The alcohol was flowing for one last night at the Royal Palm Tavern, but the crowd — which filled the bar to capacity — wasn’t just there to take Wednesday night shots.
The Royal Palm, which had been in business in Collegetown for 71 years, closed its doors for the final time early Thursday morning. Its last days were marked by throngs of returning alumni, fond remembrances and, on Saturday, a marriage proposal.
The bar, though dark, dirty and often sticky, seemed to unite its regulars with a special kind of bond. Students, alumni and townies returning for one more visit described how the bar, commonly known as the Palms, had become their late-night home away from home.
“Every time you come back, you go to the Palms. But where do we go now?” Joe Lando ’92 said outside the bar Wednesday evening.
Current undergraduates felt the connection, too.
“Where are we going to go? We have no home anymore!" a student yelled at 1:15 a.m. Sunday, shortly after the music ended for the night.
Much of the Palms’ charm, it seems, came from its unabashedly shabby appearance. Alumni described it approvingly as a dive. In a 1978 review, The Sun described it as “the most run-down place in the area.” Far from trying to fix it, the owners of the Palms welcomed the bar’s reputation.
“It’s your corner dive bar, and it’s always been that way — it’s not pretentious,” Lenny Leonardo, who has owned the Palms since the early 1980s with his brother, Joe, said Wednesday. “It’s a beer and shot place. You’re not going to get daiquiris here or frozen margaritas.”
Leonardo’s father owned the bar — which was established in 1941 by Leonardo’s uncle — from the 1950s through the ’80s. Even then, Leonardo said, his father took pride in the dive bar atmosphere.
“The only thing we ever change here is the light bulbs once in a while,” Leonardo recalled his father saying.
But bigger changes are coming. The Leonardos sold the Palms and two other properties on Dryden Road to Collegetown landowner John Novarr for $3,750,000 in December 2010, according to documents obtained by The Sun. The properties were collectively sold for more than three times their assessed value of about $800,000. Novarr said there are no set plans for the location yet, but the future development will likely include housing.
The Leonardos said the bar had run its course and they plan to move to Florida.
“Business hasn’t been as good as it was,” Lenny Leonardo said. His brother Joe told The Sun in January that changes in student drinking patterns had affected the business.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of ‘Palms o’clock,’ but that’s a business killer right there,” Joe Leonardo said, referring to the phrase students use for the half hour, just before closing, in which young people flocked to the Palms. “It’s really tough to make a living on less than three hours a week.”
“Less than 10 years ago, kids would come out and start drinking after class … and we’d be busy all afternoon,” he said. “But drinking habits have changed.”
Different drinking habits or not, alumni and undergraduates seemed to share affections for the Palms.
“The Palms is a classic dive bar that we have very fond memories of, almost as though it was the family room of an old home that you have since left behind,” Ross Stefano ’77, who drove to Ithaca to visit the Palms Tuesday night, wrote in an email. “As one person put it, in reality, the memories of the Palms are far better than the actual experience of being there.”
Stefano added that the aura of the bar was part of its attraction, and that atmosphere had not changed since he graduated in 1977.
“The Palms was never the place where you started out the evening, nor would you ever think of taking a girl there,” he said. “Back then it looked almost exactly like it looked [Tuesday] … Same graffiti-marked tables, same wall hangings. The only ‘investment’ that appears to have been made in 35 years is one electronic game and the artwork on the ceiling tiles.”
The ceiling tiles, which were individually painted by Palms patrons, became a popular attraction at the bar in recent decades.
Lenny Leonardo said a few tiles were painted in the late 1950s or early 1960s, but it was not until the early 1990s that painting the ceiling tiles really caught on. It eventually became so popular that he had to dole out blank tiles carefully, usually reserving them for regular customers, he said.
Leonardo said he wants to keep the tiles together once the Palms’ building is taken down. He hopes to display the tiles, possibly at Cornell or in whatever building is constructed in place of the Palms.
Besides the décor, patrons and Palms employees cited the community infused in the bar as one of its appeals. And some of the employees left the bar with something more than a paycheck and sticky shoes.
Justine Haimi ’09 MHA ’11 and Cullen Mealey ’10 worked at the Palms together from 2009 until 2011. They met on Justine’s first day at the bar, and they began dating soon after.
On Saturday, Mealey proposed to Haimi at the exact spot in the Palms where they met in 2009.
Haimi said the atmosphere at the bar made Mealey’s proposal even more meaningful.
“It’s really a family,” she said of the Palms staff. “The owner actually bought us two bottles of champagne and was speechless he was so happy for us.”
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, who worked at the door of the Palms for two years as an undergraduate, added that working at the bar gave him a different perspective on the establishment.
“I know a lot of students just see the late-at-night part, but when you stand there all day, you see how many locals come in and for how many decades they’ve been coming in,” Myrick said.
Myrick’s tenure at the Palms overlapped his time on the Ithaca Common Council. He said that working the Palms’ door “was a great way to get to know your constituents in a different light.”
Lenny Leonardo, the owner, said that, although he felt the time was right to close the bar, it will be sad to see it go.
“It’s been emotional for me and my brother, seeing these people coming back for one reason only: to see the Palms,” Leonardo said.