The Stage Door Bar & Grille
The Schubert Theatre in New Haven was the last stop for any Broadway bound play or musical act. If you bombed in New Haven, your chances for succeeding in New York or even making it to New York were greatly diminished.
Extending out from the Stage Door was your basic neon sign, blaring out the name in big red letters over a black background. Nothing fancy, just your basic bar sign.
I was allowed access to the Stage Door any time, day or night. My mother's job at the White Tower 24 hour hamburger joint across the street gave me passage to most places, day or night, that any 10 year would never dream of entering, nor their parents allow.
The murky windows of the Stage Door facing the corner of Crown and College were covered half way down with old cigarette stained drapes. If you were tall enough, which I wasn't at the age of 10, you could peer over the draped partition and peer in.
The entrance to the Stage Door was an old heavy wooden door with a diamond shaped window 3/4 of the way up. Most times I had trouble opening the door by myself but if I waited a bit, some downtown neighborhood patron would come along and let me in, or I would wait for someone to come out from their daily dose of beer.
As I walked through the dense cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke I would begin to manuver through a sea of legs.
The smell of stale smoke and alcohol permeated the air.
A huge Seeburg jukebox was immeditately to your right, bigger than the one at the White Tower.It was a great big domed shaped record player with a music list to try and please all patrons. Rock and roll, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and whatever holiday music that was appropiate at the time. The juke box 45rpm records and could spin both sides. A nickel was all it took and if you were lucky enough to have a quarter, you could get 6 plays.
4 booths sat off to the left where the downtown people gathered to talk about their day or just sit in silence by themselves pondering over the drink in front of them
One such patron was Kathie, an Italian woman with black hair tied up in a huge bun on her head, fingernails as long as spikes and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
She would smile and say to me, "Come sta Lei"? I would smile back at her and say, "molto bene." I loved how she talked Italian to me, made me feel like an adult. My mother spoke Italian to my aunts when she didn't want us to know what she was saying. I had picked up a few words in those conversations.
Before I knew it, someone would always recognize me as "Mary's daughter" and I would be swept off my feet and plunked down lovingly on a bar stool in front of the bartender. "Hey kid," "How about a Coke and some chips"?
Within seconds Rudy the bartender would slide down a glass of Coke where it would stop right in front of me. Rudy sailed the drinks right down the bar like a pro shuffleboard athlete, knowing exactly where to make that drink stop. Rudy was a pro.
He knew everyone's drink and usually had it ready and waiting.
The guys at the bar would all offer to pay for my soda, but Rudy's remark would always make me smile. "The little lady can have whatever her heart desires. It's on the house."
I would sit there on the bar stool with my Beatles haircut well before the Beatles landed, dirty pants and shirt and scuffed sneaks from playing catch in my step father's parking lot with Helen the lesbian, listening to the clink of glasses being swept off the bar and taken from the patrons in the booths.
There was always laughter and conversation and camaraderie, no matter who was there.
It was a meeting place, a gathering of minds, from office workers, to the retail store owners in downtown New Haven to people just plain down on their luck.
A few of the regulars included Dave, the punch drunk semi-pro boxer, Stan the Parking Lot Man with the fancy rings on his finger and the brand new shiny Cadillac.
It was a haven of sorts.
One hot summer night as I was perched on the bar stool, the bar became silent.
Entering the door was a handsome lightly skinned black man who seemed so familiar.
I couldn't quite place him until I heard Rudy say, "Hey Johnny, welcome to New Haven."
With that Johnny Mathis strode up to the bar and shook Rudy's hand. "Pleasure to meet you," Johnny said. With that everyone crowded around Johnny and introduced themselves. Most of the guys had stories about their wives "swooning" over his records and pointing out to Johnny that his songs were on the jukebox.
At one point Johnny looked over at me, winked and said, "Hi Darlin."
Wow. That was cool then and it still is.
Everyone offered to buy him a beer, but Rudy insisted it was on the house. Johnny had just finished a show at the Schubert and had a bagful of White Tower hamburgers for his crew back at the Hotel Taft down the street.
Johnny said he just wanted to stop in for a quick beer and say hello.
When Johnny left there was one remark about his sexual orientation.
The remark was met with a host of comments to the effect that it didn't matter.
Johnny was a gentlemen and his business was no one else's.
Even at 10, I knew what this meant.
I was proud to be one of the "patrons" in the bar.
That night stands out in my mind for a several reasons. What I seem to rememeber most about that night is the value of acceptance.
For that night, in that bar, we were all equal. No one was any better than anyone else, whether you're a star who's sexuality is questioned, a lost soul, or a lonely kid.
The Stage Door was a place to be welcome, respected and recognized.