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Tom Garrison, owner of the Stoneleigh P Bar, remembers 50 years of beers, burgers and being eclectic

Tom Garrison, owner of the Stoneleigh P, will be celebrating the bar's 50th Anniversary Saturday night
Lisa Bachman Hand
Tom Garrison, owner of the Stoneleigh P, will be celebrating the bar's 50th Anniversary Saturday night

"I got hit once by a woman from South Carolina because I called her a Yankee for wanting ketchup on her burger."

Anyone who's ever lived or worked in the Uptown area of Dallas is familiar with the Stoneleigh P -- the quirky bar and restaurant at the corner of Wolf and Maple Streets.

At first glance it looks like just another neighborhood bar, but The P's reputation extends far beyond the Dallas city limits.

In addition to welcoming musicians, artists and ordinary folk (like generations of KERA staffers), the humble watering hole has also been a hangout for actors, athletes, oil magnates and even a future president.

The P celebrates its Golden Anniversary on Saturday. Plans call for a big party with all the trimmings, but shortly after the birthday celebration owner Tom Garrison and his daughter Laura will be making plans to relocate the bar.

We caught up with Tom ahead of The P's big bash to talk about the incredible longevity of the bar and its role in Dallas history.

Where did the idea for the Stoneleigh P come from?

Well, I was on my way to the lawyer-- getting away from [restaurateurs] Gene Street and Phil Cobb -- and I saw this vacancy at the Red Jacket Club across from the Stoneleigh Hotel. So we we made a deal to take the Red Jacket. I was going to do it Max's Kansas City-style with jazz and all that. And then we got to working on it, and I went up to the pharmacist at the drugstore next door and I said, "You're not interested in selling, are you?" And he said, "Yes." And the rest is history.

Originally it was an old Piggly Wiggly, and a steakhouse in the '40s. I've got pictures of it as a Piggly Wiggly with a little delivery truck in front.

So that building was a Piggly Wiggly back in the day?

There was a Piggly Wiggly and I think there was a barber shop and maybe a dry cleaner's later. There were about four or five different entities. The original Stoneleigh P was only 22 feet wide.

What's been the most memorial event since the Stoneleigh P opened in 1973.

Jimmy Carter started his campaign here after Channel 13 interviewed him on Newsroom. They interviewed him down there—mostly about integration in Dallas. And he told them how he did it in Georgia.

A friend of mine wanted to do a fundraiser down here for him. I bought 24 people and they raised enough money for him to fly back to Atlanta. His son came back the next day and used our phone booth and raised the rest of the money for the campaign. I said to Carter, "You know, I'm a kamikaze liberal, don't worry about my vote. Just get my dad, who is a Southern Baptist, to vote for you." So from then on, he started playing well.

Even Thomas Wicker, the writer for the "New York Times," picked up that story of Carter's first visit to Dallas.

What's one thing you always wanted to include on the menu but didn't?

Well, for a long time it was ketchup. I didn't have a fryer so I didn't have fries. So I said, "Well, I don't need ketchup."

I got hit once by a woman from South Carolina because I called her a Yankee for wanting ketchup on her burger. But along about three, four ago the kids said, "Sooner or later, we're going to have fries and ketchup." So we made room for the fries and then ketchup. And the rest is history.

I think the lore was that you hated ketchup.

People would catch me at a restaurant using it and then harass me about it. [LAUGHS]

Anything else that was special on the menu?

Bob Wilson [KERA Station Manager from 1968-1975] started hanging out here. I thought it was his sons [actors Luke and Owen] who would bring him. But it was him bringing the sons in. We even had a dish named after him. He'd sit at the bar and order a burger without the bun. And then he put the spinach salad next to it and did balsamic vinegar on both. So we call that a Bob Wilson.

You know, our menu now is about three times bigger than it was then. We started off with only two sandwiches, artichokes, spinach salad and a little soup-- we had two or three soups.

Stanley Marcus would come in and want his lentil soup with sausage. We'd have to saute sausage when we saw him walking up. So we put it in there like his mother used to cook it for him.

The Stoneleigh P has seen its share of celebrities through the years. Who's been your favorite?

Charles Barkley came down here for a basketball tournament. And he bought a whole round for everybody.

Charles Barkley was at The P? I love Charles Barkley!

Yeah, he was here. After he bought the round we loved him, too! [LAUGHS]

And then Herschel Bernardi was here. He played Caruso music on the jukebox and then had a sing-along with it.

Lauren Bacall came here. She was staying across the street at the Stoneleigh Hotel. And some terrible customer of mine walked up to her and said, "How about an autograph?" And she said, "Okay." And he handed her his autograph on a napkin.

Aliens from another planet visit the Stoneleigh. How do they describe it to their brethren back on the space ship?

Oh. I would say -- "That the guy was way too steeped in history. 50 years is a hell of a long time. I wonder why the hell haven't they progressed into something better." [LAUGHS]

Steeped in history just means that you're iconic.

And now we have to move. We either have to try to capture the same feeling or be totally different. Because the place we were looking at will cost a fortune to remodel to make it look like what we've got. And everything's within six blocks of here, but it's just going to be hell to do.

That's a dilemma. Do you stay with what you have? Or do you try to make it something new because you don't want people comparing it to the old place?

Well, the way I look at it, we'll take our wonderful crew and we'll take our wonderful customers, so in that way it should be all the same. But it probably won't.

What else are you going to take with you?

I'm trying to take every single thing in here that's not attached to the walls. I won't take the air conditioning, but I'm going to try to take all the cabinets because they're not attached. Even my special marble bar top that we found at a hotel in in Big Spring.

What about the jukebox?

You know, [journalist] Bob Wilonsky gave us his old one, and we ruined it. I had a guy clean it and then he couldn't put it back together. So actually, we just run a live stream of anything people want. But at one time I could say that we had the best jukebox in town.

Finish this sentence--The Stoneleigh P will be remembered because....

It was iconic. It was literally different. You know, we were an awful lot of things and an awful lot of different kind of people. And that's what I always prided myself in -- on trying to to appeal to a lot of different sorts of people and introduce them to each other. [Actor] Barry Sullivan once called me over to the table and he says, "Garrison, there's not very many in the country, but you have a civilized bar." And I said, "Well, that's all I ever wanted."

The Stoneleigh P celebrates its 50th Anniversary Saturday, April 15 from 3 p.m. to closing time.

In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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