The author’s family has owned the Anchor Bar on Fort Street in Detroit for nearly 60 years. Sometime next month, a new owner will take over.
By Vaughn Derderian
Just two families have owned the Anchor Bar in Detroit since the Prohibition days, to the best of my knowledge. One is the Derderians — my father Leo, myself and my son Vaughn. And before 1959, the owner was the Izzy Izrat family.
The bar itself has been a bellweather of events in downtown Detroit for nearly 100 years. It has also been a haven for both cops and robbers, journalists, critics, sports fans and many many others.
After World War II the bar was a hideout for the fledgling Great Lakes seaman’s union, and the upstairs ultimately became its Midwest headquarters.
Fred Farnum, the undisputed bare knuckle fighter in the city, fought his way to the unions presidency, and along the way, patronized the Anchor for over 30 years. His nephew, Mark Farnum, founded the City Rollers, a roller blade club, which was one of the cities first very successful large groups dedicated to reviving activity in downtown Detroit. They too, often made the Anchor Control Central.
In the early days due to its proximity to WWJ TV and radio, the lower class of journalists from the Detroit News and Free Press — you know, reporters, copy editors, photographers, printer, pressman, drivers, jumpers, essentially, everyone but publishers and managing editors — gravitated to its seedy seats. Eventually, even bosses such as Neil Shine of the Free Press and Chrisy Bradford, who worked for both papers, would come by.
Horse Racing Parlor
In 1959, my father Leo Derderian, who was operating a grocery downtown that doubled as a horse racing parlor for gamblers, bought the Anchor Bar and moved it from Third and Howard Streets to Fourth and Fort. In 1975, it landed on Lafayette Blvd., a block from The Detroit News. Then in the 1990s, it moved around the corner to its current spot in the Mercer Building.
My father acquired the Anchor license in 1959 when the whole block was condemned for urban renewal. Since 1947, he had owned Leo’s grocery, right next door to the Anchor. I recall actually seeing a can of corn on one of the mostly empty shelves, along with bags of chips (I feasted on) and of course, a full beer cooler. The store was much more engaged in horse history and futures, than most anything else. With liquor license in hand, he then built a small 86-seat, four-booth bar with juke box and pool table in the basement of a warehouse at the corner of Fourth and Fort.
My father called that basement “home” until may 1973 when a terrible storm destroyed the warehouse and the bar. In 1975 we moved the bar to the defunct Tiger Room in the closed Shelby Hotel on Lafayette Blvd. Eighteen more years of grand dive-liness, that bar of which I could tell you stories for days on end. But I’ll spare you for now. In 1992, i purchased the present location, and we moved in on December 1993.
Sampling Of My Tales
Story #1. In 1967, the city was dealt a crippling and life changing blow, when race riots broke out on 12th street. It created great hardship for most all involved. During a press conference, Doc Greene, a Detroit News columnist and one of my dad’s closest friends, overheard some National Guard higher ups remarking, that since every bar, liquor store, and gun shop was closed from Toledo to Marysville, where the heck can we get a drink? Well, Doc knew, and soon the group of officers found themselves in a small basement bar receiving Marine Corps style counseling from the owner. Throughout the ’67 conflict, father never left the bar, because, you never know who may be in need of military aid.
Story #2 I joined dad in 1970, pretty much in time to be around for the great FBI raid of May 1973. It was at that time the largest FBI raid in history. The government heard, with a little help from Martin Hayden Detroit News managing editor, no fan of Leo, that there was gambling! gambling! going on in that basement.
Actually, the tip-off might have been to the casual observer, the existence of three phone booths in a smallish establishment. Hundreds of Detroit Police and hundreds of FBI agents arrested 200 odd bookies and 20 some police officers. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported on their front pages that my father and many of his friends and employees were taken away and booked for booking. In the subsequent trial, federal Judge Cornelia Kennedy threw the entire case out. Turned out, Richard Nixon’s Justice Department had ignored surveillance law, and forged wiretap authorization documents. The dice was cast, and the bar’s reputation only grew in the following decades. Nixon’s next use of the Justice Department, using the raid as a primer for break-ins and cover-ups, did not go so well either.
