Behind the Bar

The facade ofthe Broome Street Bar, date unknown (photo: NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission)

The facade of the Broome Street Bar, date unknown (photo: NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission)

As many of you have probably already heard, Kenneth Reisdorff, known locally as Kenn from Bob and Kenn’s Broome Street Bar, passed away on February 26 at the age of 92. The Broome Street Bar is a SoHo institution, and Reisdorff was its fearless leader for 42 years. Born in Seattle in 1921, he served in the Marines and fought in World War II before studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London on the GI Bill. It was there he met Berenice “Berry” Kruger, whom he married in 1951. After traveling through Europe they came to the US and settled in downtown New York City where Reisdorff worked as a cabinet maker and his wife a model before they each opened bars in the neighborhood that would become social hubs for SoHo artists. Residorff opened the Broome Street Bar at Broome and West Broadway in 1972 and Kruger opened the eponymous Berry’s on Spring at Thompson soon thereafter. And the rest, as they say, is history….

Kenn Reisdorff (image: The Villager)

Kenn Reisdorff (image: Tequila Minsky)

From Kenneth Reisdorff’s obituary in The Southampton Press:

Mr. Reisdorff, who was known to most as Kenn, was a gentlemanly fixture in the neighborhood, recognizable by his custom-made cowboy hats from a hatmaker in New Mexico, turquoise jewelry, cowboy boots and friendly demeanor. He was in on the original happening of SoHo, during a time when it was still factories, just beginning to be wildly creative, and the Broome Street Bar was the epicenter of the young art crowd. Robert Mapplethorpe was a regular, along with Robert Jacks, Ken Tisa, Robert Boyles, George Kokines and many other talents who formed an exciting, entertaining and encouraging clique of artists.

There are two stories I have heard about the provenance of the Broome Street Bar. Dana Lerner writes in her 2005 article in Recount:

According to Reisdorff, the building used to be a “sleaze joint,” or a house of prostitution, in the early 40s. The windows in the back of the bar were covered and blocked off so that women could perform sex acts. Reisdorff described the women as having puffed-out hair, high heels and wearing little clothing as they walked past the windows to “market” themselves to customers. In the early days, the building was also used as an inn with rooms upstairs for nightly rentals. By the mid-1850s, the building was converted into a saloon with an adjoining dining room and it has remained a bar and restaurant ever since. Reisdorff believed the establishment to be a German restaurant in the 1920s and an Italian restaurant called The 7 Wagner Bar until he took ownership. He declined to give the name of the owner before him, because he “was not a good man” and shot and killed a customer who was sleeping with his girlfriend. However, he was not alive long after the shooting. The brother of the deceased customer gunned down the owner right outside his bar in the late sixties. After the owner was killed, the business went bankrupt.

Broome Street Bar

Broome Street Bar

I recently heard from John Freeman, now living in Kansas, who has additions to Reisdorff’s version of the bar’s origin story:

What is now called the Broome Street Bar was actually started by John Freeman and Kenn Reisdorff and was named “Kenn and John’s.” Prior to that it was called “Tony’s Bar” and served the surrounding Italian neighborhood. Tony was killed by a gunshot through the front window of his bar. Freeman saw an opportunity and pitched the idea for an artist’s bar to Reisdorff.

Kenn and John’s initial concept for the bar was a quiet watering hole for the new and rapidly expanding artist’s community then flourishing in what had recently become known as SOHO. They wanted an interesting selection of imported beer and ale on tap, newspapers from around the world, chess, checkers and a good old fashioned burger. That idea lasted until the day of the bar’s grand opening when hundreds of people, young and old, Italian’s from the Brooklyn AND lower Manhattan families, artists and tradesmen managed to consume 20 kegs of Andecker beer. The mail bags of most of the postmen from 10013 laid outside on the sidewalk under the bar’s windows until late into the night that day. No mail was delivered, there was a party at Kenn and John’s.

From then on interesting and colorful people of all persuasions packed the little space like sardines stuffed in a can. Neither Freeman nor Reisdorff had any business savy and Kenn’s brother Bob volunteered to lend a hand in that regard. That quickly led to a falling out between John and Kenn and in less than six months Freeman was bought out of the business.

These accounts combined complete the colorful history of the Broome Street Bar. Housed in what might be the oldest building in SoHo dating from 1825 with shutters and slanted roofs, it is certainly one of the quaintest-looking buildings in the neighborhood. It is also one of the only places that still remains from “old” SoHo, before the artists and galleries moved away and were replaced by boutiques and restaurants (and million dollar lofts). There are rumors floating around that the bar will close at the end of the year, and with it would go all traces of its rich history.

One old timer remembers:

In the ’70′s, Kenn and Bob’s was such a friendly place, my little daughter could go there and “wait for me” to meet her after work before we went home across the street. We could leave our keys there for friends to pick up. We could say, “Would you hang on to this back pack, book, sweater, or whatever had been left behind at our house until so and so comes by?” “Can I use the phone?” As a single working mom, making those swaps, having a safe meeting place and a place to run into friends for a beer while the kids colored, was such a boon in that hectic life of logistics before cell phones. We were truly a neighborhood then and Kenn and Bob’s was a pivot point.

