“If you’ve not been to Harold’s, you’ve not been to Cave Creek,” co-owner Marie Vale says with a laugh. Regulars and newbies will have plenty of opportunities to visit this month as Harold’s Cave Creek Corral celebrates its 80th anniversary with parties, gift card giveaways and a self-published newspaper chronicling the institution’s storied past.
It started in 1935, when an enterprising gent named Johnny Walker – no, not that one – built The Cave Creek Corral Bar, where working men would unwind after long days spent building the nearby Bartlett and Horseshoe dams. The Corral sold cold beer – A1, the only draft brewed in Arizona at the time – and booze. It was the only bar to survive after the dams were completed and the laborers left. In 1950, Harold and Ruth Gavagan bought the joint, changed the name, added food and started employing some unorthodox tactics to entice patrons.
“Harold was a real entrepreneur. After he bought it, he couldn’t get people to come up here because it was a long way from Phoenix,” says Bill Vale, co-owner with his wife Marie and business partner Danny Piacquadio. “Thus, he got the trained tiger act to get people to come up.” It’s true: Motivated by the reward of a nice, raw steak, tigers would perform tricks for barflies. To get people to stay the night, Gavagan turned a wing of the building’s basement into a bunkhouse with cots for customers to sleep it off – prototypical DUI prevention, as it were.
Throughout the years, the Corral has roped the hearts of many, from average Joes to celebrities. Movies and TV shows have been filmed there, and famous patrons have included Waylon Jennings, Lynda Carter, Barry Goldwater and Dick Van Dyke, who’d jump onstage to sing and dance with the band and who always ordered biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Now Harold’s is a destination for Steelers fans (Pittsburgh native Piacquadio’s influence) and a folksy equalizer for its cadre of regulars.
“We used to have a saying at Harold’s,” Piacquadio says. “You can find a horse, a Harley and a Hummer all in the same parking lot. Literally, you have a cowboy, you have a guy making minimum wage, and a guy worth $100 million sitting at the bar together.”
If the Vales and Piacquadio have their way, that will be the case for at least 80 more years.
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