I have a million Palo Verde Lounge stories.
Many of them involve the bar’s owner, Charles Marthaler, known to all as Chuck. One of the first times I stepped foot in the place was about 13 years ago. I was with my college buddies. We were broke, so we’d loaded up my cheap Target purse with beers and walked up to the dank, cash-only bar my friend Aaron had recently discovered on Broadway Road in an industrial stretch of central Tempe. Later in the night, Chuck was making the rounds, taking empties off tables. He stopped by and picked up our Tecate Light cans.
“We don’t even sell this here,” he said, then moved on.
In those days, there were holes in the ceiling. Aaron would store his beer up there before going out to smoke. There were also three shiny quarters superglued to the ground. You could always spot the newcomers because they’d try to pick them up. That, or if they tried to pay with a credit card.
The men’s room is notoriously disgusting. One afternoon, I was at a tattoo shop all the way up in the north Valley. A guy named Nigel was grinding a leaf into my rib cage. I happened to mention Palo in our conversation. “Palo, huh?” he said. “Been there a few times. I remember once I used the urinal and saw my own piss coming out a pipe back onto the floor.”
Another Chuck story: One night, my partner Zac and I were seated at the south end of the bar close to the small air vent. Palo gets pretty warm in the summer, and that’s the best spot on hot nights. Next to us was an incredibly loud drunk man having a great time. That night, Chuck had brought his dog to work. His dog’s name is Duck. The drunk man was making a big show of rubbing Duck’s belly and complimenting Chuck on his pet. “I’m kind of a dog whisperer,” the man shouted, smugly.
Not even a second went by, and Chuck said, flatly: “I don’t think you can whisper anything.”
Uneventful nights are rare at Palo. You can’t just go and drink or see a show. Something weird usually occurs. My buddy Pancho is unassuming and doesn’t cause trouble. But something always happens to him at Palo. One time, during a performance by a rock band called Shat, a guy whipped a baby doll at Pancho’s head, knocking his glasses off into the crowd. They magically landed all the way across the pit at the feet of our friend Mel. Another time, during a metal-heavy battle of the bands right before COVID hit, Pancho was randomly yanked out of the crowd and asked to announce the winner. The band’s name was about 10 words long. Pancho was pressured by an aging metalhead to memorize and recite it, all in front of the audience. This was his last time at Palo.
Palo is a tiny, standalone brick building located next to a liquor store. There are two exits, two toilets, two pool tables, three TVs, a few tables, and about 10 bar stools. People say Palo looks like the type of place where you’ll get stabbed or sold dangerous drugs. But it’s actually one of the friendliest, most welcoming neighborhood bars in Tempe. Everyone’s in there. Construction workers wearing hi-vis gear. Students and staff from nearby Arizona State University. Grad school types and townies from the Maple-Ash-Farmer-Wilson neighborhood across the way. There’s no stage, though bands often perform there. There’s no dancefloor, but it regularly hosts DJs. There’s no kitchen, but I’ve eaten Thanksgiving dinners at Palo.
Not last year, though. It is hard to imagine a bar less equipped to deal with an airborne pandemic than the Palo Verde Lounge. It shut down in March 2020 due to COVID, and since then Chuck has gotten by on alcohol delivery. He drives around delivering six-packs, bottles of liquor, Jello shots, and pickle shots all over the Phoenix area. He’s gone as far as Apache Junction. He turned down a request from Tucson.
In February, as the one-year mark of the pandemic approached, and concerns about the future of Palo mounted, some regulars started a GoFundMe for the bar, something Chuck had been hesitant to do for a while. The fundraiser is still up — you can donate at gofundme.com/f/sob-save-our-bar-palo-verde — and so far it’s raised a good chunk of cash. The plan, Chuck says, is to reopen this week. In light of that excellent news, here’s a celebration, a history — an ode, let’s say — to the best little dive bar in Tempe.
Around the bar, you hear a lot of stories about the old days at Palo, but in search of ice-cold facts, I bugged Joshua Roffler, a senior curator at the Tempe History Museum. He supplied me with some background on the bar at 1015 West Broadway Road.
