At 4:30 p.m. last Sunday, Bentley, a pristine, poofy-haired bichon frise, was perched on the bar at Dirty Franks. He shot me a soulful look over his caretaker’s beer before flopping down on the smooth laminate surface for a belly rub.
Bentley might be the classiest act in Dirty Franks on a normal night, but not this one. A stream of well-dressed patrons — in suits and ties, neat blouses and button-downs — flowed in for the bar’s Customer of the Year / Hall of Fame Awards, an annual tradition since 1993. The names of nearly three decades’ worth of winners are inscribed on plaques hung at the back of bar, by the women’s restroom.
One of Philadelphia’s longest-lived and most legendary dives, open since 1933, Franks has a reputation for — among other things — being a melting pot of black and white, gay and straight, blue- and white-collar, and everything in between. It’s a students bar, an artists bar, a darts bar, a Ms. Pac-Man bar. But above all, it’s a regulars bar.
And that’s why these awards were established, according to Franks co-owner Jody Sweitzer. “It was in recognition of our long-term customers.” When young patrons ask her how they might get in, she tells them (jokingly), “I don’t think your liver’s big enough right now. But maybe come back in 20 years and we’ll see.”
That’s about a decade shy of how long Michael Deutz, a 2020 inductee, has been a Franks customer. “I’m going to be 50 in June. We’ll just say I’ve been coming since I was 21.”
Twenty-two years ago, Deutz and a couple of others established Franks’ second team in the Olde English Dart League of Philadelphia. Deutz, now living in the Northeast, has been captain ever since. When he learned he’d be honored in the Hall of Fame, he told his mother, Kathleen. “Oh, I’m so proud,” she replied sarcastically.
Nevertheless, Kathleen had made it in from Lansdale for the ceremony. Deutz had staked out a booth close to the women’s room, better known as the bathroom with a lock. (The men’s room, only recently marked as such, has none.) Dressed in a black suit and a paisley tie, his long hair flowing freely, the darts champ joined his mom and his wife, Stacia, as well as friends from competing teams and one buddy who had driven in from Chicago for the occasion.
Sweitzer went up to the mic to kick off the event. The crowd inside had swelled to Friday-night levels. Customers were packed three deep behind the bar stools. I slipped into an empty spot in a creaky wooden booth, my view completely obstructed by backs and butts.
As Sweitzer prefaced Hall of Fame inductees and the surprise Customer of the Year, chatter broke out in the back.
“Shhh! Let’s be respectful when someone’s talking,” she warned. The crowd laughed but then hushed, accustomed to Sweitzer’s no-nonsense attitude. She bought the bar with co-owner Brad Pierce in 2011 and, besides installing a new floor and banning smoking, has enforced Franks’ peculiar brand of order ever since.
First up was a posthumous Hall of Fame award for Don “Reds” Haley, the late head of a fourth-generation Philadelphia tap-line cleaning company and, as it turns out, the reason that Sweitzer wound up working at Dirty Franks as a University of the Arts student in 1992. “He recommended me [to then-owner Jay McConnell], so I owe a lot to Reds,” she told the bar.
Haley’s sprawling family, including his wife, Alma, was clustered in a corner. One of his sons, Paul, extracted himself and approached the mic. “Another story that not everyone knows is, back in the ’60s or ’70s, Dad was doing the lines one day, and he also kind of became a bartender here: A bartender was on, had a heart attack, and Dad had to fill in a couple hours until the owner came.”
Paul recalled seeing McConnell — who with his wife, Mary Rowe, was a longtime family friend of the Haleys — when he would come to clean the bar’s draft lines after his dad retired. McConnell would tell him Reds had stopped in and say, “‘Two old boys, we just sit here, have a couple drinks and tell a few lies.’ That’s what they always did, and now they’re hanging together at Dirty Franks,” Paul said, gesturing up at the portraits of Reds and McConnell on the back wall.
Sweitzer returned to introduce the next honorees, the three coaches of “the Dirty Franks athletics community,” as one inductee, Damon Hollis, put it. Hollis, who captains the softball team, shared the spotlight with Deutz and Jeff Baxter, the soft-spoken captain of Dirty Franks I darts team, established in 1978.
Baxter thanked Sweitzer, her co-owner, former captains, his fellow dart shooters, and the whole Franks community. “I first came to Dirty Franks about 32 years ago. I was a Temple grad student in physics. It took a Greek grad student named Apostles to show us around Philadelphia, and he took us here. It’s been kismet ever since.”
He closed on one of his proudest moments: when the darts team went undefeated all the way up to the all-star match during his first year as captain. “Thanks for this honor, I’m very humble about this, and very surprised,” he closed.
“This is really touching,” whispered a woman next to me.
It grew more so as Deutz got up for his acceptance speech. He recalled being here for the Phillies championship win and the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory. Murmurs of “Oh yeah” went through the crowd.
“We use the term ‘Dirty Franks family,’ and that is something I love,” he said before wrapping up, perhaps feeling reserved in his mother’s presence. (Deutz’s friend and darts team cofounder Bill Grove got up afterward to add some color: “Mike was our couch guy — for two years.”)
Sweitzer then introduced Damon Hollis, “who has done so many amazing things that involve this bar. I forget the term for it, but he literally drank a shot of every bottle in the bar.” (“Vision Quest!” one patron shouted.) “How he ever survived, I have no idea — especially when he got to the Jacquin’s, and it was coming out in globs. That was an eye-opener.”
“That got me Customer of the Year 2013,” Hollis answered, taking the mic. He wondered aloud if his Dirty Franks exploits stacked up to those of Baxter and Deutz.
“I started to think, how long have I been doing this? Mike said 22 years. It feels like 22 years since I’ve been doing the softball team. But since 2007 …” Hollis asked someone to hold up a hand so he could count their digits. “2017, ’18, ’19 …”
His punchline-fueled “thank-you lineup” included his teammates; the fans (“if you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter”); his lady friend; the bus; his left leg (“I’ve not gone once, but twice to the ER for sliding on these city fields”); and the future.
“This is gonna be the start of a new season for us,” Hollis said. “As Rogers Hornsby once said, ‘People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.’ He says, ‘I just stare out the window and wait for spring.’ And so spring is upon us, and I’m almost done looking out the window.
“Not the window here, of course,” he quipped (for Franks has none).
Folks cheered with each inside joke they knew, and conversations broke out among those left out. The crash of beer bottles getting chucked into the trash pierced the din. “Come on, everybody — shut up!” someone yelled.
Finally, Sweitzer returned to announce Customer of the Year, a surprise honor, chosen by the bartenders and staff. (Sweitzer clears it with the winner beforehand, to make sure they want to accept.)
“There were three or four people, and it got tossed and tossed and tossed, and finally, we decided on Rita,” she announced.
Rita Portela — an Emmy-winning producer for Telemundo who moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico five years ago looking for a job and without knowing a soul — came up to the front of the bar, where a portrait of her will hang until next year’s awards.
“This bar is a great network of people that I would’ve never known who welcomed me," she said before breaking into tears.
“Come on, Rita! You can do this!” the crowd encouraged. “Never mind those Emmys!”
“I’ve won Emmys,” Portela said, recovering. “But this is bigger. This is a community thing. This is family.”