Summertime gigs at Bayshores Tropic Hut were always a little dicey for musicians.
Johnny Ambrozak was notorious for opening up the seasonal bar and restaurant later in the season than expected — sometimes waiting until July for his first night of business. And the stage pressed up against Saratoga Lake didn’t offer very much in the way of creature comforts.
Black flies were plentiful in the spring, and giant mosquitoes would roll in for the summer. At night, they’d be chased by bats, which sometimes weaved through the performances on the stage.
There were no lights, so acts booked at the Tropic Hut sometimes found themselves playing by the dim glow of a desk lamp Ambrozak would bring out when it got dark or a red floodlight from the small bar off to the side. The stage also lacked a roof or shelter of any sort, so musicians often found themselves scrambling to cover their instruments and equipment whenever a thunderstorm would pass overhead.
“If a storm broke out there, you better have a couple garbage bags to cover your speakers and your sound board and then run like hell,” recalled Mikki Bakken of Wilton, a musician and longtime friend of Ambrozak and his mother, Pat Ambrozak, who ran the Union Avenue business together.
Still, the Tropic Hut was a favorite of the musicians who played there and the lakeside revelers who came to hear them. Even with its shortcomings, the bar’s rustic charm and friendly proprietors were enough to keep performers and tipplers coming back for more than five decades.
Pat Ambrozak had business sense and was the glue that held the business together. Johnny was the gregarious, fun-loving jack-of-all-trades who tended bar, booked acts, operated the nearby docks and would even jump into the Tropic Hut kitchen to cook when needed.
Love of music
The mother and son loved music, and it showed through their devotion to the bands that played. They booked good bands and then let them play, never meddling with their performances.
“The thing they both shared was their love of music,” said Bakken. “You could tell that.”
The Ambrozaks couldn’t pay their bands much but tried to make up for it in other ways. Johnny would greet his acts with a beer and a shot as they got on stage and often offered them a place to stay in the family’s nearby mobile home park afterward so they wouldn’t need to drive.
“He was generous. He really treated you like family,” recalled Brian Gibney, who played summers at the Tropic Hut for roughly a decade. “He made it very comfortable to play there.”
Violence and death
But something went dreadfully awry during the pre-dawn hours Monday. City police believe Johnny Ambrozak, 47, got into a violent altercation with his 75-year-old mother that ultimately lead him to stab her to death inside a mobile home near the small bar.
Lt. John Catone said Ambrozak then remained at the home for about 12 hours. Then, sometime Monday afternoon, he took his own life with a single gunshot wound from a rifle.
An acquaintance discovered the bodies on Friday after not hearing from the family for several days.
The tragic deaths of the Ambrozaks sent ripples of grief through the tight-knit community of musicians and regulars who frequented Bayshores Tropic Hut. Many were stunned by the ignoble end that befell the iconic proprietors.
“It’s a big loss,” lamented Steve Butler, who used to perform with Gibney and the Fighting 86s at the Tropic Hut.
Like others, Butler tried to recall the good times at the Tropic Hut, rather than their sad and sudden demise. He recalled his raucous performances at the venue that would characteristically end with sleeping in a nearby mobile home.
“We’d get up in the morning and have eggs and a beer on the lake,” he said.
The Tropic Hut also offered a unique, laid-back atmosphere that made it an institution on the lake. The crowd drew a blend of people, including tenants of the mobile home park, boaters on the lake and horsemen looking to escape the tourist-crowded city.
“It wasn’t fancy, but people didn’t always need fancy,” Bakken said. “They just needed a quiet country place where they could hang out and get away from their stresses.”
The future of the Tropic Hut and the mobile home park are now clouded with uncertainty. Without the mother and son who cared for the Tropic Hut for so long, some fear that it may never reopen.
“Everything seems like it’s up in the air right now,” Gibney said.