Even on opening night 20 years ago, Morrie Sheets knew he was on to something with his Mort’s Martini & Cigar Bar.
It was early June 1996, and the new bar he’d opened in an old gas station at the corner of First and Washington was packed with people. Old Town was just becoming Old Town – his only contemporaries were River City Brewing Co., Larkspur and Heroes.
“Everyone thought I was crazier than hell,” said Morrie Sheets, who remembers being so overwhelmed by the opening-night crowd that he had to escape and take a rest for a while.
Now, Sheets and his Mort’s co-owners, brother Matt Sheets and longtime manager Emma Russell, are about to celebrate the bar’s 20th anniversary. Mort’s, known for its dirty martinis, bloody Marys with beef jerky, jalapeno popcorn, covered patio, cigar menu and near-constant live music, will be the site this weekend of a two-day party that will spill into the parking lot and include nine live bands, drink specials and free food.
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Those who doubt Mort’s significance in Wichita’s entertainment history need only note the Wichita City Council’s actions earlier this week, when it approved an emergency ordinance that will allow drinking in the parking lot during the party. It was the only way the bar could get the permit secured in time for the celebration.
Mort’s originally was the brainchild of Morrie Sheets and his then-partner Matt Carney, who combined their first names to come up with Mort’s. They loved the tiny gas station building, where Sheets’ grandfather had once done business as a sales rep for Mobil. They wanted their new bar to have a classy feel, and Matt Sheets, who was living in Kansas City at the time, suggested Morrie visit his favorite cigar bar in Westport. He loved it.
A year after the big grand opening, Mort’s was visited by a USA Today reporter, whom Morrie Sheets said he entertained with martinis on the patio during the interview. Not long after, his photo appeared on the front page of the nationally distributed paper under the headline “Good times roll in Wichita.” The story talked about the city’s strong local economy and low unemployment rate and pointed to Mort’s cigar-and-martini motif as a sign of local prosperity. (A framed copy of the article hangs on the wall at the bar.)
Mort’s became one of Wichita’s top hot spots, and regulars hoped they’d eventually end up pictured in one of the framed black-and-white photographs that began to decorate the bar’s walls.
In 2001, Morrie Sheets got married and figured he’d better limit his time hanging out in bars. He sold Mort’s to Frank Whitmer, who ran it until his death in 2011. When Whitmer’s family decided they didn’t want to run it, Morrie Sheets stepped in and repurchased the bar with his brother, Matt, then living in Wichita and retired. The two made Russell, who’d joined the staff in 1997 and ably led it ever since, a part owner.
It was a year after the smoking ban had gone into effect in Kansas bars and restaurants, but even though they were running a cigar bar, the owners looked at the positives. They took the opportunity to focus on their large and popular front patio, which seats 120 people, double the seats that are inside the bar.
“We actually got the best of both worlds,” Russell said. “People who didn’t like the smoke inside got what they wanted, and that’s when the patio expansion started.”
Today, Mort’s patio is open year round. It’s covered with a top that retracts in some places. It’s heated in the winter, air conditioned in the summer, and is always packed, especially when there’s live music. And there’s live music every day – sometimes twice a day. Mort’s has been the launching pad for many of Wichita’s most popular bar acts, including The Erin Alan Project and Sunshine the Bunny.
The patio also has been the launching pad for many relationships. Signs posted all over read, “Here at Mort’s, we share tables,” and that policy has resulted in at least seven couples meeting at Mort’s and getting married, Morrie Sheets said.
The owners have each found their niches at Mort’s, too. Morrie Sheets, also a part owner in five local Jimmy’s Egg restaurants, keeps track of the finances. Russell is in charge of the day-to-day operation of the bar. Matt Sheets keeps the building maintained and insists on strict cleanliness standards. He also, he notes proudly, hand-draws the colorful chalkboard advertising the day’s specials.
“We had a good run,” Morrie Sheets said. “But now, we’re having a better run. We have three older people who are very creative and who are always doing something new.”
Mort’s 20th birthday celebration
When: 1 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and 1 to 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: 923 E. First St.
What: A party that will spill into the parking lot and will include nine live bands on Saturday, five on Sunday, free barbecue on Saturday, free grill items on Sunday and drink specials