The spirit of the Piccadilly: One of Green Bay’s most infamous clubs, a favorite Packers hangout, and its legendary owner
This story appears in the October 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Editor’s Note: On September 15, a day before this story’s deadline, Bob Harrill, former owner of the Piccadilly, passed away at the age of 89. With his family’s permission we are running the following story from our interview with him on Sept. 3 as a tribute, albeit a small one, to a great man who lived a long and memorable life. Our condolences are with the Harrill family, their friends, and loved ones. We consider ourselves more than lucky to have met him once. Rest in peace, Bob.
Before we get to the Piccadilly, before that became the place to be in Titletown, the only bar with live entertainment every night of the week, and the first place mentioned on Vince Lombardi’s list of banned establishments when he took over as Packers coach – a ban loosely followed by certain members of the team – there was Becker’s Bar, on the corner of Mason Street and Lime Kiln Road on Green Bay’s east side.
Before 1946, Becker’s was an uppity, high-society type bar in a city known for being neither of those. Green Bay was a milltown and a drinking town in whatever order you want to put those two things. That version of the bar failed, so the landlord put it on the market. A 21-year-old who was actually 20 rented the place next. He started selling whiskey at a quarter a shot, 35 cents for a highball. He paid a three-piece band $21 a night and started broadcasting them on a local radio station.
From 1946-47, Becker’s was a place where GIs back from the war came to drink too much and get into brawls as a result.
“At Becker’s if you didn’t take care of yourself they’d run you out of your bar,” Bob Harrill, the then 20-year-old running the place, says. “They were just young wild guys. That’s just the way it was.”
It was also wildly popular. People would stand in line outside waiting to get in.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” Harrill says. “To this day I still go by there and get a tear in my eye. I loved that place. Chandeliers in there, big wagon wheels full of beer kegs, the back bar was all big mirrors, neon lights down below. The bar was the longest in the state of Wisconsin at that time. I made it a place where you’d come to have fun and boy, I tell ya, at that time all the guys were coming back from service … and they were looking for a place where they could get their dollar’s worth. I had a business like you wouldn’t believe.”
The two-year lease ran out on Harrill, who gave the place life, made it hum perhaps too much. Despite steady business the owner – who lived in the same building as the bar (Harrill lived above it) – couldn’t take the constant beating the bar took in and dished out. He wouldn’t renew the lease. With six months left to the agreement Harrill had to start looking for his next stop.
Becker’s Bar later burned down. On its old corner in Green Bay now is a Family Dollar store.
Before that there was the first beer garden. Harrill grew up in Spindale, North Carolina, a small town on the base of the thumb that extends out and makes up the western part of the state.
Harrill got a job at a beer garden for Army sergeants in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where his brother was running all the Army barbershops before World War II. For a couple hours a day Harrill would open up, serve sergeants beer, and close. He liked the hustle of it.
Harrill followed rules. It’s just that sometimes they were his own. Technically born on Aug. 28, 1925, Harrill says he has three birthdays. Another aligns with a granddaughter’s, who was born Aug. 25, so Harrill decided he’d tell people his was the 25th too. They’d celebrate their birthdays together every year.
The last birth date of Harrill’s was actually the second when he, then 16, said he was a year older in order to join the Navy. He changed his birth certificate with an eraser.
“When I was a kid no one asked you your age, no one cared how old you are,” Harrill, 89, says. “We didn’t have birthdays. You got your ass out and worked. The reason it got more important is when you went into bars.”
Before the bars there was the war. Harrill spent three years across Europe making every invasion except Normandy – Harrill rattles off the invasions of North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, invasions of Salerno and Anzio in Italy, and the invasion of southern France on the spot. Harrill was on a landing barge that carried five Sherman tanks and around 100 infantrymen.