And another has this story:

One early on when the cafe was limited to the short half, I was having my breakfast in the back room, the one under the big skylight. All of a sudden the quiet was sundered by a tremendous explosion. Today we would think a bomb had exploded. Everyone – I included – dove for the floor. When the dust settled, it became apparent that a large potted plant had fallen down through the skylight from a rear window sill high above. The smashed pot and its plant landed upright on a table where the painter Art Guerra sat. He alone had not moved – and continued to read his paper – even though he was covered head to toe with shards of broken glass.

He goes on to say:

I used to go in there before the Reisdorf’s took over. As I recall, before that it was a run-down joint called (somebody’s) Clam Bar. Sometime in 1972 it suddenly closed, after which there was a sign in its window declaring, “Closed Due to Illness.” The “illness” was a serious one, since the previous owner had been killed, reputedly (as I was told) because he had gambling debts that he somehow “forgot” to make good on.

It would be wonderful to hear from others about their memories of Reisdorff and The Broome Street Bar. Although I did not know him personally, stories about him make him larger than life in my imagination, a kindly cowboy saloon keeper from the wild wild West Broadway that was SoHo in the 1970’s.

 

The Broome Street Bar, print by Chaim Koppelman

The Broome Street Bar, print by Chaim Koppelman

The Broome Street Bar, print by Dorothy Koppelman

The Broome Street Bar, print by Dorothy Koppelman

 

 

 

 

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6 Responses to “Behind the Bar”

  1. Carol Goodden Says:

    And here is another story: The Broome St. Bar and FOOD were under renovation construction at the same time. I think we were racing to see who could open first. I think the Broome St. Bar beat us (FOOD) by a couple of days. Of course, WE didn’t have a beer and wine license at first.

    Around about the second year of being open, and SoHo rapidly changing, Carmen Beuchat (part of the Trisha Brown Dance Co.) gave a performance of her own work at 112 Greene St. There was a hefty group attending and we all thought we would celebrate together at the Broome St. Bar. After all, **I** didn’t want to go to “work” at FOOD, if I was relaxing. So we got a long table for about 15 or 20 of us which included Gordon Matta-Clark, myself, Jeffrey Lew & Rachel, Suzy Harris, Penelope, Alex Hay, Carmen, Sylvia Whitman, Barbara Lloyd, Trisha….and I can’t remember who all else, probably Philip Glass, Nancy Green Dickie Landry, Tina Girouard, and the whole Cajun crew that made up the Philip Glass Ensemble. Jeffrey decided to plop an LSD tablet into a glass of beer. We all passed it around and had a swallow, thinking…what is ONE swallow? But the effect was as if we had ALL taken a FULL tablet of LSD and soon we were bonkers. Gordon began dancing in the middle of the floor in his “contact” style and soon had most of us in a pile. I refrained as I didn’t think it was right for the owner of FOOD to be acting this way in the Broome St. Bar. So, necessarily, Reisdorff threw us out. Jeffrey, Gordon, Penelope, Alex, and some others, including myself, decided to go to Juan Downey’s (at 1 a.m.) and act out our “high” there. Trisha said she went back and threw a bucket of paint all over the Broome St. Bar. We heard about that a week later and nobody passed that terrible admission around – Tirsha would never have done anything like that had she not been on LSD, completely out of character.

  2. Arthur Steuer Says:

    I was very, very sad to hear that Kenn, my dad’s good friend and my “second father” and neighbor for many years on Spring Street, had passed away. My father and Kenn bought two condemned townhouses in 1960 against the advice of nearly all of their friends. We renovated both homes and planted the trees that are still there today. Few people know that there is a pool in the backyard that we also ice skated on in the winter. Because of the people that they both knew – Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Len Chandler, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, etc. it was the beginning of the new era in that neighborhood. These artists and musicians would visit us all the time and that is how the Little Italy nabe slowly transformed into SoHo.
    There were few people as kind and genuine as he was. He was also a very talented carpenter -he practically built both of our townhouses by hand.
    I, for some reason, had the urge to go and see him about a month or so before his death and went to have lunch and visit with him. Something was telling me it was time, I guess.
    RIP Kenn! You will always have a loving, warm spot in my heart.

  3. Tequila Minsky Says:

    please properly credit the photo (The Villager, to photo: Tequila Minsky)

  4. Tequila Minsky Says:

    PS. I live on the same block as Kenn and would cross paths with him frequently. This was taking on Thompson St. in October when he was walking his dog.

  5. Dorothy Koppelman Says:

    I7
    CHAIM AND I LOVED THE BROOME STREET BAR. AND ATE THOSE GREAT HAMBURGERS ON PITAS. THE BIG T HING WAS THAT NO MATTER HOW WELL KNOWN OR NOT WELL KNOWN AN ARTIST WAS, THERE WAS NO SHMOOZING WITH FAMOUS OR NOT, YOU WERE JUST THERE WITH EVERYONE. I THOUGHT KENN WAS A GALLANT GENTLEMAN, WITH HIS COWBOY HAT WHICH HE ALWAYS TIPPED WHEN WE MET.
    I ALWAYS WONDERED WHO PUT UP THE COLORFUL CHALK MENUS ON THE W ALL, AND I NEVER ASKED. FOR A WHILE GENELLE (SP) MYERS WAS THE MANAGER, BUT SHE LEFT. EVEN SO THE BROOME STREET BAR KEPT AND EVEN NOW KEEPS ITS DEMOCRACY OF FEELING–I HOPE THE HISTORY GETS WRITTEN WITH ALL T HE MEMORIES RIGHT HERE NOW. DOROTHY K.

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