It's not altogether unbelievable that Bernice's Tavern will celebrate its 50th anniversary in May. After all, the heart-of-Bridgeport watering hole is a tangle of just the kind of dusty tchotchkes, vintage instruments, random framed photos, and other artifacts that betray a bar's age.
A painting on the wall behind the bar, depicting a woman in a bikini reclining with a glass of whiskey, was actually in place before Bernice Badauskas owned the tavern—back when Adam's Place occupied the address. "It had been here since Prohibition time, since 1933," says Bernice's son Steve, whose father John tended bar there. When Adam retired, he handed over the reins to John and Bernice. And after Adam passed away, John bought the building outright in 1975.
Even though Bernice's name was on the liquor license and the bar's sign, the place was largely John's province. "I came down one day . . . John asked me to watch the bar. And I never left," says Bernice, who has a slight frame and a head of gray hair. "One day and that was it." Bernice now resides in a unit adjacent to the bar, so she's never far from work.
Behind the counter hangs a wooden plaque inscribed bernice & john's place. Steve had it specially made at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 1985. Upon seeing the sign, Steve recalls his father joked that "the man's name is supposed to be first!"
John died about 16 years ago at the age of 85, leaving Bernice and Steve to carry on the family business. "He pretty much did outlive all his regulars," Steve says. "When he passed away, we had a few years of nothing in here. No business—nobody. We slowly built it back up with stuff like open mikes." Steve's bingo night, dubbed "Stingo," has become a Wednesday-night tradition, and the place also hosts karaoke and the occasional show by performers such as country singer Kent Rose and bluesmen Jake LaBotz and Rockin' Johnny. The biggest blowout of the year is the Halloween ball, featuring the local surf band 13 Tikis. Last year Steve smeared his face with red makeup to go as Satan while Bernice donned cowgirl duds.
By Bernice's reckoning, she has missed only one Halloween party, seven years ago, due to a sudden illness. "I came home from the hospital that day, and I was still under the anesthetics," she says. "I was lying on the couch, opened my eyes, and I see a nun and a priest standing there. I thought I'd died or they were giving me the last rites." The people she saw were actually another of her sons and his then wife—both in costume. The memory of the mistaken identity still makes Bernice laugh. "I almost killed them!"