It would be hard to imagine Marathon without the Brass Monkey Lounge & Liquor Store. So hard, in fact, that when the landlord once threatened to end the Monkey’s lease, a huge chunk of Marathon’s population (including E-Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons) came out en masse to save their favorite watering hole.
It’s been a long run for the Sorenson family at the Brass Monkey. Mary Jane and Bob Sorenson brought their family to the Keys from Fort Lauderdale because Bob just loved the islands and the sunshine. One day, Bob got a flyer in the mail about a bar for sale in Marathon … and in December 1979, the Brass Monkey had new owners!
Ever since then, the Monkey has been a family-owned business that takes care of its locals — Marathon’s neighborhood bar. Judy Sorenson has captained the Monkey ship for the last 30-plus years, although, she said, “I’ve been working here since I was 17. I’ve cooked in the kitchen, I worked the package store, I tended bar…” She basically took over the day-to-day operations more than 30 years ago, “A long time,” she said.
So many different people love the Brass Monkey for so many different reasons. Local workers love the homemade lunches. There’s always a fun happy hour crowd. Weekends see sports fans hoisting a frosty beverage to their favorite teams on the big screen TVs. And everyone loves the local-friendly prices!
But it’s the nighttime action that most islanders know — the Brass Monkey rules Marathon’s late nights until 4 a.m. Local musical legend Freddie Bye has played the Monkey stage for multiple decades — both solo and with some pretty impressive bands.
Although Freddie has been leading most of those bands, he was a member of the Key Lime Pie Band when they were the house band at the Monkey. Terry Cassidy, along with Merri-Lynn and Joe Britz, played their signature island tunes with Freddie on the drums. Since then, a veritable cornucopia of musical talent has played on that stage with Freddie. (Full disclosure: I was a member of High Velocity for three years back in the 1980s with Freddie, Ron Barfield, and Robyn Robins from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band.) Some other pretty big names graced that stage as well, including the aforementioned Clarence Clemons. Backstreet Boy Nick Carter could often be found on stage with Freddie back when the Carter family lived here in the early 2000s. And Gregg Allman played there sometime in the early 1980s.
Freddie keeps them coming back for their favorite classic rock songs as well as his amazing guitar technique. Have a favorite song? He’ll play it for you. His vast repertoire includes rock classics from the 1950s through modern times. Several generations of Monkey-goers have listened and danced to Freddie’s music throughout the decades.
Although this pandemic year saw the Monkey closed for several months, they usually host two of Marathon’s biggest parties every year: Christmas and New Year’s in July. Walk into the holiday-decorated Monkey in July, and you’ll swear it must really be December. These events draw a lot of people to celebrate a little winter holiday magic in the middle of a sweltering summer, and are two of the most popular nights out in the Keys all year. There’s always a lot of swag and prizes to give away, and the Monkey crew goes all out to put out a great holiday midnight buffet.
In addition to the bar, the Brass Monkey has one of the islands’ most convenient package stores. It’s always been an easy place to stop in, grab your favorite spirits and mixers at local-friendly prices, and not have to wait in line forever. And it’s perhaps the only place you can get package goods as long as the bar is open!
Earlier this year, Judy took advantage of the downtime to make a few changes: she remodeled the interior, and banned smoking inside the bar. “Even a lot of the smokers agree that it’s nice to be in a non-smoking Brass Monkey,” Judy says. There are new floors, and nice wall treatments and décor. Judy offers, “It may be nothing fancy, but it looks pretty nice.”
One thing Monkey regulars notice is that the faces don’t change. “I’m fortunate to have a staff that has hung in there for years,” Judy says. Most of her bar staff has been there more than 10 years, and Judy considers herself blessed to have a good loyal crew.
Generations of Marathon residents and visitors have spent many fun times at the Brass Monkey. It really is good to have a place to hang out, let your hair down and just relax and have a good time. One can only hope that the Brass Monkey remains Marathon’s neighborhood bar for years to come.