Bartender Joe Latona begins the ritual of making Joe’s Famous Rum Punch at The Ship, a cocktail lounge drydocked in the West Bottoms at 1217 Union Avenue. He sets a Collins glass on the bar, fills it with ice and layers in white rum, fruit juices, orange curacao, amber rum, and dark Bacardi 151. Crimson light filters through the colored liquid layers.
He slides the cocktail over and quips, “It’s only famous here.”
Latona chuckles. He’s dressed in a black Rolling Stones 1972 North American Tour T-shirt and slacks. He wears a replica 1924 KC Monarchs Cap. A fixture behind the bar at The Ship on Wednesday nights, Latona is as much a draw as the boozy cocktails he pours.
A bartender is a default emcee of the social exchange at a bar. Latona, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War (1970-71), is a master of the trade in his low-key style. He came out of retirement at the behest of Bob Asher, who co-owns The Ship with Josh Mobley, to man the bar one night a week.
Latona’s life’s story has more layers than the rum punch he concocts. After Vietnam, he returned to Kansas City and worked at Kelly’s in Westport from 1972-1977 before getting a call that led him to Hawaii.
He lived in Westport near the Flea Market then. After walking from Kelly’s to his home on a cold February day, his phone rang. It was Dennis “Denny” Donegan, co-owner of The Wharf in Honolulu. Donegan, whose family was based in Kansas City, is best known locally for later opening Stroud’s Oak Ridge Manor and and Stroud’s South with his brothers in the Eighties.
“Denny calls me and says he has a job opening in Hawaii,” says Latona. “I left 10 days later and worked there from ‘77 to ‘83.”
In Honolulu, Latona learned how to make his famed rum punch and the Guy Tai. The latter is a potent rum-based spin on the classic Mai Tai that a fellow bartender named Guy, naturally, created.
Latona returned to Kansas City and worked at Stroud’s since its inception in 1983 until his retirement 29 years later. The Ship is his latest port of call.
A few hot, humid days deep into summer, The Ship is safe haven at night from Tuesday through Saturday when the air outside is still warm. Inside, drinks like rum punch, Guy Tais and cheap, blue-collar beer like Hamm’s cut the temperature down to size. Freezees, frozen cocktails served in a half- or full-sized portion, come in Pina Colada or Java Hook-Irish Coffee versions. The caffeine-fueled Java Hook is dusted with ground coffee beans.
On this given night on television, the Kansas City Royals are beating up the Seattle Mariners which seems apt in this nautical-themed bar. The small audience takes time to cheer hits and runs scored between banter, jokes, jeers, laughter, greetings and partings, sports trivia, historical accounts and profanity in a swirl of Irish, British and Midwestern accents. Here, the price of admission is presence. Participation, passive or active, grants citizenship.
Amid the melting pot of sounds and voices from the few faithful regulars or thirsty throng that gathers, especially when live music throws down on Thursday nights and weekends, the spirit of the original Ship fully embodies this lounge.
The Ship first opened at 411 East 10th Street in downtown Kansas City, shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in 1935. Decommissioned in 1993, the legendary venue was a destination for several generations of prominent Kansas Citians, ne’er-do-wells and souls fortunate to discover this magic space during its heyday.
In 1993, the building was condemned by the city of Kansas City to make room for Ilus Davis Park. Local developer Adam Jones and others had the foresight to salvage most of the original interior. Bob Asher and Josh Mobley retrieved the fixtures in 2004 and began reconstructing the lounge in its present location.
Since setting sail once again, The Ship has attracted Kansas City’s artists, musicians, West Bottoms dwellers, lovers of classic soul music spun by Fat Sal and Superwolf, and many other denizens of our fair city on a course bound for uncharted waters.
Along with Asher and Mobley, Joe Latona stands ready at the helm with a cold beverage and a story to share.