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"The Gift Was Ours To Borrow"

by John Kenrick - May 1999

(Please note: The images here are used with the permission of Eighty-Eights co-owner Karen Miller. They are thumbnail images – click on them to see larger versions.)]

I started hanging out in piano bars in 1980, and the three best of them were on Grove Street in Greenwich Village. Marie's Crisis, The Duplex and The Five Oaks all sat on the same short block within a few doors of each other. They had their drawbacks. Each was set in a cramped, low-ceilinged basement with thick cigarette smoke in place of air, and the sound systems were lousy and the bathrooms were downright grungy.

The thing that kept me coming back was the music. And what music! Marie's had showtune sing-alongs, The Dupe mixed sing-alongs with soloists, and The Oaks had sensational pianists and all-star performers at the open mike. In the course of a night you could bounce from bar to bar, reveling in the night-long fun for the price of a few drinks. As long as you didn't mind the jostling crowds, the spilt drinks and the stink of smoke, it was a great way to spend an evening.

The bar at Eighty Eights (17387 bytes)And then came Eighty-Eights. Former Duplex owner Irv Raible had teamed with one-time employees Karen Miller and Rochelle Seldin to create a new kind of piano bar. I still remember walking into it for the first time and wondering if I'd stepped into an alternate dimension. The art-deco bar area was spacious and chic, the main room plushly carpeted, the upholstered chairs and banquettes were overstuffed and oversized, a baby grand piano sat in a two-story central atrium and (wonder of wonders) there was a modern air conditioning system. Suddenly a piano bar offered elegance and elbowroom as well as some of the best talent in town.

It was a place you could take a date, a spouse, or even your Mom to and know they would feel at ease. Every night the bar had its own special feel shaped by the pianist and staff. Upstairs was one of the best cabaret spaces in town with state of the art light and sound for performers and plush comfort for the spectators. No wonder it attracted the finest acts from day one. In many ways, Eighty-Eights was a phenomenon, an instant and essential fixture in New York City's cultural landscape.

For those who sang at the downstairs piano with Karen Miller on weekends, Eighty-Eights was much more than a bar. As an extended family, this was our home away from home with Karen and Rochelle Seldin as den mothers and bartenders Ruby (Rims) and Mark ("Hazel") as surrogate aunts.

This was where we gathered to commemorate the best and escape the worst. It was not just the music and the atmosphere that we came for – it was the genuine camaraderie and emotional support of this weekly funfest. Tony Night, Gay Pride, Halloween, Christmas, birthdays, first dates and anniversaries marked the passing of the years. When AIDS or other tragedies struck, we found reassurance in each other and the weekly celebration of the music we loved.

The piano at Eighty Eights (19287 bytes)Over the last eleven years, some of us may have taken Eighty-Eights for granted, forgetting what nightlife in New York was life without this place. That came to an end with the announcement that the club would close on May 31, 1999. There was talk of business in the Village drying up and loss of customers, but most regulars knew there were other forces at work. Suffice it to say that, like all clubs and restaurants, Eighty-Eights had run its course.

What does that mean? It means that no bar or restaurant, no matter how good, lasts forever. As popular as Delmonico's, The Russian Tea Room, The Stork Club, Luchows, The Cub Room, Studio 54 and The Rainbow Room were, they are no more. These places did not necessarily "slip." Their time passed and they closed. If this has finally happened to Eighty-Eights, then let it be. Artificially prolonging its life would be cruel and futile. Let it become a legend so that new legends may rise in its place.

Thankfully, no one has died here. The talents that made Eighty-Eights unique are still alive and healthy and capable of creating new and exciting things. It would be foolish to pretend that the loss of this wonderful club is not a sad thing. (Sad? Hell, I'm a wreck about this!) We who knew it will miss it terribly, and we're entitled to mark its passing with tears and genuine regret. However, it would be just as foolish to act as if the end of a chapter were the end of a story. Irv Raible, Karen Miller and Rochelle Seldin have a hell of a lot of life in them, so you know there will be more to come.

When Joe Papp visited the ailing Michael Bennett for the last time and asked if the great director had any last words for the cast of A Chorus Line, Bennett said, "Tell them that every show has to close sometime." As Eighty-Eights closes, we celebrate what it was – and look forward to what is to come.

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