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40 years later, downtown Fargo's pioneer of nightlife gets his day

Warren Ackley, seen Friday, Sept. 21, 2017, has managed the Old Broadway in downtown Fargo for 40 years. He will be celebrating the milestone with business partner Randy Thorson on Tuesday evening at the Old Broadway. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 2
The Old Broadway, seen Friday, Sept. 21, 2017, in downtown Fargo has been managed by Warren Ackley for 40 years. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

FARGO—Warren Ackley lost count of the reinventions his downtown business has gone through over the decades.

Since joining the Old Broadway on June 16, 1977, as a 20-something from Pigeon Falls, Wis., Ackley has overseen complete transformations of the restaurant and bar.

The Old Broadway has nearly doubled in size at 22 Broadway N. since opening in 1975. He added a nightclub to the venue shortly after becoming its manager in 1977, installed a brewery in the 1990s, opened up a diner that now is occupied by the OB Sports Zone and, most recently, built a sidewalk patio.

It's all part of Ackley's calculated efforts to keep things fresh, even if his own career path wasn't quite so clear in 1977.

"I didn't think I could hold a job that long," he joked.

Ackley said he's happy right where he is, 40 years older and wiser—and he'll get a proclamation from Mayor Tim Mahoney and a party thrown by friends to mark his achievement of possibly the longest continuous management of a bar in Fargo's history.

"It was just a fun place, people were great and one thing led to another," he said. "Now it's 40 years later, and I've been having a great time. I'm still having a great time. I think I've got 40 more years left in me."

Mahoney's proclamation will declare Tuesday, Sept. 26, Warren Ackley Day, something the mayor said is deserved for Ackley's involvement in community initiatives and role in helping to revitalize downtown Fargo.

"This bar has been part of getting involved in helping us bring the downtown back, so that's part of what we're celebrating," he said.

It's also a way to encourage locals to "give him a hard time," Mahoney joked, and anyone who'd like to celebrate or roast Ackley can attend the party 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Old Broadway nightclub.

Bringing people together

Renovations and new concepts aren't the only changes Ackley has led since 1977.

He and Randy Thorson, his business partner for the past 32 years, now own the establishment and building. The two met through mutual acquaintance Russell Maring, and Thorson said a partnership that began as "just another deal" has become much more.

"We just meshed really well together," he said.

Ackley said the two are "opposites" in many ways, though they share a passion for reinventing things. That mutual interest has played out at the Old Broadway, which Thorson calls "Warren's baby," as well as their several other businesses in town, including Borrowed Bucks Roadhouse, CI Sport, JL Beers, Vinyl Taco and NoBull Smokehouse.

Despite their focus on tweaking or improving things that they'll continue, including the possibility of four more projects they're considering downtown in the coming years, Ackley said one important trait of the business has remained constant.

"People come out to a restaurant or a bar to interact with other people, to have contact with other people and to meet other people," he said. "That'll never change. That's what we do, bring people together."

Ackley has learned the value of promotion—he said nothing happens without it—and that has included events and themed nights that ranged from creative to absurd.

When Skylab fell in 1979, for example, Ackley parked a smashed car out front and threw a party pretending that the space station had fallen on Broadway.

The establishment's combination lock parties, too, drew people in, with guys getting combinations and girls getting the locks. Ackley said he knew of seven couples who met there and later got married.

Ackley, too, found love at the OB. During a tongue-in-cheek "Lawrence Welk Appreciation Night" he held to use a new bubble machine, he met his now-wife, Rosemary Ackley. They'll celebrate their 36th anniversary on Tuesday.

He's worked in just about every capacity at the Old Broadway and continues to play a major role in its operations.

Ackley said it's been a perfect place for his diverse interests. He got a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, but said he previously considered studying architecture, interior design and fashion merchandising. He's been able to tap into all those interests here.

Maybe that's why he said the past 40 years have flown by—though it seemed to slow down when a major construction project replaced the formerly curvy Broadway with a straightened road in the mid-1980s.

"The only thing that doesn't go fast in my mind, in my life, is road construction. If you want to slow down your life, watch road construction," he said.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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