Toothpick dangling from his mouth, a guy named Bob pours beer into plastic cups with the St. John’s University logo on them. The lights are dim, the exposed red brick and wood paneling create both a homey and pub-like atmosphere. The year is 1979 and this is a typical Friday evening at the Rathskellar. Members of Student Government Inc., the Torch, HARAYA and WSJU Radio shuffle in and out, rubbing shoulders. Booths jam-packed with students line the walls and copies of the Torch hang off the ends of the wooden tables where students sit in groups nursing their beers. Everyone is huddled close; some throw their heads back in laughter while others chat quietly about their week. Some wander around from clique to clique as a guitarist checks the microphones on stage before beginning his act.
“It kind of looked like the 70s,” James Monnier, class of ’74, said. “Kind of looked like Grandma’s basement.”
The University Center, located across from Jack Kaiser Stadium, now houses the Office of Institutional Advancement, where Monnier is Associate Vice President of Institutional Advancement. But long before it was an office building, the campus bar the “Rathskellar,” more commonly known as “The Rat,” was lodged there.
Yes, that’s right. The campus bar.
It was different times then, some 25 years ago, Monnier said. The drinking age was 18 and many campuses had bars or pubs for students. The Rat sold beer and wine Monday through Friday from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Then on Friday nights, in the University Commons, the larger space in the University Center, bigger events were held. But the beer was served in the Rathskellar.
So much has changed at St. John’s over the years, yet it is important to remember the past. And for anyone who went to school in the 1970s or ’80s, all you have to do is to mention the word Rathskellar and it’s sure to bring back a host of memories.
“It was just a place where people could go, sort of hang out, relax,” Monnier said. “And you know, just connect with people. As a 100 percent commuter school, it was really one of the places where folks could go to connect after or before class.”
Before the D’Angelo Center was built and students lived on campus, the University Center was the hub where students gathered, said Bill Schultz, class of ’86.
“The Rathskellar was a place where everyone knew your name,” John Reinhardt, class of ’82 and a former SGI president, said. “A place where we could go and meet with students to study, or unwind and discuss the great happenings at school. We would talk about Chris Mullin’s and Carnesecca’s crew having a great season once again, and plan on ways that we could join up with the team on the road games. Many times, we planned these trips around the Rathskellar. Some would often say that a lot of student government’s best ideas were developed at the Rat.”
The alcohol at the Rat was provided by the campus dining services and served on tap, Monnier explained. From 1974 to 1980 Monnier was employed by the University, and part of his job was to oversee the Student Union Board, the modern day Student Programming Board. As a result, he oversaw a lot of the activities that took place at the Rat on Friday afternoons and evenings. All of the events had to be approved by his office beforehand.
Friday night events were usually held by organizations, such as Student Government or Greek Life. Those events began around 7:30 p.m. and were over by 11:30. Admission was around $7 and each student received a strip of seven tickets each good for one beer. The beer was served in 8 ounce cups. On a typical Friday night, anywhere between 500 to 600 students would attend the events, often called “Beer Blasts.”
“We kept the cups small, we limited the tickets. That was our way of discouraging overindulgence,” Monnier said. “I don’t ever recall breaking up a fight or any of those sorts of things. It was just sort of accepted that was the culture. You drank legally at 18. So it was no sneaking about or hiding it.”
Besides campus dining providing food and drink, Monnier said, the Rat was pretty much student-run. Student Safety Cadets, acting like bouncers, tended to be off-season football or lacrosse players. They stood guard at the doors, checked student IDs and made sure things were kept under control. Students hired the entertainment, as well as scheduled and ran the events.
Schultz remembers the University Center as his home away from home on campus. As an active member of the Student Union and WSJU Radio, he spent a lot of time in the University Center, where the majority of student groups were stationed. The University Center also included a game room, candy shop, cafeteria and the commons.
“It was a neat room, neat place,” Schultz said about the Rat. “I basically lived at the University Center when I was in college.”
The University Center was built in 1972, but the Rat was around long before that. Monnier said he believes the Rat was previously housed in the subbasement of Marillac. When the University Center was built, the new Rat was built along with it.
“It really was well-trafficked. It was always very crowded,” Michael Brady, class of ‘86, another former SGI president and a current employee of the University said. “It was very well managed… It was the social hub of campus. Culturally [at the time] it was okay, it was okay to have that sort of space.”
But all alumni insist the Rat had more to it than just cheap beer.
“It was a place during the day to just essentially hang out comfortably,” Monnier said.
Added Schultz, “The central purpose of the room wasn’t necessarily to be a bar or be a pub…it could take on a lot of different vibes depending on how many people were there or what was going on there.”
Monnier had two favorite events that took place at the Rat; the coffee house series and the comedy nights. Brady, Schultz and Reinhardt agreed the comedy nights were also a personal favorite.
The comedy nights began in 1976 as a coffee house series known as “Beggars Banquet,” named after The Rolling Stone’s album. They were held in the Rat usually on Thursday nights. The tables were covered in checkered tablecloths with candlelight, games like backgammon and checkers were available to play.
“The idea there was to offer alternative program,” Monnier said. “Quieter, a little bit more mellow.”
As time went on, the comedy night became extremely popular among students. Reinhardt said some students remember Eddie Murphy once attended before he was famous. The students would hire local and up-and-coming comedians to perform. Beer and wine were also still served, but so were coffee and food. Sometimes the line to get in would wrap around the block.
In 1986 the drinking age was raised to 21. According to administrators, the Rat closed between 1991 and 1992. In the early 90s, when Brady was the Greek Life adviser, the Rat was still open, but much more controlled. Students were required to wear wrist bands and the events were closely monitored.
Brady said when he eventually heard the Rat closed, he wasn’t surprised.
“Times were changing,” he said. “It kind of makes me sad. [It was] part of the social fabric.”
“I know it changed a lot when the law changed to 21,” he said. “The University then just made the correct decision to say no alcohol.”
Schultz also understands why the Rat needed to close. He now has a son who attends St. John’s. When he came back to the campus with his son for the first time, he pointed out to him where the Rat use to be.
“When I think back to college…that’s where the events were,” he said.
And even though times have changed, he still believes the Rat was a very special place.
“Great memories from there. That building felt like it was a student place,” he said. “The whole building itself was like an oasis.”
Reinhardt said the connection the Rat provided students with was undeniable. He believes the Rat tied together the different facets of student life at St. John’s.
“The Rathskellar will always hold a special place in my heart,” he said. “As it will for so many SJU students and alum.”
Alumni remember the Rathskellar being spelled both as “Rathskeller” and “Rathskellar.” News stories also spelt it both ways. The Torch archives spelled it as Rathskellar, so for the purpose of this article we did too.