Memories of an Artistic Watering Hole

(4 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Cross-posted at DailyKos.  

I have some fond memories to share. After reliving the experience of seeing The Dizzy Gillespie Dream Band, thoughts drummed up about another aspect of Lincoln Center. The nostalgia for a once famous bar that was across the street on 63rd and Amsterdam, a place where I once helped make the music and sang along for many years, came on strong.

Let me start out where Alvie Singer ended because it is a good way to set the stage. In the background during the final scene from Annie Hall you can see the concert hall where Dizzy Gillespie blew me away but in the foreground, the camera was set up in a bar and restaurant that was once called “O’Neals’ Baloon.”

The view is for you. I need no reminders of what O’Neils Balloon looked like and this in not a story about me.  Perhaps this is a story about a forgotten era that might just be making a comeback after of the success of the movie Black Swan. Well not really, more popularity and higher ticket prices can never take up the slack where the National Endowment for the Arts left off.

This is a story of a painting getting its act together and taking it on the road, a story of ballet at the barre and a recollection of times gone by. Just memories of a social gathering spot that was name “balloon” because it was illegal to call a bar a “saloon” in New York City. Those Blue Laws have been changed now. So much has changed now. So much has been forgotten.  

“So, set ’em, Joe” Today if you look across the street from Lincoln Center the same corner of the Empire Hotel is still occupied by a bar and restaurant. P.J. Clarke’s probably has an even richer history than O’Neals’ but that is another story. As one establishment expanded, a joint that was famous for hard drinking news reporters, Frank Sinatra sightings and Johnny Mercer writing One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) on a cocktail napkin, the O’Neal family contracted back to the original Lincoln Center location.  

O’Neal’s Baloon was not uncommon in many respects, very similar to most bars across the nation where you could enjoy a tasty burger and good conversation. It was a family run restaurant and one family member, Cynthia O’Neal worked hard to make sure the food was far better than most bar food but other than that, the roots of O’Neals’ Baloon was no different from many drinking establishments back then. A place where a warm atmosphere could be found and friends were waiting at the bar.

That root was The Ginger Man, a bar that was born in an empty garage on West 64th Street. From the beginning there was some link to fame. One of the four owners, two brothers and their two wives, was the actor Patrick O’Neal and he was appearing in a successful play on Broadway. That play was called “The Ginger Man” but it did little for drumming up business at first. The construction workers who were working to complete the very first gathering of major cultural institutions into a centralized location in an American city were probably the first steady customers at The Ginger Man.

Back in 1964, when The Ginger Man opened in a neighborhood known for working class families, the tenements of ‘West Side Story’ and the automobile dealerships on Broadway, the neighborhood was in the final stages of a grand transition. In 1962, just across Broadway, the New York Philharmonic had already left Carnegie Hall and Leonard Bernstein conducted the gala opening at Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) in their new Lincoln Center home. 1964 was the same year that New York City Ballet took up residence as New York State’s cultural participation in the 1964-1965 World’s Fair behind the travertine walls of the New York State Theater. You can still taste the flavor of 1964-1965 World’s Fair in that theater, that was built with state funding, renamed “The Ramada Opera House” by The New York Times architectural reviewer back in 1964 and had a tragic renaming during the summer of 2008.

Two years later business was better at The Ginger Man, so the bar and restaurant expanded to the new location on 63rd and Amsterdam. The birth of O’Neals’ Baloon, that was probably intended to cash in on the theater going crowd but almost immediately filled to capacity with people who worked in Lincoln Center, happened around the same time that Lincoln Center was getting into the swing of things. It was the year of final season at “The Old Met” and on September 16, 1966, The Metropolitan Opera House, that just closed the 2011 season with Richard Wagner, opened with the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.

