BROOKSVILLE — On good nights, Miss Kitty's Hilltop Lounge was a scene of honky-tonk bliss. Couples slow dancing in the smoky neon glow to a soft country ballad. A group of local bubbas laughing and high-fiving over a round of cold brews.
Then there were the not-so-good nights, when an argument over a game of 8-ball would lead to an all-out brawl in the parking lot.
Those scenarios and many more played out in Jerry "J.T." Terry's mind as he locked up the lounge Sunday night. By Monday morning, he had made up his mind to shutter the establishment that he; his wife, Darlene "Kitty"; and her mother, Louise Lamont, had run for 27 years.
Terry called up some friends with trucks, and by nightfall had emptied the place of all its inventory. Later that day, he began the grim task of informing his 17 employees of his decision.
"I'm done," Terry said Tuesday. "You get to a point where you have to think about more important things in life. This was the time for me."
For Terry, 71, the decision to close the bar, at Broad Street and Saxon Avenue on the east end of downtown Brooksville, didn't come easy. While he admits that business had fallen off the past couple of years, his main reason for closing was more personal.
His wife, whose portrait adorned the bar that they named for her when the couple took it over in 1987, has suffered for years from an acute respiratory illness. Recent health setbacks that required hospitalization made Terry realize that it was most important to spend as much time with her as he could.
"I think I owe that to both of us," he said. "She put her life into this place for nearly 30 years. She deserves a rest."
The iconic establishment has been a favorite watering hole in Brooksville for nearly 50 years. The clientele included everyone from ranchers to bikers to politicians and law enforcement officers.
According to Bob Martinez, publisher of Old Brooksville in Photos & Stories, the edifice built in the early 1950s once housed Snooks Hilltop Restaurant, a popular downtown dining spot. When Hernando became a "wet" county in 1962, the owners turned it into the city's first full-liquor lounge and package store.
"That was a big attraction in town because before that you had to go Pasco County just to buy beer," Martinez recalled.
By the 1980s, however, the Hilltop Lounge had begun to earn a reputation for being a roughneck place. Fights were so frequent that some banks and other publicity-shy employers forbade their employees from imbibing there.
Local rancher J.O. "Jimmy" Batten, who began frequenting Miss Kitty's as soon as he became of legal drinking age, said that the notoriety was well earned.
"It was a wild, rowdy place back then, and everybody from the rural areas came into town to drink," Batten recalled. "The police would be parked all up and down the street just knowing they were going to be called at some point."
When the Terrys took over, they were determined to clean up the Hilltop's name. They hired bouncers, called the police and began kicking out the regular troublemakers.
During most of the 1990s and early 2000s, Miss Kitty's continued to be eastern Hernando County's hot spot for country dancing, with live local bands most weekends. Terry, who once worked in a group that supported country singer Bill Anderson, used his Nashville influence to bring in occasional country performers, including Anderson, Kitty Wells, Johnny Paycheck and Tracy Lawrence.
Over the years, the Terrys played host to many area charity events, among them benefit concerts that raised thousands of dollars for the families of fallen law enforcement officers.
But as much as Terry enjoyed operating his lounge, he admits that it had gotten more difficult at his age. Although he has two sons, neither is interested in taking over the reins. And, so far, no one has come forward with the right offer to buy him out.
In the meantime, Terry said he wants to take his time in making a final decision on what to do with the place. And he has not ruled out reopening it himself at some point.
"It wouldn't be hard to do it," he said. "Everything is paid for. The liquor license is up to date. But for now, I have other things on my mind that are way more important than running a business."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]