“When the lounge was built in 1964, Tempe had a population of about 45,000,” Roffler told me. That’s about a quarter of what it is today. “The lounge was basically on the edge of town in those days.”
Chuck says the “old-timers” who used to hang around the bar told him that in Palo’s early days, there were hitching posts out front and a small airport out back. (The second part checks out: There was indeed an airstrip on the south side of Broadway until the 1960s. It ran east-west between Hardy Drive and the train tracks.) The bar’s early proprietors — it was called the Park Inn Tavern in those days — would kick open the back door and shoot jackrabbits off the airport’s tarmac.
By 1972, the bar had been renamed Adobe Lounge. It became the Palo Verde Lounge in 1982. The lounge and the neighboring standalone liquor store have always been a pair. The liquor store used to be called Palo Verde Liquor; now it’s called Tempe Liquor and Smoke Shop. Roffler says city building records show that, in the mid-1960s, the area on the south side of Broadway between Beck Avenue and the milk plant was called the Palo Verde Industrial Park.
“I’m sure this is where the name Palo Verde Liquor and later Palo Verde Lounge came from,” Roffler said.
Palo Verde as it looks today.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Chuck clearly remembers the first time he came to Palo. It was 1994. He was in his early 20s and lived a half-mile north and worked a half-mile south. He drove by the mysterious little building several times a day.
Once, while making a purchase at the liquor store next door, he asked the clerk about the place. “They were like, “That’s a bar,” Chuck says. “[I said] ‘All right, well, keep this cold, I’ll be right back.'”
He crossed the parking lot, where three Harleys and two cars were parked.
“So, I kind of, like, puff up a little bit. I pulled that door open, and this big cloud of smoke comes out,” he says. “And despite all that smoke, all I could really smell was urine.”
Undeterred by the odor, Chuck began coming to Palo on his lunch break while working at a nearby bank. The owner threw him a job as a door guy in 1998. He’d break up fights, check IDs, clean, and stock beer — “All for $20 and a small pitcher.” He moved up to barback, then landed some weekend bartending shifts. “The day shift people were pissed,” he says. “They were waiting, like, 10 years to get those shifts.”
In 2005, Chuck bought the place from a guy named Eddie Eng, whose son David Eng ran the bar. Chuck took over the license, the goodwill, and the name. “What was I gonna do? Change it to Chuck’s Place? I just wanted everything to stay status quo,” he says. “The name has a reputation.”
That reputation today, though, has a lot to do with Chuck. He is synonymous with the place: the blonde-haired guy wearing sunglasses or darkened lenses inside (bright lights bother him — good thing he owns a dark dive bar) and always the same uniform of loose-fitting jeans, white sneakers, and a black Palo Verde shirt.
He has cultivated a vibe at Palo, one he describes, accurately, as “no pretension, no judgment.”
“You’re a skater, you’re a stoner. You’re a cowboy. You’re a biker. You’re white-collar, blue-collar — once you cross that threshold, it don’t matter,” he says. There’s a guy named Gary, Chuck says, who used to walk in sometimes wearing his bathrobe.
In the 15 or so years Chuck has owned the Palo Verde Lounge, it’s gone through many iterations, many micro-eras.
There used to be boxy TVs; now there are tiny flatscreens. The floor was once linoleum; now it’s polished concrete. For a little while, the back patio was furnished like a living room, with twinkle lights and a big coffee table. That’s all gone now. In 2017, one bartender tried to class the place up with a fish tank. She scraped off a bunch of stickers on the walls and wanted to paint the place. She didn’t last long. For years, Palo had a jukebox with CDs, half of which had the titles and bands Sharpied on: Led Zeppelin, Beastie Boys, David Allen Coe, Dr. Dre, Motown, local bands. Now there’s an internet juke. Chuck is always trying out something new, and it either stays or goes. The regulars track these changes, referencing them like historians of ancient civilizations.
One of those regulars is Peter James. Like more than a few people I know from Palo, Peter first entered the bar as a teenager. “Before current ownership,” he says, “so no one should be incriminated.” Peter met Chuck shortly after he took over. He was a delivery boy for the Domino’s across the street. Chuck suggested if Peter got stuck with an extra pizza to bring it by the bar. He did.
