Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Hilltop's rowdy brand of fun will be missed

The 1970s were rowdy times for local rancher Jimmy Batten and the Hilltop Lounge, and on one particularly rowdy night, Batten rode a horse into the bar, tied it up and demanded a drink.

"He was just riding the horse from bar to bar, hanging out and having a good time," said Paul Clark, owner of Paul Clark Enterprises, west of Brooksville.

So why didn't anyone tell him to knock it off?

"Jimmy, in those days, you didn't tell him what to do," Clark said.

There was another reason, said Phil Brantley, who ran the Hilltop from 1973 until 1986 and still owns the building.

"It was fun," Brantley said. "For a bunch of rednecks, that was a good time. You should have heard the people laughing that night."

The last few weeks have been one of those rough periods that come along every once in a while, when people and/or institutions that seemed as though they'd always been around and always would be start dropping like flies.

But unlike some of the folks whose passing we've been mourning recently, the Hilltop just might — if Brantley can find a buyer — come back to life.

Whether or not that happens depends a lot on whether there's still an appetite in Brooksville for its kind of fun.

Because it's kind of strange about the Hilltop, a classic honky-tonk near downtown Brooksville that became the county's first full-service liquor bar after Hernando finally voted to become "wet" in 1962.

There was still enough Baptist influence around here two or three decades ago that some preachers would pull around to the back to buy their liquor because they couldn't be seen walking in the front door; some banks and schools let employees know that setting foot inside was a fireable offense.

Yet a few years ago, people as a rule seemed more interested in going out, having a beer, dancing and listening to live music. You could still joke about heavy drinking. Even a fist fight could be just boys being boys.

What else, besides the appearance on the horse, happened around the famous horseshoe-shaped bar at the Hilltop?

Though Batten and a lot of other regulars were reluctant to talk about specifics — "Let's just say every night at the Hilltop could be a memorable night," he said — newspaper clippings and court records fill in some gaps.

On at least one occasion, it turns out, some police officers did try to tell Batten what to do, arresting him at the Hilltop in January 1977 on a charge of disorderly intoxication and, thanks to a few punches and kicks, resisting arrest with violence.

The most recent owner, Jerry "J.T." Terry, said in a 1989 interview that he'd bought the bar two years earlier even though during their first few visits, he and his wife, Darlene (a.k.a. Miss Kitty), figured there were three or four fights on average per night.

"I looked at her and said, 'Holy smokes!' "

They hired bouncers and banned regular troublemakers, and as a semi-regular in the late 1980s and 1990s, I can tell you that I never saw anything more serious than shoving matches — wannabe tough guys "bowing up," as they used to say back then — and even that could be avoided by anybody who really wanted to.

That's why I had a hard time believing that county Commission John Richardson was, as he claimed, a completely passive bystander when he was laid out by a bar stool in 1994 — well into the Hilltop's more peaceful, Miss Kitty's era.

The Hilltop made another contribution to local political events in 2002, when the Hernando County Commission caved to a throwback of a Baptist minister who was scandalized when he saw a dancer from a male revue walking through the parking lot with partially exposed buttocks.

What else should we remember about the Hilltop? Music, of course.

Terry used his Nashville connections to bring legends Kitty Wells and Johnny Paycheck to perform there. I saw and enjoyed both shows, though by that time in his career Paycheck had recently been released from prison and, due to emphysema, had to draw on an inhaler between songs.

The local bands booked at the Hilltop usually specialized in country music or country rock, but you shouldn't get the idea that the lounge was strictly for the Wrangler-wearing crowd.

Lawyers went there, often after a drink or two at the more upscale, since burned-down Fireside Inn. So did journalists, obviously.

"It was kind of routine for the reporters and even the honchos who came up from Tampa to make it to the Hilltop," said Bob Martinez, a former Tampa Tribune advertising representative.

"The Hilltop was 'A' to 'Z.' You'd see everything from cowboy boots to business suits," said Blair Hensley, the owner of Coney Island Drive-Inn.

As a member of a generation that came of age in the 1990s, Hensley missed the rowdiest times at the Hilltop, but it still seemed forbidden enough territory that the first trip there was a rite of passage.

"That's when you knew you were adult," he said. "When you went to the Hilltop the first time."

What changed? What, besides the expense and care required for Darlene Terry's severe illness, has forced the closure of this community institution?

The stiff legal penalties and social disgrace attached to drunken driving and violence of any kind. Maybe televisions and gaming systems keep more people at home.

Maybe it's just the bad economy. Terry's faith that this is the case, and his belief that it's caused by Washington politicians, can be seen on the message posted on the bar's sign: "Closed till election."

I hope he's right in one way, that the closure will only be temporary.

Because, without making light of bar fights, or alcoholism or, especially, drunken driving, I have to agree with Brantley.

It seems to me that most of what happened there was just fun.

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