History Items of the Canal Zone

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George Chevalier's Memories of the Panama Canal Zone
cronicled by
Dale C. Clarke

Panama's Gardens of Pleasure

This story has its start in the very early 1930's when the Canal Zone was essentially a dry state. Only the US Officers Clubs and the two Zone Hotels could sell alcohol drinks. The growing Panama beer industry decided to take advantage of this and so constructed the three Beer Gardens adjacent to 4th of July Ave. in Ancon. And so was born the Atlas, Balboa and El Rancho Beer Gardens sponsored individually by the three leading breweries. Zonians pored over the line to partake of their offerings. Since the normal PC worker did not have use of the Officers Clubs and found the Zone Hotel prices a mite steep they were overjoyed with these new outlets. An Elks Club and Knight's of Columbus with bars did not exist at that time. The Elks were holding their lodge meetings in the second floor of the Lodge Hall School were I was attending 2nd. to 4th grade on the first floor and of course they maintained no bar.

The Atlas was a favorite of the CZ young set with BHS and CZJC dominating on Friday and Saturday nights. An American who played the accordion, Arnie Hartman, led the orchestra and the music was mainly contemporary US. It was the only one with an air conditioning inside bar that of course was a big hit. Outside at the entrance were small bohios were it was very pleasant to eat late night snacks. The Atlas had very good Chili as I recall and the Ancon Boys would order this and let their one member who had drunk too much go to sleep. Now they would eat his bowl of Chili, rub some on his lips and shirt, wake him up and say pay up and lets go. He of course would protest that he had not gotten his Chili but when shown the evidence on his mouth and shirt would mumble and depart with the culprits smiling at that their deception.

Liars Dice was very popular and of course was played in comfort in the Bar. Another game played for drinks was to plaster a paper napkin tightly over a drinking glass, place a dime it it's center, and around the table each would burn a hole with their cigarettes close to the dime. He who caused it to fall of course paid for that round of drinks. I recall a famous Zone swimmer that we would see and greet on Friday night in the Bar and he would be still there on Sunday night dressed the same. When asked his answer was always "I'm Camping Out". Being new to alcoholic beverages when most of us deviated from beer when would pick some thing rather mild and sweet. I recall Singapore Gin Sling and Sloe Gin Fizz and remember that a Sloe Gin was a bright pink and we were apt to be wearing white linen suits. Yes it was inevitable, down the front of that white suit went that pink drink and it was impossible to wipe away and hide so back to the beer I went.

The Balboa was a favorite of Panama's younger set and the music and food was tailored to suit their tastes and although I would go on occasion I did not enjoy it as much as the other two Gardens. The El Rancho was the in place for the more mature CZ crowd. Therefore you had to proceed with a bit of caution for you could encounter your folks or older friends of your folks. The food at the El Rancho was excellent and so was it's music for Lucho played there for many years.

It was to the El Rancho that visiting tourists were brought so that it's long bar would be filled by a world variety of people and we always sat at very left end and Chi- Chi Remon, Then Chief of Police, would hold down the right end corner with his Guardia Espada. Chi-Chi seemed to enjoy the American presence in the El Rancho. At our end we had the young [at that time] bartender Juan Jacabo who served us well. If you were taking a date out to eat the El Rancho at that time was the place to go. Now if you were really loaded and were really trying to dazzle you could elect to be served in the Bell Tower that rose above the dance floor. But bear in mind that your waiter did expect to be rewarded for all his labor bringing your food up those stairs.

With the passage of time as more alcohol outlets sprang up in the Zone and more strident Nationalistic Voices were heard in Panama the Beer Gardens faded from the scene but in the recesses of my mind I still hear Arnie's accordion and Lucho's Musica Tipica.


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