One of the real perks to living anywhere in any town or city for a certain length of time is that you come to know where the true gathering spots are located. These are the places that have doors that always seem unlocked and a spirit inside that envelops you the moment you enter. These buildings may be dank and dark but they glitter like jewels to the regulars who regard them as a second home. A good watering hole will tell you all that you need to know about a community. Its chairs and stools will have a worn, lived-in look, its walls decorated with posters of local bands that have played there, the floor probably doesn’t shine any longer, either and is beer-soaked and tacky to the touch. But, it is a palace that regularly draws a crowd. And, not just those who can afford to pay a membership fee or exorbitant cover charge to get in. Every town has a place or a bar or pub where the weighty problems of the world are debated, blood is sometimes spilled, championships are celebrated, and on occasion, two bodies can be found joining together to share the space of one. This post is the story of one such place and the fight to keep it free from the wrecking ball’s swing. Welcome all to the Plains Hotel in Regina, Saskatchewan, and in particular, to Good Time Charlie’s Lounge.
The Plains Hotel was built at the intersection of College and Albert Streets in downtown Regina not long after WWI. In the early days of the Plains Hotel, it was a convenient source of affordable accommodation for soldiers returning from the war, as well as workers passing through on their way to the oil fields of Alberta, the endless wheat fields of the Prairies, or else the potash mines of the north. For about $20 a night, a traveler could get a clean room upstairs at the hotel and a hot meal downstairs at Good Time Charlie’s Lounge. The Plains Hotel sported a modern-looking “weather tower” on top of its roof. This tower was composed of lights that lit up with certain colours depending on the nature of the weather. It was just one of many reasons that folks in Regina were always drawn to the hotel, whether it was to stay there, to go to Charlie’s for a drink after work, or simply to check the weather at a glance.
In time, other, newer and more modern chain hotels came to Regina and the tourists started drifting away from The Plains Hotel. In their place, clients with far more modest incomes became the new regulars, and in fact, for much of the 1970s and beyond, The Plains Hotel found itself as home to low income renters who paid for their rooms by the month and dined in the Lounge below. As this transition took place, The Plains Hotel became more of a community with members whose faces and personalities were so familiar to each other that they became a type of family. Like characters from a novel, these renters were given nicknames that reflected their character and/or their habits. The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge became the center of their world.
The other thing that The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge became known for was as a venue for live music. The stage at Charlie’s was always available for local bands to showcase new songs, as well as singing covers of those songs favoured by the regulars. On occasion, a big band with a national reputation would be coming through and would stop by. That always caused a stir. But mostly, it was local bands playing a form of authentic Blues that only comes from those who have lived lives of sweat and toil. Many a night, passersby would pop in for a cold one, just to catch whichever band was playing at the time. The beer was always cold and the music was always hot. The regulars sat in their spots and sang and drank and talked. The visitors would occupy whatever seats were left and would drink and dance. Good Time Charlie’s Lounge was a place that welcomed all and on most nights, all felt welcomed inside those doors that never seemed to be locked.
Because The Plains Hotel had a full house of monthly tenants, there was a steady source of revenue for the owners of the building. However, as we all know, the cost of doing business rarely stays steady for long and never seems to go down. So, as inflationary times came to Regina, the cost of running and maintaining The Plains Hotel increased while the revenue stream stagnated. In time, the price of doing business started becoming too much for the owners. Occupying a prime corner of downtown Regina as it did, The Plains Hotel had long been on the radar of real estate developers. They had visions of convention centers and condominiums. To them, The Plains Hotel and Good Time Charlie’s Lounge was an eyesore and a poor return on investment. So, while the hotel was in its heyday, the real estate moguls were kept at bay, but as the hotel started experiencing financial stresses, they began to circle. Eventually, The Plains Hotel was put up for sale. One proposed plan was to knock it down, and in its place, build a new hotel/condo tower twenty-five stories tall. If that were to be the accepted plan, then those people who called The Plains Hotel their home would be cast out into the street. Those bands and their fans who viewed Good Time Charlie’s as a cultural mecca would be out of luck, too. So, a grassroots effort was made to save The Plains Hotel. That effort revolved around a music contest sponsored by the CBC.
