A Night At The Rodeo (Tavern)
Endless karaoke, dishrag dollar beers and glorious undercooked fries and mozza sticks.
Tim Ford, July 13, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioThe Rodeo Tavern in all its glory, circa 2006, on beautiful day in Brantford, Ontario. Photo credit Rob Michalchuk.
Throughout my twenty somethings, every Friday and Saturday night, with the occasional Thursday and Sunday, my friends and I would have a tradition. We would meet up at the music venue we owned in downtown Brantford called the Ford Plant and repeat essentially the same routine for the better part of a decade. First, we’d “clean” the venue for about 14 minutes, then be very proud of ourselves for doing so and proceed to convince each other we needed a much-deserved break from such manual labour. We’d drop our feather dusters, leave the half-mopped floors and scamper like rac(c)oons across the street to The Rodeo Tavern, a 150-year-old bar that had a reputation in town for being the place where the villains of the story went to wet their whistles. We held this madcap tradition for 8 years, almost never missing a beat. Eight. Years.
For some reason, we felt comfortable at the Rodeo (row-day-yo). We paid no mind to the yelp reviews. The tavern, which oddly hasn’t been torn down by the city yet, is located at 20 Dalhousie St. and is one of the oldest commercial buildings (still standing) in Brantford.
It was the first Inn they built in the downtown core and even back then it was known for its bawdiness and shadowed figures. I personally prefer going to a “if these walls could talk” kind of spot, and the Rodeo always seemed to be whispering a tale or two in my ear while I sipped my Golden Horseshoe. From the wobbly barstools, there were ghost stories told of murdered waitresses that haunted the abandoned inn rooms above. Some guy at the urinals once told me a story of two early 1900’s train robbers hiding out in the bar’s cellar, waiting for the right time to get to the river undetected. It seems if you follow the shores of the Grand it will lead you to Michigan and subsequent freedom. The tavern was a common safehouse for scoundrel outlaws on the run to the border.
POV of a dollar beer session at the Rodeo Tavern. Stock photo.
Aside from the seemingly infinite tall tales, the Rodeo also had the convenience of being mere feet from The Ford Plant. Plus, they had $1 half pint beers. One Dollar. Sure, the cups smelled of dirty dishrags and the beer tasted how the cups smelled. We couldn’t afford the $3 beers at Brando’s. We were struggling artists. So, on any spare night, we would walk through the KFC parking lot, across Dalhousie St. and up to that slouching building needled with smokers who were eternally smoking outside the place.
We’d stop for a quick chat with the bouncers, who we’ll call “Ernie” and “Carl”, and they’d let us know if there was anyone inside who seemed to have bad intentions and to keep a watchful eye. We’d then creek those two big doors open and blow a kiss to the bartender, whom we’ll call “Rhonda”.
Rhonda was kind. Her demeanour was warmer than what you’d expect someone would need to have, to work at such a haunt. She’d always meet us with a gummy grin and already be lining up the half pint glasses on the bar as soon as she saw us. We would then proceed to “our” section, right by the bathrooms (very glamourous, past Us’s).
Archived photo of 20 Dalhousie Street, future location of the Rodeo Tavern. Stock photo.
Whoever got paid that week would walk to the bar and hand Rhonda their crumpled $20 bill, or most likely, $20 in VERY loose change. Rhonda would Lego 20 half pints of beer on an 18-half pint tray and hand it to the poor soul who would have to journey their way back to our table. This lone warrior would have to battle Skeletor perched at the end of the bar, leap down that ill-conceived step that came out of nowhere and stealthily ninja their way around the mop bucket that always seemed to be randomly lying out. All the time balancing what might as well be plates on sticks. Many a-half pint fell to their demise during those long treks, forever absorbing into and feeding the Rodeo carpet monster.
Weekday nights at the Rodeo had a calm ‘end of a long day’ vibe. Everyone was content to look down, lip their drinks and enjoy the company that kept to themselves. Lonely together. Maybe a round of pool with a cue that felt like you were playing with an unstrung bow.
If you went on a Thursday, it was not on a whim. Thursdays were serious business. Thursday was karaoke night. If you didn’t have your 4 songs picked out, practiced and choreographed throughout the previous week, you might as well not even have gone up. The competition was THAT steep. You had ‘Super Dave’ absolutely shredding SRV. Stella, or ‘Uneven Bangs’ hittin’ the highs on ‘Jolene’. At our table there was always the quick-draw competition to see who could dibs John and June’s ‘Jackson’ first.
Rhonda would be bopping behind the bar humming the melody back whenever someone would sing Reba. We’d end the night with all of us on stage. As a barstool choir, we would sing ‘The Weight’, holding each other by the hips, clinking the bottoms of our half pints. Karaoke night was not without its controversies, mind you.
Few know, I have the privilege of the Rodeo being on my resume, having been the karaoke MC for three months in 2006. That was of course until there was a coup unleashed by another table. At that table sat no other than the unscrupulous Phil and Suzy, or “Sooze” as she liked to go by. Phil and Sooze hated us from the beginning. They thought we impeded their moments in the spotlight and accused me of nepotism when I ruled the Big Chair on stage. They felt I chose my friends to sing before them and that I conveniently couldn’t find the songs they wanted to sing, when I finally did give them an opportunity to perform.
Alone at the microphone getting ready to karaoke something by Hall & Oates. Stock photo.
