Behind the Stone Balloon
Part 1 of 2 Part Series: The Balloon Rises
Published: Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Updated: Sunday, July 19, 2009 05:07
Bill Stevenson leans on a table in Grotto Pizza as he tells a story, laughing and shaking his head as he finishes. He is like a small town celebrity, and he occasionally says, "Hello," to old friends as they walk over, asking him how he's doing.
He is cordial, and maintains no pretensions about the things he has done. Only a handful of people in the bar know who he is, and while the rest may not be aware of the impact he has had on the town they are in, most have felt it.
It's somewhat surreal to think whom else he has sat with in his life. He has lounged in Studio 54 with Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol, shared a couch with Bruce Springsteen and a stage with Queen on a major U.S. tour.
Tonight he sits in front of a steaming sausage and mushroom pizza while talking about the bar on Main Street that made it all possible.
The Stone Balloon, which is closing December 17, has been a landmark in Newark for over 30 years. As its founder, Stevenson is inarguably an integral part of the town's history. His influence on the country, albeit to a certain degree, is also inarguable.
The stories he tells branch out from each other, one of them causing him to remember another, and so on. They are all about the period of time he owned the bar from 1971 to 1985, and are just a fraction of the many contained in his recently finished book, "The Stone Balloon: The Early Years." It is available in local bookstores, and he will have a book signing at The Balloon on December 16 as a farewell to the bar he started.
Reading the book is similar to Stevenson sitting next to you, describing every event. There is little concern for style, and it reads in a refined colloquial manner. However, elaborate style is unnecessary in a book characterized by extravagant and almost unimaginable stories.
When asked about his feelings on the Balloon closing, he does not betray any obvious regret or disappointment, and in the book he mentions no current discord between himself and the current owners who are turning the bar into condominiums in 2006. Instead, he looks back at the roller coaster ride he experienced as its founder and owner, saying he is simply happy the bar was part of his life.
"Things don't last forever," he says. "I was just in the right place at the right time."
The place for Stevenson was Newark, and the time was the early '70s.
The university campus was very different in those days. The undergraduate population was about half the size it is now, and students lined South College Avenue while waiting to register for classes in the Bob Carpenter Field House. On Friday afternoons, hundreds of cars could be found parked along White Clay Creek, where students would start off the weekend instead of finding happy-hour specials. The university owned and operated a bar and nightclub, where professors would buy students 20 cent beers, and vice-versa.
Former football head coach Tubby Raymond recruited Stevenson after seeing his promising athletic prowess in prep school. He attended the university for a semester, finishing a season on the football team, but eventually decided to drop-out and try another path. His father had died just before his high school graduation, and without him as his biggest supporter Stevenson could not continue playing.
After receiving a $65,000 inheritance from a deceased uncle, Stevenson tried to find success in starting his own company. He bought a van and started a courier service, but it wasn't long before he was seeking to get out of the stressful business.
Inspired to get into the music after seeing Woodstock the summer before, Stevenson went against all advice and bought what he calls in his book "a big, rickety old building," called Merril's Tavern. At the time, the building, which was an old hotel, had the tavern in one corner, and a package, or liquor, store in the other.
Stevenson says it could fit 50 people at best when he bought it. Debating between naming his new bar The Hen House or after a club he visited in the Virgin Islands, Stevenson chose the latter, calling it The Stone Balloon.
This was August, 1971, and Stevenson was 23 years old. The bar did not open until February, 1972. Newark city building inspectors denied the opening of the Balloon multiple times due to various building code violations, and Stevenson is convinced in his book they were capriciously out to get him after he installed a bar and talked about expansion.
An article in The Review from that month questioned if the store would ever open, wondering if it would pursue the route of a famous hot air balloon that acquired the same name after it could not fly.
By the time the bar opened, Stevenson says he was stressed-out and desperate, but it wouldn't be long before he realized all his effort was worth it.
Stevenson describes the first night of business as an out-of-body experience. Peeking his head out the front door before opening, he was given a glimpse of something that would become a familiar sight for a long time: with snow flurries floating down and the sidewalks already white, prospective patrons were already forming a line to get in.
"I couldn't even tell you what happened that first night," he says. "We closed the doors at the end of the night and I was like, 'Did that really just happen?' It was incredible to see it all be a success."
The Balloon was a hit from day one. Students and local residents packed the bar six nights a week. Stevenson had expanded Merril's Tavern by adding a second room with a stage, and this would be the start of the Stone Balloon's soon-to-be legendary rock 'n' roll forum.
Larry Tucker, from The Larry Tucker Band, was one of the first musicians to play on the Balloon's stage. Tucker lived in Newark at the time, and had attended Newark High School and the university, so he witnessed the impact the Balloon had from a resident, student and entertainer's perspective.