The well-worn watering hole across Holbrook from the iconic Kowalski sign is not as celebrated or recognizable as its neighbor with the neon sign, but it’s easily as much of a representative of Hamtramck/Detroit/the United States.
And now Kelly’s Bar, which has been nearly Teflon to the salvos of post-industrial depressions and shifting musical landscapes, is changing hands once again.
People manufacture dive bars now, attempting to create a drinking and socializing atmosphere akin to those that existed to serve the manufacturing industry. But Kelly’s, the funky, somewhat dilapidated shack in the shadow of the maroon sausage, is the real deal.
Opened in 1917, Kelly’s is a Norman OntheRockswell painting of the classic American shot and beer tavern, with a pool table, jukebox, and tiny kitchen nestled behind the room-length bar.
In Hamtramck’s industrial heyday in the early ‘70s— up until OPEC and the foreign compact competition crunch hit the auto industry— the bar was known to be open 24 hours.
The plants, most notably neighboring Chevy Gear and Axle, were running three full shifts, and people wanted, even needed to be fed and lubricated whether their lunch break was 6 p.m. or 2 a.m.
There was a wink-and-nudge agreement with local law enforcement—rotate the customers in and out with the same regularity that they rotate in and out of the turnstiles of the factory, and we’ll look the other way.
Kelly’s went as far as having a shuttle pick up its customers at the door of the plant at break time, and drop them back off, to save them valuable burger-chowing and lager-quaffing time.
That tradition continued into the 2000s as owner Billy Cooley kept the corner bar cranking almost solely on the patronage of the (by then) employees of American Axle, nearby Chrysler, and of course, Kowalski.
When the Axle plant transferred most of the Detroit assembly jobs out of the country, Cooley bailed from Kelly’s and sold it to Brad Ruff. The charismatic Ruff, himself a former American Axle jobsetter, envisioned that he could make a go of Kelly’s as a blues bar.
Ruff soon realized that the core blues crowd, both patrons and musicians, had graduated from Courvoisier to cola. Pop sales and 75-cent games of pool weren’t gonna be the Stevie Ray of hope for the old green lady with the axle plant payroll trimmed down to a few hundred.
Enter local musicians Andrew Hecker and Timmy “Vulgar” Lampinen.
Kelly’s had been somewhat known beyond the aging blues scene as it had always opened its doors to the eclectic and well-attended Hamtramck Music Festival.
Hecker and Lampinen began bringing in bands with a younger audience and more contemporary sound, from mile-a-minute classic Detroit hardcore to experimental noise outfits that sometimes aurally resembled beached whales frantically mating.
Without changing the physical ambiance of the building, the crowd was re-enlivened. New faces became aware of the joint and the last of the dying industrial breed could still stop by to pop a pilsner.
Lampinen, whose Hamtramck-based band Timmy’s Organism has toured the world and released records through Jack White’s Third Man label, also brought in Timmy’s Tacos. Nearly as creative as Timmy’s musical creations, the tacos, when coupled with a dollar beer special, packed the bar like it wasn’t a frame building but a sausage casing from across the street.
Ruff also ran a wildly popular Lenten Friday fish special, featuring walleye and All-You-Can-Eat Cod.
To see the St. Florian’s faithful mingling with the neon-haired and heavily-inked music crowd inside the unvarnished little wanna-bistro was truly a thing of intra-urban beauty.
Kelly’s had not only survived the loss of most of the manufacturing contingent but was thriving.
Then in October of 2016, in walked Blair Wills.
Wills’ small but inventive and ever-changing menu for Boboville Brunch at Kelly’s was an instant success, as he introduced sous vide steak and eggs to Supersuckers fans, and pulled in suburban dining adventurers not too certain about the ambiance of broken drum sticks and profanity-laden restroom graffiti. (Full disclosure: I tended bar at Kelly’s during this era, and the patrons were lucky to get napkins, but the food and the bloody marys were outstanding).
Soon Ruff’s wife, Patti, a Hamtramck native that he met after buying the bar, began making pierogies (including an outstanding Reuben version of the Polish staple) and the bar added lunch to the repertoire.
The “booze yard” to the east of the old building played host to a number of barbecues and special events, including The Dead Last Car Club’s annual party, The Hamtramck Hustle. The classic (pre-1964) car club’s soiree perfectly married Kelly’s auto industry roots with its music and culture present and with dozens of Motor City showpieces lining the streets, it was enjoyed by all of Hamtramck.
When 2016 Labor Day festival headliner Mugen Hoso, a blisteringly energetic Japanese rock duo was rained out, it was Kelly’s who came to the rescue and allowed the band to perform to a crowd that might have made the fire marshal cringe.
In what by now is an all-too-familiar tale in the hospitality industry, the protracted pandemic shutdown led to Brad Ruff listing the place for sale this year. The sale is pending, but a farewell gathering in early July toasted the venerable place one last time.
“I can say they have all been good memories, even the bad times,” Ruff says. “We have had bands from all over the world. How many shot-and-beer places can say that?”
But it seems that Kelly’s, in both name and atmosphere, may continue into the foreseeable future.
Ruff didn’t reveal the buyer of the bar but reliable industry sources name him as Garrett Ragsdale, of Marble Bar, the techno and cocktail mecca near Lincoln Street Art Park that is a reinvigoration of storied gay nightclub the Eagle. Sources say he plans to retain the name Kelly’s and not significantly change the low- to no-frills aesthetic that has been part of the legacy of the place since the days when the doors were never closed.
Ragsdale has not responded to requests for comment.