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Friday, March 5, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Erik Lacitis

No Ferns In Sight As Ernie Steele's Becomes Ileen's

The regulars at Ernie Steele's admitted that they had been worried. But maybe they had been worrying a little too much. Sometimes, just sometimes, things work out.

Ernie was 75, and he had been talking for a while about selling his bar. He had worked there for 46 years. His wife, Jo, had a triple bypass operation. He wanted to be home with her, not doing payroll and taxes and receipts. Two weeks ago, Ernie finally called it quits.

The regulars at Ernie's had reason to be worried. They were in their 60s, 70s or older, collecting pensions for the most part. They had the wrong demographics, wrong income bracket.

The regulars had seen it happen before to their hangouts. A hotshot goes in with a major remodel, adds a bunch of French words to the menu, jacks up the booze prices, replaces the old people with a younger crowd packing plenty of Visas.

It's true that a lot of these hotshot places last only a few years before the hotshot goes bankrupt. But by then it's too late. Another landmark is gone.

Ernie's, on the corner of Broadway and Thomas, had all necessary credentials to be a local institution. It was the last real bar in the Broadway District, a joint with a long comfortable bar, big booths, $2 well drinks and always a familiar face.

You walked into Ernie's and you were taken back in time, when a restaurant had an unmistakable identity and didn't look like an airport Holiday Inn lounge. You couldn't help noticing the old hunting trophies along one wall, the moose head, the elk, the longhorn sheep, the deer, silently looking over the crowd. There were giant murals on the walls, now dark from years of grime, showing hunters around a campfire or on a trek.

In the middle of the wall behind the bar was a life-size photo of a young Ernie Steele in a football uniform. Ernie was a star halfback from 1939 to 1941 at the University of Washington, and then

with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The old timers could sip a beer, tell a story, not worry about a waiter anxiously pushing another drink on them.

It was into this world that Ileen Schumaker, 54, walked when she paid cash for Ernie's business. It certainly isn't part of her contract to worry about the old faces looking to her for assurance.

Right away, the regulars asked if she was from California, a sure sign the next thing to come to Ernie's would be ferns. No, she reassured them.

It was all brand new to her. Ileen has never run a restaurant. She doesn't even drink.

This is Ileen's background: She was born in Seattle; married her high school sweetheart, Al, a contractor; lived in Olympia; raised two children; did very well running three antique shops; was devastated when Al died of a heart attack six years ago; threw herself into work to forget; without formal training in finance, learned to play the CD and bond market and did very well; and still has tears well up when talking about Al.

Why did she decide to buy Ernie's? "I don't really know, but I wanted to buy it," she said.

Sometime soon, the joint will become Ileen's Sports Bar. That's "Ileen" as spelled in traditional Irish. The lounge, however, will be called the "Ernie Room." The murals, the life-size photo of Ernie, the moose head, they'll all remain.

She has made some changes. The first thing she did was put a toilet seat cover in the ladies' room. She's been scrubbing and cleaning, finding out that those brown Naugahyde walls are actually white. She bought new silverware, although she hasn't put it out because people have been taking knives and forks, perhaps as souvenirs when they heard Ernie had finally sold the place.

Somebody even stole one of the deer heads in the lounge. There was a big commotion as other customers ran after the culprit. The deer head is still missing.

Ileen also makes a point of meeting the old timers, all going back nearly three decades, those like "Budgie" Morris, Ed Schermerhorn, Patty Brady and a woman named "Maverick," who always brings her own beer glass.

"I don't want to change it a whole lot," Ileen has told them. Those are magic words to the regulars. They still have a home. There still is, for now, someone who finds their demographics just fine.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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