The independent news organization of Duke University

Beer and Space Invaders

The space below Page Auditorium was converted into a bar in 1978.
The space below Page Auditorium was converted into a bar in 1978.

When the new West Union opens in Spring 2016, it will feature a pub to serve as the central location for students to drink and hang out on campus—a need that has been filled for the past several years by the Armadillo Grill and, more recently, The Loop Pizza Grill. But not too long ago, students had a less mainstream way to kick back with each other after a long stint at the library or to celebrate a basketball victory.

Back in 1978, the space below Page Auditorium was converted into a dive bar by a group of business students with a novel idea. Complete with pool tables, kegs and the Space Invaders arcade game, the bar was completely student-owned and run for more than 20 years.

It came with its own edge and quirkiness not present at The Loop Bar or elsewhere on campus, as well as a habit for irritating the administration. It was a hidden gem under layers of students' graffiti on the walls, lovingly tended to by a medley of undergraduate and graduate students throughout the years.

Grace Kelly and Climbing Trees

The bar was born out of a space called the Games Room that was located below Page in 1977, which sported a bar, five pool tables and a ping pong table. After only a year of keeping the space open, however, administrators realized it had turned into a money pit and the Games Room closed in 1978. The space remained open for campus groups to rent out and host social events and parties—until something better came along.

A group of six MBA students at the Fuqua School of Business were at one of the social events held in the Games Room and decided it could be put to better use. They approached administrators with their idea for opening a bar, and were told that having a faculty sponsor would help their idea make its way.

They approached Robert Taylor, a Fuqua professor at the time, who said the decision to get involved was a “no-brainer." The students then formed a corporation called the Graduate School Concessions Group, gathered enough capital to sign a lease agreement together—$15,000 to start—and took over the space.

“When we got the space together, it sure as hell wasn’t a bar,” Taylor said. “But there were extraordinary circumstances that made it work.”

The first of those circumstances was that a friend of Taylor’s owned and planned to sell a bar on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Taylor and the students bought out the bar’s assets—the chairs, the tables, the coolers and games like pinball and electronic bowling. While they were loading up the truck, Taylor said, they spotted a sign reading “The Hideaway” on a street pole and tore it off, thus christening the new campus bar.

At the same time that the Hideaway got its footing, the arcade game Space Invaders was released. The owners purchased the game to add to the pinball machines, which frequently broke, and let it do the work to draw a crowd to the new establishment.

“You could walk by and there were at least a half a dozen people standing in line—not to drink beer, but waiting to play Space Invaders,” Taylor said. “It really went very, very well with those games.”

Space Invaders' popularity was soon followed by the addition of Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man to the Hideaway at later dates. Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek said she first learned how to play Pac Man by spending time at the bar when she attended Duke as both an undergraduate and graduate student in the 1970s.

"You felt like you were going off to some secret part of campus." —Michael Gustafson

The Hideaway made its mark on campus social life beneath Page during the next four years, seeing both the good and bad sides of coexisting with an auditorium. It also enjoyed some distinguished guests, including the Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly who stopped in the Hideaway for a beer when Duke University Union’s performing arts committee brought her to campus in 1980. Patrons and performers would grab refreshments at intermission—a practice Taylor said required them to start stocking bottles of Perrier and snacks in addition to the kegs beneath the bar.

Other guests were less poised during their visits to the Hideaway. Taylor said that a former basketball player had too much to drink one night and decided it would be a good idea to start trying to climb the pine trees next to Page. He made it nearly to the top, to the amazement of the bar staff, but got stuck and was not able to get down until very early the next morning.

But having a raucous college bar adjacent to the largest performance space on campus wasn’t always pretty. Noise was an issue, and both spaces shared the same restrooms.

“That was kind of a dicey thing,” Taylor said. “We hired a student to sit and do his homework in the men’s room, make sure we weren’t offending the auditorium or the patrons.”

But business ran smoothly for a few years as local bands performed in the space multiple times per week and students would flock there to watch basketball games.

In 1982, as Chancellor Kenneth Pye prepared to depart Duke to become president of Southern Methodist University, one of his last executive decisions was to move the Hideaway to a new location. The change was made without consulting Taylor or the owners of the Hideaway and put them in the bottom level of the West Union building.

“Eventually the space became a problem because a beer hall, with pinball and ping pong and pool tables, next to Page Auditorium was a sound problem with performances going on,” said Peter Coyle, former associate director of student activities. “It got to the point where it made sense to move it.”

