“I’m getting a little too old for the bar,” says Tyler with a grin. “I can’t keep up.”
Some might disagree. On a recent Sunday, the early-evening quiet in Al’s and Vic’s was shattered by the sound of an empty Labatt’s bottle breaking in a trash can. “Does that mean you want another?” bartender Ryan Delaney asked his disgruntled, empty-handed customer. “That means Tyler would have got me another by now,” the man growled back.
After attending the University in Missoula and serving in the Navy during the Korean War, Tyler, who was talented enough to be considered a professional golf prospect, set out upon what would become a long and illustrious career in the nightclub industry when he opened The Cabin in East Missoula in 1965. The Cabin was a country-western bar across the road from a truckstop, and according to Tyler, “the place was a zoo.” A 350-person venue that featured live music seven nights a week, The Cabin attracted college students, divorcees, singles and, of course, truckers. “The truckers stopped both ways on their routes,” says Tyler. “The place was clear full of them, out looking for girls.” According to longtime friend and patron David Stermitz, “In the old days, if you wanted to dance, you went to The Cabin. Del had the best music, the best drinks and the best people. [The Cabin] was known from Minnesota to the West Coast. It put East Missoula on the map.”
The Cabin’s 20-year reign in East Missoula was brought to a sudden end in 1985 when an electrical fire burned the club down. Tyler went on to run the old Club Chateau for a couple of years before joining the bartending staff at Al’s and Vic’s in 1989. Over the past 15 years, Tyler has seen Al’s undergo significant transition, including a change in ownership. In the mid-’90s the largely older local clientele began to give way to a new crowd of college students. “There’s a turnover now,” says Tyler, “you get to know the kids and they leave. But I feel close to all of them. They were good to me.”
If you walk through Al’s and Vic’s these days and mention Tyler’s name, you are hit with a flood of sentiment:
“We’re gonna miss him, he’s part of this place.”
“A class act.”
“You won’t find anybody with anything bad to say about him. Except for maybe someone on that list.” (The customer points to a piece of paper posted above the bar that lists the names of people who have passed bad checks. The list is three columns wide.) “A good man. Loved the kids. Makes a good drink, too, which is more than I can say for some of the jokers in this town.” Adds Delaney the bartender, “He’s kicked my butt in golf more than once.”
Aside from a faded tattoo that lingers on his left forearm, there is not much about Tyler’s appearance that suggests his younger, wilder days. He quit drinking five years ago. “I don’t drink so I won’t smoke,” says Tyler. “I used to go a week without a cigarette, then walk into a bar, order a drink, and the next thing I knew I’d have bought a pack of smokes, and I’d practically eat them. So first I quit coffee, then it was easy to quit alcohol, then it was easy to quit cigarettes.” But, says patron Stermitz, don’t let Tyler’s outward calm fool you. “Up to when he was 70 he’d jump over the bar and kick your ass out if you were screwing with his bar.”
Tyler’s last night at Al’s and Vic’s was a Monday three weeks ago. The crowd—mostly college-aged—was packed from door to door, and Tyler hustled to keep up with the flood of orders for dollar drafts of Budweiser. Someone yelled out to him, “Del, you gonna jump over that bar tonight?” The old man smiled. “Not anymore,” he said. A young man managed to make his way on top of a table, where he banged a spoon on his beer glass feverishly for minutes before the place quieted down. “It’s Del’s last night,” he screamed, raising his glass. “To Del!”
Tyler smiled and waved as the entire bar called his name over and over again, hurling their chant off the tavern walls and into the cool late summer night.