BY TARA LENNON
This article will be published in The Review’s special magazine issue, set to be available on campus starting the week of April 24.
The creaking wooden staircase, the upstairs patio that, no matter how cold the night is, brings relief and the comically large plastic pitchers that each student holds — these are some snapshots of Thursday night “pitchers” at Deer Park Tavern, a defining feature of the college experience for many university students of legal drinking age.
I first learned about this Thursday tradition three years ago, when I reported about the closure of Finn McCool’s, an Irish pub located in the building that Hamilton’s on Main now inhabits. At the time, this was the spot for Thursday night “pitchers.” When Finn McCool’s shut its doors, Deer Park quickly seized the opportunity to take over the tradition.
But the roots of this cheap drink special go back even further. Before, there was Catherine Rooney’s in the same location as McCool’s.
While Main Street has transformed over the past several years, with the construction of a seven-story Hyatt hotel and the bubble tea frenzy, “pitchers” has somehow seemed to survive all the change, not to mention a global pandemic.
I’ve only been to “pitchers” a few times myself, but as a student of history and a Newark local, I sought to understand the ways in which the social experience at the university, particularly in regards to Main Street, has changed and remained the same over time, and how far back “pitchers” really goes.
After talking to alumni about their experience when it comes to all things social at the university, I learned that some things don’t change when it comes to the magnetism of a cheap drink special, but also that nostalgia runs deep for Newark.
To trace the recent history of the social scene on Main Street, I started with Lesley Corydon, a 1987 graduate.
Corydon referred to the university as a “big party school” back in the 80’s, with “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” taking her back to party days.
Corydon laid out the biggest bar and restaurant staples of Main Street, some of which are still around, like Deer Park and Klondike Kate’s, while others have since disappeared into only memories, like Down Under, which students literally had to go down a flight of stairs to get to, and, the iconic Stone Balloon Tavern and Concert Hall.
Students nowadays may be familiar with the name, as a new iteration of the Stone Balloon, the Stone Balloon Ale House, now resides on Main Street, serving up food, local brews and cocktails until 10 p.m., five days per week.
But before that, there was a since-demolished building that looks like it’s a tavern in a storybook, that housed the original Stone Balloon Tavern, Main Street’s former destination for live music.
“That was the most legendary bar there was,” Darren Kane, a university alumnus from the Class of 1995, says of the Balloon.
He went on to describe the popular “mug night” at the Balloon (which resembles to me the current-day vibe of “pitchers”). At the beginning of the year, students would buy a mug at the Balloon, and each Thursday night, they could return to the Balloon for 50-cent refills.
To Kane, the 90’s was the time to be at the university. The early 90’s was the height of alternative rock music, and the music culture on and off college campuses was exploding.
Rainbow Records, at the time on Main Street, was the hotspot for listening to newly released music. Students put on events with local music playing all day that would span multiple backyards and attract thousands of students, like “Wilburfest” (named after Wilbur Street, the location of the party). The Stone Balloon put on cover bands and national acts, like Dave Matthews Band and Metallica. The East End Café (which was located where Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen now is) would host local acoustic bands.
“It’s tragic that they took the Stone Balloon away and turned it into a restaurant … it was the coolest place for bands,” Corydon says.
Besides the disappearance of this thriving music scene, another difference I discovered while talking to alumni about college life in Newark was the effect of technology on a night out. Kane noted that he is grateful to have been in college before technology became “intrusive” in people’s lives.
To bring the conversation closer to the present day, I talked to Clay Rowe, a 2011 university graduate. In Rowe’s time, students were shooting each other messages on their Blackberries, as the iPhone was a recent release and not ubiquitous yet. Rowe’s experience at the university is more similar to today’s — DJs and karaoke nights were the extent of the music scene, with Kesha and Flo Rida on queue.
Rowe recently discovered while sorting through his old possessions a receipt from his college days for a tray of nachos at Deer Park and two Captain Morgans for the grand total of $9, bringing him a little bit of nostalgia, more for the price if anything.
But Kane’s nostalgia for college is currently stronger than Rowe’s. Kane manages the “DelGrads” Facebook group, is the author of “Glory Days at Delaware” and runs mugnight.com, which has everything a student of Main Street history needs to know about this niche topic.
“What really makes me sentimental about college is not big, crazy one-off events, but the everyday stuff,” Kane says of his nostalgia and college memories, from the legendary mug nights to the walks to the dining halls with friends.