Taking orders from General George Patton, they’d hit the beach and unload their boat, delivering whatever was needed from gasoline to ammunition. Harrill was a gunner, meaning, “If anything came near us I’d shoot that sonofabitch,” as he says, even though he rarely could tell if he hit anything; there was too much gunfire in the air to know for sure. They’d make “end runs” too, going to the back of enemy lines to drop off troops and supplies. Harrill says they were shot at, bombed, shelled, day and night by German forces. There were weeks and months that Harrill doesn’t remember sleeping in the middle of war, any nod off awoken sharply by another round of explosions and bullets and chaos.
Hitting the beach in the invasion of Salerno, his skipper was killed by a piece of shrapnel they figured was no bigger than a thumb. It cut through his Mae West life vest and went through his heart. He dropped, Harrill says, without so much as a whimper or sound. Harrill struggled to sleep years after he returned from Europe. He couldn’t understand how he made it.
“It seemed like all the nice guys, I bet I had 10-15 nice guys, really nice, and every one of them got killed,” Harrill says. “The guys that used to write home every day or once a week, get a stack of mail that big, every one of them would get killed.
“Guys like me, didn’t give a shit for nothing, trying to screw every girl in France or Italy or wherever I’m at – drink, fight, that’s all we did – and that’s why we survived. I think if I wasn’t that kind of a guy I would’ve never made it.”
Harrill made it, but got hurt and wound up in the Naval Hospital in Virginia alongside a bunkmate, named Woodall – “a true hillbilly,” as Harrill calls him, from Georgia who indirectly changed the direction of Harrill’s life.
There was the red dress. Woodall had been shot in the hip, so his wife would visit him in the hospital. Staying at a nearby Gold Star home, she became friends with a woman named Violet. Violet accompanied her to the hospital one day for a visit.
“When she walked in that ward, she had a beautiful red dress on and I tell you I was like a roadrunner,” Harrill says. “I damn near jumped off the bed. And I’d never met her, that was the first time I’d ever seen her, and I said, ‘Now, that’s the girl for me.’”
Bob and Violet got to talking and hit it off from the start. The next day, when Woodall’s wife came back to visit, so did Violet. Again and again she came back. It had been weeks when, finally, Harrill got permission to go on liberty, or take time-off.
The four, Woodall and his wife, Bob and Violet, went into town. They hadn’t had anything to drink for awhile, so Woodall and Harrill got drunk quick. Walking down the street, Woodall got into an argument with a group of sailors, which led to him kicking one of them in the head with his bum leg. Harrill felt obligated to help in the ensuing fight, and on his first day of liberty, Harrill was thrown into the brig, a military prison on a naval base. A couple more stints in various hospital wards for a concussion and ailments stemming from it, and Harrill was back in a ward, Ward 14, that allowed visitors. Violet would come every day. Eventually they decided to get married.
“I didn’t know where the hell I was gonna go after the hospital,” Harrill says. “I wanted to go down south someplace and open a beer bar.”
Violet, however, was from Denmark, Wis. And as it happens, Harrill had a sister living near Chicago. He figured he’d swing by his sister, then head up to Green Bay to meet his new bride’s family. It was love, and also love at first bar.
“I come up to Wisconsin and damn, all these places had nickel and dime beers,” Harrill says. “I said, ‘Man oh man, now this is a place I wanna live.’”
He met the family and stayed with Violet’s brother, who was running a bar on Main Street in Green Bay at the time, for awhile.
“I was happy that he planned on living here,” Violet says. “He didn’t want to go back to North Carolina, so we came up here, he liked it, and we stayed.”
There was the surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945. Harrill was sitting at his brother-in-law’s house.
“The world went wild,” he says after the surrender that ended World War II. They didn’t know what to do, but Bob had an idea.
“I said, ‘Let’s go down to the damn bar, I’ll help you.’”
So they did. Harrill jumped behind the bar not knowing one whiskey from another. At the end of that day, or rather early into the next morning, the bar had sold literally everything it had to sell, closing only because there was no other choice.
