Rock of Ages
This year, as George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville fetes the big 9-0, we revisit the storied venue.
Tucked among the mishmash of memorabilia on the faded brick walls of George’s Majestic Lounge is a kitschy framed print by Mississippi artist Larry Wamble. It’s a “perfect block” rendering of Fayetteville, wherein Wamble has taken the liberty of smooshing together the town’s best dive bars and hallowed watering holes into one perfect strip—a Dickson Street of Dreams, if you will.
It doesn’t take long for the dream to fade, however. Upon closer inspection and reflection, it’s clear most of the storefronts in Wamble’s perfect Fayetteville are no longer with us. Chester’s Place—once a great spot to hear live music—is gone, replaced by a swank nightclub. Jose’s, once the day-drinking destination (swirly margs!) on Dickson Street, is now JJ’s Grill, a Rogers-based chain. And the Old Post Office? It’s currently for sale, having served most recently as a wedding venue. Also fallen by the wayside: The 1936 Club, Fuzzy’s and D-Lux.
But George’s, the second storefront from the left on Wamble’s idealized Fayetteville strip? Not only has it survived, but held on. And on. And on. For 90 years. In Northwest Arkansas, a region that’s been in constant flux for decades, that type of longevity is rare. While old haunts—Hugo’s, Herman’s, Maxine’s Tap Room and the like—still linger, the majority of the area’s bars and bistros are of the brand-spanking-new variety.
All of which begs the question: What’s so different about that old squat, stone building near the railroad tracks? What’s given it its staying power? What’s enabled four generations of Razorbacks to swill PBR and canoodle beneath its eaves? What’s compelled folks of all ages to step over its threshold night after night to wile away the hours? Turns out that to find out—to uncover the story of George’s Majestic Lounge—you need only show up and look around.
Over the decades, stuff accumulates. Clues show up in every corner. Inside George’s, the red blaze of Razorback paraphernalia shines brightest. A Razorback captured in stained glass. A Razorback in the center of a heart-shaped wood cut-out. But far outnumbering the collegiate hodgepodge are countless framed and free-hanging guitars, and other music-related memorabilia of every stripe. And this stuff is most assuredly not kitsch. That fiddle there was signed by country great Charlie Daniels. And that framed playbill is from The Band’s legendary “Last Waltz” at the Winterland Ballroom circa 1976.
Enter the guy behind this impressive music collection: Brian Crowne, George’s current proprietor. “I tell my wife I’ve collected way too much crap over the years,” he says. “But it’s all meaningful pieces. I try to be tasteful.”
Like any serious collector, Brian’s got the tale behind every piece in his George’s collection filed away in his brain. The stained-glass Razorback window I’d admired earlier? He’d found it years ago covered in filth and lying over a pile of wood out back. Those old-timey lanterns hanging here and there? They’re vintage railroad lamps from the 1920s, an homage to the decade when the building that houses George’s was first erected. And that elegant “George’s Majestic” wooden sign hanging over the mantel? That once hung out in front of the building over the sidewalk back in the ’50s and ’60s.
Together we make our way up the few stairs to a raised alcove across from the stage. The picnic tables set up back here are likely the best seats in the house while the band plays. But this afternoon, emptied of patrons, it’s a more subdued space—almost shrinelike compared to the busier area below. I begin to take in the array of framed black-and-white photos and carefully matted newspaper clippings that adorn the walls. And then I look up, jump and scream, in that order. Legs dangling nonchalantly, there’s a man sitting in a sun-splashed window nook directly below a vault in the ceiling. Upon further inspection, it turns out he’s not a man at all, but a freakishly lifelike mannequin. A long-haired, bandana- and tie-dyed-T-shirt-wearing hippie cradling what appears to be—I kid you not—a koala mask.
“I put him up there a long time ago as a joke,” Brian says with a laugh. “I tell people that was George, and we stuffed him and put him up there.”
But as I presently learn, the original George was far more interesting than hippie, koala mask-clutching George. By way of introduction, Brian gestures toward a framed black-and-white photograph of George Pappas, the fellow who opened George’s back in 1927. In the photo, George is standing next to a giant display of Schrafft’s candy bars. Smiling and spectacled and sporting a black bow tie and white drugstore coat, he looks way more store clerk than barkeep. Turns out that when George first opened George’s, it was a general store-slash-restaurant that also happened to serve alcohol. It achieved local watering-hole status only gradually.
