Virginia City’s Red Dog Saloon, ground zero for the ‘San Francisco sound’ of the 1960s, is back in action
Red Dog Saloon opened its doors in the summer of 1965. Long after the rush during the 1860s to mine silver out of the surrounding hills, Virginia City was virtually a ghost town. But, there is more to the history of this town than cowboys and ghost stories. According to the 1996 documentary The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon, directed by former owner Mary Works, Mark Unobsky had convinced his parents to buy a building in downtown Virginia City where he and his friends, students and workers in San Francisco could create a hangout for the summer. Unobsky teamed up with Don Works, who was already living in Nevada, and Chan Laughlin to make his vision a reality. What they wanted was a bar with live music and great food. The idea was that they could make money doing this and continue to have fun and live the way they wanted to. They found people to help them with their mission—including a chef, a dishwasher and a band. The band was a group of guys from San Francisco who went by the name of The Charlatans.
At this time, the music scene in San Francisco was turning from folk to a more electric sound. Bands such as The Byrds and The Charlatans were playing electrified folk inspired by Bob Dylan and The Beatles. The Charlatans spent the summer in Virginia City playing music, experimenting, and inspiring the people at the Red Dog Saloon. The word is that psychedelic drugs were involved.
Returning to San Francisco at the end of summer, a group from the Red Dog Saloon formed the Family Dog and put on a dance later that fall. And so, the story goes, we had the beginning of San Francisco-style psychedelic rock—in an old mining town in the hills of Nevada.
(Rumors abound about other well-known groups playing there, including the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. But local historians say those rumors are unfounded.)
In the summer of 1966, Big Brother and the Holding Company were invited to play at the Red Dog Saloon. “We were city people used to the sidewalks, liquor stores, front stoops, foggy weather that burned off around 11 in the morning,” says Sam Andrew, an original member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, recalling that summer and his impressions of Virginia City, “The town in general was much more of a ghost town than it is today. The Red Dog was funky, all wood, musty, real, and full of cowboys. I was impressed with the seeming freedom and lawlessness of the place, so much so that I walked into the Red Dog smoking a bowl of marijuana. ‘Is that pot?’ the waitress hissed. ‘Put that out quick, that’s the sheriff over there.’ So much for that city slicker illusion.”A long, strange trip
The building that was transformed into the Red Dog Saloon in 1965 was the old Comstock House at 76 North C St. It was built in the 1860s and burned down in 1875. The building was rebuilt and has had various incarnations as a grocery store and boarding house, a bar and hotel, and, most recently, as another version of the Red Dog Saloon. The interior of the bar as remodeled by the new owners takes into account the building’s history.
“On this back wall over here you can see where it has been burned above that arch,” points out Larry Ryan, one of the current owners of the bar. “There’s some wallpaper back from the 1800s, so we kind of give a little history of the building just from the wall.”
The place is open and spacious with high ceilings and exposed vent work giving it a more modern feel. The walls have been stripped down to original brick, rock, and plaster and the floors are covered in wood boards that are fitting for an Old West saloon. The mirrored bar made of dark wood is also reminiscent of that era.
“It looked a lot different back then,” says co-owner Sue Pursel. “It was a big long hallway. It was really dark and really small. “We’ve really done a lot.”
Ryan, originally from Chicago, moved to the area in 1998. He partnered up with Sue and Loren Pursel, Nevada residents for more than 30 years, to reopen the famous saloon and restore some of its former glory. They hope to preserve its history, create a fun place for families to hang out, and to reinvent some of the magic that took place there 40 years ago.
In the back corner, the kitchen sits behind a structure that looks a little like a wooden snack bar. You can walk over and order their specialty pizzas at the counter. With names like The Tommy Knocker, The Comstocker, and The Mucker, they incorporate a bit of the current local scene into the atmosphere. The restaurant also serves sandwiches and salads.
“We’ll eventually do a one-night special, probably a pasta special, kind of a family night thing,” Pursel adds.
Although the bar has been open for the last couple of months, the official grand opening will take place June 19 and 20. The owners plan a big reopening reunion. Since June 21, 1965, was when the psychedelic history of the Red Dog Saloon began, the owners wanted to try to coincide their opening with that date. Original members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, sans vocalist Janis Joplin, who died in 1970, will play both nights of the grand opening—almost exactly 43 years after their initial Virginia City debut.
“It is such a gift for Big Brother and the Holding Company to return to one of our starting places,” says Andrew. “You’ll see a lot of smiles onstage when we begin to play.”
Andrew will be hanging out at the saloon during the day for the X-Lunch, hosted by KTHX, on June 19. Buckbean Brewery will also be joining in the fun, and there will be live bluegrass music during the day. The event aspires to bring back old memories as well as start a new chapter in the history of the Red Dog.
The venue will continue the trend by having regular live music every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The music will be mixed genres but will feature a regular bluegrass jam the third Friday of every month. During the day, they plan to have acoustic and bluegrass bands play.
“People came in to play, and Mary [Works] did family dinner nights,” says Pursel. “So we want to bring that back, to bring back the ‘Family Dog.’”
In following with the original intentions of the founders of the Red Dog Saloon, the new owners are making the restaurant and bar a comfortable place to hang out. The idea is not to relive an era gone by, but to follow some of the same principles as the people who laid the groundwork before them.