not like sweaty 20-year-olds screaming Michael Jackson covers.

So, in the early 2000s, Rick’s started transitioning into featuring DJs one or two nights a week, and those nights became the most popular.

“And the local band market just dried up,” Hesse explained. “So even the least expensive bands were twice as much as a DJ. It got to the point where it just financially didn’t make sense for us.”

The switch to DJs allowed Rick’s to cater to a wider range of music tastes and requests.

Recent University alum Julie Ruppe remembers Rick’s the same way as Carlson does: as a place to dance with your friends and have a great time.

“I went at least twice a week,” Ruppe said, explaining that she usually went with the group of girls she lived with, which included members of Delta Gamma, her sorority. Rick’s even weighed into her decision to live at “Chillard,” a house on the corner of Church and Willard.

“As long as you brought the right group of people, you’d always have a good time,” Ruppe said. “It’s just the only club on campus — if you can even call it a club — where you can dance with all your friends everywhere, and I think that’s really fun.”

Ruppe’s advice to Rick’s first timers like us is to “expect the unexpected.” Just last year, Ruppe was at Rick’s enjoying what she described as “an extraordinarily delicious vodka soda” mixed by one of her favorite bartenders, and the all too familiar “Call Me Maybe” started playing. On a whim, she decided to sing the song to a stranger. She picked a random guy, serenaded him, danced for a few more songs and put her number in his phone.

Three weeks later, she agreed to go on a date with him, even though she didn’t even know his name. Having little faith that the date would lead to anything other than a nice lunch, she wore an “ugly hipster grandma” sweater and met him at Sava’s.

When she met her mysterious date, he told her he was from Germany. She had just returned from a study abroad trip to Germany, and they connected instantly. The couple recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of that first date in Berlin where they now live and work together.

“A lot can happen at Ricks,” Ruppe wrote in an e-mail with the subject line “Til Rick’s do us part.”

“Some good, some bad and some so utterly life-changing that you wake up every day and just have to smile at the mere thought of it.”

And it’s not only Rick’s regulars who have found love in the dimly lit basement bar. Jenny Schwartz was a student in the School of Social Work from 2002 to 2004. As a grad student, one of her favorite bars was Dominick’s, and she rarely made the journey to Rick’s. One night of fall 2003, however, her friends convinced her to go. Recovering from a cold, the last place Schwartz wanted to be was out on the town, especially since she wasn’t drinking that night.

“I don’t know if it’s changed at all,” Schwartz said, “but Rick’s back then was basically where you drank and hooked up with random people. It was not some place you would go to meet the future love of your life.”

On that night, trying to get out of a conversation with another Rick’s goer, Schwartz started talking to a stranger in a Cornell hat. He was a law student from New York who had just broken up with his girlfriend of six years. They talked all night, he walked her home and she gave him her number.

“They always say that you’re going to meet someone when you least expect it,” Schwartz said.

Nearly ten years later, the two are married, have three children and live in West Bloomfield.

Me Against the Music

Hesse, the general manager, also attributed the longevity of Rick’s to the consistent pattern of top-notch employees.

Like Lily Pike, a 2010 graduate from the University. Pike joined the staff her junior year, partially to pay off a car payment she couldn’t afford, and partially just to get in the place.

“I wasn’t 21 yet,” Pike said in a phone interview. “I needed money, but I knew if I wanted to be there, I’d need to work there. Because you can get in there — without drinking — if you work there.”

But, as she found out, being part of the sober population at Rick’s is — surprisingly enough — a bit different.

“Everyone’s wasted, and you’re sober,” Pike said. “You see guys whipping out their dicks and peeing on the bar — ”

We stopped her: You actually saw that happen?

“Oh yeah,” Pike said. “They don’t want to wait in line for bathroom, so they pee right next to the bar. I’ve seen guys getting kicked out constantly for that.”

And when the bouncers aren’t throwing out the urinary exhibitionists, they’re trying to keep one of the most inebriated crowds on campus under control.

Easier said than done.

“One time, we had to take a guy out, and he grabbed onto my shirt and wouldn’t let go,” said Roth, a Rick’s bouncer. “And he tore the shirt off me.”

But overall, Roth says, the employees at Rick’s do a decent job of keeping anarchy to a minimum, and that “very rarely have I seen one of my co-workers have to, like, punch someone in the face."

And as for what Rick’s looks like after last call and once the lights turn on, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, or the sober of mind.

“It’s a mess,” Pike said. “You see purses left behind, heels of shoes, jackets, cell phones. Cheap stuff and really expensive stuff, surrounded by puke.”

But as the old saying goes, from the stinkiest puke comes the sweetest love. Or, at least that was the case for Pike. A co-worker-turned-manager, Matt Dedes, added another hyphen to his title in 2009: boyfriend.

“He was so sweet,” Pike said. “He used to walk me home every night after close.”

After months of just being friends, Pike took a sabbatical from Rick’s for an internship in Washington, D.C. Once she came back to Ann Arbor, she went to Rick’s and saw Matt. They set up their first date the very next day. And now —

“Now we’ve been together for five years,” Pike said. Just last month, Pike (“finally,” she said) convinced Matt to come with her to Boston, leaving behind the bar they both loved to start a new life together.

“I guess he couldn’t handle the constant river of puke, scantily clad angry girls cold in line, nor the deep and dark cavernous habitat of Rick’s,” Pike said in an e-mail. “It’s good for a night or two, but not for a lifetime. Love found there, on the other hand, is for a lifetime. #ricksloveforlife”

Future Lovers

When told about the influx of stories we’ve received about couples finding their loved ones at Rick’s, Hesse chuckled.

“I met my wife here,” he said.

His experience, like the others, wasn’t something he had planned for or sought out. It was 1997, and Hesse — a senior at the time — was working on a particularly slow Sunday night. His friend showed up on a double date, and one of the girls started talking to Hesse. In fact, she ended up talking to him more than her date.

A month later, they went out, and another month after that, they became serious. They’ve been married for 16 years, the same amount of time Hesse has been with Rick’s.

But Hesse has also experienced a different type of love during his time as general manager. He described the outpouring of appreciation he gets from people who “live and die” by Rick’s. He said getting people out the door on graduation weekend is always a struggle.

“The people make Rick’s what it is,” he said. “At graduation last year, I had so many people shake my hand and girls giving me hugs saying, ‘Thanks, it was the best senior year ever.’ ”

For Ruppe in Berlin, the other Rick’s memory that stands out as much as the night she met her boyfriend was on her very last night at 611 Church. It was right after graduation, and Ruppe was there with 15 of the girls she lived with. Vitamin C’s “Graduation” began to play.

“We all put our arms around each other and just started crying in the middle of Rick’s,” she said. “It was our last night all together, our last night at Rick’s. Everyone’s graduating and moving different places, and it’s just a very stereotypical moment and also very fitting that it was at Rick’s.”

It’s not necessarily for everyone, especially if you’re not the dancing type. But the legendary bar offers its fair share of surprises. Maybe you could meet the love of your life at Rick’s. Or, like us, you could just end up dancing on the stage with your closest friends and leftover pasta. Or, you could walk in, pay $6 for a shot, look around and leave (we did that one night, too). In any case, the basement of 611 Church has been the setting for endless late-night tales, Ann Arbor history and its fair share of real-life meet-cutes.

Here’s looking at you, Rick’s … but not when the lights are on. No one wants to see that.