I was not there at the very beginning but I understand that the Baloon opened to rave reviews. The activity level and atmosphere of this liberal drinking destination in the late 1960’s and early 70’s is hard to explain in an era of the $14 Manhattan Martini and corporate bartenders who are more interested in their smart phones than their customers. Those thirsty times were also well before the popularity of red velvet ropes and people who looked like they should be playing for the NY Giants deciding who entered and who didn’t. There was an atmosphere similar to, but much warmer than, the sidewalks of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Eight deep but instead of crowding up to police lines, the celebrants were hugging an oak rail and watching bartenders preforming a high speed chase scene to pass cocktails out into the crowd.

There was the occasional tourist but it was the sort of bar that you could walk in and possibly see the Leonard Bernstein entourage at one end while George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins would be discussing the next New York City Ballet production at the other. Producers and directors from other media along with the stars of the Broadway stage and movie personalities were also drawn to O’Neals’. They came to embrace the people who were building New York’s newest experiment, Lincoln Center for the Preforming Arts. So many great minds in one place made for a sort of magic in the air.

The customers were mostly theater people but not all were movers and shakers in the theater world. Since getting rich and preforming arts rarely merge, I don’t think any fortunes were made on cocktail napkins but several opera and ballet sets got designed that way and occasionally with the stagehand sitting beside the designer suggesting a scrim for that portal or coming up with more efficient stage moves. Musicians discussing their next “possible twenty” rubbing shoulders with composers going over their next masterpiece would become associations. Performing art deals were made, shows were created at the bar but more often it was elders passing on knowledge to the young and people from different fields discussing anything from the newest productions across the street to the families waiting at home.

In this day and age of “social media” you would think such a crowd would become cliquish but that never seemed to be the case. Everyone knew everyone else and everyone seemed equal. It was very different times when you would be hoisting a drink in the evening with the same people that you would be sitting across from on the collective bargaining table from the next day or drinking with the director of the production you would be working on that night. Way back when a liberal and a conservative could sit at the bar and politely talk politics all night long, there was little separation to be found. It was just a familiar sort of place where Maestro Irving was just plain “Robert” and Rudolf Nureyev was “Rudy Baby!”

About a year after the sad demise of O’Neals’ Baloon, Jim Enzel who was the last manager there summed up the feel of bar when “The Talk of the Town” at The New Yorker was already trying to find the good old days. Jim said;

“That was some bar. Every night you’d have Robert Irving, City Ballet’s chief conductor, there, in his tuxedo, and next to him would be three or four dancers, and next to them would be stagehands in their sneakers. At ‘Nutcracker’ time you’d have kids running around too. It was terrific – artist, movie people regular people. You’d come up to the bar, and there would be a fur coat talking to a guy in bluejeans. I’d say in my restaurant experience that was one of the best-choreographed bars in New York.”

Primarily O’Neals’ was a ballet bar, a place for dancers to hang out and let loose. During the holiday seasons when ‘Nutcracker’ was playing across the street and the bar would really be buzzing, I have fond memories of not just children running around. I recall being surrounded by Sugar Plum Fairies nursing white wine spritzers and on matinees days they would still be in make-up. If the crowd was thin enough you could have seen something as amazing as a young Peter Martins demonstrating some new choreography to his fellow dancers. I was lucky enough to see that and also remember many a ballet star “busting a move” there that was more Bob Fosse than ballet.

The late great George Balanchine even wrote a song about O’Neil’s Baloon. Well actually it was about ballerinas sitting on their behinds and getting lazy while drinking and flirting with the bartenders. But as any member of the NYCB company would tell you, it was all in jest. I worked there and remember the great choreographer as taking on the role of everyone’s loving and caring father. Carol Sumner, who was once one of Balanchine’s principle dancers, recalled both those times and Mr. Balanchine in “TIME FRAME.”

