Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.
Ernie Oelbermann couldn’t claim credit for that particular tune, but as anybody fortunate enough to visit The Phyrst during the downtown icon’s 32-year tenure as owner can attest, you can’t copyright sentiment.
Oelbermann died Wednesday morning in Venice, Fla., at the age of 90, almost 16 years after leaving behind the basement bar on East Beaver Avenue where he had become the unofficial landlord of the local 21 and older crowd.
“Ernie touched so many lives with his big heart, his music, and his zest for living. We are blessed that we had him with us for all these years and he truly had a wonderful life,” his family posted on social media.
It didn’t take social media long to respond. The notice of Oelbermann’s passing has been recopied across group Facebook pages for Penn State alumni and prompted posts, comments and tributes remembering the Phyrst frontman as a formative part of their State College experience.
“He had this uncanny ability to make people feel valued and be excited about them,” Kathy DiMuccio, his daughter, said.
DiMuccio used to marvel at the reception her father received when they walked down the street together, fielding greetings from random students or the waiter who brought him his hot chocolate.
Oelbermann’s legend had begun to precede him.
Scot Chambers spent his formative years in the State College area. He was familiar with Phyrst but didn’t dare try and cross its threshold until after his 21st birthday.
That rite of passage didn’t just broaden his choice of beverages but introduced him to the community and sense of family that Oelbermann fostered among his patrons.
“It was all about anybody and everybody was welcome,” Chambers said.
He described Oelbermann as warm, gregarious and nonjudgmental — a handy but undervalued trait — especially if you’re trying to persuade people to sing in public.
For nearly 30 years, Oelbermann played the banjo in the The Phyrst Phamly, a sing-along band that included his two daughters.
“He would have a packed house almost every Saturday night,” DiMuccio said.
Students would pound on tables, chanting Oelbermann’s name until he came out and led them in a rousing rendition of the Penn State fight song.
“He found the joy in life and he found the joy in people,” DiMuccio said.