The Night Owl
For 14 years, the gregarious owner of Marty’s bar has welcomed the late-night crowd.
June 26, 2008
Tucked away on a seldom-traveled street near Five Points South, a neighborhood bar and grill named Marty’s has been a late-night destination for 14 years. Aside from Lou’s Pub in Lakeview, few Birmingham bars have such a well-known public face, and none have owner Marty Eagle’s knack for making newcomers instantly feel like regulars. Eagle rarely forgets a face and will usually offer a handshake and warm grin each time you stop by.
Eagle’s friendly, upbeat attitude comes across in the DVD presentation available for purchase through the bar’s web site that provides a step-by-step guide to prospering in the nightclub business. In the introduction, Eagle climbs out of his sports car, unlocks the bar’s front door, looks into the camera, and says, “Hi. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you how to find happiness.”
Eagle is equally forthcoming in person. Rather than guard the lessons learned from his 20 years in the bar business, he has chosen the role of nightclub ambassador. “For me, being in the after-hours business, the more people that are [working in bars and restaurants], the better my business is, because bar and restaurant employees get off work late. That’s the niche I went after—all the bar people and musicians and the late-shift workers from UAB. Two or three in the morning is when their happy hour starts. Those people are not coming in all stupid and drunk. They’re coming from their jobs to have their happy hour drinks.”
The aforementioned DVD offers tips for bookkeeping, choosing music (both recorded and live), hiring top-notch bartenders, avoiding lease problems, and dealing with drunks. “Yeah, that’s the biggest thing you’ve got,” Eagle laments. “You’ve got people drinking, and some people don’t drink well. You’ve got to try to manage them. When you come in here, you have a good time. But if somebody is interfering with the rest of the people having a good time, they’ll be asked to leave. My place is so small, when somebody acts up or acts out, you can feel it all over the room. We have one rule in this place—and it’s enforced—and that’s ‘Be nice or be gone.’ It’s real simple. Has no color, no gender, no nothing.”
Local musician Bob Barker, who has performed at Marty’s often over the years, has always been impressed with Eagle’s finesse in handling difficult customers, which are surprisingly few for an all-night bar. “As soon as somebody’s enjoyment is being hindered by somebody else’s over-enjoyment, Marty takes care of it,” Barker explains. “And if he wasn’t able to do it every time, you’d end up with a problem bar.”
Operating at odd hours sometimes invites the extraordinary. “Being open late at night, you don’t know who’s coming to the door,” Eagle admits. “I had a go-go dancer come in and get up on a table, and she looked like she was pretty lit up—but she wasn’t rude. I was trying to figure out how to get her down without any problem. And I just walked up there and I held out my hand and she put her hand in mind and I helped her down and I said, ‘It’s okay now, you’re off work.’”
He got his first Birmingham bartending job in the early 1970s. “The first guy I worked for here was Ace Kabase. You know where Charlemagne Records is? That used to be a bar called the Trail’s End. There was a one-way mirror at the top of the long, steep stairwell to the second floor. If somebody bounced off the walls too many times walking up, we didn’t let them in.”
Eagle’s first venture as a business owner was Leo’s, a combination cafeteria, hot dog stand, and lounge in the Bank For Savings building downtown (not to be confused with the Leo’s later located near Fourth Avenue and 18th Street South). “I lost my ass there. Different things happened that I never recovered from,” he recalls. “It took me about a year to catch on to the various ways I was being stolen from. So, it was kind of my college education. I got back into computers to make a little more money and then I opened the Eagle’s Nest in 1980 [at the site currently occupied by The Derby bar on Sixth Avenue South near Avondale]. The Eagle’s Nest was an early-hour joint. Around midnight during the week, we’d close and go to somebody else’s joint. I leased the space from a guy in the vending machine business who owned a bunch of little bars like that, all run by different operators. After about five years I was doing well enough that he walked in and wanted to double my lease. And I said, ‘Well, screw you, man.’ I should have planned it a little different, but I was a little hotheaded and I just dumped it, and it took me a while to get back into the business on my own.” After nine years, some of which were spent bartending at the legendary Norm’s on Green Springs Highway, Eagle opened Marty’s in 1994.
When asked about his favorite bands, Eagle laughs and replies, “What I really like is whatever’s coming up here this weekend. I try to get in good shows. I like a variety of music. If I was on the coast and my customers were changing all the time, I could get by with one really good band for a season. Whereas, here I have a lot of regulars, so I’ve got to keep it fresh for them.” He added that an after-hours cover charge on weekends has an added benefit: “That $5 is a good way of weeding out [drunk] jerks late at night.”
Customers winding down after a night of drinking can order from Marty’s grill, which serves hamburgers, patty melts, and corned beef sandwiches from 11 p.m. until dawn. “I’m mainly in the bar business,” Eagle says. “You’ve got to have food to help people get sober, or if they get hungry, to keep them from leaving your place and going to another place just for a bite to eat. Because once they’re gone, they may never come back.”
“This is not a big place. My friends probably say I micromanage it or something,” Eagle says with a laugh. “But I enjoy it. It’s hard to explain. Just like you might enjoy loading up the golf clubs and going to the golf course. I get pleasure from it as well as it being work at times. There’s ugly moments, rolling in the street with idiots that you have to throw out or something like that.”
When asked if he’s content running Marty’s for the foreseeable future, he replies, “As long as it plays out all right, I’m good with it. You know, somebody might walk in one day and just have to have it. And I might let ‘em, then take a break and go open another bar.” &
Marty’s (www.martysbar.com; 939-0045), at 1813 10th Court South, is open 365 days a year from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m.