Miss Cassette is the writer, researcher, and amateur gumshoe of the website myomahaobsession.com, which she has converted into her new book, My Omaha Obsession: Searching for the City (Bison Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in Omaha Magazine.
Down at Circo’s Bar
Circo’s Bar at 3231 Harney Street was once the convenient, corner pocket, a kind of warm neighborhood tavern trussed by a steady hard core of regulars. Built in the mid 1920s, decades before the Circo family took the keys, the sturdy, little, one-story, brick commercial building in the southeast nook of Thirty-third and Harney presented a stylish, gabled, red clay tiled roof, Tudor half timbering, and the front-facing, quaint dormer window of a European village but it was the angled corner entrance, in my estimation, that was its distinguishing characteristic. For it seemed to my little girl eyes that only the best of older buildings extended this quirky, recessed welcome. I now know that many of these angled entries opened into bars and pharmacies. I think in memory, it had a yellow and white bulbous Circo’s Bar bracket sign secured to that quatrefoil pattern corner entry and traditional storefront display windows. The Mutual of Omaha lunch and liquid lunch crowd, along with some older neighborhood fellows who shuffled over in observance of their circadian rhythm and naturally, the American Linen Supply workers from 3227 Harney, made up the bulk of the midday crowd. The surrounding residential area, on the cusp of busy Harney Street—once rated by city officials as the worst, rippling, chuckholed thoroughfare in all of this city, bordered the Mutual of Omaha campus and shaped the character and makeup of Circo’s nighttime clientele.
I have often written about the local watering hole—these important community halls and the sad decline of the American neighborhood bar since the end of World War II but there was always something special about that corner Circo’s Bar, tucked into that dark stretch of town. In my rumination, it had become its own public character, causing hundreds if not thousands of the Curious Thirsty to go in and look the place over. To a young stranger attracted to the tavern from quick glimpses stolen in the backseat of the family car in passing, it was surprising to hear that many in my group of friends did not carry a similar torch for Circo’s Bar.
Sometime in the mid 1980s my boyfriend at the time moved into the classic 1910 Dewey Apartments at 3301 Dewey Avenue to the south of Circo’s and that proximity to both this hidden chamber and its clientele is what escalated my infatuation. Dressing in mostly shades of black vintage, thrift store clothes with a sulking intolerance for the mainstream, I would hide my private interest in the mysterious, perspiring bar windows and the smoky, neon lit patrons of Circo’s. Like a teen anthropologist, I would observe the night herds I saw migrating from covert cars to the corner bar through the casements and balcony of The Dewey.
Back in the 1930s, 3231 Harney housed the Kitty Lou Candy Shoppe. Louis (sometimes spelled Lewis) Asbyll and his wife, the true life Kitty Lou, were proprietors. In 1937 the Asbylls applied for a license to sell beer out of their confectionary and the adult beverages poured henceforth. Years later the establishment would changeover into Harold’s and Mil’s Grill. Next-door neighbor to the east bay habitually maintained a neighborhood grocery store. Louis S. Circo was born in 1920 just a few years before the Thirty-third and Harney building was constructed. Had it not been for the burglars who chiseled a hole through the wall of the Salvatore Circo Bar at 1002 Harney back in 1940, I might not have ever heard of the Circos’ earlier incarnation. Father Salvatore “Sam” and Son Lou had filed for a liquor license and planned to build at 120 South Ninth Street, after Louie had served in World War II. The Circos also pulled pints at their infamous 317 South Fifteenth location.
After Sam’s passing, Louie moved Circo’s Bar into the Thirty-third and Harney location in August of 1965. In a strange duplication, soon after receiving the keys, burglars would cut a hole into Louie’s roof and lower themselves into the bar with a ladder. Circo’s Bar enjoyed decades of steady, loyal business in this civic junction of sorts, thanks to its personable host, Louie Circo. An Omaha Giant, Louie single-handedly entertained his captive audience with his near-effortless, contagious warmth and anecdotes. This was back when tiny bar owners had big personalities and the art of conversation was as much a draw for the customer as a pint. Marvin Gardens restaurant and a series of delis would swap out leases next door through the years, complimenting Lou’s trade. By the time I could enter Circo’s legally, the affable barroom had experienced some unfortunate tarnish in the public eye and became yet another version of itself. Withal the mid 1990s brought the Sigma Epsilon boys to 3301 Harney, just a tumble to the west and they eagerly employed the corner bar as their auxiliary rumpus room. When I finally entered Circo’s in 1999 or 2000, I was clearly late to the party—much more driven by curiosity than to have a cold draft—but it was my turn to go in and look the place over.
Once inside, the bar stretched the eastern most wall; the room elongated in the familiar rectangle of a classic taproom. Like any favorite Midtown bar, Circo’s was cool and dark like a cellar, with the scent and feel of an unaired basement. Down the center of the room were wavering rows of well-battered tables with strewn about chairs, most surfaces, to recollection, sloshed with beer and liquor. An older gal bartended while a wild man was spied behind the bar, brandishing a stationary microphone, the kind used to announce when an order from the grill is ready. This sluggish, snarling master of ceremonies gave his boozy talk and openly assessed me as we walked up to order, publicizing his pointed thoughts. I was the entertaining subject. Thankfully, or not, I had cut my teeth in the unrestrained punk clubs of the Midwest where public humiliation and squaring up to loudmouth boys with microphones was routine. That might have been when I decided not to impose my taste on the jukebox or make any plucky movements.
There was a mighty force twisting within Circo’s Bar on that topped up night. We clearly didn’t know this cast of characters and definitely couldn’t perceive the in-club rules. Had there been hanging lights, I imagined the patrons would have been swinging from them that night. The room was charged with customers in all manners of dress and undress, apparently friends but the general sense of the premises was not particularly encouraging of any first encounter communication. I was not sure of the membership requirements but the friendships of the steadies appeared deep and nondiscriminating. What with the habitué sexual foraging, the bickering, the foul-mouthing, eruptions of mighty, spontaneous howling and the homespun bragging, all fascinating, coded, inner-circle transmissions, we knew our place as sightseers.
Drinks in hand, we detected a backroom, down a stair or two from the main festivities and made our way to the rear without much deliberation. It only seemed right that newcomers be relegated to this outer fringe, a sort of Siberia, but found we were not the only misfits banished to this backseat. There were a smattering of smaller groups of raucous tables, their confidence indicated we were again in the company of regulars. The walls were covered in graffiti, the billowing smoke profound. In memory there was a pool table in that rear room, but unforgettable were the dilapidated, teetering stack of vinyl booths, newly ripped from their stations. I imagined the collapsed pile had been taken unbeknownst and unprovoked, clobbered and pounded by the likes of a maudlin band who had once corralled and drank in their comforting compartments. I was quite stunned with the hot-tempered display but more for the seating itself, as it must have been caught unawares. When asked, the denizens nearest us shrugged at the heap, almost decoding, “Last night.” Shot glasses castoff to another corner. I was hooked.
Hours later we would wander out of that historic recessed door, into the black of Thirty-third. Easy laughter would rise up occasionally through the years, enjoying what we could still remember. The lasting observation was that Circo’s was much more than some escape from the loneliness and alienation of its inhabitants’ drudgeries. This small corner of the world treasured true solidarity. They were most alive on that night and I was the lucky stranger to catch them in their close knittedness, although perhaps much like any other night. Circo’s Bar would shutter its doors in a few years and another great public character would disappear.