In the new location, which was a smaller space, the owners downsized its amenities to leave one pool table and the arcade games and installed heating and air conditioning. The bar also now had a patio with picnic tables and additional space outside for people to linger, but all of it was sheltered underneath the walkway leading to and from the West Union.

“You felt like you were going off to some secret part of campus,” said Michael Gustafson, associate professor of the practice of electrical and computer engineering, who attended Duke as a Pratt undergraduate and graduate student in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Until people arrived and were pouring out onto the patio, the Hideaway was very much in line with its name—very discreet.”

The bar also invested in a big-screen television in the winter of 1986 at the urging of one of the MBA student owners—a 60-inch Panasonic “the size of a Volkswagen,” Taylor said. Duke men’s basketball had reached the Final Four and the Hideaway was one of the only establishments with a big-screen TV within 10 miles of campus. In order to accommodate the rush of people, the screen was moved to the back corner of the bar so that as many people as possible could watch. People standing on the walkway angled themselves to get a glimpse of the game as well, even from outside the Hideaway’s walls.

“We were selling beer so fast, we brought a truck full of kegs. People were lined up all along that walkway. It was just incredible,” Taylor said. “Talk about a fortuitous time to buy a big-screen TV.”

The Hideaway served as a central gathering space for students to hang out together—whether it was a Friday night sorority mixer or a pit stop on the way back from a weekday library binge, alumni recall it as the neighborhood corner dive bar.

Ownership of the Hideaway would change hands each year as student shareholders graduated, and younger students would buy in. One of the requirements to bearing the "badge of honor" of being an owner was to work at the bar, and so the student owners would take shifts in serving a “demanding” crowd of Duke students, said John Hudson, Trinity '02, who bought in his sophomore year and learned how to tend bar on the job.

The best nights at the bar, Hudson said, were on the first nights people were back on campus but before classes had started. Students didn’t know who had arrived back at school yet, but the best way to find out was to go to the Hideaway and run into everyone you wanted to see.

“During a couple of snowstorms we had, the entire campus—or everyone who was 21 and up—headed over to the Hideaway,” Hudson said. “I remember people hanging out all night and then heading out to the quad and having a giant snowball fight.”

21 and over

A significant change in function and patrons for the Hideaway came in 1984, when the national drinking age was raised to 21. On a campus where approximately 75 percent of the undergraduate population was suddenly disallowed from imbibing, the denizens of the Hideaway and its purpose on campus shifted.

“The age restriction was a problem,” Coyle said. “It became much more graduate-student oriented.”

Even before the drinking age was changed, student legality was sometimes fuzzy or slipped through the bar unnoticed. Taylor recalled one Duke basketball player who had been a regular at the Hideaway for several months during his freshman Fall and knew the owners. Later in the semester, he held his 18th birthday party at the Hideaway, to the surprise of Taylor and the student owners who had assumed he had been legal the whole time.

“I could imagine a student going to the Hideaway and presenting an ID that looked very valid, and maybe one of the student owners who had been there at the time might have known that the student was not of age,” Wasiolek said. “The Hideaway challenged a lot of values.”

Taylor said that not many students took advantage of printing fake IDs, but just in case, there was a book underneath the bar with examples of IDs from all 50 states.

Student-run bars were not common entities around the country around the time that the Hideaway started, nor did many—if any—sprout up in the time since. Administrators were faced with allowing a valued student tradition to continue while placing faith in students’ abilities to hold each other to the University’s standards.

“If they wanted to be trusted by the administrators and the University, then we needed to see they were going to demonstrate that they would take this responsibility seriously,” Wasiolek said. “When you have students running a bar and students as the patrons, it’s an almost impossible situation.”

“There was a total lack of oversight of the business and Duke felt like it got a bit out of control.”—John Hudson

Prior to the early 1970s, it was illegal under North Carolina law to sell alcohol on college campuses. Former North Carolina Governor and Duke President Terry Sanford, who enacted laws allowing alcohol sale on college campuses, was concerned about the number of students who were causing problems and endangering themselves by going off campus to drink.

Taylor, who called Sanford a “student’s kind of president,” said that Duke—for the most part—recognized that the Hideaway was not trying to encourage or support irresponsible drinking. Rather, the Hideaway provided a way to keep student drinking in one place on campus, preventing students from driving off campus and getting into dangerous situations.

