Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bill's Gay Nineties: The New York Speakeasy That Sings

By Mitch Broder

Barbara Bart showed me all of her secrets.

Well, not all of them. But I’ll be back.

Barbara is the owner of Bill’s Gay Nineties, which may be the city’s first restaurant to have been nostalgic on its first day. It opened in the 1920s, with a theme of the 1890s. It reassures me to know that even ninety years ago people wanted to go back thirty years.

It also reassures me to know that ninety years ago people were hunting for stuff that went back thirty years. That’s what Barbara said that Bill Hardy did to get the stuff that fills the restaurant’s three floors, like the red Fire Alarm Telegraph box, the Park Row street sign and the tinted photographs of showgirls, which I prefer to the tinted photographs of boxers.

Everyone can see this stuff. But not everyone can see the secrets. Barbara clearly wanted to keep me entertained, which meant that she was either very comfortable with me, or very uncomfortable with me.

The first secret she shared was her name: It’s actually Barbara Bart Olmsted. She married a relation to Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. We sat on the second floor at a little round table, and that turned out to be the second secret: “This is a speakeasy table,” she said, and invited me to slip my hand under the tablecloth.

There, beneath the wooden tabletop I felt — another wooden tabletop. That’s where you stashed your drink when the cops came in for the sing-along. Bill’s, of course, was a speakeasy, but this is its only remaining speakeasy table. I pictured myself at it in 1924, squirreling away my root beer.

When I composed myself, Barbara asked if I’d like to see the secret room. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, even if I had no idea what it was.

She led me back down to the first floor, then through a door that said “No Admittance.” She took me down stairs that were little more than rickety wooden planks. She unlocked a battered wooden door that looked like it led to a clubhouse. She guided me through a room that could actually be a clubhouse.

At the end of the room was a little door made out of bricks. Beyond that was the secret room — where you could stash all of your root beer.

The room was so secret that I dared only peek in. Nobody knew where I was, and after all, it was a brick door. But Barbara invited me back to Bill’s some night to sample the sing-alongs at the piano, and I eagerly accepted, because I knew more surprises awaited.

I intend to return soon. I’ll tell you about it. I’ll ask the piano player if he knows “Secret Love.”

Explore Bill’s Gay Nineties at 57 E. 54th St., between Park and Madison avenues, in Manhattan.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful story...full of intrigue. I look forward to your "Part II" but may need to get there myself before you do!