Visiting the Coach House in Old Town and basking in the holiday glow of thousands of multi-colored lights and hundreds of decorations has become a tradition for locals and out-of-town visitors alike.
Some even take a small piece of the Coach House back home with them.
“It’s funny, I had a girl come up and say, ‘I have a Christmas bulb from every year for the last 12 years,” said MJ Brower, wife of owner Jimmy Brower. “You can never have enough bulbs because people take them as souvenirs.”
Others gather around a table giving their best guess at how many lights are up.
And their guess is as good as Jimmy and MJ’s.
All the lights and decorations are brand-new this year, including all new LED lights and 400 to 500 new decorations, and by the time the Coach House staff finished hanging up the lights on Nov. 21, they simply lost count.
“I think it’s around 40,000 to 50,000,” MJ said.
Jimmy shook his head. “Oh, I don’t know; I think it’s closer to 80,000,” Jimmy said.
Founded by Bob Brower in 1959, the Coach House is considered the oldest tavern in Scottsdale.
It’s known for its intimate indoor quarters, inexpensive drinks and, most importantly, its over-the-top lights display during November and December.
The tradition started in the mid ‘80s by Jimmy and his friends.
“My girlfriend at the time and another couple decided to close the bar one night, stay up all night and play Christmas songs and decorate Christmas lights and just get in the Christmas spirit,” Jimmy recalled.
They kept doing it, year after year, for 34 years.
“People just kept adding to it, adding to it,” Jimmy said. “What’s nice is the beams and the ceiling is a 6/12 pitch, so because of the angles, it makes it look like a gingerbread house.”
People return year after year for the holiday lights that take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 man hours to install.
Because the Coach House was short-staffed this year, they began installing the lights and decorations a couple weeks earlier than they usually do, before Halloween.
The bar staff starts on the inside and works their way outside “because the city doesn’t want these [lights] up too early,” MJ said.
It took five weeks to get the lights and decorations up.
“What I like about the lights is we keep it in-house,” MJ said. “Our staff does it, and they work really hard. They’ve gotten it down.”
Before the Coach House expanded its patio and added its side bar, MJ and Jimmy used to close the bar at 1 a.m. and set up the lights until 6 a.m., when the bar would open again.
The Coach House is open daily from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.
“Soon as they counted their money, we’d have to bring in all our ladders and all our equipment, staple guns,” Jimmy said. “By the time we get it all set up, we only got a couple of hours in and then we had to clean the whole place back up again.”
Since then, the Coach House has attracted throngs. According to MJ, international visitors are common.
“A lot of people who may have gone to college here, they’ll leave and come back with their families, they’ll say, ‘It’s a tradition that we come in on this day every year.’ It might be the only day of the year they come, but it’s become part of their family tradition.”
Another tradition is its annual toy drive, which the Coach House has hosted for 15 years.
All toys benefit Scottsdale’s Vista del Camino, a community center that helps individuals and families in need – and one that was chosen for a special reason.
“Vista del Camino was Jimmy’s mother’s charity that she worked for before she passed in 2005,” MJ said, adding that Mary, Jimmy’s mom, worked as bartender at Coach House back in the early ‘60s with her husband, Bob.
All cash proceeds for the toy drive raffle go to St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the poor in Arizona.
At this year’s toy drive and raffle, the Coach House raised $1,900.
“I can’t tell you how generous the businesses are to donate gifts,” MJ said. “It’s just out of their own good heart that they help me.”
While MJ and Jimmy don’t have an exact number, Coach House’s toy drive this year collected thousands of toys – enough to fill half a U-Haul trailer.
“Just like the lights, the toy drive took a life of its own, but we do like to give back to the community, to the people that need it,” MJ said.
Next year, the Coach House will celebrate its 60-year anniversary.
“It’s scary,” Jimmy admitted.
“When I was 16, I didn’t ever want to be older – unless I could be 21 to drink,” Jimmy said. “It’s kind of amazing to look back on history, though. When I think about the people, I’d like to write a book about it.”
Throughout an interview for this story, Jimmy and MJ never call their patrons customers or clients. Instead, they repeatedly use the term “community.”
“I’ve known three generations of kids,” Jimmy said.
MJ added, “It feels like a little community when you walk in here, and not too clique-ish. Just be who you are. So many different generations and so many different walks of life and they all come here just wanting to be part of the environment.”
It’s Jimmy and MJ’s No. 1 goal at the Coach House, to create and foster that community feeling, and it’s why they host weekly BBQs and an annual picnic in January that has been held since the 1980s.
“It’s a day you can bring your dog, your wife, your kids – it’s a potluck,” Jimmy said. “I bring all the beer, all the plates, all the charcoal, the cups, and everybody brings a dish.”
An exact date has not been set for the picnic.
Tentatively, Jimmy and MJ are planning their big Coach House anniversary bash the first weekend of April, although MJ does reveal they plan to celebrate “all year long.”
Following their 60-year anniversary, Jimmy plans to host Scottsdale High School’s class of 1970 reunion at the Coach House in 2020.
And in 2021, the Coach House’s building itself will be 100 years old.
“I’m a native, and he’s been here long than I have,” MJ said. “I feel very fortunate when I met him that I met such a founding family of Scottsdale. I feel very privileged being a native Arizonan to be part of such a historic family, I really do.”
They also playfully bicker like siblings.
“There’s an argument about the lights,” Jimmy said after returning from inside the bar for the third or fourth time. “The guys think they’ve figured it out.”
They’ve been arguing about the lights for almost an hour.
“They’re at 82,547,” Jimmy said.
And there you have it. The final count.