The producers of the crowdsourced docuseries “PBS American Portrait” gave Emma Hellthaler, owner of Seattle’s Blue Moon Tavern, a fairly straightforward task when they asked her to share her experiences through video: Tell us about your life.
Turns out, that wasn’t so easy as the world swirled about Hellthaler and the Blue Moon Tavern during a year that was beyond chaotic, even by 2020 standards.
“They did a good job of cleaning up a very messy story,” Hellthaler said. “I had a lot going on this year, so I told the producers straight up, I was like, ‘Man, like, I would not accept this if it were a screenplay. I feel like this plot is too messy. There’s too much going on.’
“Life was just too life-y.”
There are a lot of gripping moments in the four-part series that documents Americans in the moment in these turbulent times, to be sure. But there’s a palpable energy woven through Hellthaler’s segment, which airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19, on PBS and then will be available to stream.
They chronicle her life as she simultaneously tries to save her bar (she took ownership in — cue ominous music — October 2019), take care of her husband (he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a fall in early 2020) and raise two preteen children during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hellthaler’s installment ends at a pivotal moment as she installs an espresso machine in an attempt to reopen the Blue Moon. As you might expect, things don’t go as planned.
“It started up the week before the second lockdown,” Hellthaler said. “So I’m blaming that for a lack of success. I also didn’t really have the funds to build a really good-looking coffee window, you know? It was just like one of our tables and some plywood. So with this latest grant that we just got from Working Washington, I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to build something more sustainable and attractive and appeal to commuters.”
The Blue Moon Tavern in the University District was founded in 1934, and was one of Seattle’s first legal bars after the end of Prohibition. Gustav Hellthaler, Emma’s father, bought the bar in 1982 with two partners; Emma in turn bought the bar from her father after he was unable to find a buyer for a number of years: “The dude raised me to run the bar anyway. I’ve been working there since I was 8.”
The pandemic is just the latest struggle for one of Seattle’s endangered dive bars. She said the smoking ban cost them three-quarters of their clientele and a fight with the city over a “good neighbor agreement” sapped the elder Hellthaler of his drive to keep the bar. The $12,000 grant, a Go Fund Me account and her landlord’s patience are keeping the place afloat as Washington’s pandemic lockdown continues to keep bars closed nearly a year after the first efforts to curb the coronavirus began. She hopes there’s help coming soon from the federal government.
Making things more complicated, however, is the fact she’s conflicted about reopening the bar and isn’t sure what she would do if restrictions were suddenly lifted.
“The grant’s bought me an opportunity to see how the coffee window will sustain us until we can be a bar again,” Hellthaler said. “And I’m still uncomfortable encouraging people to go out and drink indoors and with groups and stuff. People who stop by a window because they’re already out, now that’s one thing. I don’t even know if I would want to serve liquor to people inside if they were to say open up next month because I just feel like this virus is still very misunderstood and out of control.”
She wants to see all her friends. But alcohol doesn’t necessarily encourage law abiding.
“Oh, my gosh, telling drunk people what to do is such a nightmare. It really is,” Hellthaler said. “And in the Blue Moon we’re such a family. And so there’s a lot of hugging and kissing going on and I don’t want any of us getting sentimental and hugging and kissing.”
Stay tuned: Hellthaler hopes to reopen the Blue Moon as a coffee stand again on April 1. She hopes her appearance on “PBS American Portrait” helps the bar in some way and that her story offers solace to others struggling at the moment, too.
“I think that what the ‘American Portrait’ series is doing is really dreamy,” Hellthaler said. “They’re reaching out to everybody and gathering these stories. And I think that it’s really important for all of us to come together and hear each other’s trials and tribulations and give ourselves over to this vulnerability because that’s where we need to rebuild from as a society.”