Missoula’s Iconic Top Hat Set to Undergo Major Renovation After Sale

Editor’s Note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Banville, to create a Student Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide them with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By KELLEN BECK

Nicole Garr sits in the dimly lit bar she grew up in, smiling as her two-year-old son Kalei wheels around lying on his belly on a skateboard.

Each corner of the Top Hat holds a memory for Garr: The wall covered in license plates collected by her father, Steve; the antique tin tray ceiling built by her grandfather; the bar where she got to know her sister Greta as a woman.

Garr’s mother rushes around the bar, grabbing change and checking prices on items, during the family’s eleventh and final estate sale in late September. Potential buyers browse the cluttered isles of records and old furniture, they haggle on prices, and inspect items as though they were picking out the perfect piece of fruit.

The estate sales are an effort to finish paying off the last of Steve Garr’s $62,000 of debt he left when he died suddenly in 2009. After every sale, the money is put in an envelope and given directly to the Garr’s family attorney, though Nicole admits she wishes she could keep some of the money for the family.

The sales are a painful process for Garr. “It makes me angry and sad when someone offers me a quarter for something and I’m like, I saw that in my dad’s hands,” Garr said.

The last estate sale at the Top Hat coincides with the week Garr and Nick Checota signed the final papers, making Checota’s ownership of the Top Hat Bar and Lounge official.

The bottom half of Garr’s head is shaved. Kalei and her husband, Armando Rivas, both have shaved heads as well. A symbol, Rivas says, of the cleansing the family is going through during the sale of their family’s bar.

“It feels like a weight is being lifted,” said Rivas and while Garr agreed, a small part of her is having trouble letting go.  “I keep catching myself saying we should do this, Nick. I need to sign a disclaimer that every time I say we, I mean you,” said Garr referring to Nick Checota, the Top Hat’s new owner as of Monday, September 24.

The Top Hat Lounge, a Missoula icon.

The Top Hat will close on Nov. 15 to undergo some major work under the management of new owner NickChecota.

“I hope he leaves the poster wall,” says Garr gazing at the corkboard collage of flyers advertising Top Hat shows past and present.

While the sale of her father’s bar is wrought with conflicting emotions, Garr claims the timing and buyer are perfect. Checota and Garr have worked together closely during the sale of the bar.

“It has been a really unique experience,” said Checota, “usually a sale of a business is done by attorneys contacting each other, but Nicole and I figured out pretty early on that it would be more effective if we talked to one another. About 90 percent of the communication was between her and myself.”

Garr will stay on to aid Checota with the transition until November 15, when the Top Hat will hold parties, both private and public, before the bar closes down for Checota’s renovations. As a self-proclaimed history buff, Checota said he will retain all of the Top Hat’s historical aspects during the renovation.

The bar itself will remain the same, as will the stage and the green room. The front façade will be receiving an update by taking away the art deco aspects and taking the architecture back a few stages to resemble a more historical look.

Checota will also be keeping a painting that hangs above the bar of a woman scantily clad in a loose fitted white dress, part of her bosom exposed. The painting was loaned to Steve Garr by a friend and Nicole claims it is the most commented item in the bar. “Half a nipple can do a lot to a person’s mentality,” she says.

Both Checota and Garr see the Top Hat as an anchor in Missoula’s live music scene, and Checota hopes to only enhance that stance by bringing in more national and local bands.

But the Top Hat will be a very different place when it reopens. Checota plans to add a restaurant and hopes to cater to an older clientele by adding earlier shows. Still, he stresses that the he will not forget the core audience: The younger music fans who pack the later shows. By implementing these changes, Garr says she feels that Checota has the means and the business savvy to take the bar to the next level. Something she wishes she would have been able to do herself.

“Change is inevitable. If [Missoulians] can skip the criticisms and just enjoy the changes, they are really going to enjoy it,” said Garr.

Garr added she is encouraging the community to keep coming out and supporting live music. She believes the new owner and remodel might even help some who may hold grudges that date from the days of her father back inside the downtown anchor.