‘Happy Hour’ Heyday

By: Emily Malcynsky

The mingling of work and pleasure is as American as Fenway Park. In 1983, the gruesome death of 20-year-old Kathleen Barry in Braintree, Massachusetts, sparked a movement in the state to curb binge-drinking by banning bars from selling discounted drinks.

Back then, the drinking age in Massachusetts was 18, and Barry and friends were leaving a local bar after winning several pitchers as part of a Happy Hour game. In the bar’s parking lot, Barry tumbled off the roof of a friend’s car and was dragged 50 feet. She died from her injuries.

Just over a year later, in late 1984, the state effectively outlawed Happy Hour. Native New Yorker Leslye Porter, now 59, had just moved to Boston after finishing up law school in nearby Springfield. She was 24, single and working for a publishing service in Cambridge. In this interview she reflects on pre-ban Happy Hour culture and the immediate aftermath of the ban.

What were your work hours like?

I got there at 8 a.m. and usually I left by 5 or 6.

Did you ever go out to Happy Hour or do anything social during the week after work?

Yes.  It would be a Thursday and Friday thing, kind of like college. And a lot of times Harvard Square – which was between where I worked and the people I knew – was pretty popular. Hong Kong [a bar and restaurant] for example – although I don’t think they ever adhered to the ban. Grendel’s Den [a bar], each of those is still there. There were certainly places where you could go that were slow to glom on after the ban too.

Why do you think Happy Hours were so popular?

Thursday was a huge Happy Hour night. Basically, the mentality was – all of the 80s, regardless of your job – was that you did everything possible to make it seem like it was a 4-day work week. It was very common that folks were just hungover on Fridays.  Some workplaces were even flexible about early leaving on Thursdays and also very forgiving of late coming on Fridays.

What was the scene like at these places during Happy Hour?

I don’t have a lot of funny happy memories. I have memories about worrying about fire codes. Everyone was out. There would often be music. At the Hong Kong, for instance, I remember people on those stairs – picture one drunk person trying to get another drunk person down those stairs cause they can’t make the steps. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy a lot of Happy Hours, but I do remember a lot of crazy stuff happening.

Who would attend these Happy Hours?

It was like “first job” types. Folks would have their work clothes and briefcases, women would be in padded shoulder suits. It was the 80s – people were making money at the time.

Was the escalation from arrival to “drunk” a slow burn or did it happen more rapidly?

It was a pretty fast burn. I remember people gathering drinks, not just buying. And bartenders were totally willing to participate in that. They would often call “10 minutes [left] for the dollar drinks” and people would buy the beers. Of course, then it gets ugly.

How much did a Happy Hour drink typically cost?

Fifty cents. I just drank beer for the most part at that point. Probably Bud, Miller, there were no fancy beers back then. Michelob. Heineken. Not only were the beers 50 cents but if you got 4 or 5 [beers] there would be an additional discount or something like that.

What was the reaction from people you hung out with when it was banned?

I don’t think it was a thing that people ever thought it would go away. But I don’t remember that folks were surprised that it happened because Boston tended to be more conservative.

It didn’t surprise us because [the Barry accident] was an event that triggered a reaction that seemed really rational. I always viewed Boston as New York’s more conservative sister. I think it [Happy Hour] was bigger in Boston than in even in New York because Boston bars closed earlier. The fact that you had those extra hours in Happy Hour made it more poignant.

What do you remember about Kathleen Barry’s accident?

I don’t know much about the specifics of the accident – did she get decapitated? I remember that was very sad. But again, at 24 you think you’re invincible.

Did bars abide by the ban during the first few years?

There was not 100 percent strict compliance. They would figure ways around it: “We’re offering free pu-pu platter and by the way, the scorpion bowl is $4.” They didn’t want to lose that 5 o’clock person. They didn’t want that person to go home instead of stopping at the bar.

Did the ban on alcohol discounts deter you and your friends from going out during the week?

We still would go to bars early. And you found a way to the most bang for your buck. The initial impact, I don’t remember being huge. The location changed from Harvard Square to around Allston. We focused on Allston, Brighton, Cleveland Circle [Boston neighborhoods]. We stuck around the old Papa Ginos, and the place where they showed movies near Pizzeria Uno. Play it Again Sam’s! And of course, they got around the ban cause they were creative – we spent a lot of time there.

How effective do you think the ban has been in reducing drunk driving?

I do think it was effective. Because it really did – in my opinion that was the beginning of the “don’t drink and drive” thing. I think it had a huge impact on that. When folks were coming from work, it was almost like “that doesn’t count,” even though it does. For my generation, that was the beginning of the time that we started thinking about drinking and driving. Ideologically that was definitely a moment.

If it were up to you, would you reverse the ban?

No. No. I think it did have a mental impact that maybe you shouldn’t start drinking at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Happy Hour now does kind of have a negative moniker. Though I think it does everywhere, a little bit.

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