Difficult situations and damaged property still occurred from time to time, Gustafson said, but it was considered a safe spot on campus for people to drink if they wanted to.

But Wasiolek recalled that, for administrators, having the Hideaway on campus was a challenge. The owners involved were not uncooperative or difficult, she said, but the culture of the Hideaway was not necessarily fully aligned with “the notion of responsible drinking that [Duke was] pursuing.” Noise would be an issue as people spilled out of the Hideaway onto the loading dock under West Union, making its way to the dorms nearby. People would block vehicles trying to come in and out, and underage drinking was hard to monitor.

“It was very much influenced by student culture that certainly didn’t want to do harm or create an unhealthy drinking environment. That was never its intent,” she said. “But it also would have preferred that it didn’t have to adhere to many of the rules and regulations that city government and the University had in place.”

Whether the Hideaway’s drinking culture was ultimately harmful or not, it is now a remnant of a bygone era as a result of alcohol policy changes—including, but not limited to, the banning of kegs on the quad, registering parties ahead of time and increased scrutiny by the Durham Fire Marshal over facility and hallway capacities.

“Duke, like many universities, is under a certain microscope with respect to what they allow on campus, whether by policy or by practice,” Gustafson said. “The Hideaway was a vestige of when the drinking age was 18…. Something by nature of what the Hideaway ended up being a couple steps outside of what the University would be able to reasonably allow now.”

End of an era

Over time, the number of owners of the Hideaway ballooned up to cause difficulties in the business model and relationship with administration. In 1999, the University took steps to get things more under control by downsizing the number of Hideaway shareholders from more than 60 to nine—an odd number so that votes among the owners wouldn’t result in a tie.

“The ownership structure didn’t make sense. Decision-making was impossible,” Hudson said. “There was a total lack of oversight of the business and Duke felt like it got a bit out of control.”

Hudson said the owners had frequent conversations with the administration about the business and the way it was operated, and through those conversations they determined that it would be in both parties’ best interests to have fewer owners involved.

In 2001, during the process of renegotiating the lease with the University for the following year, the owners decided that increases in rent made it no longer economically viable to keep the Hideaway open. Additionally, the Hideaway had been starting to see competition for the first time as Duke expanded on-campus dining into other venues—the Armadillo Grill bar had opened and become another place for students to hang out and drink. The student owners terminated the lease and the Hideaway closed after the 2000-01 school year.

“People were devastated,” Hudson said. “It wasn’t the nicest place, but it was our place. It was the Duke students’ bar.”

Allegations of embezzlement by one of the student owners tainted outsider perception of what really caused the bar to close. Hudson, a junior at the time of the closing, said that one of the owners had been discovered to be embezzling money from the all-cash bar. After being caught, the owner ultimately paid back what was known to have been stolen, Hudson said.

“About a year later, people found out about the embezzlement and started blaming that situation,” Hudson said. “But there were multiple players involved.”

The incident was not an immediate factor in the decision to close, though it did catch the attention of then-President Nan Keohane.

In an Academic Council meeting in October 2001, Keohane addressed an anonymous question about the nature of University’s action against the student who allegedly embezzled from the Hideaway. Duke had ordered the student to pay a restitution of $15,000 and the student had paid $8,300. Duke did not prosecute him criminally, which some saw as the University having a “no-fault” policy in the situation. Keohane explained that the case was unique because the student in question had already graduated and it would have been unusual to prosecute a non-student. Additionally, the other Hideaway owners did not intend to prosecute the alleged embezzler, and so the University wouldn’t have their collaboration in making the case.

After the closing, Duke community members to whom the Hideaway was beloved called upon the administration to take over the bar’s ownership and keep it open. But the University was not interested.

“There were some people who wanted the University to take over and operate it,” Wasiolek said. “I don’t think the University necessarily wanted to hang its hat on a bar that wasn’t connected to anything programmatically…. After the embezzlement and exposure that the Hideaway was an empty shell, people were not as inclined to buy it.”

While the Hideaway’s owners and regulars faced the loss of their central social gathering point, many others—especially younger students who would not have been permitted to drink at the bar—were unfazed by the closure.“It was one of those things where people didn’t realize what they had until it was gone,” Gustafson said.

However severely the campus felt the loss of the Hideaway, the bar has gone down in the annals of Duke's social culture.

“It was one of those unique pieces of Duke that had its own character,” Coyle said. “I think in that sense, something was lost.”