Utes football fanatic David "Cymbals" Van Wagenen, pictured with Judy "Bubbles" Lagerstorm, from our Sept/Oct 1992 issue. Photo by Skip Huntress.
The bar at 2324 South Redwood Road has lost its greatest cheerleader and owner David Van Wagenen, who died last Sunday. He was big, 6’7”, with a personality that matched his size: boisterous, irreverent, fun, a man’s man. He played golf, boated, fished, traveled, made a few bets, told jokes and enjoyed a few drinks. On most days he towered behind the bar at David's, holding court. With an unlit cigar clinched in his teeth he watched the stock market ticker on the television (he knew the market and played it well), complained about Utah politics and in the college football season lived and died with his beloved Utah Utes.
He tailgated at every Utes home football game, and he and his wife Barbara became dear friends of Vicky and Ron McBride when he was the head coach of the Utes. For years, The “Big Guy” goaded the crowd to make noise and cheer by banging the cymbals at the Runnin’ Utes games. But he never forgot the people who worked for him and frequented his establishment. He was loyal to his employees from the cook to the waitresses, even helping them out financially now and then.
Margaret Mary and I were always greeted as if it was old home week. When we entered his dimly lit bar and restaurant with its hypnotic bubbling fish tank, the first thing you’d hear was his voice booming across the room, “John Shuff!” He simply made you feel that you were the only one in the place. He did that with everyone. He also served the best burger and fries in the West Valley—not to mention a 14-ounce grilled Alaskan halibut, the famous basket of fried shrimp and a whopping 16-ounce steak sandwich.
When things got tough, that is when people didn’t drink as much as they did in the late '80s and early '90s, he tried different approaches to draw a crowd. He introduced a comedy club on Saturday nights. He set up a dartboard. He had one idea after another; he was constantly innovating. He even wrote our “Ask the Bartender” column, which ran in Salt Lake magazine for years. Some of his answers were priceless—I like to think they were written at the bar after he’d had a few.
And when he spoke, everyone listened. I remember specifically in 1999 complaining of trouble with my neck which had been operated on in 1972. I was unable to move my arms without suffering significant pain as my nerves were being impaired at C-5 by the calcification that resulted from that surgery. He came over to me, nearly in my face and said, “Mister, you must call Ron Apfelbaum, the head of the Department of Neurosurgery at the U. He saved my life when I had a tumor on my pituitary gland. Call him now.”
I did and this marvelous surgeon performed a six-hour spinal fusion, which relieved my pain and saved my life. I can thank no other person than the “Big Guy” who constantly asked if I had called the doctor and what was happening. Based on my experience, I referred two other people to this famous surgeon; both enjoyed significant life changing experiences after their surgery. They called to thank me, but the one they should have thanked was David.
It’s trite to say he will be missed. That’s an understatement. Friends like him don’t come along every day. I’m glad I took a flyer and went into his club for lunch the first time in the summer of 1989. Our office was nearby and this was the only place close that served lunch. We never stopped going and out of those visits evolved a friendship that will always remain special in both our hearts. Goodbye “Big Guy”— you were special to all whose lives you touched and paths you crossed. God Bless you.