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The St. Anthony Club in San Antonio Texas.

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DEALMAKING TEXAS STYLE: ST. ANTHONY CLUB

Hotel Historian Discusses Lore, History & Culture Shift That Defined Generations Over The Decades In San Antonio

Debbie Gonzalez sitting inside the St. Anthony Club in San Antonio, Texas. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Hidden within every city are gems and hidden areas where history happened. In Texas, that idiom is not different. Inside the St. Anthony's Hotel, a stalwart of the San Antonio scene, that story has taken on many faces. One of emminent interest is the St. Anthony's Club, a watering hole of elaborate lore and elegance whose walls still speak today. The Buzz Editor In Chief Tim Wassberg sat down with Debbie Gonzalez, the hotel's head of community relations to discuss history, culture and the art of the deal.

The Buzz: What was your connection to the journey that is the St. Anthony Club?

Debbie Gonzalez: I was one of the writers, or helped write a history book, for the St. Anthony Hotel. In that research, we met the General Manager of the club who was the General Manager for probably 10 years, and his name is Harold Reisner, and he's 94 today. He was full of great, great stories. This room was designed in 1958 by Dorothy Draper...you can imagine that the shag carpeting was the latest and greatest. But the original design, or at least when I got here in the 90s, there was a coat of armor across the back which matches the coat of arms now. And across the door was chains that hung down, like a chain curtain. And across this back wall was actually a door, a big kind of barn door that pulled across so that you could have a private dining. And we laughed about that because if some of these old codgers were entertaining someone that shouldn't have necessarily been with.

The Buzz: Now Draper, knowing the history, what was her perception and how did she sort of put it back together? Was it based on everything that was before or everything that was new?

DG: Dorothy Draper was hired to make it the finest, most cutting edge decor because that's why they went and found her. Because she was known for -- in one of her books it said if it was normal looking, it wasn't design. It needed to be really cutting edge. So this room was made to look like an English Pub. The dining room part was very, very ornate. The architecture is still exactly the same, but she designed it to be changed four times a year. In Texas we don't get snow but Dorothy was from New York and she kind of made it look that way. The dance floor was built into the room and you could walk through this kind of archway and there was a dance area with a white piano in the corner.

The Buzz: Now why did the St Anthony Club actually come about?

DG: Okay. So in 1958 there was no liquor by the drink in Texas meaning that you could drink a beer at an ice house. Wine was not even on the radar in those days. You could go to the package store and buy a bottle of whiskey, but there was no place that you could go in and order a cocktail. So, in order to get around that law, they decided to form the first private club in San Antonio. And thus became the St. Anthony Club. The membership was $500 a year, which in 1958 was a chunk of change. And really it was supported by all of the wealthy families in San Antonio. In San Antonio, all the wealthy families live in Alamo Heights, and the zip code is 78209. So, in San Antonio, we call them '09ers so this was totally supported by '09ers.

The Buzz: There was probably so many secrets floating around her in here that both the bartenders, the servers and the waitstaff understood that they were under an aspect or valor of discreteness, per se.

DG: They did. And all of the waiters were Hispanic, led by Pete Ramirez...they called him Little Pete. And his second in command, I think was Danny. But anyways, Pete Ramirez was Little Pete, and he ruled. So whenever anybody came in, he knew what they drank, what they liked to eat, where they liked to sit, who they needed to be separated from. And he really just managed the whole thing. In talking about membership, when people wanted to become a member, they would take memberships from everyone and they would fill out the membership application. And they would submit it to Little Pete, and if it was someone that the membership didn't deem worthy, it would somehow get lost.

The place of deals at the St. Anthony Club in San Antonio, Texas [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
The original Coat Of Arms of the St. Anthony Club in San Antonio, Texas [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: Back in the early days, at this club, there was so many business deals that were done here...

DG: The one that we tell the most often is Herb Kelleher who was a young attorney. Right across the street are many office buildings, and a lot of our law firms are right there. So this was the place to come and have a three-martini lunch, truly, because it was in those days when you really did take long leisurely lunches, and smoke cigarettes...

The Buzz: And you could smoke in here?