This was back in the ’90s, during Tempe’s heyday, when Mill Avenue was packed with independent shops and the Tempe Sound was earning national recognition. Peter recalls a punching bag machine Chuck hauled in sometime in the 2000s. The machine tended to bring out rage in its users. Sometimes, after punching the bag and not achieving a high score, customers would then punch the walls. Many promotional beer posters in the bar today cover holes that were indirectly caused by the punching bag machine.
“It didn’t last long, but it certainly did a fair share of damage,” Peter says.
He also recalls the days when the men’s lone bathroom stall didn’t even have a door. These days, the door is “clearly a piece of plywood that’s been painted,” Peter says. Someone has attached a dog leash to the flusher on the toilet so you can safely flush it from about three feet away. The walls are covered in graffiti and stickers, and there’s a machine that sells ’90s-era porno pics.
“It’s one of the scariest places I have ever been in my life,” Peter says of the men’s.
Lea Bishop started hanging around Palo sometime in 2009. Her initial thoughts: “Oh my gosh, what is this place? Is this place safe? Oh man, this place is a train wreck.”
That first impression eventually gave way to a more nuanced view of Palo and, later, to a deep affection. “It’s a place where people of all different backgrounds are welcome,” she says. “And it actually is a safe space for people.”
Lea Bishop, aka DJ Feral, has been playing songs at Palo since about 2015.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Lea started DJing at Palo in 2015. She goes by DJ Feral. I recall one particular New Year’s Eve when Lea was playing at Palo. It was a madhouse. As midnight neared, a large tub with ice and mini champagne bottles was presented. With one bootheel on a barstool, the other on the bar itself, Lea handed out the bottles to the crowd of drunk maniacs. I remember approaching for mine, looking up at Lea’s tall, slender form, backlit by the Christmas lights stapled to Palo’s ceiling as the crowd shouted the countdown. It’s one of my favorite memories.
Lea’s right about Palo being a safe space. Patrons tend to look out for one another. (One Halloween, dressed as Daria, I was violently ill behind Palo’s dumpster. Dressed as Bellatrix Lestrange, my friend Bri was keeping an eye on me. She recalls that a cowboy, a cowgirl, and a scary clown checked in on us. She said the cowboy circled back with water. He had a bunch in his trunk.) But there are a few exceptions. One is if somebody places a curse on you. Brett Boyles is now one of the co-owners of the Thunderbird Lounge in Phoenix. But when he first moved to Arizona from Ohio, he was bartending at Tempe Center for the Arts and lived near Palo. He tells a pretty funny story about a guy losing at pool and stabbing the cue into the ceiling in a rage, raining down dust and debris. His other good one is about somebody he describes as a “hippie-tweaker” causing trouble in the bar, being asked to leave, and hexxing everyone on his way out, going so far as to specifically declare that the hex would take approximately one week to kick in. Boyles and the coworker he was with laughed it off at the time. But by Thursday of that week, back at work, they were starting to see signs of trouble everywhere. “We were like, ‘Man, we gotta find this guy.'”
Another exception is if you are vocally racist, sexist, or homophobic. These kinds of people often end up out in Palo’s parking lot. One of Lea’s favorite stories is about a guy who was in the bar harassing women and making racist comments. He was asked to leave and refused. It was then that a female customer walked up to the man, punched him across the head, and knocked him out. “Two dudes just pulled him out into the parking lot,” Lea said. “People will not tolerate that shit.”
Shamus Burns, a well-known Palo regular, buys cheap knives to give to women in Tempe to carry around with them — a project he calls Arm Every Woman, a phrase meant to be sung, like the Chaka Khan song “I’m Every Woman. (Chuck used to sell these at the bar for $3 a pop.) Shamus says, “There’s a sense of being able to really push the line at Palo Verde, but if you start going out over it, not only will Chuck intervene, so will half the patrons. You can’t do that in another place. They have to hire a bouncer.”
