Patti Tucker and her daughter, Corey Hudson, sat in the Cheers bar at Quincy Market soaking in the ambience. They sipped beers from dimpled Cheers mugs and snapped photos of each other in front of the replica bar. By the time they were ready to leave, they had dropped $90 on Cheers T-shirts to take back to family and friends.
Tucker, a grandmother from suburban San Francisco, said it was fun to be in the bar famous as the place "where everybody knows your name." Even if no one knew who they were.
"It's just an American icon," Hudson said. "It's the first thing I think of when it comes to Boston, even before the Red Sox."
Here in the birthplace of the Revolution, where Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock once roamed, a barkeep named Sam Malone is still the man of the moment. The Cheers bars on Beacon Street and at Quincy Market have achieved a seemingly unshakeable spot in the pantheon of historic attractions, drawing more than 750,000 visitors a year - more than the USS Constitution and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum combined.
Not bad for a sitcom that disappeared from primetime airwaves 15 years ago.
But Hollywood luminary James E. Burroughs, who produced "Cheers," as well as "Taxi" and "Will & Grace," warned that the Cheers phenomenon runs the risk of growing stale. He said that the bar, which he last visited in the late 1990s, is a tourist trap and that the show's seemingly endless run on Nick at Nite could be over sooner than some Bostonians would like.
"I can tell from the residuals checks" that the popularity is fading, Burroughs said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "Almost 26 years after we debuted, the show, I'd say, is winding down. It's a long time to be on the air - 21 years on reruns. It's waning, but in Boston it will always be alive."
Alive, and thriving, if tourism officials have their way. Larry Meehan, vice president of tourism at the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the show gave Boston an image as a place where people can laugh at themselves and "at the human condition." No one has calculated the show's financial benefit to the city, but Cheers owner Tom Kershaw said he has sold more than $100 million in Cheers T-shirts alone in the last 20 years.
"I see people rush into Cheers on their way to the airport because they didn't get enough T-shirts," Meehan said. "It does have real importance for the visitor industry and real importance for Boston's reputation."
Cheers was not an immediate hit when it first aired in 1982. Its characters were ordinary, if not dysfunctional, and much of the show's humor sprang from how they did not get along. Matt Rousch, a critic for TV Guide, said the show grew on viewers because it fell into a time slot after "The Cosby Show." From there it became a sensation only outdone in popularity by "M*A*S*H."
"It did capture a place, not a time," Rousch said. "It's one of the cultural touchstones of Boston."
Today, fans still discuss the plot lines and characters on Internet message boards dedicated to the show. Discussion gets lively, for example, about whether the death of the actor who played Coach was sufficiently noted in the show. An April 6 posting wished actor John Ratzenberger (who played "Cliff Clavin") a happy birthday. There is also much anticipation about the DVD release of seasons 10 and 11, expected in the next two years.
Kershaw, who owns the original Cheers building on Beacon Hill, has done much to keep Cheers nostalgia alive. The Harvard Business School grad opened the second Cheers bar in Quincy Market in 2002. Today there is the "Cheers Trail," modeled after the Freedom Trail, which is a path that encourages guests to walk the mile between the two Cheers locations. The route is printed on placemats. The restaurants serve a Norm Burger, a double cheeseburger topped with onion rings that costs $17. There are baby outfits for sale that say "I don't even know my name," and Cheers clothing, hats, shot glasses, and dozens of other gifts.
"We make sure we have our act together," Kershaw said when asked about his marketing efforts. "We want people to come to the place everybody knew their name and feel like everybody knew their name. It's not something we take lightly. We train our people to be ambassadors to Boston."
Yet the bars also have the intimacy of a T.G.I. Friday's. Everybody knows the names of the bartenders, but only because they wear nametags. (Customers, thankfully, don't.) There are few, if any, regulars at the bar, and there are no shout-outs to "Norm!" or other frequent patrons.
Eddie Doyle, the bartender who served several Hollywood writers looking for a bar to model the sitcom on, misses the camaraderie of the old days, when it was simply the Bull and Finch tavern, but thanks his "lucky stars, 'Cheers' came along." The show was life-changing for Doyle, who still works in the backroom at the original Cheers and helps orchestrate its philanthropic efforts.
"The only thing I regret is that a lot of our regulars left," he said pointing to different corners of the bar filled with tourists. "Around '88, they started to fall by the wayside."
Burroughs, the producer, said he also heard from displaced regulars about the cost of fame.
"Nobody forgave us," he said. "Except Mr. Kershaw."
Count Jeff Coveny, president of Boston Movie Tours, among the grateful as well. "Boston Legal" may be the "hot show right now," but "Cheers" is an "anchor" of his business, which draws in the masses, he said. Others have tried to imitate its success. When the movie "Gone Baby Gone" came out last year, the owners of Murphy's Law in South Boston were hopeful the movie would spark a Cheers-like effect. It didn't take.
"Cheers is the A-list," he said. "It's a brand people love."
Alex Pearson, who is 19 and works in the Cheers gift shop, said she watches reruns on Nick at Nite. After she moved to Boston from Texas, her family began asking her to bring back Cheers memorabilia.
"I'm my dad's friends' hero because I work here," she said.
Ken Schmidt, who visited Boston recently for an insurance industry conference, said he was a fan of the show but wouldn't call his visit a pilgrimage. The bar was a convenient place to drop in and warm up with an Irish coffee. He stayed less than a half hour.
"You have to see the facade," Schmidt said. "That's it."
Wendy Warburton from Havre, Mont., said she loved being in Boston and visiting Cheers at Quincy Market. The 32-year-old writer bought a fleece, magnetic bottle opener, and shot glass with the Cheers logo. She ate some potato skins and drank a beer amid the life-size cardboard cutouts of "Cheers" characters propped around the bar before rushing off to Logan airport.
"I had this stereotype of New England people being rude," she said, her cheeks rosy. "I was surprised. I found a friendly bar."