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ON THE SCENE: Remembering Happy Jack’s in Lake Placid

From the left are Gretchen, Marita, Barbara, Happy Jack (behind), Moe O’Sullivan, Sharron, and CJ the Magnificent. (Photo provided)

In the 1960s, nightlife was different in Lake Placid. You could drink at 18, and bars could stay open until 2 p.m.

Teens and young adults were into owning either VW Beetles and vans or largely English-European sports cars such as Alphas, Fiats, MGs, Porches and Triumphs. And in the summer, many young people were working the Lake Placid Club, hotels like the Whiteface and Mirror Lake inns, the Placid Manor coupled with skaters and their coaches, seasonal residents and more. People didn’t think about going out until 10 maybe 11 p.m. Popular was the Arena Grill, Freddy’s for dancing and, in time, Generations and the Harbor. The Club and the Whiteface Inn had big bands and several others rock, with folk about. There were many other popular establishments such as the Dancing Bears after the Hilton opened, The Handlebar, the Majestic, etc.

A standout was Happy Jack’s, located where the former Alpine Cellar now exists on state Route 86 (Wilmington Road).

First, being located just outside the village, they could serve alcohol until 3 a.m. Happy Jack’s had by far the widest selection of beers, liquors, wines and other beverages north of Albany, possibly in the state. Over 160 ales and beers, and the first establishment east of the Mississippi to sell Coors. About 360 to 380 or more different wines. If you wanted to impress a client or date with Chateau Mouton-Rothschild or a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, they had that. Happy Jack’s had a similar top of the range in bourbons, brandies, vintage calvados and single malt scotch. Well over a hundred liquors.

I remember when the manager of New York’s Twenty-One Club came in one time, and he was gobsmacked. Of course, they had a more extensive wine cellar, but not the depth across the board, and they didn’t have Coors.

When it came to music, Happy Jack’s was the place musicians came to jam after their gigs elsewhere. Added to that was the range of musicians that often stayed at the ski lodge in town for performance elsewhere, ranging from Pete Seeger to Ravi Shankar and Janos Starker to the Young Rascals.

We served food. For a couple of years, beginning at midnight, Japanese students at Paul Smith’s College offered popular dishes from their homeland under the banner “Happy Japs” at Happy Jack’s. My mother’s bagels were most popular, the first venue to feature them on their menu. Shipped from New York City, we offered choice among a half dozen or so. They could be toasted or not, served cold or heated under a grill, all with various toppings.

Of course, a big difference between Happy Jack’s and other taverns is that all its bartenders were women, which got people’s attention and created a greater sense of safety for women. Another is that we charged a nickel to a dime more than other establishments for draft beers, Buds, or whatever, which discouraged people who tended to be the ones that caused trouble.

“My girlfriends and I felt safe there,” said Barbara Rand. “It was lounge; you could meet all sorts of people. I’ll ever forget meeting the Young Rascals.”

Our customers showed their loyalty in some unusual ways. There had been a major ski race at Stowe. Some guys who’d been at the race took down the finish line banner, rolled it up, brought it straight to Happy Jack’s, and hung it from the ceiling. Later that evening, local coaches that had been at the race came in for a nightcap. They were shocked to see the finish line banner used earlier in the day now hanging in the bar. And, so it remained, a never-ending talking point for visiting race officials, coaches, and athletes.

“I can’t get over the black wicker Caribbean casket hung over the bar,” said Sue Cameron. “Eclectic can’t quite describe the place–the historic ski posters on the ceiling, the library of books along the sides. There was a wild array of things. I don’t know quite how to describe, but it was fun.”

“I worked for your dad for a month until Jim La Fountain talked me into working for him at the Harbor,” said Heidi Hess. “I loved Happy Jack’s. I absolutely loved it. I was mesmerized by the fireplace without a chimney; it completely intrigued me. I’d never seen one like that before. It was my favorite place to hang out.”

My parents swapped homes with Ginny and Gyp Adams back in the late Fifties. They had a funeral parlor business with an attached five-unit motel on Wilmington Road, and ours was on Swiss Hill. The Adams were looking for a career change, and my parents wanted to start their own business after a decade of working for my grandmother, Climena Wikoff, at the Mirror Lake Inn.

My father was a big proponent of the Whiteface Ski Center that opened in 1958. He felt that turning in Adams’ business into a ski lodge, the closest to Whiteface, would do well. As part of that, he put in a large addition between the main house and the motel units, initially called the Nose Dive Club. It was a single large room built out of 4×4 rough-cut beams salvaged from an old hotel across from St. Agnes Church. He featured a bouldering wall on one end and a large fireplace surrounded by glass on the far end. We decorated it with all manner of artifacts from my father’s time in the 10th Mountain Division, his rock-climbing equipment, trapping gear, works of art, etc. People quickly tired of a BYO setup and demanded we get a liquor license. We did, and Happy Jack’s took off.

“The bar was the coolest scene ever,” said Moe O’Sullivan, one of the earlier bartenders. “Whether as a place to go after skiing in the winter or sky diving over the golf courses, I went out with one of them; it attracted the most interesting people. That was my favorite bartending job ever. Ever. I learned everything about bartending from Jack. He had over 200 kinds of beer. You could make any drink you can imagine. My sister Cathy had a fabulous voice; I remember her folk singing there. Your father kept an eye out to ensure nothing got out on hand. I just adored your mother, Gretel. Her cooking was amazing. What was most amazing was fitting into the family; that’s what I loved the most. Gretel, what a mom to have. She was so kind.”

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(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)