But mostly Palo’s like Evelyn Ramos describes it. Evelyn used to drum for a little psychobilly outfit called The Video Nasties. They played a lot of shows at Palo. One time, in the 2000s, I interviewed the band in Eveyln’s car outside the bar. After Palo closed, we hung out in the parking lot. The guitarist had taken some acid and it started to kick in. There used to be a giant tree outside Palo, and the guitarist squirreled up it and hid among the branches. After a bit, he started pushing the branches to make it look as though the tree was speaking to us. It was very wise.
Evelyn lives in Chicago now. She says her first trip to Palo was sometime in 2002, when she was 16 (again, prior to current management). She and her friends made it their “spot forever,” Evelyn says — a place where “every important event happened.” She recalls all kinds of “uniquely savage” tales of depravity, but one of her favorite stories is sweeter. She brought her fifth-grade brother up to a show one night. He couldn’t get in, so he hung around outside practicing skateboard moves. Ramos’ friends and bar regulars took turns going outside to keep him company, smoking and cheering him on.
“I remember hearing a crowd scream, ‘YEAH!’ and I came outside, and my brother Titti had landed his first-ever kickflip,” she says. “Monumental.”
Shamus, who says he once sat at the bar with Chuck during business hours and watched RoboCop in its entirety without a single other patron walking in, is one of several Palo regulars that has lately been pitching in to give the bar a hand as it struggles through the pandemic.
“The only really good reason to live in this town anymore is no longer the cheap rent,” he says. “The only reason to stay in Tempe is for the community that we’ve forged together. Palo Verde is the place for the outsider. The townie. Or someone who doesn’t fit in the Mill Avenue scene. And it’s important to save those places.”
Palo’s big in the Tempe bike community. A lot of group bike rides end there. Shamus’ day job is at Bike Saviours, a repair shop and co-op that used to be a half-mile from Palo, though a recent move now puts it at four miles. He’s a bike mechanic.
Bike Saviours has been getting tons of bike donations lately, and last month, Shamus noticed several completed bikes had been tagged for the scrap heap. Shamus thought it’d be a shame to toss ’em, so he had the idea to sell them and give the money to Chuck. Thus was born “dive bikes.”
“We ‘built’ some dive bikes,” went a post on Bike Saviours’ Facebook page. “And just like our local dive bar, they ain’t pretty but they go and they stop.” Those bikes were sold and the funds donated to the bar.
Shamus says they wanted to help Palo because it’s a neighborhood fixture and because he sees commonalities between Bike Saviours (“We’ll brush just enough dirt off us to get into Red Lobster”) and the bar.
“We are your community bike shop, Palo is your community dive bar,” he says. “Just as much as The Chuckbox is your community hamburger stand, and Otto’s (Pizza & Pastry) is your community pizza shop.”
Peter James, officiant of Chuck Marthaler’s wedding and co-creator of the GoFundMe page “S.O.B. — Save Our Bar Palo Verde.”
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Peter James, who officiated Chuck’s wedding on two-hour notice a few years ago, notes that Chuck has given jobs over the years to people with addiction issues, people who just got out of prison, people who might otherwise not have gotten a fair shake. “I think a lot of people in the service industry get their start at Palo because Chuck will give anybody a chance.”
It’s for reasons like that that Peter has gotten involved in the various Palo fundraising efforts of late. “That bar, this neighborhood, this is my home,” Peter says. “So, I treat my neighbors. I patronize my local businesses. And I try to lend a hand when people need it, because this is my community, and the bar is no different.”
Lea, the DJ, helped coordinate a haircut benefit in early March, where volunteers and stylists set up Palo’s back patio to look like a makeshift salon. She’s also part of a little Palo work crew of volunteers who are donating their skills — carpentry, electrical, plumbing, pulling weeds, picking up trash — to get the bar back in fighting shape so it can soon welcome guests and, eventually, DJs and bands. One of the members of the punk band Birth of Monsters, the mohawked Vic Martinez, has been doing a great deal of volunteer labor inside Palo in recent weeks. Chuck says his band is up first once shows get going again.
As for Chuck, he says he’s humbled to see the outpouring of support.
“I put in my blood, sweat, and tears for 20 something years — but it’s my place,” he says. “It’s really amazing to see other people do the same just to save their watering hole.”