After the storm and subsequent closing I had to go out and get a legitimate job. Well, I didn’t, so following the family tradition. I made a modest living hustling at backgammon games for almost two years.
We then relocated Anchor Bar # 3 at the Shelby Hotel on Lafayette. It was the dumpiest of dives. Wives and husbands of patrons needed only take one whiff of their smoke-soaked spouses to know they had just left the Anchor Bar.
But since that was where you could find Leo, that is where the people came. My father had an uncanny knack for seeing through people’s exterior to their souls, and there was where he best operated.
So many people loved him for that, including David Cook. Cook was the special agent in charge of the FBI raid, but through the ensuing years became close to dad, and actually had his retirement party at the anchor, where he told me: “if I knew then what I know now, there never would have been a raid.” Turned out to be a pretty good thing anyway, since it only enhanced our image, and nobody had to serve time in prison.
Story #3 The Great Peanut Caper of 1995. According to ancient Anchor Bar tradition, on the Tigers opening day, we would bag up a hundred or so roasted peanuts to hand out to customers As we drove them to our bleacher seats at Michigan and Trumbull, I found out the hard way, the Detroit cops happened to be on high alert, due to unruly fans the previous year. As I was driving the shuttle full of anxious Anchorites, we slowed down to Mardi-Gras style throw nuts to strikers picketing at the Detroit News building.
That went so well I thought, what a great idea it was to do the same for a part time cop on Trumbull. Well, he did not appreciate the thought and so he hailed a scout car who pulled me over. When I referred to the auxiliary cop as a asshole, the patrolman pulled me off the shuttle, handcuffed me and haul me off to jail, then sent the bus to shuttle prison. I did get to watch the game in the lockup where a lieutenant I knew broke me out. “Don’t call cops assholes again” I promised. When i finally got to the ballpark, the 75 seated friends at the game rose, chanted free Vaughn!!! Free Vaughn!!!!”, then proceeded to pelt me with my own peanuts.
For months kindly folks entered the bar only to hurl peanuts at me behind the bar. Wish I had thought up that scheme myself.
I beat the charge of “hurling a missile, which later proved to be a bag of peanuts” at the Detroit 36th District Court where I promised the arresting officer a try-out with the Detroit Police hockey team, which I was sponsoring, in exchage for my freedom. My lawyer David Lee and an ombudsman police buddy helped handle the dicey negotiations. The arresting office didn’t make the team.
So, thinking about 18 formative years with my father, followed by 23 great ones with my son; that makes me a very very lucky man. Not many can boast of such a blessing.
You cannot understand the workings of the Anchor Bar without including the relationship with Holy Trinity Church. My dad met Father Clement Kern in the early 60’s when he and Hank Shurmer ran out of alcohol early in the morning one night. Hank, was at the time, one of the most powerful individuals in the state. He had cornered the market on video tape news reports.
He then was the only one to provide them to the three local TV stations. Somehow the two made it to Hanks buddy at Trinity. Father Kern answered the door at the rectory, let the two in, then proceeded to administer them some communion wine.
Hank already loved Kern, and after that, my father was also never the same. My father, that WWII Iwo Jima veteran, devoted much of his life to helping those in need through the kind hands of Clem Kern. He guided myself and son to do the same.
Dad once told me, he thought he helped raise over one million for Kern and his successors. Perhaps.the bars reward is that even though we sell what father called “the worst drug ever!” Trinity helps us to keep our heart in the right place.
It has been a phenomenal ride, with countless fine people, extreme ups and downs, and of course great fun.
The stories will go on at the new Anchor Bar. Zaid Elia, the new owner, knows of and enjoys the history of the joint, and he intends to continue the narrative.
The wonderful Anchor Bar is now in the hands of its third family.