Tribute to Charley’s Saloon in Paʻia

Jonathan Herman, owner of Charley's Saloon in Paia before its permanent closure

Jonathan Herman, owner of Charley's Saloon in Paia before its permanent closure

By Dan Collins

A victim of the pandemic, and of a charming but long-decaying building, Charley’s Saloon in Paʻia is closed its doors for good. An old fashioned watering hole and honkey tonk with swinging saloon doors and a small stage at the back, Charley’s has a storied past. 

It all started with a dog. Jim Fuller loved his great dane and named him Charley P. Woofer. When Fuller was considering a name for the fresh fruit juice stand he was opening on Front Street in Lahaina in 1969, Charley’s seemed a natural choice. Three years later, Fuller relocated Charley’s to the sleepy town of Paʻia on the island’s hippy-heavy North Shore, where it evolved into a full-scale restaurant and saloon.  

As the town slowly transitioned from plantation camp to surfer colony, and eventually into the bustling tourist town it is today, Charley P. Woofer’s Saloon remained pretty much the same. The kitchen became known for dishing up hearty breakfasts to hungry surfers that were up early for dawn patrol and the rustic saloon evoked a sense of history that suited the growing town.  

Live music became a mainstay. Charley’s stage, occupied by a pool table during the week, was cleared to make room for the plethora of local musical talent drawn to Maui. Outlaw country music legend Willie Nelson made the establishment notorious, choosing it as his preferred venue to perform while on the island. One morning Nelson showed up for breakfast and he and Fuller became fast friends.  

Fuller filled the saloon to capacity for intimate performances by the likes of Nelson, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, David Crosby, and Leon Russel. Those short on cash could stand in the parking lot and watch through the open windows that surrounded the small, poorly-lit stage. The windows always remained open because it was just too hot to shut them. 

Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson, grew up on Charley’s stage, cutting his teeth with buddies Marty Dread and Vince Esquire. Willie K. was a regular draw. More recently, artists like G. Love and Quest Love have found an island home at the old saloon.  

Charley’s dealt with hard times, too. On Christmas morning in 2007, an electrical fire caused extensive damage to the bar area, forcing its closure for several months. The business’s future was in question. Fuller managed to forge ahead, reopening and continuing his live music tradition. 

The Saloon had already achieved legendary status when Fuller, after 42 years of ownership, handed the keys—and a long-term lease—over to his friend Jonathan Herman in 2011. 

“Jim is a longtime family friend. I’ve been around those guys playing cards for a lot of my life,” Herman said. “I happened to be in the room when Jim announced to some of his closest friends that he was planning to sell Charley’s and was considering an offer from somebody who was planning to totally change it.” 

That news sparked a regular weekly conversation between the two—usually over drinks at Mama’s Fish House—about what Charley’s meant to so many over the years and how, just maybe, its character could be retained. Maybe even enhanced. 

“At the end of it, we came to an arrangement that allowed me to buy Charley’s with the intention of honoring the history and the legacy that he had built, but then trying to build  something new,” Herman said. 

Herman grew up around Charley’s and was cautious about making stark changes to the beloved watering hole. He decided to make incremental improvements, increasing the number of nights featuring live music, and adding more photos of surfers and celebrities to the walls. When the sushi restaurant next door closed, he added a sushi bar to the front room.  

“There’s an emotional attachment to Charley’s at every level,” Herman asserted.  “Everybody’s got a story about a connection to Charley’s, whether they met a lover there, or worked there and it saved their life, or provided for them so that they could be on Maui.” 

Rumors of Charley’s demise surfaced again in 2019, when serious structural issues beneath the floorboards were discovered and negotiations with the landowners over the needed repairs failed to produce an agreement. Employees were warned of a pending closure, but somehow the doors remained open. 

COVID-19 started another battle. Charley’s closed its doors on March 17, 2020, due to mandatory pandemic restrictions imposed by the state and county. Herman was forced to lay off about 45 employees. 

“Charley’s doesn’t exist without our family—the crew,” Herman said. “Many of them have been there for more than 20 years and all of them put their heart into their jobs, which is rare these days.” 

As the pandemic wore on, Herman declined to reopen until he felt that he could do so safely. In the end, failed negotiations with their landowners over long-needed repairs to the building shuttered the saloon. Citing cracks in the walls and a sinking stage, Herman said, “There’s no way I can keep spending money on building a business when, literally, the building is falling down around us.” 

“Charley’s was our community gathering place. It was the place on the North Shore where we came to smile and to talk, to laugh and to listen to music, and to dance and to love,” he continued. “And to lose that, on the tail end of COVID, I knew would be heartbreaking for the island as a whole. But I know in my heart that I spent every ounce of energy and ingenuity trying to make it happen.”  

The iconic Charley’s brand could be saved by a new building. “Knowing that the building was coming down, I had already been looking for the past year for a place to move Charley’s to,” Herman said. 

His parameters are simple. “It needs to be able to hold 200 people. We need to be able to dance. We need to be able to make music past 10p.m. and we need to have the parking to handle it. If anybody has a recommendation, I’m open to it. So far, I have not found that spot on Maui.” 

Herman already moved years of valuable memorabilia and artwork. He’s keeping it in a safe place, in hopes of reviving life into Charley P. Woofer’s legacy.

Photo Courtesy: Jonathan Herman

Maui Times