November 12, 1990 12:00 PM

Ever since Cheers premiered on NBC in 1982, the regulars at Boston’s Bull & Finch—the barroom model for the perennially popular sitcom—have had a tough time bellying up. Visitors to the Beacon Hill pub have increased at such an alarming rate that the watering hole has become, in effect, a swamp. It’s now among Boston’s Top 3 tourist spots, with more than half a million sightseers annually. Half a million nonregulars, aiming their Instamatics at the brass railings and Tiffany lamps, wolfing down burgers and buffalo wings, drinking ale, crowding the two souvenir stands and invariably addressing the bartenders as “Woody” and “Sam.”

In the meanwhile, the regulars—a Beantown cross section including construction workers, professors, secretaries and politicians—have dwindled from a couple hundred to about 80. A feisty and close-knit bunch, they’ve learned to cope, staking out their own little corner of the bar, occasionally paying a tourist to move elsewhere. “After a while,” says one of the habitués, Sandi Russell, 43, “you get real sick of people asking you where Carla is.” So sick, she says, that “a few times I even roped off our area to keep them out. I used to get semiobsessive.” Elaine Petrauskas, 30, known to her fellow Bull & Finchers as Max, remembers when “you could walk in after work, and you’d know at least five or six people, and you could sit down and have a quiet drink or two.” Recounting the history of the pub (est. 1969), she and other regulars break it down into two epochs, BC and AD: “Before Cheers” and “After Destruction.”

They almost had to tack on a third, ABF: “After Bull & Finch.” Because as part of the celebration for the show’s 200th episode—with Mayor Raymond Flynn declaring Thursday Cheers Day and the entire cast expected to congregate at the bar that night—owner and founder Tom Kershaw, 51, decided that the Bull & Finch would henceforth be named Cheers. Kershaw made his announcement a few weeks ago, and the result was as combustive as a cocktail of the Molotov variety. For the regulars, it was the last (plastic) straw. “They were screaming at us at the bar,” says bartender Eddie Doyle, 50. Or else, he says, they were screaming over the phone: “No way! What the hell is Kershaw thinking of? He’s crazy!”

Max summed up the sentiment: “This has always been the Bull & Finch, and it should stay that way.”

The name will stay that way. After a vocal rebellion that might compare to a Tea Party this town once held, Kershaw relented. “The turning point for me was the feeling of the regulars that Cheers isn’t a real bar and the Bull & Finch is.” That should satisfy Max and the famous Dennis Flynn, 40ish, who used to bet newcomers they couldn’t close their eyes and drop a quarter down a funnel inserted in their pants (“When they’re trying to do it,” he once explained, “you pour a pitcher of beer into the funnel”). But the regulars will have to reconcile themselves to the crowds (peak: 16,000 per week) and to the commerce. Kershaw estimates that the bar has been earning $7 million-plus a year, half of that from merchandising Cheers T-shirts, ashtrays and Bloody Mary mix. And the real-life Carlas, he says, “serve about 6,000 meals a week in about 70 usable seats—that’s probably the highest-grossing place per square foot in the world other than McDonald’s.”

Manager Bill Honeycutt, 28, misses the old times himself. “You knew everybody that came in. People would stop by four or five times a week. You knew their love life, their family, who was ill, who was getting divorced,” he says. “You visited them if they got sick and got together with them socially.” The Bull & Finchers went to ball games, took fishing trips and, heady perhaps with both romance and spirits, produced more than 20 marriages, Honeycutt says. (They still stage charity events.)

But with a such-is-life attitude typical of Sam Malone, he concludes, “This is still a neighborhood bar. Our neighborhood just got a little bigger, that’s all.”

—Tom Gliatto, S. Avery Brown in Boston

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