“And you know what was really fun about the place too, because a lot of us were very young and had just moved into the City after living with our parents in New Jersey or Brooklyn and we were on our own? We were serious, good kids working at a career. We were level-headed, but at the same time it was wonderful to go into O’Neals’ and sit at a bar for the first time. Be a woman who could sit at a bar and be safe and understood! There would even be stagehands from the Met and the ballet. You didn’t have to worry. You could even flirt a little bit if you wanted to. And everyone knew who we were and that we were in showbiz and that we were the up-and-comings of Mr. B. We were filled with emotion. If I could tell you the crushes on various waiters who were young and handsome! Mr. B knew everything but he would let us do it because it was part of our development as people … I remember him taking me over there occasionally. We would be walking out the stage door together, and he would say, ‘Let’s go to O’Neals!’.’ And we would have a drink and chat. He loved the place.”

If you were young and single with a job in Lincoln Center than O’Neals’ Baloon was the place to be. But it was also far more than that and sort of stood out as an amazing sort of cultural exchange. The dominant ballet company was the NYCB because the New York State Theater was just across the street. The walk was not much further when American Ballet Theater was in residence at the Met. Even the dance companies that preformed at City Center, all the way over at 55th and The Avenue of the Americas, those dancers seemed to find their way to O’Neal’s too.

But ballet came from much further that that, with Sol Hurok acting as the real Ambassador to Russia and the National Endowment for the Arts subsidizing many tours, the world’s greatest ballet companies almost seemed like summertime residents of New York City. If the Stuttgart was in town, O’Neals’ had a German accent and when the Royal was in residence your ears told you it was a London tavern. For the Bolshoi or Kirov they stocked up on the vodka and the parties never seemed to end.

The cultural exchange was far more than teaching Danish dancers how to properly set a “Depth Charge,” understanding London Pub etiquette or learning from Russians that after raising a glass and saying “Na Zdorovie” if one drop of vodka was left in the glass it represented bad wishes for all that you toasted with. Not that teaching “Liar’s Poker” to people who never heard of the game wasn’t a good investment but you could get rich in many other ways sitting on a bar stool at O’Neals’. Everything from learning what “Uncle Vanya” meant to the people it was written for to finding out from a British stagehand what their National Health Service was really like. A listener could learn what a day in the life of a Parisian was like or hear about relaxing vacations in Brighton, Niece or a dacha in the white birch forest of Russia. It was all pretty amazing to learn the realities of life far from home, especially so, while living in America.

The ballet connection was caused by Cynthia O’Neal. Her and her famous husband Patrick were big fans of the dance world. Actually Patrick O’Neal was famous for collecting the dirty rotten stay outs at closing time, dungareed stagehands included, and packing them into yellow cabs to continue the party at his Central Park South pied-à-terre. The view of the park was spectacular. Cynthia was really the huge ballet fan and had close ties with the stars of the day. She was also responsible for the one enduring piece of O’Neals’ Balloon nostalgia.

“The dancers were always there: I was insane about them, and I just got the idea, Wouldn’t it be fun – since they come here all the time – to do a mural?

That still famous 16 foot long painting is called “Dancers at the Bar,” by Robert Crowl. The long bar that I remember so well and that windows that faced the Plaza at Lincoln Center along with the overhead rack for glasses and the distinctive clock were captured in that mural. Thirty-three of the regulars from that era, including waiters, the restaurant’s maitre d’ and manager, also included members the world’s leading ballet companies standing and sitting beside the O’Neal family. The painting captured that era of ballet in America.

Can you find Peter Martins in the mural? I remember him being one of their best customers and I used to be able to pick him out but even though I worked with him when he was very young, I no longer can. The man who is now in charge of the New York City Ballet must be the blond kid in the red, white and blue stripes and the woman he is straddling seems familiar but my memory fails me. (Click here for the big picture)

Outside of the unmistakable Patrick O’Neal in the Blue blazer and dark turtleneck, the faces are no longer familiar but I remember the styles. Carol Sumner said she was wearing hot pants, so she is probably besides the pant leg of the of the dancer in the Bruins jersey.  Sara Leland got written up for wearing a mini. Perhaps Sara is on the right in the short green skirt. I think that is Balanchine’s “Ruby” Patricia McBride wearing a Midi and long black boots while sitting above the rack that held glasses. So that must be Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux beside her and the man Patricia McBride seems to be thinking about kicking in the head must be Robert Irving.