Harrill enjoyed the frenetic pace and energy of that day and handled it well enough, so his brother-in-law gave him a bartending job. He worked there for close to a year when he heard about a supper club, a beautiful place, that was for rent because the two guys before went broke trying to turn it into some high-class establishment.
The rent was $500 a month, a lot of money. Still, Harrill went and checked the place out.
“It had all the glasses, everything. You didn’t need nothing but to put change in the cash register,” he says. “I said, ‘Shit, I’ll take a shot.’”
Bob put $2,000 in escrow for a two-year lease on Becker’s Bar.
There was the place near the river. Six months left on that lease, Harrill heard that a spot called the Piccadilly was for sale. Pictures from a Ringling Brothers circus show covered the walls: clowns, circus acts, Bozo. It was built and decorated like one, so that’s where it got its name: The Piccadilly Circus. The Piccadilly had a main bar and smaller one in back. It had a big stage for performers, plenty of space for dancing and dining tables.
The owner couldn’t stay out of trouble with the state beverage inspector and eventually lost his license. Harrill bought the place in 1947, running both bars for six months before moving everything over to the Piccadilly.
Harrill had an idea of what he wanted it to be, and the Piccadilly became that vision pretty much from the start.
“I saw it as a need. You could tell that these places that had a little piano player on the weekends, Saturday nights (were doing well), and I said, ‘Well if I can get a band cheap enough for the week I’ll hire them by the week.’
“Well that worked out just like pouring honey. $21 a night (for a band)? I could steal that much.”
The Piccadilly had bands at all times. Harrill was a natural in the bar business, quickly deciphering what worked and what didn’t, what people wanted and why they’d come back. It wasn’t a complex formula, but he followed it to perfection.
“I was polite and friendly with everybody,” Harrill says. “You hit that door and, ‘Hello! Hi!’ I made you think you’ve been a friend of mine all my life. I thanked everybody and just tried to do a good job.”
He was an innovator, implementing things common in bars now like, along with nightly entertainment, shuttling fans to Packers games at old City Stadium and bringing them back to the Piccadilly, where they parked, and open mic nights on Sundays where bands could come in and jam.
The old home of the Packers, City Stadium, on the east side was a gold mine for Harrill. After the game, people knew the one place they might see players out on the town. Following huge wins like the Ice Bowl, Harrill says the Piccadilly didn’t close ‘til the next morning. The bar developed regulars who’d park there and shuttle over to the game, onlookers wanting to see Packers off the field, and out-of-towners attracted to Green Bay’s bustling nightlife. After going to games but having to leave early to open the bar, Harrill eventually sold his season tickets. There wasn’t money in those like there was in the bar.
He was a businessman, which also meant understanding that anyone can walk into a tavern, and, being a tavern, that often meant getting threads from every corner of the quilt of humanity. Harrill kept a pistol behind the bar, and had a shotgun too, just in case, along with a short billy club and baseball bat. Sometimes, if the only way to solve a problem appeared to be by bar fight, Harrill tried to steer it outside, warning the combatants that if he had to get involved they’d both hit the floor as losers.
He doesn’t remember it, but Harrill had apparently thrown out a member of the Outlaws, a motorcycle group from Milwaukee. Word got back to the Piccadilly that the Outlaws might be coming back to trash the place in response. That was all Harrill needed to hear. He called a friend, a county policeman, and told him about the situation. Harrill was provided with men who staked out on the roof of the Piccadilly.
“If they come and got guns,” Harrill says, “we’re gonna have a gun battle, I guess.
“That’s just the way life was. When you run a business like that you don’t say you can come in and you can’t, the door’s open. You’ve got to know how to handle these people. Everybody can’t be a bartender and everybody cannot run a bar business because it’s an altogether different business to get into.”
The gun battle thankfully never happened. But Harrill, like anything else at the Piccadilly, simply prepared for it accordingly.
There was Paul and Max. It didn’t take long for members of the Green Bay Packers to find the Piccadilly. Being the only spot with live entertainment every night of the week in town, women and out-of-towners flocked there, especially on weekends