By Shell Scott
I am sitting in the 500 Club in a booth on a Wednesday night, not even a week after the untimely death from a heart attack of Scott Ellsworth, legendary owner of The Uptown bar. Ellsworth's good friend Rob Dennis is telling me he'd suspected something was wrong earlier in the week, when Ellsworth complained of not feeling well. “He went into the hospital on Thursday and 45 minutes later, he was gone,” Dennis says, looking down and sighing, shaking his head slightly. “I’m still in shock.”
I've had a handful of interactions with Ellsworth, but many of the people closest to me were dear friends and employees of his. When I was asked to write a piece about him and The Uptown, I decided to allow Ellsworth's story to be told by the people who knew him best.
“He was a true Bohemian. He never wanted anything to change at The Uptown. He would never 86 anyone, or kick anyone out. He refused to change the artwork, which is so bad it has now become great. It took a lot of convincing for him to get rid of the puke-covered couches, or put toilet paper in the ladies’ room,” says Desmond Shea, a genius sound engineer and friend who worked as a bartender at The Uptown from 1992 until 1998. Ellsworth funded Shea's first business venture. “He was a brilliant human being, studied English and philosophy at Oxford, a little-known fact. Scott had voluminous knowledge and a sharp mind that he somewhat hid behind drink. He could have a conversation with you about everything, anything.” Shea laughs and adds, “Scott was very hands-off, he let the employees run the show. I offered a $5 beer-and-a-haircut special, and once cut Warren Hinckle’s hair in The Uptown. It became very popular, and it was completely unsanitary. Hair all over the floor of the bar.”
Ellsworth grew up in Chicago and moved to San Francisco in 1980. He was employed at the Rite Spot, another 17th Street institution, when he discovered that the bar at 17th and Capp was for lease in December of 1983. The space that houses The Uptown has always been a bar, from when it was first built three years after the Great Quake of 1906. Employees remember the burned and compacted detritus from the quake in the basement. “I remember shackles on the wall, and silver lightening bolts on black walls. It was disturbing,” says Shea. The Uptown was originally Henry Schlickman’s bar, and went through a few incarnations as Keto’s and The Chicago Club before becoming the dive we know and love today. Shea celebrated his 21st birthday there after being a patron for several years. “Scott scratched his head when he realized I was turning 21 after having been a regular for years.” He adds that Ellsworth was "incredibly dear" to him, and "an iron-clad individual."
Scott was very hands-off, he let the employees run the show. I offered a $5 beer-and-a-haircut special, and once cut Warren Hinckle’s hair in The Uptown. It became very popular, and it was completely unsanitary. Hair all over the floor of the bar.
Shea and Ellsworth were both raised in Roman Catholic families, and bonded over tales of their respective upbringings. “His brother died of a heart attack at his father’s funeral, a very Roman Catholic moment. We had a lot in common, but Scott really helped me emerge from my nerdy, introspective shell and learn how to interact with people by giving me a job," Shea says. He pulls a cigarette from a pack of American Spirits. “I’ll never forget when Scott started smoking at 42 years of age. He had just seen Leaving Las Vegas, and was inspired to take up smoking. Frankly I was glad I had a new smoking buddy, but everyone had tried to discourage him. Imagine going your whole life without smoking, then picking up the habit after a Nick Cage movie!”
The Uptown was opened at a time when owning a bar was not a profitable prospect in San Francisco. After some time, Ellsworth was convinced to install more than two draft beer taps. “He never bent to anyone’s requirements," says Shea. "When he had a $30,000 tap system installed in the bar, he was surprised when it tripled his income.”
The future of The Uptown remains unknown, as dive bar culture in San Francisco is suffering alongside the death of the middle class. The tradition of the saloon was built around the working classes; a place to get a meal and a beer after a long day of labor, to collect one’s mail or cash a paycheck, to catch up on local news and gossip. Establishments such as the 500 Club and the Uptown still offer many of the same incentives. The familiar corner-facing entrances welcomed patrons as the traditional Western saloon evolved into the beloved modern dive bar. A rash of dive bar closings have been witnessed in the Mission in recent months, the most recent being The Attic, which was unceremoniously shuttered last week. Esta Noche will soon become a modern overpriced mixology enclave of obnoxious new money, despite the current owners promising to honor the culture that long ago established a comfortable place in the Mission. Therein lies the rub. Communities were built around these bars through hardship, strife, and relationships forged through struggle. Now after decades of working to create a safe haven for outcasts and oddities, speculators are swooping in and buying up the enclaves that are literally second homes and families for many of the patrons.
According to Shea, a new nine-year lease for the Uptown had been signed at the beginning of 2014. Ellsworth posted in one of his last comments about the deal on his Facebook page: “My sense of humor is kind of dulled these days since I've been in a nasty legal fight with the avaricious asshole who bought the Uptown building, he's trying to take me to the cleaners, jacking the rent 34%, though my lease limits it to 10%.”
As of this writing, the Uptown remains open. Friends and family have expressed a desire to continue his legacy as it has always been. One thing is for certain, however. San Francisco is now sorely lacking one of its finest human beings without Scott Ellsworth abiding at the bar of the Uptown.
Today would have been his 60th birthday.
Photo by Chris Bidle, used with permission