As the Bergner’s in Sheridan Village starts to shut down, I wistfully think of Jimmy Buffett.
Peoria revels in memories about the department store: Santa Claus, the Talking Christmas Tree, shopping with Mom and Dad, a side trip to Peanut Butter Heaven.
But for me, Bergner’s meant business — and my business was Buffett.
For a quarter-century, my summers were highlighted with a sojourn to see Jimmy Buffett at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin. Our quartet divvied up key responsibilities: One drove the truck, another procured food and cooler, and another took care of the tiki bar, pink flamingos and other decor.
Me? One job was lodging. I'd secure rooms at a weathered, cut-rate motel that I'd found in the middle of nowhere. Roach bombs, obviously ignited within hours of our arrival, gave the place a noxious stink. However, the price was just $25 a head per night, and the owners didn’t mind our wee-hours launching of bottle rockets. Perfect.
My other job: tickets. That’s where Bergner’s came in.
In the mid-‘90s, the internet wasn’t yet all cranked up. To buy concert tickets, you could go to the venue, too far away for our Wisconsin trip. You could try the Ticketmaster hotline, which as soon as seats went on sale would perpetually go, “Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz” — always busy. Usually, I’d wait for an hour after the initial on-sale time, call the hotline and get four lawn seats. We weren’t picky.
But one year, I had some extra time, so I decided to try for actual seats. Back then, Ticketmaster had retail outlets, such as the one at Sheridan Village. Even if you were there right at the on-sale time, the agents would have to fight to find you tickets. Usually, for a big show like Buffett, an agent might find you nosebleed seats, which weren’t much better than lawn.
Still, one year I decided to give it a try for the Buffett show at Alpine. But, as usual, she got jammed up, and the seats the clerk landed were lousy.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “The only other option is lawn. After all, I’m sure you don’t want obstructed-view seats.”
My heart skipped a beat. What’s that?
Pointing to an Alpine map, she showed me four seats in the second row, to the far left of the stage. Apparently, these tickets had been pulled from the pool of available tickets.
“The obstruction isn’t specified,” she said. “Probably big speakers or something. They’re usually not good seats.”
Maybe. But second row? Time to gamble. “I’ll take all four,” I blurted.
Mind you, this is before the days when up-close concert tickets didn’t cost as much as a mortgage payment. That year, I think lawn tickets were $25, while the first few rows (even the mysterious obstructed-view seats) were about $60.
My compadres seemed less than enthused, wondering about the obstruction we’d be stuck behind. Encouragingly, I replied, “Shut up. We can’t see anything from the lawn anyway. What do we have to lose?”
When we found our seats, I realized the ticket agent had been right: These were not good seats. They were great seats. We could spot no obstruction, except for a tall security guard who sometimes would shuffle by — hardly a reason to protest. We were in awe, just a few yards from Buffett.
The next two years, I headed to Bergner's and got the same seats. It was a magical place to be. One year, we sat behind (and shook hands with) Captain Tony, the legendary shrimper, gunrunner and saloon keeper celebrated in the Buffett ballad “Last Mango in Paris.” Another year, Buffett paused in the middle of “They Don’t Dance Like Carmen No More,” his homage to the silver-screen star Carmen Miranda, she of the sky-high fruit hat. Buffett gestured to yours truly — clad, naturally, in my own fruit hat — and barked, “Nice hat!” As 20,000 spectators gazed enviously at me — or so I imagined — I gave Buffett a thumbs-up in return, and he continued with the song.
The next summer, for some reason, I had to be in Pekin the morning that Buffett tickets went on sale. I detoured to a Pekin Ticketmaster outlet and requested obstructed-view seats. I was shocked to hear the agent say, “There’s no such thing.” I tried to explain, “Look, you don’t understand. See, all you gotta do is … ” But the agent interrupted me and said, “Sorry. Nothing there.”
So I bought lawn seats. The next year, I went to Bergner’s and tried for obstructed view. But no go. No more.
Logically, one might guess that Ticketmaster or Alpine Valley finally realized that there really was no obstructed view for the Buffett shows. So, those seats got dumped in with the rest of the regular ticket pool.
But, with a Buffett-like imagination, I envision a "Twilight Zone" scenario where (thanks to Bergner’s) somehow we magically were granted the sweet taste of up-front seats. Yet that magic spell got broken when I skipped the Bergner’s routine and went to Pekin instead. Does Pekin always crush fairy tales like that? Beats me, but mine sure ended there.
Regardless, even if we’re forever relegated to lawn seats for Buffett, I can still gaze down to the second row and remember our stretch of good fortune. When Bergner’s closes soon and most of you recall Christmas, Santa and that crazy tree, I’ll be thinking of Alpine Valley, Captain Tony and my fruit hat.
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.