In The Right Stuff, the 1983 film based on the lives of America’s first astronauts, there’s a scene in which a young woman inquires about photos displayed on the wall of a bar. “What’s a fellow have to do to get his picture up there?” she asks. The proprietor replies: “He has to die, sweetie.”
In downtown Detroit, inside what has long been regarded as the city’s newspaper hangout, there’s a photographic pantheon of another sort, one that displays the faces of people who mostly made a living writing, reporting, and editing stories that put the names of astronauts and other high-flying personalities in the headlines.
Behind the bar and above the bottles hang the framed portraits of deceased ink-stained wretches and those who fraternized with them at the Anchor Bar.
The tale of this gallery of the departed begins with Leo Derderian, the original Anchor owner and the man whose visage now occupies a place of honor amid the 78 photos that gaze down on tipplers who now frequent the bar.
Derderian led a life filled with too many anecdotes to do him justice here, so suffice to say the man liked running a saloon in his day — several in fact. The Anchor has always been a movable feast, which is odd, given its name, and the first one skippered by Leo was essentially an adjunct to a grocery store on Third Street near Howard. The second, on downtown’s Fourth Street, was where the real party started. In 1975 — after a raid by the feds in 1971 — the ship came to dock in what was then the Hotel Fort Shelby on Lafayette. When the Shelby went into pre-renovation rigor mortis in the early ’90s, the Anchor found safe harbor at its present address in the Mercier Building on Fort. As of this writing, there are no plans to sail it anywhere else. In fact, a sign in the lobby suggests permanence: “The Anchor Bar, A Derderian Family Tradition Since 1959.”
Over the years and the various locations, the Anchor became the watering hole for a specific downtown clientele: reporters, photographers, union reps, judges, police brass, and the like. Of course, there was room for more reputable customers. But if your character was questionable to an endearing degree, odds are Leo would like you from the start. But the bar’s GPS certainly gave a logistical advantage to members of the Fourth Estate — a convenient place where they could unwind, gripe, celebrate an exclusive, sweet-talk a source, berate a colleague or a rival paper, or simply lament the human condition. It helped that it was within walking (or wobbling) distance of the daily papers and WDIV-TV. The now-defunct Detroit Press Club on nearby Howard Street had a more management and PR scene.
Leo’s son, Vaughn, is now the keeper of the bar and the photographs — a tradition that began with the hanging of a framed picture of Bob Wood, a Detroit News copy editor and Anchor regular.
“My father called him a ‘key wheel’, which is a horse-racing term for someone who makes the whole thing work,” Vaughn says. “That was something my father always respected in people — commitment to a job and loyalty to people who worked alongside you.”
Wood was inevitably followed by other fondly remembered Anchorites. They were an eclectic — and often eccentric — lot, to be sure, and several were close friends with the senior Derderian.
There’s Regis Patrick O’Brien, who served with Leo in the Pacific during World War II and at one time enjoyed the distinction of being the light heavyweight champion of the 3rd Marine Division. According to Vaughn, the two were also adept at marketing beer in various combat zones.
Monsignor Clement Kern was another favorite. The pastor of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Corktown was not averse to the comforts of the Anchor. For years, the bar’s patrons generously aided the inner-city parish through the Ecclesiastic Shakedown Society, an ecumenical “charity” with a modus operandi the Mafia would have envied. Its enforcer was another Anchor regular, one who wasn’t shy about putting the bite on potential donors: independent TV-news cameraman Hank Shurmur. He’s also immortalized on the wall.
Edgar “Doc” Greene may have been the most popular regular in Anchor Bar history. The Detroit News columnist was a night owl who referred to the sun as “that orange thing in the sky” and covered almost every beat that a major city had to offer. On one occasion, he hired a helicopter to take him directly from the Preakness race to the wedding of his pal Sonny Eliot. Greene was also a silent partner with Leo over the years, and his association with the Anchor did not sit well with the News.
Charles “Chickie” Sherman, a Runyonesque original on the RIP wall, was allegedly Detroit’s busiest bookie. As the story goes, Sherman used the
Anchor for an office and was usually parked near the bar’s pay phones. The antithesis of Hollywood’s idea of a crime figure, Sherman was a gentle, soft-spoken man who doled out more money than he ever took in. His wake at Ira Kaufman in Southfield is still reckoned to be the most heavily attended service in that chapel’s history.
Then there’s Jim Trainor, a Detroit Times editor “who ran the newsroom like a fiefdom. Trainor was a terror,” recalls Don Pilette, who worked at the Detroit Times from 1955 to 1960, then moved over to The Detroit News. Pilette, who now teaches news editing at Wayne State University, says Trainor “was the typical 1920s-style editor.” After the Times, Trainor became press secretary to Detroit Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh.
The gallery of the dead is not entirely a boys’ club. Myra Wolfgang is up there. Long a stalwart of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, she was lovingly described by her peers as “one tough bitch — but only on her good days.”
Other notable women include Free Press food editor Kay Savage and News fashion editor Yvonne Petrie. Also enshrined is Beverly Keller, who covered society for the News. “I remember Bev coming back to the paper at night to write after she’d been to an event,” a co-worker once recalled. “She looked so elegant in her white gloves and fur.”
Photographer Dick Tripp and sportswriter Hal Schram, both from the Free Press, share wall space with Ray Girardin, a Detroit Times reporter who became Detroit Police Commissioner under Mayor Cavanagh. Also included: a piano player named Amis Ulysses Wilson, Jack Knight of The Free Press, and Wally Hushen from the News.
The only non-human addition was a photo of the Detroit Times building, which stood at the intersection of Cass and Times Square. The photograph was on display at the Anchor’s Fort Shelby Hotel location, but is absent from the current display. The 1929 Art Deco edifice, now razed, was home to many colorful but dogged reporters, some of whom were hired by the News when that paper bought the Hearst-owned Times in November 1960.
“The newsroom was on the sixth floor, and in the summer all the windows were open because there was no air conditioning,” Pilette remembers. “But it was a beautiful building.”
The panoply of photographs is a roster of history, a time of offbeat characters who produced tales of reporters and editors who, it’s been said, threw typewriters in fits of frustration on occasion. Go look, raise a glass out of respect, but just don’t call them ghosts.
“My father hated it when they were called that,” Vaughn says. “Besides, ghosts don’t buy drinks, and this is still a place of business.”
That it is. The Anchor is still patronized by media loyalists — even as their ranks dwindle. And the younger news generation is also tended by a third-generation Derderian: Vaughn’s son (also named Vaughn). He presides over a monthly Beer & Politics Forum in the Anchor’s back room.
Today, the watering hole also is popular before and after Red Wings home games. Photos are still being hung from time to time.
Asked what merits getting displayed over the bar — besides dying — the elder Vaughn says: “You have to drink here — a lot.”