The Phyrst celebrated its 50th anniversary Saturday with live music and “phamily” traditions that have been a constant since the downtown bar opened its doors.
Don Bartoletti opened The Phryst in 1967 and two years later, he was joined by Ernie Oelbermann, a World War II veteran. The two worked together to create what eventually became an iconic State College establishment deeply rooted in the community.
On Saturday afternoon, the bench in front of the entrance to the basement bar was a prime spot to mingle with the waves of self-titled “phamily” members who came and went from the celebration, which started at noon.
Jim Kelly, a Phyrst bartender from 1978-79, flew in from Venice, Fla., for what he said was possibly the last chance the group of old friends would get to gather at the bar.
“There’s people from everywhere here, it’s unbelievable. Everyone is here.” Kelly said. “To be together like this a one-shot deal, and for a lot of us, it’s almost to say goodbye.”
A walk down the stairs revealed The Phyrst in all of its glory. Bands and musicians that played at the bar since the 1970s rotated turns on stage and the familiar sound of the cowbell clanking to the Penn State Blue Band cadence filled the air between acts.
The cowbell cadence is one of the bar’s many quirky traditions. Patrons are encouraged to grab a drum stick while the band isn’t playing and attempt to bang out the Blue Band’s cadence. But if the rhythm is off, the would-be drummer is quickly heckled and encouraged to drink for the mistake.
“If you’re not good, you’re definitely not going to try again,” bar manager Rick Rosch said. “Especially tonight.”
Rosch said when he began working at the bar three years ago, he didn’t realize how close the “Phyrst phamily” was, but as the day went on, it started to set in, he said.
“I’m 25 and he’s (Kelly) 60. There’s almost 40 years difference there,” Rosch said. “I met him yesterday and it feels like we’re old friends.”
The centerpiece of the celebration was the gathering of the Phyrst Phamily Band, started in 1969 by Terry Countermine. Since its inception, more than 40 musicians have been a part of the State College treasure. Perhaps none more famous than Oelbermann, who played banjo in the band until he passed away at age 90 in 2015.
“At least four or five times today I’ve looked at that staircase and I keep seeing Ernie coming down with that banjo case,” Kelly said brushing back tears. “I’m just waiting for him to come down.”
Even without Oelbermann, Kelly said hearing the band and being in the bar is like “coming home.”
“It’s all my friends. I grew up here,” Kelly said. “This place means everything and I know that’s how all of us feel.”