Much loved Superior tavern owner dies at 99Molly Spaun, founder of Molly's Tavern, suffered a series of three heart attacks about a month after what was always a popular event: her birthday party, which falls on Valentine’s Day.
By: Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
A longtime Superior business owner whose bar was known for its eclectic mix of clientele has died of health complications that started this winter.
Molly Spaun, the former owner of the Tower Avenue mainstay Molly’s Tavern, died Wednesday. She was 99.
Spaun suffered a series of three heart attacks about a month after what was always a popular event: her birthday party, which falls on Valentine’s Day.
She had been under home hospice care for the past month, according to her son Oscar Muench. Spaun had just transferred to the Solvay Hospice House in Duluth when she died.
“It was just a matter of hours,” Muench said. “I promised her she could die at home, but that last day it just got to the point where everybody was exhausted.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Spaun, one of 11 children, came from a hospitality background. Family lore has her wearing overalls and climbing through tunnels to secure a barrel of whiskey during the Prohibition era, but escaping a year-plus jail sentence after a raid because she was just 16 years old, according to family friend Andrea Blesener.
It’s one of many stories about the colorful character.
Spaun’s parents Nicholas and Pearl O’Kash owned the Blue Moon Tavern in Superior’s North End. She helped with food, waitressing and dishwashing. In 1938 she opened the original Molly’s Tavern with her first husband, Oscar Muench.
The bar had a couple more addresses until 1952, when her husband died after a heart attack soon after the birth of their son Oscar. Spaun then moved the tavern to its longtime location at 405 Tower Ave., according to a 1998 article in the Superior Daily Telegram.
Spaun was briefly married to Andy Spaun.
Molly’s Tavern had a mix of clientele over the 60-plus years it was open.
It was a gay bar and a biker bar and a place for music fans to listen to Motown hits.
“In the 1950s it was a sailor bar, then in the 1960s kind of became a place where call girls would meet the fellas,” Muench said. “In the 1970s I kind of renovated the bar into a nostalgic type setting with old juke boxes and old advertising.”
Jerry Frederickson, a local antiques dealer, described the bar as “a step back in time to the ’30s.”
“It was really eclectic,” he said. “Maybe to some it was old and dingy, but for people who collect antiques and things from yesteryear, it was interesting.”
It was filled with things like old metal signs, juke boxes with art deco lighting and a crank cash register.
“Everything was old,” Frederickson sad. “Including Molly.”
Molly’s Tavern was, according to longtime close friend Bev Robinson: “The best bar in town. Every walk of life was there. It was the favorite, favorite place to go.
“Teachers, artists, at one point the news channel people, the sailors would be there.”
Simply put, Spaun was “pretty famous,” her nephew Nick O’Kash said.
“A lot of important people knew her,” he said. “Mayors used to go down there and the chief of police. There were a lot of people from the other end of town, too. The prostitutes and the pimps used to go there a lot. That was kind of their hangout.
“Superior, back in the day, that was a rough end of the town. She corralled it though. There was never too much trouble there.”
As recently as 2001, Spaun was behind the bar with her son at closing time when two men got in a fight near the door “and then a series of shots were heard, and witnesses sought cover and fled from the bar,” according to a News Tribune story quoting then-Capt. Charles LaGesse of the Superior Police Department. Both men were injured and bullets punched holes in the floor, wall and ceiling.
Spaun, then 87, was unharmed despite being pulled to the floor by her son.
O’Kash said customers were drawn by Spaun’s outgoing personality.
“She could talk to anybody,” he said. “She seemed to really remember everybody. All the seamen would go to Molly’s bar. They were from all over the United States and they all loved her. They would tell her their problems and she was a good listener and gave them advice.”
The bar went through some rough periods, Muench said.
There was a time when they couldn’t afford to replace a light bulb.
“We just barely made it through every month,” said Muench.
The bar eventually closed in 2005.
Sayings of Molly Spaun
Robinson worked at Molly’s Tavern for a decade before opening Bev’s Jook Joint. She remembered Spaun as a sweet person, a good storyteller and a singer who stayed up late every night.
“I loved her very, very, very much,” she said.
Blesener, who worked at the tavern, said that if someone offered to buy her a drink, Spaun said she had to accept it.
“She taught me that. Never turn down a drink,” Blesener said. “(She’d say) ‘Don’t take the shingles off the roof.’”
Then there was:
“Put something on the bar besides your elbows,” Robinson recalled.
And if Spaun saw a member of the wait staff talking too much to a customer, she would say:
“Get a ring on the finger,” Robinson said. “You don’t engage with someone unless you get a ring on the finger.”
If the tavern was light on activity, she would throw pennies at the door — a way to lure customers.
Even her longevity had superstitious roots.
Spaun managed her longtime struggle with arthritis by keeping a potato in her bra, Robinson said.
“She would soak raisins in gin or rum and have one of those raisins to start her day,” Robinson said. “She wore copper bracelets.”
Molly's big day
Spaun’s birthday was always a big deal. It fell on Valentine’s Day, was widely attended and demanded a big cake.
“It was always the queen’s day,” Blesener said. “It was pretty spectacular.”
A fire at Molly’s Tavern in 1994 caused a hiccup in Spaun’s annual birthday plans.
Spaun’s German Shepherd I-Zeke woke her in time to get out of the apartment above the bar.
But it brought an end to a tradition: For 56 years she had been hosting the party at her own establishment.
Spaun was doing pretty well at this year’s event. She was struggling with her vision and her hearing, Blesener said, but she was very alert.
“She almost made it (to 100),” she said. “It would have been a big one.”
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