Eighty-Eights: Paradise Lost

Commentary by John Kenrick

(August 2000)

The photo below is used with the kind permission of Karen Miller.

The piano at Eighty Eights

"It wasn't paradise
But it was home"

Some things cannot be replaced. When someone – or something – is truly extraordinary, there is no "next."

In Greek mythology, when Hercules died, no one stepped up to replace him. Alexander, Cleopatra, Washington, Lincoln – with each of their departures, something irreplaceable was lost. Life went on, but in ways that were perceptibly poorer.

When Eighty-Eights closed in the Spring of 1999, many reassured themselves that we would soon be singing showtunes somewhere else. I was in that select group of starry-eyed twits. After all, I had seen many bars and clubs come and go over the last few decades, and knew that the piano bar nightlife of New York just kept rollin' along, finding new rooms and new pianists to keep the music going.

Well, most departed bars are not missed because most are as unique as a Number 2 pencil. Eighty-Eights was one of a kind.

I should have known better, being a veteran regular (and onetime manager) of The Five Oaks. Remember that hallowed nitespot? It got kind of scruffy towards the end of its half-century existence, but that only made it all the dearer to some. (If this starts to sound like Kurt Weill's "Bilbao Song," that's alright – just hum the melody as you read on.) A few guppies still swam around in the old fish tank by the door, caricatures of old habitues lined the walls, and the bathrooms were the last word in antediluvian. And people flocked into the place year after year, loving every dusty inch of it! Long, smoky nights spent listening to Marie Blake and the wondrous talents she attracted were the quintessence of old Greenwich Village sophistication – relaxed, understated, and oh so adult. When Marie died, many realized that the Oaks was doomed. What they did not know was that mismanagement had already driven the place irreparably into debt.

A new owner grabbed up the Oaks, pouring almost half a million into renovations. Walls were torn out, the beloved horseshoe bar demolished, and the old fish tank replaced by bulky Corinthian columns and flowing white drapes. In obliterating decades of grit, he left the Oaks with as much atmosphere as an ice cream parlor at Great Adventure. The performers who staffed the place understood loud and funny, but had no clue as to what it took to take care of customers. Old regulars who ventured into the "new" Oaks found it so lifeless that they soon gave up and went elsewhere. Since then, the room has gone through several incarnations, each less popular than the one before. The real tragedy was the people, thousands of regualr and occasional customers who simply had no comparable place to go.

The space once occupied by Eighty-Eights seems destined for a similar fate. The new owners have stripped everything out – right down to the bare brick walls. Now work on the space has essentially stopped, with no sign of the Thai restaurant that was supposedly coming. (Like New York needs another blasted Thai joint?) Dame Rumor – not always dependable – says they ran out of funds. Time will tell.

Whatever happens to the space, the real tragedy remains what has happened the people – the living spirit of Eighty-Eights. The regulars have been scattered, and tourists who once considered the place an occasional home away from home wind up staying uptown or just heading to bed earlier. Oh yes, many of the regulars drink elsewhere, and as copiously as ever – but without the music and camaraderie, it is not even vaguely the same. Let's face it – we could work up quite a thirst between renditions of "Officer Krupke" and the "Tonight" quintet.

The music? Well, there really is nowhere else to hear it. Dexter plays showtunes at Marie's Crisis on weekends, but the place is a total dive and the crowd is mostly straight people out to gawk at the handful of singing queers. You can revel in Bobby Peaco and Terri White at Rose's Turn on Sundays, but you could take root and sprout apples waiting to hear a showtune – and singing along is not the issue here. I have been known to enjoy an evening with Andy Marshall's sing-alongs at the Monster, but the disco thumping below too often drowns out even the lustiest singing.

And did you know some poor souls are still viciously jealous of what we had at Eighty-Eights? When a woman who belts (always off-key) at the Monster heard I was once one of Karen's regulars, she derisively said, "Oh but that bunch had no talent – they used a microphone for solos." Never one to waste diplomacy on idiots, I responded, "Honey, you wouldn't know talent if it peed in your ear – all you've got is volume." And when a certain homophobic pianist (who shall go nameless) saw a few of us sitting in Rose's Turn one night, he grumbled loudly to the bartender, "That's all I need is Miller's old crowd coming in here." We moved on.

Did I say we moved on? Oh, Mary. The passage of time is only making it clearer that when we lost Eighty-Eights, we lost something irreplaceable. There is no other bar where we can gather and sing the nights away . . . no other room where the music of Broadway reigns supreme hour after hour . . . no other place with anyone even vaguely comparable to Karen, Rochelle and company.

Yes, life goes on, but it is decidedly poorer. This has turned out to be one of those times when there is no "next."

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