Karen Connolly has been bartending at the Original Greene Turtle in North Ocean City since the place first opened in 1976. Kind of.
On June 18, 2018, the Turtle held a 42nd Anniversary Party for the now-chain’s original location, except it wasn’t so much a party for the Turtle as it was a retirement party for Connolly. She’s been a loyal Turtle bartender for 42 years (at least, for all intents and purposes), and now she’s hanging up her shakers and strainers to work in the Turtle’s t-shirt shop next door.
So she’s really only retiring from bartending. Because after over four decades working at what some might consider to be OC’s first locals bar, with a friendly pub atmosphere “where everybody knows your name” as Connolly puts it, how could you ever really retire?
She’s such a staple of the Turtle and Ocean City culture as a whole that at the party on June 19, Mayor Rick Meehan presented her with a key to the city, on behalf of himself and the City Council, for making Happy Hour especially happy at the Greene Turtle for four-plus decades. A video of the ceremony can be viewed here.
“Congratulations on 42 years…I can tell you who has a lot to do with that, that’s Karen,” Meehan said.
“I told you, no fanfare!” said Connolly, who goes on to describe how she, hilariously, purchased a pair of blue denim snakeskin bell-bottoms from Meehan many years back when he owned a shop on Dorchester Street.
(Full disclosure, Connolly really came on as a bartender at the Turtle after they’d already been open for about a year.
“It’s actually been 40 years, but Steve told everyone that I’d been working here the entire time and when I said, ‘Steve, I didn’t work here the entire time,’ he said, ‘don’t tell anyone that.’ I’m not gonna lie to ‘em!”
Since Connolly’s not going to lie and the Mayor sort of spilled the beans in the video above, I feel that this information can be safely published here.)
I met up with Connolly during the first half of the Monday night party to talk to her about her life and career in Ocean City, and what makes the Greene Turtle (aka the Cheers of Ocean City) such a special and long-lasting place. She was hard to talk to, but only because she’s so popular among the Turtle’s staff and clientele that someone was pulling her away for a photo or a chat every few minutes. Aside from that, the bartender — who is as sassy and friendly as she describes herself in the interview — was an easy and open conversationalist, and it’s easy to see why she’s a fan favorite among the Turtle’s guests.
A brief Q + A session with Karen Connolly
What is it about the Greene Turtle that made you stick around for so long?
I ask myself that a lot. When this bar first opened, it was 30 x 30, 40 x 40 maybe. We did not sell food, I think the year after they’d just changed the drinking age to 18, but this place, it rocked. And then I was 23 or 24, and there weren’t that many restaurants where the place was packed every single day.
We talk about the restaurant Cheers, you know the show Cheers, where everyone knows your name? We were like the original Cheers, and not Cheers on TV. The Greene Turtle was the neighborhood bar, it really was.
How’d you end up in Ocean City?
I was from Pennsylvania but when I was four or five my family moved to Baltimore. My family built a home down here in 1962 when I was a little kid. So I did grow up here every summer and when I graduated from college, we never moved back. A lot of people end up here that way.
And then ironically our one daughter, she moved up to Harford County, and our younger daughter, she’ll never leave Worcester County. But a lot of people, they migrate here and then their kids migrate back to the city. I think when they get older they’ll probably end up coming back to the Eastern Shore. It’s what they call the circle of life or something.
And how did you end up here at the Turtle?
I was friends with the wife of one of the original owners, not Tommy or Steve, and they offered me a job. I worked for two years, every winter I would travel around the world and so one winter they got mad at me because I guess the girl who was working every day, they resented that I would work hard for eight months and then I’d travel for four months. So they didn’t hire me back, but then the next year, I guess it was in ‘80, they heard I was back in town and was tending bar somewhere and they said, do you wanna come back to the Turtle? And I said sure, because I felt very comfortable here.
This place was not a meat market. It was not a pick up joint. I cannot tell you how many weddings, baptisms, unfortunately funerals, because I’ve worked here for so long. I do have a lot of long-term ties. Makes it interesting.
You’re obviously an expert bartender after being in the business for so long. What advice do you have for other bartenders here in Ocean City?
Save your money. You make $200, but then you go out that night and you blow $150. You do that and then after July 4th you’ll go, “oh [shoot], I haven’t saved a nickel yet.”
I told Steve, let the younger girls take my place. So the one girl said to me, ‘Karen, I don’t know how you do this for so many years. I talk to the guest and after five minutes of talking to ‘em, I don’t know what to say to them anymore.’ Well, it’s because of this thing! [Motioning to cellphone] People don’t have the gift of the gab anymore. [Steve] said to me, well so-and-so’s young, and most of the customers are old — I said Steve, I was young and I was waiting on 50, 60, 70-year-old men. I figured out what to say to them.
What do you think you’ll miss the most about working here?
One of the main ingredients: The tourists. Since I’ve been in the t-shirt shop just for a few weeks, I’ve had more guests from the bar come down and say, you were our bartender 10 years ago. They’ll say, I’ll never forget you, you made our visit so great, blah blah blah, ‘cause I’m sassy, friendly, and a bartender can be sassy and friendly.
Where now everybody’s so politically correct and I can’t look at you funny ‘cause I’m going to hurt your feelings, at the bar you can get away with being — you can be involved with your customers. You can be sassy at the bar. But say you work at a Denny’s and you’re sassy, and you got sassy, people could be offended and go on Yelp and be like, ‘meeeh!’ We had a lot of laughs behind the bar. People were not as needy back in the old days.
I will miss all the people that I love. But I can stop and get a drink, so I still will see the locals. And like I say, the tourists that I’ve been waiting on for, some families I’ve known for 30 years now, their children are grown and now they have their own children. But they normally stop in the t-shirt shop, so I’m pretty sure I will see almost everybody.