Fresno tavern owner loved telling tales
Fresno Bee (California)
July 27, 2006 Thursday
By Jim Steinberg The Fresno Bee
Family and friends of Tommy Sempot Saghatelian, a bartender, tavern
and restaurant owner and Fresno institution, will celebrate his life
Saturday morning at the Silver Dollar on Shaw Avenue.
Mr. Saghatelian died Saturday. He was 86.
The 11 a.m. gathering Saturday will remember Mr. Saghatelian’s life,
tales, jokes and the central role he and brothers Samuel, Snar and
Sirak played in Fresno night life. For more than half a century, the
family operated restaurants and bars, including the Silver Dollar and
the Old Fresno hofbraus and before them, Leon & Tommy’s Old Fresno
Tavern, Leon’s Bar and the Madrid Tavern downtown.
Mr. Saghatelian was born in Fresno, a son of Armenian immigrants Gazair
and Hyganoosh Saghatelian, who ran Valley Bakery, still operating as
Valley Lahvosh Baking. It continues in old Armenia Town, operated by
Mr. Saghatelian’s surviving sister, Janet Saghatelian.
Mr. Saghatelian graduated from Fresno High School, where he was an
all-Valley football center. He entered the U.S. Merchant Marine,
then the Navy. He served on the conscripted President Coolidge luxury
liner. The Coolidge was transporting supplies in 1944 when it struck a
mine in the South Pacific during Mr. Saghatelian’s watch as a gunnery
mate, daughter Tommi Saghatelian recounts:
"The ship blew up, and they were told to abandon ship. My dad couldn’t
swim, but he climbed down and got into a lifeboat.
"That was dad’s favorite war story."
But by no means is it his only story. Mr. Saghatelian was renowned for
his story-telling by a revolving audience that included author William
Saroyan, San Francisco columnists Herb Caen and Prescott Sullivan,
and train and bus travelers passing through town.
He had planned to become an audiologist until his uncle, Leon
Saghatelian, asked him to tend bar downtown. It was in a neighborhood
sprinkled with speak-easies and bordellos, Tommi Saghatelian said.
Mr. Saghatelian became tired of customers mispronouncing his and
bartenders’ Armenian names, she said. After one botched name too many,
Sempot Saghatelian slammed a hand on the bar, uttered a short expletive
and vowed to go by Tommy from then on.
Mike Shirinian, owner of the Elbow Room in Fig Garden Village, began
his Fresno career as one of Mr. Saghatelian’s bartenders at the Silver
Dollar. He credits Mr. Saghatelian as being the "conceptual architect"
of that hofbrau, including its basic design and rationale.
"Tom was a great man, the elder statesman," Shirinian said. "He was
the quiet strength and the ultimate arbiter. Any success I’ve had is
tied to him and his brothers. He was kind and principled. The customer
comes first. He insisted on the best meat and bread — from Valley
Bakery. We’d get peda bread [Armenian version of pita flatbread]
at 5:15 a.m., still warm."
Mr. Saghatelian began the Silver Dollar with a visual image of the
West and San Francisco in mind: a mug of beer sliding along a lengthy
bar to a waiting customer. The Silver Dollar became a gathering
place for police, firefighters, news reporters and other "regulars,"
"The brothers were incredibly astute," he says. "They knew each and
Mr. Saghatelian underwent triple bypass surgery in 1983.
At home on Saturday, he relaxed with family and was enjoying a good
meal when he collapsed, Tommi Saghatelian and Janet Saghatelian, Mr.
Saghatelian’s surviving sister, said.
"He was enjoying beautiful memories and good food," Tommi Saghatelian
said of her father’s last hours. "He was happy. Gee, what a way to
go. He was 86, and he enjoyed every minute."
The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559)
Tommy Sempot Saghatelian Born: April 20, 1920 Died: July 22 Occupation:
Restaurateur and tavern keeper Survivors: Wife, Mildred Saghatelian,
son, Leon Saghatelian; daughters Debra Naworski and Tommi Robin
Saghatelian; and stepdaughter Sandra Saghatelian.