Back then, there was a near constant rattle of trains going to and fro outside, and George’s was a favorite stop for weary travelers looking for respite and refreshment. It was the perfect place to buy a beer to sneak on the train.
The man in the photo has kind eyes and a friendly smile, and everything I’ve read and heard about him seems to suggest that George was indeed a good egg. During the Depression, he barely kept his business afloat on account of all the credit he offered to his struggling clientele. And after World War II, he cleared the outstanding tabs of any customer who’d been in service, Brian tells me. “That just goes to show you what kind of man he was,” Brian says, his voice full of admiration.
As he says this, I note the date below the photo: 1943. It wasn’t too long after that that the second set of owners, Mary and Joe Hinton, bought George’s, and transformed it fully into a neighborhood tavern. Near the photo of George is a framed newspaper clipping of a smiling Mary behind the bar wearing a fancy pink “George’s” sweatshirt. Back when Mary and Joe ran the business, change was the order of the day in the United States. And to their credit, they worked to create an inclusive place where everyone felt welcome. For instance, George’s was the first local establishment to desegregate, and longtime regulars tell of how it was popular with the gay community at a time when other establishments weren’t so welcoming.
When folks remember Mary, they recall a pleasant, friendly woman who remembered names and could hold her own against a raucous crowd of frat boys. “We clear tables in 10 minutes, y’all,” she’d say sweetly, looking up into the branches of the beer garden’s old box elder, where they’d perched to evade closing time. “Come on. You know you don’t want to get me in trouble,” she’d cajole as they’d come tumbling down.
After Bill and Betty Harrison bought the place in 1987 (they’d had their first date there back in the ’50s and had been smitten with the place ever since), Mary continued to work Friday night happy hours behind the bar. Her eyes were failing her, but she continued to call patrons by name, recognizing them by their voices. Mary worked her shift up until one month before she died in 2001 at the age of 80.
When they took the helm of George’s, the Harrisons made a few initial aesthetic changes to the space, raising the ceiling and peeling off plaster to expose the old brick walls beneath. They also got a bit more serious about offering live music, devoting more time and energy to booking bands.
One night in 1989, they booked a 25-year-old musician. He’d spent the past year playing his saxophone throughout Florida and had only recently landed in Fayetteville. It was twilight in the beer garden out back. Wisteria vines grew rampant. The lush box elder was at the center of it all. But it was the crowd he focused on as he jammed on the small open-air stage with the band Los Pedros Viejos. Sperry Top-Sider-wearing frat boys and sorority girls kicked up the dust alongside sandal-wearing hippies. A septuagenarian owned the dance floor. Used to playing for one demographic or another, the diversity of the night’s audience energized the young musician.
It was Brian’s first gig in Fayetteville, the first of many that he’d book at George’s. Before long, he’d struck up a friendship with the Harrisons’ son, Ben, the two ultimately becoming BFFs and roomies. As he became a fixture at George’s, Brian began lending a hand with the band bookings. (He later became a fixture in a different sense, as well, his jaunty posture, ruddy complexion and meticulously groomed goatee now immortalized in a painting alongside memorabilia representing those artists he’s connected with over the years.) But despite the two stages, live music remained more of an in-the-background kind of a thing. A couple of other venues in town, like Chester’s Place, were the go-to venues for live music.
Unable to pin down exactly when he made his offer, Brian recalls that it was sometime within his first decade of becoming acquainted with George’s that he told Ben he’d like to buy the business. “I told him, you know, I don’t have a pot to piss in, I’m a musician. But if you guys ever decide to sell the place, give me a shot,” he recalls, looking up at a newspaper clipping of a younger, sandy-haired version of himself along with his buddy, Ben, standing out in front of George’s.
And then in 2004, the Harrisons did just that.
“We want them to feel some of the history of the place, but they also need to feel the music vibe,” Brian says. “What I’ve tried to create is a melting pot of people who enjoy music.”
We’re standing near the entrance, having made a complete round of the front room. Brian proudly begins identifying the different autographs on each of the guitars on display. John Hancocks from luminaries such as the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bon Jovi and Santana. Brian accumulated these beauties during his years both playing in his own band, Oreo Blue, and booking bands, both for George’s and the music amphitheater he ultimately founded. (Today that amphitheater is the Walmart AMP in Rogers, and Brian is its vice president.)
