50th anniversary Vail Tales: The Copper Bar was pure gold
February 25, 2013
God loves an Irish bartender, especially John Donovan. Lucky for John, Diana loves him too.
Donovan’s Copper Bar was Diana’s idea.
Jim Slevin’s La Cave Copper Bar and later Donovan’s Copper Bar were located where Vendetta’s is now.
Slevin wanted to sell La Cave and Diana thought the bar might be a good idea. Unlike tattoos and most political affiliations, this turned out to be a good idea at the time.
John was a great host and beer was cheap, three 11-ounce beers for a buck. And he’d give a guy a break, like Larry Benway .
Benway was fighting with Vail Associates for a pay raise for the ski patrol. He didn’t get it, so John said he’d give them one.
“The first drink was free for ski patrollers, blue coats, yellow jackets – anyone who worked on the mountain,” John said. “A lot of them are still around and they used to drink a lot. Thankfully they didn’t quit drinking until they put my kids through college.”
The darkest day
“The day I had to close my bar for one day, that was a terrible day,” Donovan said.
Donovan’s Copper Bar closed most days around 9:30 p.m. and John wandered home to Diana and their children at some reasonable hour. The one time he did stay open late some semi-disaster happened and he lost his liquor license.
But this is John Donovan we’re talking about, a guy who could play strip poker with the devil and never feel a draft.
The actual offense is lost to winds of history, but Vail’s Powers That Be decided John’s liquor license would be suspended one day.
John lobbied for his birthday, Nov. 4, and got it.
Turns out that Nov. 4 that year was also Election Day, and in those days bars were closed on Election Day anyway.
John is delightful, Diana says, but could be a bit organizationally impaired. John lived in a room under the Rucksack with a bunk bed and a sink. He kept the money from the bar in bank bags in one side of the sink and invoices in the other.
“He’d pull out the checkbook, pay a bill and throw the invoice away,” Diana said. “I told him I thought I had a better way to do it. I think that’s why he married me. He made the money and I took care of it.”
In those days a guy named Dick Peterson was the banker in Eagle, and the closest bank to the fledgling ski area. Peterson would send an armored truck to Vail once a week to pick up all the money.
They did business that way until First Bank came to Vail. It was located on Wall Street in Vail Village, fittingly enough, Diana says.
Diana would do whatever was needed.
“I still hold the record for cooking the most lunches in a bar with a kid on my back,” he said.
An offer she couldn’t refuse
They were at a ski patrol gathering when John made his intentions known to Diana and everyone else in the room.
“Paul Testwuide announced he was getting married so I got up and said we were getting married too. I didn’t ask her. I just announced it,” John said.
“I’m still waiting for him to ask me to marry him,” Diana said.
They were married in August 1967. John ran a full page ad in the paper inviting everyone in the county the wedding reception in the brand new Manor Vail. About 1,000 people showed up, some on horseback.
No one in Vail had phones back then, so moms or wives would call Donovan’s looking for someone, and that someone would usually say they weren’t there.
But everyone was there on July 20, 1969, when astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped down from the Apollo 11 lunar module and became the first humans to set foot on the moon.
“There were no TVs in bars and we’d just gotten TV to the valley. John hurried around to get it hooked up so people could watch the moon landing,” Diana said.
Donovan’s Copper Bar was silent.
The Vail Trail reported, “Even John Donovan and Bob Porter were held speechless.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.