The Blue Wall as a Bar
The Blue Wall as a Bar
While many students shuffle in and out of UMass’ Blue Wall each day, few are aware that the modest cafeteria was once one of the wildest and most popular bars in Amherst. Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, the Blue Wall was notorious for being able to draw a line of students stretching down the length of the Campus Center Concourse, with its cheap beer, rock concerts, and comedy nights. The raised platform to the right of the Blue Wall’s entrance, which now serves as additional seating, was once a stage for popular local bands such as Willow Creek, The Stand, The Neighborhoods, and even the famous Cars.
The Blue Wall was far from a glamorous hang out, as alumnus Robert Griffin recalled: “In terms of the décor, it was a dive- pretty much a huge room with concrete walls and a perpetual odor of stale beer.” Another alumnus, Jeffrey Mackenzie, even remembers a frequent performer at the venue named “Sweet Pie,” a nudist who played “boogie woogie piano” wearing only a loincloth. Yet despite its quirks, the Blue Wall was one of the most beloved spots on campus, frequently drawing a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of students who would gather at the base of the stage to dance and bob their heads to the music of the performers.
To be sure, the Blue Wall was not only popular for its entertainment. The bar was famously ranked as one of the largest consumers of beer on the Eastern seaboard, with 1,800 kegs drained each year and $600,000 earned in annual revenue. One of the Blue Wall’s most popular traditions was the Friday afternoon “Happy Hour,” when the bar would offer reduced drink prices and open the draft taps at 3 o’clock, leaving them continuously flowing for three hours. Having such a heavy drinking culture openly endorsed by UMass often created a strange university setting. One alumnus recalled a St. Patrick’s day when he had a few drinks with his friends at the Blue Wall before going to a scheduled appointment with his math professor: “When I showed up after one or two toasts to the Irish, he gave me a funny look. I explained to him that it was St. Patrick’s Day and he understood completely…I guess the point is, it was kind of interesting having a bar on campus. It certainly added a certain ambiance to the campus.” However, the Blue Wall’s wild ambiance of the 1970s would be short lived. Since the drinking age had been lowered to 18 in 1973, reckless drinking habits among young people increased across the nation. As a result, the drinking age was raised to 20 in 1979. Though the Blue Wall continued to draw crowds by allowing underage students to attend events with wrist bands and a separate seating section, it lost $280,000 in revenue the year the drinking age went up. Furthermore, increased anxiety over excessive drinking led to stricter law enforcement, causing many students to seek other venues. In 1981, the university teamed with Amherst Police to launch a $30,000 campaign to combat drunk driving. Peer Educators set up a table with a breathalyzer at the exit of the bar in order to ensure that students over the legal limit would not get behind the wheel. The campaign also increased police road patrols, including a weekend “Speed-Alcohol Enforcement Program” which resulted in the stopping of 640 vehicles in the first semester it was introduced, 490 of which received tickets for violations. Just three years later in 1984 Massachusetts outlawed “Happy Hours,” resulting in the end of one of the Blue Wall’s most beloved traditions. The following year, the campus bar received its fatal blow: the drinking age was raised to 21, leading to the university’s decision to cease alcohol sales in the Blue Wall.
With alcohol gone from the popular hangout, the university struggled to capture the old spirit of the Blue Wall through the new “Campus Coffeehouse,” which was installed in place of the bar. The chairperson of the Campus Center/Student Union Board of Governors, Alex Zucker, complained in the Daily Collegian that his proposal for a dance concert in the Blue Wall was repeatedly turned down, writing: “I was told that the Coffeehouse was available only for ‘mellow’ jazz music two nights a week and occasional Saturday evening dance parties…they were clearly dead set against any type of programming which did not fit into their perception of what the Coffeehouse clientele preferred.” After student outrage at these refusals, the Director of Auxiliary Services overturned the decision, and allowed for an “un-bar” night with a “Clash of Bands” concert in the Blue Wall. Despite the music and variety of non-alcoholic juice cocktails served, the venue was unable to garner the same popularity that it once had, and soon after ceased its un-bar nights all together.
However, in 2003 the Blue Wall experienced an unexpected revival. Seeking to recreate the sense of campus community of the 1970s and prevent students from driving off campus to drink, Auxiliary Services chose to reopen the bar. After a much hyped opening night which managed to draw in hundreds of students, the bar received a scathing review in the Daily Collegian. Many students complained that there wasn’t a big enough dance floor, not enough T.V.s, bad lighting, etc. After failing to attract sufficient business, the Blue Wall bar closed for the last time in 2005. Though the Blue Wall still serves as a popular campus eatery, it stands as only a shadow of what was once the heart of student life on campus.
UMass Special Collections and University Archives
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- December 5, 2012
- Central Campus
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- Still Image
- “The Blue Wall as a Bar,” Lost UMass, accessed September 17, 2014, http://lostumass.omeka.net/items/show/65.
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