A requiem for Fuzzy's Place and (perhaps) a rebirth

Keirsten Alexander got her lesson in the corporate culture at Fuzzy's Place not long after she became general manager of the venerable bar on North Druid Hills Road. She discovered Fuzzy's was paying more for toilet paper than any other bar in town. In fact, it was paying more for just about all supplies.

She brought it up to Fuzzy Cawthon, who owned the bar. Cawthon told her, "Old so-and-so is a friend of mine, and he's got a family to support. Did your check clear? Mine did, too. So let's just take care of old so-and-so and his family."

Alexander says Cawthon's come-what-may attitude meant the bar always hovered around the break-even mark. "Were we making money?" she asks rhetorically. "It wasn't losing money. And it always had potential to make money. But Fuzzy's was not a business for him. As long as the lights came on, he was fine."

After 30 years in business, the lights haven't been on in more than a month. A hand-scrawled sign on the front door says simply, "Closed for reorganization." And the question of whether Fuzzy's will ever reopen has pitted the bar's longtime employees against Cawthon's brother, who inherited majority ownership when Cawthon died last year.

Fuzzy's Place was never much to look at. The building could have been a house that someone abandoned because it was too ugly. The music room wasn't much bigger than a good-sized living room. The dining room offered a menu designed by highly regarded Cajun chef Joe Dale, but the walls were filled with Georgia Bulldog memorabilia (Cawthon was a former UGA fullback), and the fixtures looked as if they'd been there since the day Fuzzy's opened – with more thought given to economics than aesthetics.

However, the unpretentious atmosphere was part of the draw. Fuzzy's attracted a unique amalgamation of people – those who came for the Cajun food, those who wanted to knock back a couple of drinks and those who came for the music.

"There were people who were regulars that I served on my first day working there," says Lisa Cole, who has waited tables at Fuzzy's since 1984. "I've had customers with small children and when those kids grew up, they started coming into Fuzzy's."

In the early years, it was a sports hangout. Then Cawthon began to hire bands once or twice a week; the joke was that if you knew how to play "Rocky Top," Fuzzy would hire you. But in the early '90s, Fuzzy's Place transformed into one of the city's most vibrant music rooms. A jazzy funk group called Java Monkey became the house band. Acclaimed singer/songwriter Randall Bramblett re-established his music career there after an extended retirement. And it's where local icon Francine Reed built her Atlanta following.

"Fuzzy's is a special place," Reed says. "I remember the first night I was there. It was a Wednesday and Java Monkey was playing. It was 15 years ago and I'd only been in Atlanta a week and a half. A friend took me and said, 'You're going to love this place.'" Reed stepped up on stage that night and sang "Trouble in Mind." That one performance landed her a recording contract, and a relationship with Java Monkey that continues to this day.

Along with Blind Willie's and the Northside Tavern, Fuzzy's was one of the few havens for roots music in Atlanta. "Fuzzy's held a magnetic attraction for musicians and people inside the music industry," says Tinsley Ellis, the city's pre-eminent blues guitarist. "I sat in with a lot of bands there. It was a place I'd go to when I was looking to hire musicians for my band. In fact, Mike Lowry, who plays guitar in my band now, I found him at Fuzzy's."

Cawthon – sometimes clad in plaid shorts and penny loafers, with his white beard and trademark Panama straw hat – was a familiar figure. "He was like a cartoon character who came to life," Alexander says. "He'd walk into that building and something inside him would turn on. That was a stage for him and he wore it well."

When Cawthon died of a heart attack Oct. 24, 2006, his 75 percent share of Fuzzy's Place went to his brother, Chris Cawthon. Alexander and the other employees vowed to carry on. "When Fuzzy left us, he really hadn't been running Fuzzy's for quite some time," Alexander says. "He left that to us."

According to Alexander and a half-dozen other former employees who talked to CL, that set up something of a tug-of-war with Chris Cawthon. Alexander says the bar's management expected they would continue to run things with the new owner in the background. Cawthon did not respond to several interview requests.

To the shock of the employees, Cawthon closed Fuzzy's Nov. 3. "When I called him the day he closed, he said, 'I do not need your services any longer,' and he hung up the phone," Alexander says.

Alexander says that Fuzzy Cawthon leased the building that housed his nightclub; the lease expires at the end of December. She's put together a group of investors – including Cawthon's former partner, Jerry Rook – who want to take over.

A second option is to open a new version of Fuzzy's in the same neighborhood with the old staff. "It may not be called Fuzzy's Place," she says. "That'll be fine with us. If you line up the real assets of that business, it's the staff, the musicians and the Dale family, who are with us. It'll still be Fuzzy's even if that's not the name."

Melody Moore is another waitress who has worked at Fuzzy's for a quarter-century. She waits anxiously for news. "Everybody wants to be back together," Moore says. "It was a tight-knit family who worked there. We miss it and we want it back."

Francine Reed says she holds out hope that Fuzzy's will be back. "People from over there tell me not to worry, that it will reopen," she says. "I'd do anything to get it back again."

The week before Thanksgiving, Reed, Java Monkey and a half-dozen other bands held a benefit show for the former employees that raised more than $10,000. "We tried to help out the best we could," Reed says. "The thing that rubs me the wrong way, they shut the doors and leave the people who worked there hanging. That can be devastating."

Most of the employees have found temporary work, and they await news that the bar will reopen. "My kitchen people call every day and ask when they can come back," Alexander says. "A job is a job. But the bottom line is once you get to a situation of comfort and happiness, you don't want to leave it. When Fuzzy hired me, he promised me it was going to be my last job. I'm going to keep fighting until I make that happen."