Family affair 

Nicole Garr looks back on the Top Hat legacy

Nicole Garr never intended to come back to Missoula, and especially not because of a bar. The Top Hat—the Front Street venue her father, Steve Garr, owned since 1988—harbored good memories for her, but it had always been that smoky, boozy place where she felt like "a little kid in a room of big guys." Plus, Nicole and her partner, Armando, were far removed from the culture of beer-slinging regulars and late-night bands while running a yoga studio in Hawaii.

Then something happened during a family reunion in summer 2008. "We were kind of enchanted," she says. "We thought, 'Man, we could come here and just put pause on the yoga center for a little bit, help Dad get this place back on its feet.'"

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • On the brink of departure: from left, Armondo Rivas, Nicole Garr, Kalei and Greta Garr.

Nicole and Armando were enamored by quite a scene. Steve had been collecting artifacts that had taken over his house in Milltown and all the rooms in the space above the Top Hat. His intention for years had been to start a thrift store called Camel Trading Company. One room was full of Tonka trucks and baseball bats. Another room brimmed with Mason jars, glassware and sewing machines. There were bass guitars and fur coats and clawfoot bathtubs. There was the toilet that media icon Paul Harvey used when he was on air at the KGVO radio station housed in the space.

Nicole and Armando thought it'd be a quick cleanup project. They'd come out in December, paint everything, sort through the artifacts and be done. But when they came back in December, reality set in.

Steve was not well; bar life was catching up to him. "Budweiser was his water," notes Nicole. At night, Nicole could hear his raspy breathing. He started parsing out his possessions—original Jay Rummel works, for instance—for Nicole and her five siblings. She asked him, "Dad what are you doing?" He told her, "I'm not going to be around much longer."

Nicole also learned that her dad was in debt to the tune of $62,000. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Top Hat successfully hosted hot blues and roots bands. But for years, the money hadn't added up. Steve would fly blues musicians to the club on his own dime, put them up in hotels, buy them food, pay them guarantees and rack up credit cards to make it happen—but rarely make enough at the door to cover costs. By the time Nicole and Armando arrived to help, Nicole says employees had not been paid for months.

Things went from bad to worse when Steve Garr died in February 2009. The Garrs had lost their father and the employees were devastated. A few days after his death, the electricity was shut off; Steve owed $3,000 in unpaid bills. His hospital bill amounted to $25,000.

With two liens on the Top Hat, the easy way out would have been for the family to give the bar up and let it shut down. Instead, Nicole and Armando—who had just found out they were pregnant decided to run the Top Hat with Nicole's sister Greta as a managing bartender. "For me, it's like the back of my hand. And, I thought, 'It will only take six months or a year,'"she says, laughing.

That was four years ago. In that time, Nicole and the staff have made major changes. Nicole fired and rehired staff. She asked for three months from credit companies and lenders to get the bar back in the black. On the first day she was able to pay her employees, she says many offered their checks back to help her out.

In the bar itself, she and her family scraped the nicotine off all the walls and tossed gambling machines, neon signs and other bar swag. They put up a sunflower mandala by the stage. They rebuilt the sound system, took out the railing, put slate on the back room floor and added plants, an espresso machine and juice bar. They created an outdoor patio and cleaned up the green room—it had been full of washing machines. They took out the vending machine at the front of the bar so light would shine through the window.

They've hosted a diversity of bands, turning the space from a mostly blues and roots venue to one that has embraced electronic, hip-hop, garage, indie acts and aerial troupes. They also started family-friendly nights and showcased First Friday shows.

Like all change, it wasn't popular with everyone. Critics lamented the old Top Hat. In the bathroom one day Nicole saw someone had scribbled: "Steve Garr is rolling over in his grave right now. Go back to Hawaii." She grits her teeth at that one.

"If they knew my dad they'd know that he only encouraged us to do what we wanted to do," she says. "And I was definitely influenced by old employees who helped me understand the nuances of this old building. It was a slow transition to get here."

Nicole is the first to admit that her father was a contentious man who garnered loyalty from some and strong dislike from others. People who wanted to talk to him were told they had five minutes, and even then, Steve might cut them off impatiently. Nicole recalls cringing at that. "My dad was so raw and he spoke what was on his mind and that kind of put a lot of people off who would have helped him," she says. "He'd be like 'That isn't music!" He was particular and quick to criticize and speak his truth."

Nicole admits she's different from her dad in many ways—and talking to her, you can see it. She gives long hugs. She cries in front of staff. She admits her weaknesses. "My dad?" she laughs. "Are you kidding? He'd never admit his."

But she's also strong-willed like him, and fierce.

"Something of my dad came into me," she says. "He used to call me 'mouth of the North, South, East and West.' And it used to make me so mad. My mouth is what it is. I don't have a filter and I'm okay with that. There's so much bullshit that goes on in this business. I have so much more respect for my dad now."

The Garrs recently found a buyer for their family bar: An entrepreneur named Nick Checota plans to keep it as a music venue and add a restaurant in the basement. The bar has gone from nine employees, when Nicole first came on board, to 25 and Checota plans to keep them on.

Nicole and Armando will move back to Hawaii. She hopes that they can start up a place that mixes their love for yoga and health with the kind of music diversity and bar merriment she gained from the Top Hat. Nicole admits she's having a hard time letting the bar go.

"I have so much regret right now. This place could be so much more," she says as she starts to tear up. "I've had a great staff. I feel really proud in my heart overall. There might not be a lot coming into the family from this sale but I look back at our goal, and our goal was to clear my father's name and to make this place a happening, desirable, clean, beautiful, glowing place. And it already was, it just needed to have some layers of dross ripped out. Now, I can't say it's sadness or happiness I'm feeling. But it's like a weight is lifting."

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