Joe Sixpack: Ken Burns documents Prohibition

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SURE, THAT CUP of bathtub gin might be laced with deadly wood alcohol. But bouts of blindness, leg amputation and sudden death notwithstanding, boozing during the Prohibition - at least as depicted in the new Ken Burns three-part docu-film airing on PBS next week - sure looks fun.

The dandies in tuxedos, the girls in flapper dresses dancing to the raucous music of jazz bands as gallons of lager sprays from speakeasy faucets - wow, the beer never tasted as good as when it was illegal. Even the archival black-and-white footage of wasted suds gushing from wooden kegs smashed by vigilant federal agents looks downright delicious.

Yes, as Winston Churchill observed from the other side of the Atlantic, the Prohibition that outlawed alcohol in America from 1920 to 1933 was "an affront to the whole history of mankind."

But as Al Smith, the very wet governor of New York once rhapsodized, it was still possible for a man to "blow the foam off some suds."

Echoing author Daniel Okrent's outstanding 2010 history, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Burns and co-creator Lynn Novick leave the viewer scratching his head and wondering: How did America ever vote to deny itself so much fun?

The answer, it turns out, isn't so much the demon rum itself. It was the places where men drank it: the dread saloon.

As beautifully rendered in Burns' now-clichéd slow pans of yellowed photographs (cue the tinny piano music), the saloon was the very center of social life in big cities around the century's turn. It was "a refuge from the factory floor and responsibilities at home." It was the place where men got their mail and their jobs, where they held union meetings and funeral wakes. Elections were won and lost in saloons. The bartender might do more for his patrons, it was said, than a preacher or a cop.

The real draw, of course, was shots of distilled spirits and endless glasses of cheap lager beer. After the Civil War, wealthy German-American beer barons (Pabst, Blatz, Schlitz, Busch) transformed the drinking landscape, buying up thousands of saloons to make certain they served their beer and only their beer. Between 1850 and 1890, as America's population grew by 200 percent, annual beer production grew by more than 2,000 percent.

Beer was a nickel a mug, and while there was such a thing as a free lunch (or at least free salty sardines), there was also a toll to be paid.

Rampant drunkenness, disease, prostitution, unemployment, beaten wives, destitute children. Ladies weren't welcome inside the saloon and, in fact, they crossed the street rather than walk past its open door.

Carry Nation might've been the only one to actually bust up a bar with a hatchet, but millions of women (and, eventually, men) shared her sentiment: Alcohol was evil; its elimination would bring about an era of social good.

Indeed, the one contradiction this unapologetic, left-leaning beer drinker is struck by is that Prohibition was largely the work of progressive do-gooders, not Bible-thumping moralists. Sure, the anti-Catholic KKK pushed for the Prohibition. But so did Jane Addams, the peace activist, and the socialist Industrial Workers of the World. The same people who brought us the 18th Amendment also fought for the 19th, which gave women the right to vote.

It's a contradiction that was observed by Jack London, the prolific author and even more prolific drinker who ultimately supported Prohibition. "Terrible the saloon might be," he's quoted by Burns and Novick, "but that only meant they were terribly wonderful."

 


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.