Home of drag, organ music, citywide

Bob and Barbara’s claims to be the creator of the $3.50 Citywide Special.

Bob and Barbara’s on 1509 South St. features live drag shows every Thursday as entertainment. | Abi Reimold TTN
Bob and Barbara’s on 1509 South St. features live drag shows every Thursday as entertainment. | Abi Reimold TTN

Bob and Barbara’s Lounge is the last of the Hammond B3 houses in Philadelphia.

The assistant manager, Bob Dix, who was a patron at the lounge for many years prior, said many bars in Philadelphia used to feature the Hammond B3 Organ Combo, an electric organ marketed originally to churches as a cheaper alternative to pipe organs and was eventually adopted by jazz musicians.

South Street bars in particular were known for the organs, Dix said, when the neighborhood was predominately African-American.

Bob and Barbara’s Hammond B3 is still played by two house bands – every Friday by the Crowd Pleasers and every Saturday by the Three Notes. Nate Wiley, the original leader of the Crowd Pleasers who started the band 35 years ago, willed the organ to the bar.

“It’s not about jazz, it’s not about oldies, it’s not about a certain style or about what’s popular,” Dix said. “It’s about liquor-drinking music. It’s about having a good time and selling alcohol – selling a good time to people.”

Though the organ has historical significance, Bob and Barbara’s, located at 1509 South St., is best known as the home of the Citywide Special – a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of Jim Beam bourbon.

Jack Prince has owned Bob and Barbara’s for the past 20 years. The Citywide Special was established under his ownership by Rick Dobrowolski, who booked local music for Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Dobrowolski first suggested pairing PBR and Jim Beam for $3 about 18 years ago to accompany a proposed music night. Since then, the price has risen to $3.50.

Prince said he isn’t bothered if other bars question the validity of Bob and Barbara’s claim to the Citywide Special.

“It’s not like we invented a pacemaker,” Prince said. “It just so happens that it’s super popular now.”

So popular, that is, that the bar can’t place a number on how many they sell, Dix said.

“If somebody else wants to claim the special, then go right ahead,” Dix said. “We just know how [much] we sell. And we sell a lot of [Citywide Specials] here.”

Dix said local lore is that Bob and Barbara’s, along with two other nearby bars, once sold so much PBR that it was “as much, if not more” than the amount of the beer sold across the East Coast. Though the bar has no advertorial relationship with PBR as a company, Dix said the company’s president has visited Bob and Barbara’s, along with PBR tour buses.

The bar’s walls are plastered with vintage signs and PBR-themed paraphernalia, illuminated by dim, colored lights that leave the interior with an old-fashioned atmosphere. Even the cash registers, electro-mechanical models from the 1950s, add to the eclectic feel.

Prince said this adds personality to his business.

“[A lot] of the young adults now have grown up in the age of technology, and everything’s done in cyberspace,” Prince said. “Well, this is like the opposite of that. We have live music and it’s the opposite of high-tech.”

Dix said amid all of the recent development on South Street, Bob and Barbara’s offers consistency to its customers – something he thinks keeps people coming back.

“It’s real,” Dix said. “[While] everything changes outside, it changes it in here – it just changes a lot slower. [Customers] can leave, be away for years, and come back and it’s almost exactly the same. There’s a comfort to it.”

Prince said his favorite aspect of Bob and Barbara’s is the “diversity of the people and the entertainment,” noting that the bar is welcoming to patrons of all ages, races and sexual orientations. Under Prince’s ownership, several themed nights were established.

Each Thursday the longest-running drag show in Philadelphia is hosted by Miss Lisa Lisa, who has  done it for 20 years. Along with the B3 Hammond-playing bands on Friday and Saturday, Sunday is karaoke night. Tuesday and Wednesday bring varying events, including country music nights, a comedic “late-night talk show” night, open mic nights and more.

Alexi Papadopoulos, the bassist for Dina Miranda and the Mellotones, said his band plays at Bob and Barbara’s about once a month. Its lounge-style sound fits in with the environment of what he called “the classiest bar in Philadelphia.”

“It’s very open-minded for every kind of person in Philadelphia,” Papadopoulos said.

Though Prince said Bob and Barbara’s doesn’t advertise, he’s confident about the bar’s continued success for that very reason – it attracts many different people, from regulars to tourists.

“This is the first place you come to and the last place you come to,” Dix said. “You come here when you want to get a cheap, inexpensive drink to start your night off, and then you come back when you’ve got $3.50 left.”

Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at erin.edinger-turoff@temple.edu or on Twitter @erinJustineET.

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