Two of the great American Ballet Theater stars posed for the mural, Edward Villella and Cynthia Gregory. One of Mr. Balanchine’s “Emeralds” Mimi Paul is in there somewhere. Former Principal dancer with the Royal Ballet include Ann Jenner, David Wall and one of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s favorites, Lynn Seymour. A pair of John Cranko’s stars from the Stuttgart Ballet posed, Egon Madsen who is still active and Heinz Clauss who is sadly no longer with us. Sir Anthony Dowell who retired as the Artistic Director of Britain’s Royal Ballet and Dame Monica Mason who has also been the director of that company can be found somewhere.

There are several who are still at the top of their game, including the artistic director of English National Ballet Wayne Eagling, from the San Francisco Ballet there is Helgi Tomasson and Dennis Nahat who directs the San Jose Ballet. John Clifford. who established Los Angeles’ first successful resident professional ballet company posed. There is  Karin von Aroldingen, one of the founding members of The George Balanchine Trust but sadly not Mr. Balanchine’s “Diamond” the wonderful Suzanne Farrell.  

There was a day many years ago that I remember the corner of O’Neals’ Baloon being destroyed and I remember someone telling me it was a taxi cab. They get blamed for everything in New York. But when I read that Time Line Cynthia O’Neal, who always like to talk about all the times that Rudolph Nureyev almost posed, told a different story.

Although they weren’t portrayed in the mural, many of the most celebrated dancers of the Bolshoi, the likes of Maris Liepa and Yuri Vladimirov hung out at O’Neals’ after performances, of course under the watchful eye of the KGB in those pre-glasnost days. Cynthia remembers particularly one after-hours, vodka-laced party that went on until very late. Shortly after everyone had left, a car pursued by the police crashed into the restaurant, demolishing the large round table that a couple of hours previously had seated the cream of the Bolshoi stars. She still shudders at the carnage that might have been. And the group portrait of dancers, hanging just above, looked calmly down over it all.

It was not just ballet that O’Neal’s should be remembered for. The bar once represented a study for what a day in “Theater Life” was once like and for many it was like going home to family. Good food, decent prices and a pleasant atmosphere packed the Balloon with the blue collar theaters workers at the start of the “theater day,” around 5 p.m. Ushers and supernumeraries were mostly people with day jobs who worked nights for very little money but to see or be seen on the grand stage. After the first hard day’s work they would be the early arrivals, lining up at the bar in the late afternoon sun with place settings that made the bar seem more like a cafeteria counter. There was both the comfort of a chicken pot pie and a conversation with the bartenders about the day at the office.

A little later, once the place was getting busy by most standards, the stage managers and technicians who worked rehearsals every day and needed to go right back for the performance in the evening would show up for a dinner break at the bar. The black bean soup with sour cream followed by hand cut French fries and the best burger in the Lincoln Center area could be had for little more than a song. On dress rehearsal days musicians, wardrobe and hair departments would also need a place to rest. The rainbow trout and steak au poivre were extremely popular.

Then the theater goers would arrive as the place would start looking like a happy madhouse as the bartenders would go from good conversion to working their magic.   They were the linchpin of the whole operation. If O’Neals’ was happening now Robert and Richie, the two bartenders I remember most, would be celebrities on the internet as the real choreographers of that scene that is now forgotten. From the early evening cocktail juggling act to closing time when they were fondly known as the “train killers,” Robert and Richie were just the right combination of a little drink pouring showmanship and a lot of knowing and caring about every single customer. “Train killers” as in “I need to make the 11:40 out of Penn Station”…”Let’s have a nightcap and and then I’ll have to make the 12:20″…”Just one more and I’ll jump in a cab for the 12:40″…”Oops! I missed my last train. Can I sleep at your place?”