DG: Oh, yeah. Mr. [Reisner?] said, "Oh, yeah. There was a thick layer of smoke." There was a line out the door every day to come have lunch here because it was so popular. It was the place to be. So Herb Kelleher and his partner Rollin King were having a drink...I think it was in the afternoon at 5:00, and Rollin was trying to present to Herb that Texas was too big to drive in. I mean, to do their business deals and everything, it was just too big. Why couldn't they start the first intrastate airline? And Herb was like, "Well, that sounds like an interesting idea. Tell me more." And so he drew this triangle on the St. Anthony bar napkin, and it signified San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and that would be the first route of Southwest Airlines. That was in 1968, but it wasn't until three or four years later after they went through a lot of litigation, that sort of thing, to make it become legal...but they started the airlines right here in this room. And Herb's wife, she authenticated that story. She's in her 90s and she came in a couple of months ago, and verified that Herb drank many a Scotch, and smoked many a cigarette right at that bar. Mr. Reisner said that people would come, and when they would have long lunches, they would go back to work for a while, and then they'd bring their wife down for dinner...they would drink, and dance, and then at the end of the night, they would take a roadie home with them. Know what a roadie is? (smiling)

The Buzz: Hmm?

DG: That's where you get a full cocktail in a to-go cup and take it home with you. I was like -- it raises your hair on the back of your neck -- number one, an open container in a car, but it was legal to take a full roadie home.

The Buzz: Can you talk about the importance of this place for you being here as long as you have but also maintaining the idea of how important this place, The St. Anthony's, is to San Antonio?

DG: San Antonio has a big ball during Fiesta, and it had been here in the past. Back decades ago, the hotel was kind of in -- not disrepair but distress. It needed a renovation, but that year I [was the planner that] booked [the ball] here. I had wrote a small, little history book in the '90s about the hotel. We didn't have Internet -- so it was like digging through the newspaper articles in the library. But that year we also booked the King's Ball for the Texas Cavaliers? I was so proud of that little history book that I put a little red ribbon on it, and I gave it to each one of the 800 Cavaliers that were here.

The backstage crew at the St. Anthony Club back in the day. [Courtesy: St. Anthony Hotel]
Little Pete & Fernando Herrera at the St. Anthony Club. [Courtesy: St. Anthony Hotel]
Getting the St. Anthony ready. [Courtesy: St. Anthony Hotel]

DG: But on Monday morning after the ball, I started getting phone calls. And one of the chapters was the chapter of when the Bill and Amanda Oxy owned the hotel which was in the '60s. They owned it from the '60s until '82. I had found in the newspaper that the hotel had fallen into disrepair, and that was what I wrote in that little history book. Well, on Monday morning, Amanda Oxy called me, and she said, "I don't know who you think you are (laughing) and I don't know who you are." She obviously was an 09er and had owned the hotel. And I didn't know. I didn't know that she was still alive or anything. So she said, "But you were sadly mistaken, and I am totally embarrassed. You need to rewrite that book.” So I apologized and apologized, and I asked her to come down. She's the pretty lady that I showed you in the photo. We became friends, and she brought me cuff links, and pins, and things that she had had during her era. And we're still friends today. She's 95. And now she's very glad that we wrote a new book because it does not say that (laughing) the hotel was in disrepair in the '80s. But back to the importance of the club...I had spent a lot of time learning the history, but none of the other people that worked for us did. When this hotel became a Starwood Luxury Collection...the whole premise behind that brand is that the hotels tells a story. That it's is living, breathing, interesting, and not just a box that you sleep in.

The Buzz: Because it's a place you visit (like the Club) where you gain the ambience of what happened her sipping a cocktail like those dealmakers did.

DG: And it's interesting. Because you go, "Where does all this come from?" It's not just that it's there but how did it get there? There's a story behind it. So we began a couple of years ago kind of teaching everybody the basic stories that I knew. That's been kind of my goal is to get everybody trained. Because people love to hear these stories, and it really makes it a special place.


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

The St. Anthony Club

Make Sure To Check Out:

The St. Anthony Club, which is still thrilling visitors with great decor, good cocktails and old school music 7 days a week just steps from the Riverwalk in Downtown San Antonio. Stop by to experience the history of the area and feel what it might have been like when the club first opened.


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