Originally Published: March 22, 2012 9:56 p.m.
PRESCOTT - Fifty years ago, Jay Carpenter gave a young bartender named Matt Butitta a chance to run his saloon on Whiskey Row.
Ten years ago, Butitta gave a couple young bartenders named Marco Espitia and Matt Brassard a chance to run the same saloon.
This weekend, they're all celebrating Matt's Saloon's 50th anniversary and inviting everyone to come on down and join them.
Cowboys can still kick up their heels to country music at Matt's. This weekend they can swing their partners to six different country bands, all free.
The weekend culminates with a performance by The Lost Trailers, which has recorded several Top 20 hits on country radio including "Holler Back" and "How 'Bout You Don't."
Brassard and Espitia have invited old and new customers, friends of theirs and friends of Butitta's, from across the country.
"This is our way of giving back to the people who supported us," Brassard said.
They've shined the floors and designed special banners with the local Hensley Budweiser distributor highlighting 50 years of Matt's Saloon photos alongside 50 years of Bud labels.
One of the banner photos shows Butitta's favorite Matt's Saloon performer of all time, the late Waylon Jennings. The Lost Trailers feature him in the chorus of one of their songs, "Country Folks/Livin' Loud."
Butitta met Jennings through a mutual friend named Tom Grassl at Frankie's Cocktail Lounge in Phoenix, where Jennings led the house band. Butitta and Jennings both were groomsmen at Grassl's wedding.
Butitta got Jennings and his band The Waylors to perform at Matt's Saloon during the 1965 Prescott Frontier Days celebration, before Jennings gained national fame.
"He tore the roof off this place," Butitta said.
Jennings didn't have a drummer at the time, so Matt's house band drummer Richard Albright played with Jennings that night and ended up joining Jennings' band.
Jennings came back to perform at Matt's several times during those early years.
Butitta has a lot of stories about a lot of interesting people who have strolled into his saloon, from famous musicians to movie stars to powerful politicians. If you want to hear one, show up at 4 p.m. today at Matt's, where Butitta will be the guest of honor at happy hour complete with cocktail waitresses.
Half-century of history
The building at 112 S. Montezuma began its life in 1903 as a mercantile called D. Levy & Co. General Merchandise. After three decades it became a saloon, Butitta related.
Jay Carpenter originally bought the building for his brother, but his brother wasn't doing so great so Carpenter sold it to the Van Attas who created Van Atta's Bungalow Buffet, Butitta recalled. When the Van Attas didn't do so well either, Carpenter got the building back in 1961. He wasn't sure what to do with it.
Butitta was bartending at Jay's Cocktail Lounge in Phoenix when Carpenter asked him to go up and run the place on Whiskey Row while Carpenter looked for another buyer.
Jay's saloon reopened in May 1962, just in time for the start of the Prescott Downs racing season.
"I thought, 'Boy, this is great,'" Butitta said of the steady business. He didn't know how it would die down after the racing season, so he asked Carpenter if he could be a partner.
Butitta was only 28 years old, but he was a hard worker and Carpenter liked him a lot. Carpenter agreed to the partnership, even though Butitta had no collateral to offer. Butitta got to add "Matt" to the saloon sign.
Within three years Butitta asked Carpenter to sell him the building, and Carpenter even loaned him the money.
Butitta ran Matt's Saloon until 1982, then leased it out to a series of eight tenants who knew a good thing and kept the saloon's name the same.
New era begins
Brassard and Espitia were bartending at Matt's when they talked the eighth tenants into letting them sublease the upstairs. They remodeled with the help of family and friends and opened Doc Holliday's Saloon in 2001.
Their strong work ethic became apparent when they gathered volunteers to create an elaborate Halloween haunted house in the saloon overnight, run it a few days and then dismantle it in time for the weekend crowd. They did it again the following year, too.
When the couple running Matt's Saloon decided to leave, Espitia and Brassard gathered up the courage to ask Butitta if they could buy the business.
"Both of us were so scared," Brassard recalled. Like Butitta four decades earlier, Espitia and Brassard had no collateral, just a strong desire to run a successful saloon.
Butitta decided to give them a chance, and he's glad he did. "I kind of liked 'em," Butitta recalled. "They seemed to be hard workers, so I thought I'd give 'em a shot." Butitta still owns the building.
Right off the bat, Brassard and Espitia decided they would stick with the country music like Butitta did.
Brassard and Espitia now hold the record for being Butitta's longest tenants.
"They're the best tenants I ever had," Butitta said.
Brassard and Espitia have established their own list of annual events, from covering the floor with sand for "Jamaica Me Crazy" to producing their own elaborate video for each annual Christmas party at the saloon. The videos feature customers and employees at events throughout the year.
"Matt has been just an awesome mentor," Brassard said of Butitta. "We strive to make him proud."