Bar Power

Plenty of guys spend their lives chasing girls. Disco king and sports bar legend Michael O’Harro made a career of it.

Michael O’Harro has been called a lot of things in his lifetime. Back in the day, magazines such as Life and People proclaimed him the “Singles King of Washington.” Cosmopolitan named him one of America’s most eligible bachelors. His Wikipedia entry describes him as a “model, actor, author and motivational speaker.” Some have dubbed him a marketing genius. Detractors have called him a womanizer, a sexist and a narcissist.

Who is this guy?

If you’ve ever chatted up a hottie in a dance club, or headed out to your local sports bar to drink beer and watch the game, you might consider doing a Google search. O’Harro has played a hand in your social life.

Specifically, he spent three decades creating places where Washingtonians could go to meet members of the opposite sex—from singles mixers in the ’60s to discos in the ’70s and sports bars in the ’80s. In the process, the self-described high school outcast became a millionaire trendsetter and led the sort of life that nearly every sex-driven, alcohol-imbibing, 22-year-old guy dreams about.

And he led most of that flamboyant life right here in Arlington.

O’Harro grew up in North Hollywood and Glendale, Calif., where he learned plenty about showmanship. His father, a shoe salesman by day, was the saxophonist and front man for a band (Pat O’Harro and His Irish Serenaders) that played at speakeasies, fraternity parties and private events hosted by Hollywood’s rich and famous. His mother, Virginia, had been a model.

But it took a while for the young O’Harro to find his groove.

“In high school, I was almost invisible,” says the resident of Arlington’s Woodmont neighborhood, who is now 72. “I was the quiet, nerdy kid. There are no pictures of me at parties in high school. I wasn’t invited.”

After graduating from the University of Arizona, O’Harro joined the Navy and worked his way up through the ranks to become a communications officer. He was deployed on some noteworthy assignments—including a stint on the USS San Joaquin County off the coast of Japan—before he moved east and became a courier to the White House and the Pentagon.

Arriving in Arlington in 1963, he settled into a group house off North Oakland Street with four roommates.

By then, O’Harro had lost some of his earlier inhibitions. Dismayed by the area’s dearth of social opportunities, he began throwing house parties for young, single male officers and single women. As word spread and the attendee lists grew bigger, he moved the mixers to larger venues, such as the Knights of Columbus on Little Falls Road, the Twin Bridges Marriott (located on the site that is now Long Bridge Park) and The Bayou in Georgetown.

Soon, the events were attracting live bands—including big names like The Shangri-Las and Jerry Lee Lewis—to play soul, Motown and rock’n’roll. O’Harro created a framework for the social club: a group known as the Junior Officers Professional Association (J.O.P.A.), whose membership mushroomed to include 48,000 military officers and civilians. J.O.P.A. was ultimately franchised in 16 cities.

Some might have found the officer-by-day, party-planner-by-night routine difficult to maintain, but O’Harro used one to complement the other. Instead of dressing in fatigues during the day (normal attire for a naval courier), he wore his whites while delivering messages to various offices around D.C. To heighten the drama, he sometimes handcuffed his briefcase to his wrist.

“Inside, I had my top-secret letter, but I also had my party invitations,” O’Harro says. “I’d see a pretty girl, open up the top-secret bag and pull out a party invite.”

His life wasn’t all glitz, though. “When people were dancing and having a good time, he was out in the parking lot putting fliers on cars for the next event,” recalls Peter McCarthy, a friend and former marine who now lives in Arlington. “Michael took advantage of the social situation that existed at the time. In 1964, Washington was a sleepy Southern town. Restaurants and bars and places where boy meets girl didn’t exist like they do now. He recognized that.”

Upon leaving the Navy in 1965, O’Harro felt emboldened by his successes as a party czar.  He partnered with friend and lobbyist Jim Desmond in September 1967 to open his first singles bar, Gentlemen II, at 1800 M Street in D.C. It quickly became a hive for go-go dancers, models, live bands and night owls.

By 1971, O’Harro was again restless and looking for his next big idea. He began taking trips to Europe, where he discovered discos. It was a concept he thought would go over well in the States.

In 1975, he joined forces with tavern-keeper Billy Martin (a fellow Arlingtonian who lived just off Glebe Road) to convert part of the historic Carriage House restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown into Tramp’s Disco. (Desmond became a partner in the venture in 1979.)

Predating Manhattan’s Studio 54 by two years, Tramp’s became a hot spot, attracting stars such as Telly Savalas, Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvester Stallone and soccer star Pelé.

O’Harro even lured President Carter’s mother, Lillian, into the club one night by calling the White House to extend a personal invitation. She spun records with the house DJ. “We made a concerted effort to get celebrities,” he says.

At one point, Tramp’s—which maintained a strict dress code—became so popular that some stars couldn’t get in. O’Harro’s longtime friend and publicist, Linda Roth Conte (whose eponymous PR firm is now based out of Reagan National Airport) remembers the night she picked up the guest book and realized that one of the world’s most sought-after divas had been turned away for wearing Army fatigues.

