You can always spot the first-timers. They’re the ones whose eyes go wide, faces soft with childlike innocence, as they gape at the pink velvet wonderland of plush chairs, carpet and mirrors spread before them, lavishly festooned with twinkling lights, big gold stars and red ribbons. For 50 years, Christmastime at Celebrity has never failed to delight. But now, just past twilight, there are no newbies at the bar. The bartender chats with a few early customers. They act as if they’ve known one another for years, and there’s a good chance they have. They seem like guests waiting for the host so the party can begin.
A few yards away, past a corridor lined with photos of the rich, famous and pampered crowd who has visited Celebrity over the decades, in a rather spartan office dominated by framed family snapshots, sits the man whom the Tulsa World once called the classiest host in Tulsa, if not the entire planet. Dapper in a smartly tailored dark suit, white shirt and bright yet tasteful tie with a Windsor knot, Mike Samara prepares, as he has nearly every day for the past 50 years, to welcome arriving diners. He’s famous for remembering every customer’s name.
There are a lot of names to remember, quite a few of them famous. Almost from the day Celebrity Club opened its doors back in 1963, the Oil Capital’s gilded elite adopted it as home. On any day of the week, there’d be a crowd of elegantly dressed men standing shoulder-to-shoulder by the bar. “The head of this one company,” Samara recalls (and he names one of the city’s largest firms) “used to spend so much time here that if he wasn’t home by supper his wife would send someone here to get him.” Another man from a prominent family “was sitting at the end of the bar the day I bought the place, and he stayed there for many years to come. He was a comical guy, but if you took his seat he’d throw you out. I used to say he spent more time here than I do.”
One guest made a lasting impression even though he visited only once. John and Joe Williams, the men responsible for making the Williams Companies rich, were frequent diners. One day they brought a guest, the ruler of one of those oil-soaked Emirates at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. “Mike,” Joe Williams told him, “the Sheikh wants rice!” “We don’t have rice,” replied Samara. “Mike, you don’t understand,” Williams urged, “He’s the KING, and he wants rice!” The kitchen staff managed to find rice; ever since, rice pilaf has been on the menu.
The menu is short, but every dish is memorable. Everyone who’s ever ordered a Caesar salad remembers its classic, authentic taste and spectacular tableside preparation. Samara used to prepare every one. Back in Tulsa’s oil boom days, desserts were prepared tableside, too, which took up to half an hour of intense work. On those halcyon evenings, as ladies in evening gowns and men in narrow-lapeled blazers exclaimed in delight as flames leapt forth from pans of Cherries Jubilee or Bananas Foster, Samara was always there, congratulating a table celebrating an anniversary, keeping an eye on the bar, and always ready to light a lady’s cigarette.
And all this from a man who has never touched alcohol or tobacco. “I’ve never been in a bar I didn’t own,” says Samara, which isn’t strictly true, since back in the 1950s he was Mickey Mantle’s designated driver. It was Mantle, a close friend, who gave Samara a start in the business, hiring him in 1957 to manage a Holiday Inn in Joplin. The hotel was a success, and a few years later Samara saw a tiny, rundown bar on a two-lane road “way the hell out of town.” The road was Yale Avenue, and the bar became the Celebrity Club.
Fifty years have gone by, and those laughing, elegant celebrities are now ghosts from a bygone era. New York’s fabled Stork Club, the only place with comparable cachet, was torn down years ago and is now a public park. But Celebrity is still going strong, and so is Mike Samara. He’s 89 now, nearly blind, but he still exercises every day. How did he manage to carry on so long? He smiles. “I believe to be in this business you better like people,” he observes, “and I did. And I thoroughly enjoyed my work every day.”