It wasn’t just about the bar. With one of the first Manhattan sidewalk permits I can recall and an interior tent wrapping around the entire establishment, the tables took up far more space than the bar rail. By seven o’clock Speed Stone kept the red and white checkered tablecloths humming with everything from visiting dignitaries to the bridge and tunnel crowd, while the bartenders kept the local workers and customers waiting for a seat buzzing at the bar. The young and beautiful waiters and waitresses, most of them actors working towards their big break, added to the atmosphere. Fresh after a hopeful audition enthusiasm raced through the crowd like smiling obstacle course runners and always with a pleasant greeting or a quick joke.

But what a pair Robert and Richie did make. They both had a a strong mother instinct. No matter how crowded the bar was, if you called out for a hamburger you got more than just the best burger in the neighborhood. It was understood that you would also get a place setting and someone up front would be chased out of their bar stool. From Richie it would be “Theater worker on a short break need their nourishment.” From Robert the negotiations would be too quiet to make out.” Non-alcoholic beverage on short breaks were always free. I fondly remember Richie’s line “Nonsense I  never charge stagehands for medicine.” From Robert it would be knuckles rapped on the bar to signal “On the house.”

Robert was the stereotypical Irish bartender. I don’t know if Robert actually had any Irish heritage but he had all the right moves. He had that now rare talent of listening to a customer’s story or thumbing through their vacation photos while seeming very interested and remembered the names of most customers along with their family members. Now Richie, he remembered you and made everyone feel welcomed but he also went to work to hold court. Everyone loved every word he said. Richie was a tall thin man with white hair who was not only impeccably dressed, it seemed that he never wore the same shirt or tie twice. Richie had all of Robert’s talents plus he was also a walking theater encyclopedia. He knew more back then about the goings on both backstage and in the footlights than Michael Riedel does today and Richie knew which stories not to tell while telling the ones he did were far more interesting than the efforts of some New York Post reporter.

They were also both also everybody’s time clock. Since everyone who works in the theater doesn’t need to be there from curtain going up to the bitter end for many customers a visit to O’Neals’ was a 50 yard dash from the New York State Theater to the bar between scenes. There’s an App for that today but back then the two bartenders kept a running tally of who needed to be back when and never missed a cue. Can you imagine Peter Martins dancing the lead role in the first part of a triple bill and sitting at the bar with blue jeans over his tights for the next two in the bill? Or better yet, the look on someone’s face when Richie told them “That bar stool is taken. The customer just ran across the street to take a bow.”

It’s all good memories but the story has a happy ending, or rather has yet to end. The high flying days of the family owning several Manhattan restaurants have ended and Patrick O’Neal passed way back in 1994 but his brother Mike is still a restaurateur. There are two outdoor eateries where he and his wife Christine can still be found. One is a small pretty building, just a few footsteps from the Dairy and Carousel in Central Park, a snack bar for the softball fields.  

The larger of the two is down by the Hudson River at The West 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe. There the food reminds me of the good old days and the photo to the left is a relic from the very first restaurant. The place is definitely worth visiting.

Cynthia O’Neal, along with the famous director Mike Nichols, founded the crisis center for life-threatening illness that is called Friends In Deed.  

As to the mural “Dancers at the Bar,” you could say it has gone home. When the second O’Neals’ (originally the Ginger Man) closed stagehands carried the panels across the street to the New York State Theater, where the painting now hangs in the company’s main rehearsal hall. Someday you might be able to see it too.

Rob Daniels, a City Ballet spokesman, said in an e-mail message, “We also hope to exhibit the mural in the front of house area of the theater at some point in the future.”

I could not find a photo of O’Neals’ Baloon but back when the second O’Neals’ closed there was an auction of the artwork and I saved a copy of this painting. My apologies to the artist, I did not save his or her name but here is a view I remember so well.  

You won’t find me hanging out at the barre anymore but at one time I thought it was about the most wonderful place on earth, my prime of life watering hole. Dancers, opera singers, actors and members of the New York Philharmonic mingling with stage managers, stagehands, wardrobe and hair people. Hey you know, expose yourself to art. I am looking forward to the day that painting goes back on display.


    • Eddie C on May 23, 2011 at 00:25

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