“The hostess said, ‘This woman came in with long hair, but she had on military gear and I didn’t let her in. But she did sign the book,’ ” Roth Conte recalls. “I said, ‘You turned away Cher!’ ”

Further validation of the club’s cachet came when the U.S. Olympic Committee asked O’Harro to build and run a replica of Tramp’s disco at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.

The event ended up being one of disco’s last stands. After that, “every Chinese restaurant put in a turntable and called itself a disco,” O’Harro says. “That killed disco.” Tramp’s closed its doors in 1981.

As O’Harro’s reputation as a bigwig and celebrity hound grew, suddenly the guy who couldn’t get noticed in high school wasn’t seen anywhere without a sexy blonde on his arm.

“He always wanted to meet women,” Roth Conte says. “And you have to have an exciting, fun place to meet women. If you create a place where women like to go and men come, you’re making money and you’re in business.”

In addition to the party and club circuit, O’Harro found plenty of creative ways to meet the ladies. He served as a chaperone to Miss Universe contestants when they came to Arlington (they stayed at the Twin Bridges Marriott) and escorted them to visits with members of Congress. He judged beauty contests and held auditions for the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) cheerleading squad at Tramp’s in 1978.

O’Harro says he dated many of the women with whom he crossed paths at these events, including a young Goldie Hawn; lesser-known actresses such as Donna Dixon, Roberta Collins and Sandra Bergman; and “a lot of Miss Marylands.”

These and other exploits are now chronicled on his Facebook page, which includes more than 2,600 scanned images with captions. (At press time he had close to 1,400 friends.)

“I see his posts many times a day now,” says Dale Gribow, an attorney in California who met O’Harro on the social scene in Beverly Hills in the 1970s. “I didn’t realize how many beautiful women and how many clubs and events he was involved with.”

Eventually, O’Harro became that 50-year-old guy dating the girl in her 20s. Detractors saw him as an aging lothario and walking cliché. He defends his choices as simple human nature.

“I was outspoken on my views that women should try to be attractive and work out and be healthy,” he says. “You date who you find attractive. I got a lot of flak from the fact I was always seen with knockouts.”

But to those who would deride him as a shallow playboy, Bonnie Jean Hammet wants to say that he had another side. A former model who met O’Harro back in his J.O.P.A. party days, Hammet dated him for about three years and the two remained friends. O’Harro eventually set her up with her husband, Tom. “Some people call him a womanizer,” says Hammet, now a consultant to auto dealerships. “He wasn’t. He was a great friend to women and a nice person to be around. He always had your best interests at heart.”

Whether the buzz surrounding O’Harro at any given time was good or bad, at least people were paying attention. The worse fate would have been no one noticing.

“Occasionally, people would focus in on me, and Mike would get upset about that,” recalls former business partner Desmond, who now lives in Bethesda and has three kids and two grandkids. “He had to be the center of attention.”

O’Harro’s 1978 Christmas card—a variation of which he later made into a mass market poster—proved as much. Staged in front of D.C.’s Health, Education and Welfare building, the poster showed him dressed in equestrian garb and sipping champagne while leaning on the hood of a Bentley. The headline at the top read, “Poverty Sucks.”

It went viral in the only way that a pre-Internet stunt could. Before long, the image and slogan were applied to T-shirts, hats, refrigerator magnets, and even baseball cards.

Some likely saw the prank as hypocritical and offensive (O’Harro had stumped for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and now seemed to be mocking the plight of the poor), but plenty of others ran out and bought it.

“I get attaboys [for it],” says O’Harro, who has always considered himself a free-thinking “liberal Republican.”

“I get more flak when I wear a fur coat,” he says. “Who is for poverty?”
By the time the ’80s rolled around, O’Harro and Desmond were once again itching for a new venture.

“We were looking for a concept after we closed the disco,” O’Harro recalls. “We asked ourselves, ‘What do Americans like?’ The answer was religion and sports. And I wasn’t building a church, so I decided that a sports concept would work.”

In October of 1983, the pair opened what is now considered to be America’s very first sports bar. Tucked into an alley near the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW in Georgetown, Champions quickly set a trend that would be copied a million times over: multiple TV screens and walls that were decked out from floor to ceiling with sports, pop culture and motion picture memorabilia.

As he had with Tramp’s, O’Harro courted celebrities—this time from the sports world. Athletes such as Brooks Robinson, Joe Theisman and Sugar Ray Leonard were spotted at Champions alongside politicians and other D.C. power brokers.
“O.J. Simpson came there when he was [an announcer] on Monday Night Football,” O’Harro recalls. “I’m not proud of that now.”

By 1986, Champions had a second bar in Falls Church, plus a franchise location in Boston, where it attracted star athletes such as Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain. Several more franchises followed.

“I loved running around and opening new Champions,” O’Harro says. “I’m a marketing guy. I didn’t care about the daily financial concerns of stocks and stockholders. I just wanted to run bars and have fun with celebrities.”

