COLLINSVILLE — A firebomb through the window. Pistols on the bar. A notorious racketeer shouting, "Whoa! Whoa! Put the gun away!"
These snippets from the past were all part of Ardis Decker's recounting of four decades of a career owning and operating Ardie and Tiny's bar located on Collinsville Road opposite Fairmount Park Race Track.
Her story began in the mid-'70s when old time gangsters were going the way of dinosaurs but were still struggling to hang on, and carried into later years of fierce competition from sports bars and legalized video gambling.
"They wanted to put hookers in here and I told them, 'No way,'" said Decker, 73, speaking loudly to be heard over the blast of country music at her bar, which she operated for 39 years until her farewell party held there Saturday.
At some point not long after she opened for business, she couldn't remember exactly when, Decker said she was "encouraged" to allow prostitution but staunchly resisted. Then an improvised fire bomb tore through the tavern's front window. It was unclear how much damage it actually did. But it's message was clear. And so was Decker's.
"They said I was the meanest woman they ever saw," she recalled about a visit from three burly men who burst through the door a few days after the firebomb was discovered, sat on bar stools and, by way of introduction, laid their handguns on the mahogany in front of them.
They said if she didn't want more trouble, the girls had to be allowed. They wanted 45 percent of the take, Decker said.
"But I told them I'm not putting gals in here. My mother said never let them do that and I never did."
Her mother was the late Violet E. Robinson, a tall, slim woman who somehow got the nickname "Tiny," memorialized to this day in the name Ardie and Tiny's. Robinson ran the same business for 26 years when it was known as the Red Hen and was visited by the likes of Southern Illinois' top gangster, Buster Wortman. Tiny's daughter took it over in 1975, eight years after Wortman's death. Decker said new owners will continue to run the place and will hopefully leave the name intact.
"My mother said she was so proud of me."
Decker said she liked the hookers, if not their way of making a living.
"They were beautiful. They said they got beat with coat hangers. They just got locked into something they couldn't get out of."
She said the young women would sneak away from a house of prostitution just down the street and come over to Ardie and Tiny's to have something to eat and maybe ease their stress with a few drinks.
Decker's willingness not to judge anyone because of who they were or what they did, and years of kindness -- the tavern offered free food on Monday to anyone who came through the door whether or not they had money -- might be the reason why the place still gets crowded on most afternoons and nights. Live bands also help.
Robin Burton, the bar manager, said Decker bought food and clothing for numerous homeless men. When Burton left the job and went to Louisiana before returning a few years ago, "She sent me a $100 check at Christmas."
In 2003, after 28 years in business, Ardie and Tiny's was cited by the Riverfront Times as "Best Place to Drown Your Sorrows."
The weekly newspaper's reviewer wrote, "Ask the chick with the Dolly Parton hairdo to take a spin on the dance floor and quit your moping."
Through the 1980s and '90s, the place was often so crowded patrons waited in the small parking lot in front for standing room inside. Lawyers, judges, city and county officials, drunks, jockeys, horse trainers from across the road and folks just looking for a good time rubbed elbows while a country band played at a decibel level guaranteed to make anyone forget their troubles.
But it was pressure from St. Louis racketeer Tom Venezia, who took over the illegal video gambling business in the metro-east around 1991, that led to real trouble for Ardie and her husband Bill Foster, also 73. And this ultimately led to Decker's decision to allow others to run the place.
It went like this.
Venezia brought the illegal machines and sent men to collect every week and split the proceeds with Decker.
However, one day, Foster, a former Oregon rodeo rider and long haul truck driver, spotted a Venezia collector "Stuffing $20 bills into his pants," instead of putting it all into one pile to be divvied up. Foster said he ran the man off and then, unable to curb his anger, got his gun and drove to Venezia's lair, then in an East St. Louis gas station.
"I pushed in the door and fired a shot through the roof," he said. "Tom's eyes got real big and he told me, "Whoa, whoa. Put the gun away!'" Things were smoothed over after that, Foster said.
Venezia, who in his 20s shot a man to death in a St. Louis bar who had threatened his father, was also known to be quick with a gun. A cancer stricken Venezia killed himself in 2005 at age 61 with a bullet to the head after shooting and killing a 21-year-old woman live-in companion.
Venezia went to federal prison for operating a video gaming empire and 27 Illinois tavern owners including Decker were caught up in legal troubles in the same FBI investigation, which dominated headlines in 1995-1996. Decker said that because she was convicted of a felony in connection with the machines, for which she received probation, she was forbidden from having them in her bar after they became legal.
"It's really hard when everybody else has got them and you don't and can't," she said.
"I sure didn't like getting into the trouble I got in. I told Tom that. I had to pay for the lawyer myself. But I liked Tom."
As for her legacy, Decker said she wants to encourage young people who live in State Park Place where she grew up, a hard scrabble village of high crime and perennial flooding "... to stay away from drugs and make something of themselves. It's real important. Don't forget to put in that I told them that."
Retirement will be in Oregon, on property owned by her husband in the eastern, mostly desert portion of the state. The land contains an old gold mine, Bill Foster said.
"I'll teach her how to use a metal detector to find nuggets. We''ll do all right," he said.
"Yeah, I'll go there," Decker said, "but I want everybody to know I'll be coming back here to visit. This is where all my friends are."
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org and 618-239-2625.