2017-08-04 / Shorts

Setting the Bar

Local documentary to take a closer look at the 50-year history of The Phyrst
Maggie Anderson

In Boston, there’s a bar where everybody knows your name. In State College, there’s the Phyrst. A staple of the downtown bar scene, the Irish pub has been around since 1967, and everyone who has lived in State College for even a small amount of time probably has a Phyrst story. This summer, the Phyrst’s own story will be told on the silver screen.

The Nittany Valley Society is sponsoring the making of The Phyrst 50: A Bar in a College Town, a documentary about the bar with the production team of BlueWhiteTV that will debut locally in the fall. Chris Buchignani, president of NVS, is excited about the organization’s first film project.

“We describe ourselves as a cultural conservancy, and the way we think about our mission is to equip people who love this place with a deeper, richer appreciation of the culture and stories that contribute to the special spirit of this place,” says Buchignani. “That this place has existed — persisted — here for so long when so much of the population is transient and so much of the commercial space on College and Beaver avenues is transient is pretty significant.”

In 1967, in the middle of the Vietnam War, Don Bartoletti had a vision for a bar where everybody could coexist. He signed a lease at 111 ½ E. Beaver Ave. for $250 a month. And the Phyrst was born.

Buchignani is having a lot of fun unearthing the bar’s story, from learning that Vietnam vets were hired to work at the bar to the fact that the stained glass windows were all designed and made by Bartoletti. “All of it has been a pleasant surprise,” he says of the research.

Plus, the story is full of great characters, like Ernie Oelbermann, who entered the scene in 1969. “He was just one of those characters like the Willard Preacher or Mike the Mailman,” he says. “There’s pictures of Ernie everywhere down there and everybody’s got a great Ernie story. People say, ‘He hired and fired me 10 times. I love the guy.’ Ernie in many ways was the face of the Phyrst for so many people.”

Of course, that has a lot to do with the Phyrst Phamly Band, a rotating crew of Oelbermann’s family members and local musicians, like Kathy DiMuccio, daughter of Ernie and Becky Oelbermann.

DiMuccio has been organizing the anniversary celebration, working with the documentary crew and running the Facebook page “Vintage Phyrst,” where people are posting their memories and photos.

“The family has been so gracious in really opening up and letting us dig into what is really their story,” says Buchignani, even sharing Oelbermann’s journal from his time overseas during World War II.
Buchignani thinks the documentary will use some of that as narration, along with video coverage from the ’80s and ’90s and interviews with family (and Phamly) members. And he’s hoping a special anniversary celebration on Aug. 5 will offer some additional footage as well.

“When Ernie passed in 2016 they had a big wake at the Phyrst and hundreds of people came back for it,” he says. People are planning to do the same for the anniversary party. “We are hearing from folks who’ve lived out of Pennsylvania for 30 years and this is going to be their first time back to State College.”

Starting at noon Aug. 5, blasts from the past will take the stage, including Acoustic Artifacts, Screaming Ducks, Backseat Van Gogh and, of course, alumni Phyrst Phamly members. Former bartenders will get the chance to relive their suds-slinging days by pairing with a current staffer for help with the registers. And all day people can drop in to relive their Phyrst memories.

“It’s a place that’s been important in a lot of people’s lives,” says Buchignani. “And if not for both intentional blood, sweat and tears and the happenstance of a few people over a long period of time, that would not exist.”

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