Tootsie's Orchid Lounge is history.
In its day, this tacky purplish beer joint in a seedy neighborhood known as Lower Broadway meant something special to drifters, dreamers, troubadors and plain working folks across America. They were drawn by its location, with its back door just across the alley from the stage entrance of the Grand Ole Opry, and by the legendary spirit of its proprietor, Hattie Louise (Tootsie) Bess.
On Sunday, her lavender legacy, the world's most famous country honky-tonk, padlocked its doors after 25 years, another bug on the windshield of progress.
The Orchid's bloom had been fading for years: The Opry moved to a slick theme park in the suburbs in 1974, Tootsie died of cancer in 1978, at 63, and her orchid-colored guitar was auctioned off. The neighborhood continued to slide, sprouting porno houses.
Then the state outlawed the poker machines that paid Tootsie's rent. It also passed a tough drunken-driving law that by last fall had produced a logjam of 1,900 convictions. Sheriff Fate Thomas rented army cots for the gymnasium of the Metro Criminal Justice Center and started a series of mass jailings.
"People are scared to go downtown!" lamented Tootsie's son, Howard Dodson, a line worker at the Avco airplane parts plant who had kept his mother's beer joint going.
Much of respectable, middle-class Nashville -- not to mention its blue-blood, old-money set -- has always been uneasy with the city's sod-kicking image as a hillbilly music mecca. But Tootsie's creative stew of sequins and sawdust was one place where the music's hardcore constituency could feel right at home smoking unfiltered cigarettes, dipping snuff and drinking beer out of the bottle.
If the Opry, in its old quarters in Ryman Auditorium, was the mother church of country music, the sturdy, often strident Tootsie was honky-tonk's angel. Last week, her picture still hung over the bar like an icon, surrounded by her good luck "walls of fame," a Warholesque riot of autographs and photographs of the famous, the would-bes and the nobodies, tacked and scribbled on every surface from the curling, linoleum floors to the painted tin ceiling. By one estimate, 10,000 flyblown photographs are layered onto the crumbling walls.
Regulars remember Tootsie in her place of prominence behind the Blue Ribbon tap, armed with a diamond-studded hat pin (a gift from singer Charley Pride) to control troublemakers with a swift jab in the behind, addressing everybody as "you funkies!" She carried a coach's whistle to clear the place at the lawful hour.
On steamy summer nights, between shows, spangled Opry stars such as Patsy Cline and Hank Williams would spill out the stage door of the never-air-conditioned Ryman and cross the alley to drink a cold beer and mingle with soldiers, truckers, farmers, struggling musicians and busloads of fans from the north.
The beer joint "symbolized the heart of country music's constituency. It was utterly, gloriously Democratic," the Chicago Tribune's Jack Hurst wrote early last year. He had discovered Tootsie's years before as a soldier stationed nearby.
Despite a tough, irreverent exterior, Tootsie was a sucker for a sad story. She would forget a struggling songwriter's bar tab for as long as a year or slip a few bucks to someone in trouble. They used her napkins to scribble their songs on. A container known as "Tootsie's box" was a combination bank and referral service, crammed with scrawled IOUs. Anybody looking for a hungry guitar picker could find a name in the box.
Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Roger Miller made Tootsie's a regular stop from the time they first hit town with songs to sell.
As a young unknown, Nelson got so blue one night that he stretched out in the middle of Broadway outside Tootsie's door and invited motorists to drive over him, recalled barmaid Pat Croslin, who was hired 25 years ago when she was a 15-year-old with a baby. Tootsie dragged Nelson inside and later, the story goes, he changed his luck by auditioning his now-classic "Hello, Walls" for performer Faron Young over a beer at Tootsie's.
Her hospitality extended even to some of the winos who frequent the area. One took his name from the place she gave him to sleep on her roof. He called himself Cityview.
An electronic Sybaris Rock-Ola juke box replaced Tootsie's old Wurlitzer, which was reputed to have the best country selection anywhere. Last week the country fare included several songs about Tootsie's, including one she recorded about herself, called "The Wettest Shoulder in Town."
Now country is cool, so broad in its appeal that the graffiti on Tootsie's walls include an ode to the place written by two coeds from nearby Vanderbilt University. Lower Broadway is undergoing a renovation that some expect will homogenize the neighborhood into a hive of fern bars and fancy shops, adjunct to the $124 million convention complex under construction nearby.
A few weeks ago, Kristofferson and Nelson jogged through a winter snow to have a beer at Tootsie's, once more, for the good times. "Willie sat right there on that stool and sang "Seven Spanish Angels" to me," Croslin said, tears forming. "Ain't that a pretty song?"
But on its last night, Tootsie's mourners were a motley pack of gluttons for bathos -- barmaids, media chroniclers, a few diehard patrons -- plus a spillover crowd of what one Tootsie's aficionado called disgustedly "yuppie types in alligator shirts," slummers from the suburbs who had never been there before.
There is talk of saving Tootsie's in some form -- the walls of fame, the name and with them the memory of a generous, down-home soul. And so they should. But what made this honky-tonk-with-a-heart the symbol of a time and place is already beyond retrieval, like the morning-after traces of an orchid-colored dream.