To be fair to them, this is 100% accurate. I was corrupt. I let the power go to my head. I pulled favours. I purposely sabotaged the karaoke machine when Sooze was belting ‘If You Think I’m Sexy’ with her eyes closed. So, they hatched a scheme to dethrone me. From what I can tell they used blackmail, bribery and their strong ties with management to usurp my position. Phil and Sooze inevitably overthrew me, taking over as MC’s. I stopped going Thursday nights, disgraced and in shame. Humility is a lesson the Rodeo taught well. Humbleness is spelt s-o-o-z-e.
Fridays and Saturdays were a special part of the tradition. The Ford Plant usually had shows on the weekends, so a few hours before the doors were opened, those who had nothing else to do would gather under our mysterious streetlamp on the corner of King and Colborne St. and army over to the Rodeo, in the late afternoon.
We’d have the designated pocket change-worth of half pints then kiss goodbye to Rhonda, her never giving much concern knowing it wouldn’t be the last she’d see of us that night. With a kick to the side door the still glaring sun would clock us all right in the eye sockets. The windowless Rodeo found humour in keeping the time of day from us. I think most everyone knows the feeling of walking out of a bar into the still daylight. Equal parts confusion, shame and wonderment.
With the waft of fried chicken in our noses we’d run back to the FP, where the mingling would-be concertgoers lumbered on the sidewalk in front. We’d unlock the doors. Flick on the lights. Yadda, yadda, yadda, Sadies, greatest show ever, yadda, yadda, yadda. Flick the lights off and, (most of the time) remember to lock up for the night. We would then all collectively march back to the Rodeo.
Grainy footage of the infamous Rodeo Tavern stage. Photo credit Rob Michalchuk.
Often, the bands who played the FP that night and what seemed like most of the audience, joined with us. Some venues have roof top after parties with champagne and charcuterie. The Ford Plant had dishrag beer with undercooked fries and mozza sticks from the Rodeo kitchen (also located next to the bathrooms).
At this point in the night, there was a forest of eternal smokers on the sidewalk blocking the tavern façade. With a quick handshake from Ernie, we were in. Without fail, as soon as you’d yank open the door, your ears were graced with the single greatest cover band 150 bucks and two pitchers of beer could book. Playing country’s greatest hits from 7 years earlier, it was like walking into real life Roadhouse and I felt like real life Dalton. Picture us strutting in slow motion through the crowds of Brantford’s finest with Kuntry Heat performing on stage, rippin’ through their cover of ‘Redneck Woman’. I never felt cooler. Then our entourage would split into two factions.
Half would immediately run to the dance floor, most not leaving until the last encore of ‘Boot Scoot Boogie’. The other half would just unwind and put their feet up on one of the old splintered wooden chairs, happy to watch from the side and rubberneck the personal dramas being laid out at nearby tables. There was always a lover crying or some buck confronting another buck who just puked on his boot. There was the occasional spaghetti western barroom brawl, but nothing Ernie and Carl couldn’t peter out so the rest of us could continue our celebration.
The nights would always end with Rhonda yelling the ‘you don’t have to go home’ cliché while flicking on the house lights, which is a brightness more shocking than walking out into the daylight. Its reveal was never kind. A lost sandal on the dance floor. Smeared lipstick on collars. Beer stains on a just bought Born Ruffians tee. Pub food smooshed into the carpet monster. Most of all, it held a lantern to the state of the building. The cracks and years of abuse, nicotine and neglect were exposed naked in the spotlight. If those walls could talk it would probably just sigh and mumble the words to ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’.
Our tradition of clinking glasses over a good conversation and an out of tune rendition of ‘Dirty Old Town’ dimmed away when The Rodeo’s management tried something new with their week’s schedule. Between cover bands and karaoke, they took a shot at a swingers/sex night, complete with mattresses and towel rack in the back room. It was a weird pivot and one that ultimately alienated 99% of its patrons.
"Some venues have roof top after parties with champagne and charcuterie. The Ford Plant had dishrag beer with undercooked fries and mozza sticks from the Rodeo kitchen (also located next to the bathrooms)."
We almost immediately took up residence at a bar up the street. Their mozza sticks were mediocre, but at that point all the cowboys seemed to have left The Rodeo. All that remained were Rodeo clowns (great analogy t-bone). The final years of the Rodeo Tavern will have to be told by someone else.
My final moments in that place won’t be remembered fondly and I made a point never to go back. Even the structure itself seemed fragile. Like an undusted statue in a museum, forgotten on a corner shelf. Men with black coats and bad intentions had swung open those bar doors for over a century, and their boot scuffs had left marks that couldn’t be scrubbed away. Its reputation had finally preceded itself, and became too seedy to keep our tradition alive any longer.
As a defence mechanism my brain tends to forget that era of the Rodeo. I choose to remember my friends and I at the front of the stage, arms around each other, screaming at the feet of Kuntry Heat as they butcher Shania’s ‘Still the One’. I remember the tear that came to my eye the first time I heard Sam sing J-Lo’s ‘I’m Real’ into that disgusting karaoke microphone.
I can even admit the first kiss I shared with the person who would become my wife, was in that very parking lot. Maybe it was the arrogance of youth that we chose the roughest bar in town to start our tradition in. Maybe it was just geography, for whatever reason we chose that piss yellow sign as a north star, the stories told, songs sloppily sung, and characters I met at the Rodeo Tavern will stay with me forever. Just like the taste of those half pints.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario…so…yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.