That fun ended four years later, when O’Harro and Desmond sold their interest in Champions to Marriott, which expanded the concept internationally.

At that point, O’Harro effectively retired. He claims to have grown weary of the limelight, although some speculate that the sale was precipitated by an incident that had occurred earlier in 1990.  Following a Washington Capitals party at Champions, a 17-year-old girl accused four Caps players of raping her outside the bar in a limousine that had been hired by O’Harro’s staff.

Soon after, the D.C. Alcoholic  Beverage Control Board launched an investigation to determine whether Champions had unlawfully served alcohol to a minor. O’Harro hired a private investigator to research the girl’s credibility as protesters speaking on behalf of sexual-assault victims began holding rallies outside the bar.

O’Harro, who was opening a Champions in Richmond on the night of the alleged incident, insists that the protests had no effect on business.“Some people will protest anything,” he says, noting that the rallies dissipated once the media lost interest.

“As it turns out, there was no rape,” he says. “I have no regrets about hiring an investigator. It’s what D.C. government officials, my lawyer and my insurance company recommended that I do to get the facts straight and protect my license.”

All criminal charges were eventually dropped, and both Champions and the Caps players were exonerated of any wrongdoing. Still, the allegations brought a somber end to O’Harro’s last days as a club owner.

“Yes, it is one of the reasons I left the bar business,” he says, “but I also just wanted to get away from it after so many years.”

Untethered, O’Harro traveled the world to the warm climes of Greece, Costa Rica and Thailand. Upon returning home to Virginia, he turned his focus to selling off his massive collection of sports and pop culture memorabilia, often spending up to 10 hours a day on eBay, where he was known to have as many as 400 items up for bid at any given time. When he realized one day that he had facilitated 180,000 individual transactions, it “began to feel like a job,” so he stopped.

Today you won’t find him donning riding tweeds (as in his infamous poster), nor are you likely to catch him in “a tuxedo jacket made of black and white horsehair with cowboy fringe,” as the Los Angeles Times described one of his outfits at a society event.

He’s a bit more subdued on the day we meet, dressed in dark pants, a gray sweatshirt and a well-worn University of Arizona cap as he plots the removal of tree limbs surrounding his two-story home off Spout Run. Hardly the mansion one might imagine him to own, it’s a modest, contemporary residence flanked by Japanese maples and accented with a bright-red wood deck. He has lived there since 1976.

O’Harro certainly had the means to relocate to ritzier locales, but says he never wanted to. “I could have bought a bigger house, but I always liked Arlington,” he says. “I like this little house. I like the fact that’s it near everything.”

Although he has donated or sold off most of the items that once adorned the walls of his clubs, he has kept a few artifacts for himself.  Inside his house, one finds a vintage Notre Dame poster proclaiming, “Welcome to the Stadium.” The décor also consists of a twelve-foot-long tiger skin, a polar bear pelt and a zoo’s worth of taxidermy specimens, including a wildcat (honoring his alma mater), a grizzly bear, a kangaroo, a zebra, two beavers, a wolf, a raccoon, a mounted boar’s head, an armadillo, a gator head and various antlers and horns.

Other vestiges of his former self remain. At 72, his hair is jet black, and he stays in shape by working out at the Gold’s Gym in Ballston for two to three hours a day. He occasionally goes out to places like Lyon Hall, The Liberty Tavern and the Crystal City Sports Pub. (The latter is decorated with memorabilia from the original Champions; the owners consulted O’Harro for branding advice before opening.) He also frequents a few spots across the Potomac in Georgetown, where friends say he’s still treated like a celebrity.

But you’re more likely to find him at home, doing bodywork on one of his many antique cars (he has a 1939 Cadillac, a 1935 Chevrolet Hot Rod, a 1957 Thunderbird and a 1994 Dodge Viper).

“I’m not a recluse,” he says, “but I do live a quiet life … which I feel I earned after four decades in the nightclub and bar business.”

And then there’s his most recent obsession—Facebook. Ever proud of the empires he built, he’s on a mission to digitize portions of the 135 scrapbooks in his archives, which collectively contain about 6,500 photos, articles, awards, fliers, invitations, cartoons, autographed head-shots and other items.

“He discovered Facebook, and, true to form, he put up 400 photos a day, and they shut him down because they thought he was spamming,” Roth Conte says.

Most of his friends are now married with kids and grandkids, but O’Harro has held fast to the bachelor lifestyle. “Not everyone is cut out to be married,” he says. “I’m alone, but I’m not lonely.”

“My day, from the moment I get up until I put my head on the pillow, I’m busy,” he continues.

“I’m never just sitting here and hoping the phone will ring. I’m doing something. I’m creating something. Worst-case scenario, I’ll polish my chrome flask collection if I’m really bored.”

Once a bar king, always a bar king.

Les Shaver’s bar-hopping days are over, but he still goes for the occasional pint (or two) at his favorite watering hole. He lives happily with his wife in Ballston.

Categories: People