Jeni is Thelma’s
New bar flaunts shabby digs in Kendall-Whittier
“What are you fellas doing today?” Jeni asked as she served us two High Lifes.
“Oh, just trying to raise some hell,” my friend said.
“Y’all need any lessons in that?” she replied.
Jeni has quips, and Jeni has a bar called Thelma’s.
Thelma’s sits at the western edge of the flourishing Kendall-Whittier district. The area is home to the Circle Cinema, Fair Fellow Coffee, and Heirloom Rustic Ales, but after Daddy Dee’s Beehive closed, it’s been sorely lacking in sleaze.
Thelma’s is here to fill that void.
The bar rubs shoulders with Bill’s Jumbo Burgers, seeing the shack’s grease and raising ‘em suds. Jeni only serves low-point beers, but smoking is allowed inside. If that sentence didn’t get you gagging, Thelma’s is your spot. Jeni will serve “strong beer” in the future but says “liquor is against [her] religion.” This religion isn’t based in adoration of a deity but in aversion to “drunk assholes and bullshit.”
Apart from the ashtrays and lawnmower beers are two pool tables, a dartboard, and a digital jukebox. The decorations are certainly eclectic: anime wall scrolls across the front windows, a bamboo bead curtain leading to the restrooms, a Christmas tree, an assortment of wire scorpion sculptures. A “heat and eat” convenience food menu is written on a classroom-size chalkboard next to RIPs and happy birthdays for Jeni’s friends. The most-played song on the jukebox is Brownsville Station’s “Martian Boogie,” and Jeni offers bowls of popcorn if you’re lucky.
As Jeni says, “It’s, ya know ... a real bar.”
With a currently limited beer menu, the main draw of Thelma’s is Jeni herself, owner and sole bartender who’s always quick with a lighter or fresh beer and who—as mentioned before—keeps a quip at the ready.
On one somber afternoon, I popped into Thelma’s on my lonesome and stared at my phone in the un-jukeboxed silence.
“What do you want to lose at today?” Jeni asked. She motioned to the dartboard and pool tables, shook a hand full of quarters, and said, “One dollar a lesson.”
She racked, I broke, and she ran the table.
“It’s called geometry,” she said. “Which I only know from pool, because I took auto shop in school for my math credit.”
Jeni admits she’s a longtime bar fly and knows a real bar from a fake. She was a regular at Eleventh Street’s Chatterbox and tried to buy their analog jukebox before they became The Starlite Bar. She has roots in and knowledge of old, deep dives like Christie’s and a finger on the pulse of the current scene.
And Thelma’s isn’t Jeni’s first bar.
She keeps a banner and billiard lamp in Thelma’s to commemorate her first bar, appropriately called “Jeni’s Joint.” The bar was open in West Tulsa from 1997–2000. For all intents and purposes, Thelma’s is simply Jeni’s Joint II, but she is keeping the name from the neon “Thelma’s” road sign out front, which she hopes to restore soon.
Jeni also has stories, and her road from Jeni’s Joint to Thelma’s is paved with them.
Before her beer license ran out, Jeni closed the Joint to the public several days early.
“We’d been partying in the bar, drinking off the stock for about three days with the door locked, and I must’ve been out of my mind ‘cause I was carrying a baseball bat,” she said.
A few “crack-slingers” tried to break in, and when she opened to accost them, they took her bat and, well, she ended up having her head stapled shut.
A year to the day after, Jeni says she posted to reopen, but the project was shot down by neighbors who protested the morals. The ensuing years were spent bartending and helping manage varying dives while saving up.
By the time Thelma’s former owners closed shop in their increasingly hip district, Jeni had money saved to lease the place. Her location is enviable, but traffic has been light. She recently fixed a banner to the back of her truck and drove it around town to announce the “Grand Opening” of Thelma’s. Despite her hustle, two friends and I were the only customers at the ribbon-cutting.
“All my regulars are either dead, sober, or at the golf bar,” she said.
But Jeni has high hopes. She routinely books karaoke and is looking for bands to play.
Last weekend I persuaded a friend to take her birthday party to Thelma’s on the way to Heirloom, and the group got to witness Jeni on her A-game. One beer bucket turned into seven, and Jeni kept the popcorn and laughter flowing.
“I used to have a table-dancing goat,” she said.
The phrase “don’t be fuckin’ with my goat” figures into that story—but you’ll have to go see Jeni to hear why.
2008 E. Admiral Blvd.
6:30 a.m.–When Jeni says so