In 2009, a call was put out by Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, for original songs from every province and territory in the country. Each province and territory would have a local competition complete with live performances and on-line voting. The winners of each provincial or territorial competition would win a cash prize and would earn a spot on a CD entitled, “CBC Songquest”. The criterion for entering was that each song had to reflect the essence of the geographic region it was from. It that way, the CBC was hoping to be able to release one CD that captured Canada in all of its glory from coast to coast to coast. Those who were involved in the effort to save The Plains Hotel saw this as an opportunity to memorialize this important community gathering spot in song and to shine a spotlight on their cause. It helped a great deal that a local band called The Deep Dark Woods agreed to write a song about what Good Time Charlie’s meant to them. The Deep Dark Woods were one of the local Folk-Rock bands that played the bar circuit in Regina and Saskatoon and throughout the Prairie provinces. They relied on places like Good Time Charlie’s for their livelihood. They also knew how important such bars and pubs were as community centers in the towns and cities in which they were located. The song the band created was called “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down”. The reason for calling their song this was because, not long after the Songquest contest was announced, Regina City Council approved the sale of The Plains Hotel to a new developer. The twenty-five story hotel/condo plan was given the green light. The fight to save The Plains Hotel was lost.
At that point, the CBC Songquest competition became something other than a game to be won. It became a race against time to honour a building that played such an integral part in the life of downtown Regina. It was also a race against time to do right by the regulars who had called The Plains Hotel home. Many of these people had been in poor health for many years, so when it became apparent a decade or so prior that it was becoming financially unfeasible to continue as they had, the owners of The Plains Hotel made a decision that says a lot about their character and about how those who frequented the establishment were viewed. As the regular tenants became unable to live on their own any longer and were moved by the province to long term care homes, their former rooms were closed down and not rented out any longer. If a regular tenant passed away and no family members were nearby, the folks at The Plains Hotel stepped in to ensure their friend was buried with dignity and respect. Eventually, the final regular tenant found a new place to live. The rooms at The Plains Hotel were now all empty. Meanwhile, “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” ended up winning the CBC Songquest contest. The final thing that the local community wanted was a stay of execution, if you will, so that The Deep Dark Woods (who were touring at the time) would have time to come back home and play the final concert ever at Good Time Charlie’s Lounge. Unfortunately, this story is bereft of fairy tale endings. The Deep Dark Woods have never known a king’s ransom from their music so they could not afford to abandon their tour and fly home. The developers of the new condo project did not wish to wait. The wrecker’s ball swung in 2011 and The Plains Hotel, complete with its iconic weather tower and along with Good Time Charlie’s Lounge, was no more.
The ironic thing is that almost immediately after knocking The Plains Hotel down, the new developer ran into financial difficulties of his own. As you read these words, nothing stands on the corner of College and Albert Streets in Regina. Nothing but an empty lot and silence. In a very short time, a new generation of citizens will grow up in Regina not knowing that anything of value ever existed at that street corner. Perhaps they will hear “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” one day on the radio and they will realize all that was lost. The lesson in all of this involves prioritizing the things that truly make a community what it is. While it is naive to think that money isn’t a significant factor in how the world operates, at some point, trading those precious places where people gather in exchange for trinkets and baubles has to stop. To my way of thinking, music is more important than silence. Community has more value than emptiness and loneliness. That sense of caring for each other that comes with being part of a family, regardless of bloodlines, is a treasure whose value is incalculable. I think of that whenever I listen to this song.
The link to the video for “Charlie’s (Is Coming Down)” by The Deep Dark Woods can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Deep Dark Woods can be found here.
The link to the official website for the city of Regina, Saskatchewan can be found here.
The link to a video for a news story about the history of The Plains Hotel can be found here.
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