Cheers to Bill Sirago, former owner of Bunce’s Place in Grass Valley
Celebration of life
Family and friends are invited to a celebrate Sirago’s life at 4 p.m., April 28 at the Nevada City Elks Lodge.
“Sometimes you want to go” — well, you know the song and associated bar.
In Grass Valley, “Cheers” was embodied by Bunce’s Place — at least according to many who frequented the bar until it closed in 2009.
Last month, longtime owner William “Bill” Sirago, 99, died.
Even many newcomers to town, as Brian Price had once been, experienced the welcoming feeling of Bunce’s Place. The first time Price explored Grass Valley, that’s where he went.
“I just went out and came back (home), and went, ‘Well, I met everyone in town,’” he said. “Everybody went to Bunce’s.”
Price had this experience without knowing that his partner, Sandi Kubich, was Sirago’s step-granddaughter.
Long before the owner of Bunce’s Place ran a bar, Sirago was in the Navy, stationed at New Hebrides Island.
In his early years, he also worked for the country’s Civilian Conservation Corps. The job, according to what Sirago told his son-in-law, Chris Olsen, was not easy.
Growing up in Colorado, Sirago left home after an embarrassing episode with his mother, and never returned to the state, according to his friend of 20 years, Brian O’Neill.
“He was 19 years old,” said O’Neill, “and his mom slapped him in front of his buddies – short, little feisty Italian. And that was it, he split” with $26 in his pocket.
After shortly living in Los Angeles, Sirago moved with his daughter and first wife to Grass Valley to work as a mucker at the Empire Mine.
‘WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME’
In 1955, Sirago, his brother, Nick, and his cousin-in-law wanted to run a business. Around that time, Bunce’s Place went up for sale. The three spoke on the phone, and decided to buy it – without any experience.
“None of them knew anything about a bar,” said his daughter, Joan Olsen.
Sirago frequently experimented with his bar, said Joan Olsen. He began making pizzas for the bar, which he first cooked at home, lining up the ingredients along his kitchen table, trying to uncover what tasted best.
“Dad was always coming up with something, always wanting to be busy,” his daughter said. “So, my girlfriend and I would be the guinea pigs for the pizzas. He would make them at home, freeze them” and sell them at the bar.
Over time, Bunce’s Place became very popular, said Kubich.
“It was really like a family bar,” he said. “You talk about that place — well, how does that song go in Cheers — you want to go to that place ‘where everybody knows your name.’”
Price, the owner of Burgee Dave’s at the Mayo in Camptonville, agreed.
“When I went to Bunce’s, everybody knew Bill and Dave and Mark and I just got welcomed every time I was there, long after Bill had sold it,” he said. “That’s where I would go when I was in town.”
The bar, according to his daughter, attracted everyone in town.
“The male (downtown) business owners would come in at eight o’clock in the morning,” said Joan Olsen. “If you couldn’t find them in their stores, you knew where they were.”
Sirago ran his bar strictly, said O’Neill, not allowing things to get out of hand. Though, he cared deeply about his customers and employees.
“He was stern but he also had a soft heart, too,” said O’Neill, recounting a time Nick wanted to fire a bartender, but Sirago wouldn’t allow it.
“‘Come on, Joe,’” Sirago said to the bartender. Sirago would sit down with him, have a drink and keep the employee on staff.
AN ACTIVE RETIREMENT
In the early 60s, Sirago built a lawn mower, said his daughter. The machine had “rake fingers” to pick up things like crabgrass, and was “like no other lawn mower.”
“He loved to work with his hands outside,” she said.
After retiring and selling Bunce’s Place in 1983, Sirago was often seen playing golf, fixing his car or drinking with friends, according to his daughter. O’Neill agreed.
“He changed his own oil in his car right up to — what? — maybe 95 years old or older,” he said.
Sometimes Price would suggest someone else change the oil or car part, but even in old age, Sirago wouldn’t budge.
“‘Nope, I got tools right over here,’” Sirago said to Price. His daughter witnessed this almost up until the day he died.
“I have pictures of him at 99 up on a ladder changing his filter,” said his daughter. “So he wasn’t going to let anybody do stuff for him.”
At 96, Sirago fell out of bed and broke his hip, according to his daughter. Soon after, he was hanging out with friends on the golf course.
“He wanted to get out, he wanted to go, he wanted to go fast — and he did,” said Joan Olsen.
Toward the end of his life, Sirago had colon and throat cancer, but that never seemed to slow him — even his physical appearance, said O’Neill.
“He’s the only person I’ve ever seen in my life that when he came out of chemo, his hair was cleaner and slicker than I’d ever seen before,” he said.
FAMILY, FRIENDS & GOLF
At the age of 60, Sirago began playing golf, said Joan Olsen. His game, according to O’Neill, had many idiosyncrasies. He played with no glove, always used the same tee, and never lost a golf ball.
“Ah man, we went back for that tee — if I went back once if I went back 30 times,” said O’Neill.
As he got older, Sirago never stopped playing hard, almost never skipping a hole, said O’Neill.
“He was a competitor,” he said.
If he wasn’t golfing, Price said, Sirago – even into his 90s – was frequenting the bars. Owners sometimes tried to give him discounts, but Sirago never accepted.
“He would look at me and go, ‘What is this? If you’re not going to bill me then I’m not ever coming back here,’” Sirago said to Price.
Sirago was not cheap, but having grown up through the Great Depression, he became thrifty, said Kubich.
“He was generous to a fault when it came to going out to dinner or something like that, but you know, if there’s something there that’s worth while he sure as hell wouldn’t let that thing go to waste,” he said.
The former bar owner never enjoyed craft beers, particularly their high prices, his daughter said, nor did he understand why so many people frequented Starbucks.
“‘It can’t just be coffee, Yorgie, what is it?’” Sirago would ask his daughter, referring to her by her nickname.
Toward the end of his life, Sirago remained unselfish, keeping an eye out for others, said O’Neill.
“‘Who you going to golf with?’” Sirago would ask O’Neill, as he was dying in his hospital bed.
Kubich agreed that Sirago was very caring of others. Sirago, who was his wife’s caregiver, told Kubich he wanted to ensure Edna was cared for after he died.
“I’ll always be indebted and endeared to him to the fact that, especially as things got later on in life, his big thing was always taking care of my mom,” he said. “He made me swear to him, take care of your mom.”
The two were married for 40 years.
“Probably in this whole story, the luckiest person is my mom,” said Kubich.
While he’ll be remembered for much, Price will often think of Sirago when drinking at a bar.
“I’m sure I’ll sit at a bar or at the house here in town, and I’ll have me a vodka tonic in honor of Bill.”
Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The previous article misstated the relationship between Brian Price and Sandi Kubich. They are partners.
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