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Floyd Saunders, dead at 92, Wrigleyville bartender poured shots for stars, fans

Floyd Saunders, then 70, at the Wrigleyville Tap in 1996.

Floyd Saunders, then 70, at the Wrigleyville Tap in 1996. | Sun-Times files

When Joe Strummer walked in to the Wrigleyville Tap with a reggae-blaring boombox, bartender Floyd Saunders didn’t know and didn’t care that he was a rock star.

It was time for “Jeopardy.” So he told Strummer: Turn down the reggae.

With a contrite “I’m sorry, mate,” Strummer complied. Then, the bartender and the co-founder of legendary punk band The Clash watched “Jeopardy” together, said Jimmy Jones, who owned the bar.

Another time, an exasperated Mr. Saunders recoiled when the jukebox at the North Side bar, which was programmed to play songs at automatic intervals, started blasting Pearl Jam.

“Aww, we don’t need to hear this,” he said, hitting the reject button.

From back in the middle of the bar, a patron cracked up. It was Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead singer.

“Eddie got a kick out of it,” Jones said. “Floyd didn’t know what Eddie’s music was.”

Wrigleyville bartender Floyd Saunders with a customer: a young Eddie Vedder.

Bartender Floyd Saunders with a customer: a young Eddie Vedder. | Provided photo

After bands finished their soundchecks ahead of performances at the Metro, they’d wander next door to the Wrigleyville Tap, 3724 N. Clark St., where Mr. Saunders poured drinks. If they asked for advice, he’d give it — in a voice reminiscent of a hinge in need of oil thanks to all of the unfiltered Pall Malls he smoked.

“It’s that filter that’s gonna kill ya,” he’d say.

Jones said Mr. Saunders spoke with the authority that comes from being a sailor who survived a World War II plane crash and a hurricane that moved his family’s house when he was a kid growing up in Key West.

Floyd Saunders. | Provided photo

If he heard somebody had lost a job or was mourning a parent, their money was no good. Drinks were on him.

Customers became friends. They didn’t want to disappoint him or risk becoming the target of his worst opprobrium: “What are you, a jackass?”

Somebody once printed up posters backing him to be alderman of the 46th ward. You can still find a few of them adorning the walls of Wrigleyville establishments.

Floyd Saunders served up drinks to sports fans and rock stars in Wrigleyville. | Provided photo

“Floyd was the patron saint of Clark Street, poured drinks and smiles for us all,” said Joe Shanahan, the founder and owner of Metro.

“He became a father figure to me,” said the Chicago club scene fixture known as Jolly Roger. “He was everybody’s dad or uncle. He truly was the mayor of Wrigleyville.”

He credits Mr. Saunders with an assist in a stealth plan to scatter ashes of the late Chicago troubadour Steve Goodman, composer of “Go Cubs Go” and “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” He said that, whether he knew it or not, the bartender’s generous pours helped distract Wrigley Field security, making it easier to spread the ashes at the ballpark. “Floyd kept saying, ‘Oh, you guys need another shot.’ ”

Mr. Saunders, 92, died Sunday of dementia and other complications of old age at The Grove in Aurora, where he’d lived since October.

A Navy veteran of World War II, Floyd Saunders smoked Pall Malls without filters. | Provided photo

He grew up in Key West and came to Chicago after WWII to study at the Ray School of Photography, he said in a 1996 Chicago Sun-Times interview. “I’m standing around looking at all these tall buildings. I didn’t know nothin’ about B-girls. I stopped in this bar on State Street. Then, I found out what B-girls were. I had to wire home for more money.”

He worked days as a drill inspector at the Chicago-Latrobe factory, 411 W. Ontario St., and tended bar at night. He met Marlene, a waitress who became his wife of almost 40 years, at the Lipstick tavern near Irving Park Road and Sheridan Road, according to their son Jefferson Saunders.

Floyd and Marlene Saunders met at the Lipstick tavern and were married nearly 40 years. | Provided photo

Around 1967, they bought a house at 3845 N. Southport Ave. for around $13,000, their kids said. They saved S&H Green Stamps to buy their children a swing set.

The Saunders kids had a charmed existence in Wrigleyville thanks to their dad. They could stop at almost any neighborhood bar or restaurant and be treated to free food or pop. It wasn’t uncommon for them to look up at Cubs games on TV and see their father, who was buddies with everybody at Wrigley, from groundskeepers to scoreboard operators.

His grandson Frankie, around 10 at the time, once wound up backstage with Metallica, holding a set of Lars Ulrich’s drumsticks, according to his daughter Sandra Heredia, who remembers being ushered one time into Metro to meet the BoDeans.

A grassroots campaign to get Floyd Saunders to run for alderman produced posters that still can be found around Wrigleyville. | Provided photo

He was serving drinks at Doninger’s on Southport when Jones started courting him to come work for him. Mr. Saunders ended up working at the Wrigleyville Tap from about 1984 to 1999.

According to Jolly Roger, customers would come in looking for him, including well-known musicians like Elvis Costello, Lemmy from Motorhead and Jack Bruce of Cream.

“A lot of rock people hung out there because it was just dark enough, and he didn’t fawn over anybody,” said Ric Addy, who was owner of the old Shake Rattle & Read in Uptown.

“We had two crowds: the Cubs crowd and Metro crowd,” said Jones.

He remembers “a guy with an enormous Mohawk, one of those fancy ones, sitting down talking to a guy in a baseball cap — and Floyd talking to both of them.”

Mr. Saunders became a sort of way station for messages, which he’d pass along to others, according to Jolly Roger: “ ‘There’s a guy here from some band Slayer, he wants to talk to you.’ ‘There’s a guy here from Ween who wants to talk to you.’ ‘What the hell is a Ween?’ ”

Female customers knew they could relax at the Wrigleyville Tap because he made sure nobody bothered them. After he died, his kids went through his photographs. One whole box of pictures “is just him and girls,” his daughter said.

About 15 years ago, Mr. Saunders had a stroke. While he recovered at the hospital, his son said, “Four or five girls came up and say, ‘We’re gettin’ you outta here.’ ”

“He seemed youthful because he could hang out with the rock stars or the regulars or the old guys and treat them all the same way,” said Aldona Urbutis, who used to work at the Tap and Metro.

Floyd Saunders visiting Key West, where he grew up. | Provided photo

Mr. Saunders didn’t drive. His kids think it might be because of an accident in WWII that saw him ejected  from a Jeep. He got a license at one point, then “drove down a one-way, and we’re all screaming, and he never drove again,” his daughter said.

He didn’t retire until he was about 78. “When you retire,” he’d say, “it’s all downhill.”

In addition to his daughter Sandra Heredia and son Jefferson Saunders, Mr. Saunders is also survived by his stepson Robert Scanlon, 19 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. Three daughters died before him: Elizabeth Gentry, Darlene Moffat and Laura Obert.

Services were held Saturday at Cooney Funeral Home, after which “the mayor of Wrigleyville” was to be driven past his old haunts one last time, with his funeral procession going by Wrigley Field and the bars he frequented before heading to Irving Park Cemetery, 7777 W. Irving Park Rd. for burial next to his wife.

Floyd and Marlene Saunders. | Provided photo