John Olson, the namesake of one of the most notorious bars in B.C., died Tuesday in Nanaimo. He was 85.
In 1962, Olson created Big Bad John’s, a hillbilly hideaway out of what was then the Strathcona Lounge. The province’s first post-prohibition cocktail lounge made a distinctive mark in the city’s hospitality industry, carrying on a tradition from his father.
Born John Newlin Olson in Victoria on May 11, 1930, he attended Central and Oak Bay high schools and then the University of British Columbia before heading to Denver to study hotel management.
John and his brother, Keith, took over operations of the Strathcona Hotel from their father, Barney, who was originally from Wisconsin.
Barney Olson retired to Victoria in 1946 and purchased the Strathcona. He ran it until 1962, when he gave the keys to his sons.
Olson brothers Grant, Craig and Kirk took over the business after the death of their father, Keith, in 1993. John retired in 1994, paving the way for his three nephews to operate the family business.
“He got the passion [for the Strathcona Hotel] again. When he came back to Victoria in 1962, they built Big Bad’s in a matter of a couple days,” said Grant Olson. “He loved to create. He loved to build. And he loved to have fun.”
Big Bad John’s took on a distinctive persona, which continues to this day. In 1962, John started adding farm equipment and ancient gear to the walls and shelves in anticipation of a stream of visitors in the wake of the Seattle World’s Fair.
That bar, now 53 years-old, is still famous for the organized chaos within its walls, with peanuts strewn across its small tables, floors and burlap-sack upholstered benches, and a wild collage of IDs, underwear, money and memorials tacked to the walls and table tops.
“I think he expected it might last a season and they would kill it and do something else, but it caught everyone’s attention and it carried on,” said Grant Olson. “Of all the places in Victoria that have morphed and changed, Big Bad’s has essentially stayed the same.”
John Olson went on to design and create nightclubs, discos and roof-top dining before he retired.
He and his brother, Keith, also started the tradition of large events at the hotel.
“One New Year’s Eve, my dad and uncle got a liquor licence for one day, and they did more business in one day than they did in a month of banquets,” recalled Grant Olson, noting that prompted getting a cabaret licence and starting a long line of large-scale concerts at the Strath.
John Olson was a sportsman who excelled at rugby and loved fishing, hunting and horses, which led him to own and run Tally-Ho sightseeing for 11 years.
He is survived by Carmon, his wife of 28 years, her two children and four grandchildren, six children from his first wives, as well as eight grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
There will be a celebration of his life at the Strathcona Hotel’s Games Room, 3 to 5 p.m. on Oct. 24.