Brian’s intentions for George’s—to carve out a strong live-music identity while still hanging onto a vibrant history—are reflected in two of the largest renovation projects he’s undertaken since becoming co-proprietor with his friend Suzie Stephens in 2004. (He later became the sole owner, along with his wife, Day, in 2012.)
To catch a glimpse of the first, we step outside. I notice straightaway that the facade of the building looks different than it does in the “perfect block” print, where the exterior is windowless and dark red. The frontage I’m facing now is all windows and yellowish-brown Ozark Mountain stone. Somewhere along the way, the front of the building got swallowed up by stucco, and one of Brian’s first orders of business was to peel it off and restore George’s face to its circa-1926 self.
But it wasn’t just cosmetic changes Brian had in mind—he wanted to transform the bar into the premier live-music venue he knew it could be.
So six years ago, he had the old beer garden closed in and transformed into a large black-box theater stage that upped the entire capacity of George’s to 700, and that now enables it to hold its own against some of the nation’s top similarly sized venues like The Blue Note in Columbia, The Orange Peel in Asheville and The Majestic in Madison. Today, George’s brings in a litany of national touring bands, like St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a six-piece soul act that’s opened for The Rolling Stones, and the popular Seattle band Band of Horses, which is scheduled to play in October to an already sold-out house. These acts wouldn’t have been possible in the stage’s former life, Brian tells me.
Despite the upgrade, Brian still refers to the back stage room as “The Garden.” And he’s adamant about keeping George’s past part of its present. It’s why along with the music memorabilia, all the old George’s memorabilia is displayed so prominently on the walls.
“These are small, subtle things,” he says, “but they let folks know the history of the place and what it’s been to the community.”
As I stand there with Brian, having taken a walk down memory lane with him, I can’t help but long to be part of that community myself.
George’s after dark is markedly different than the place I’d visited in broad daylight. I’m sitting in the alcove overlooking the dance floor, and as the lights begin to dim, the red brick on the walls begins to give off a faint glow as if taunting me, telling me I’ve just scratched its surface—that if only it could talk, the stories it would tell.
Fortunately for me, Harold Wieties is here to spill. Harold might be an “old hippie” (his words) with a long white ponytail and beard to prove it, but the man’s got the clear, smooth skin and bright blue eyes of a hippie half his age. A fixture at George’s, Harold’s been helping Brian book bands since around 2004. Before that, he booked shows for both Chester’s Place and Dave’s on Dickson. When those two venues closed, Brian had the smarts to bring Harold into the George’s fold.
For an hour while the band—a grouping of “Tulsa blues rock” musicians—sets up, Harold regales me with behind-the-curtain stories of musicians who have come and gone through George’s, like the time Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann jammed out with Leftover Salmon’s Vince Herman until 7 a.m., and how surprisingly gracious and courteous the heavy-metal crowds are in the mosh pit. (“Pardon me, but there’s a bit of broken glass that needs to be swept away before someone cuts themselves.”) Most of the stories, though, are strictly off the record, as per Harold’s request. Needless to say, over the past decade or more, Harold’s seen some things.
A major thing his time at George’s and in the Northwest Arkansas music scene in general has shown him is how necessary it is to have a place like George’s in a town, he says. “Music is spiritually uplifting,” he explains. “Humans have always used music to elevate their everyday lives—back to cave men sitting around the fire beating logs eating some weird bean or whatever. … It’s hard to put into words. It’s like religion or something.”
As the band begins to play, folks slowly make their way to the dance floor. Under the disco ball—which once upon a time hung over the dance floor at Chester’s Place—a middle-aged man in the most perfectly tailored bell bottoms I’ve ever seen dances alongside a couple of frat boys in garish Hawaiian shirts. A 20-something woman in a sequined fedora dances near the stage like nobody’s watching.
I sit and mull over what Harold has just said, and it suddenly clicks—why George’s has been around for nearly a century. It’s because this place has had four different owners who’ve figured out and stuck with one singular formula: gauging what the people need and delivering. George gave weary travelers a place to recharge and a hand up to folks when they needed it during the Depression and a war. The Hintons and the Harrisons worked to create a place where everyone would feel welcome during a time when the world was changing fast. And Brian? Brian’s created a place where all different kinds of folks can come by, let their hair down and dance their cares away.