Red Hook bids adieu to Sunny Balzano
Beloved owner of iconic Sunny’s Bar
Over the weekend, flowers and hand-written notes materialized on the hood of Sunny Balzano’s pickup truck. The battered green truck, filled with bottles bagged for recycling, was parked in front of 253 Conover St., the legendary Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook.
“So long Mr. Sunny Balzano,” one note, signed by someone named Mic, read. “So long that smile and our small talk, deep talk. It won’t be the same sitting at your bar wondering how you are and if you’ll come down. See you on down the road.”
Another, signed by Joe, read, “Sunny, thank you for the magic.” Joe attached a cigarette to the note.
Inside the bar, beer bottles clinked and the music – an eclectic mix of blues and hard-luck songs — played on a turntable, even though legendary bar owner Sunny was not there.
Sunny – artist, raconteur, quoter of Shakespeare, smoker of cigarettes and lover of life — died late Thursday at the age of 81. As word spread on Friday, friends, family and patrons old and new made the pilgrimage to the iconic dive, nearly unchanged since its origin as a longshoreman’s bar in the 1890s.
Paintings, generations of knick-knacks, sculptures and photographs – including a portrait of Raffaele di Martini, Sunny’s great-grandfather and bar founder – line the walls and shelves.
Sitting on the wobbly stools or standing four deep, old-timers swapped stories while the newer crowd came by to soak up the atmosphere. Family members spoke of their love for Sunny. Reporters from NY1, the New York Times and the Brooklyn Eagle held court at the bar or wandered around looking for interviews.
By Saturday evening, the bartenders were running on fumes and Sunny’s was running out of beer.
“A lot of people came who haven’t been here for years — everybody just showed up yesterday at the bar without any communication or any official party,” said bartender Jen Storch.
“It was beautiful and there were lots of hugs everywhere, like that really special and intense love and joy that happens when somebody really great passes away,” she said.
“So it’s been really sweet,” she added. “The truck’s covered in flowers, it’s unreal. People sharing stories. So many stories — so many different stories, so many different renditions of the same story.”
One story told and retold over the weekend, she said, was the one about Superstorm Sandy.
“Right after Sandy happened, we were all here. There was a propane fire pit in the back, to keep us warm, and it’s a total sh*t show. And Sunny just looks around and he’s like, ‘I’m the luckiest man alive!’ And everyone’s like what? And he says, ‘Look at all these beautiful friends that showed up.’”
“So that’s of course exactly how he would have felt” if he could have seen all of the people showing up on Friday and Saturday, she said.
Operated as a speakeasy for years
Storch said she could pick out the old customers, different from the younger denizens seeking out Sunny’s today.
“Some of the old-timers come in still,” she said. “People who used to work at the bar 12, 15 years ago. You know who the old-timers are when they come in because they look different than who comes in now.”
Sunny originally operated the bar one day a week, without benefit of a license or other tawdry necessities of modern life. An assortment of musicians would park themselves by the door, patrons said, and the drinks were paid for on the honor system, with scratch marks on a card to record the transactions.
Tim Sultan, former Sunny’s bartender and author of the acclaimed “Sunny’s Nights (Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World),” said that Sunny would tell patrons, “This isn’t my bar any more than it’s anyone else’s bar. It don’t belong to me. It belongs to each of you who have come here and have served to make it what it is that it is.”
Sunny was Red Hook through and through. A photo from the old Brooklyn Eagle, showing a group of naked and near-naked boys jumping into the East River, hangs on the wall over the bar.
Every year, the Eagle would give the kids a dime to dive naked from the piers into the river, Sunny told Sultan. “They’d photograph us and they would use that to announce the beginning of summer,” he said.
On Saturday, Sunny’s worked its spell on first-time patrons Scott Thomas and Kimberly Knight, who came in from Astoria after hearing the buzz about the bar. The couple was surprised to hear that Sunny had died.
“I knew Sunny’s Bar was here, knew it was nostalgic and that it’s been here since the 1890s, so I just stopped by,” Thomas said. “I kind of wandered in here.”
He applauded the whisky apple cider, the turntable and the atmosphere.
“It’s the spirt of the neighborhood. No — it’s the spirit of Old New York,” he said.
Knight added, “It’s the same feeling you have when the sailors would come in on their day off to have a drink.”
Jam at 10
Around 9 p.m. musicians began to swarm the back room. “Music all night tonight,” said Tony Delello, one of the core members of an informal band with Alex Busadi and Patrick (whose last name Delello didn’t know).
“At 10 [p.m.] it’s a real jam, like 30 people,” he added. “Saturday nights it’s a free-for-all.”
The free-for-all started a bit earlier than 10 p.m., and patrons sang along with guitarists, mandolin and bass players on bluegrass tunes. Beer and apple cider flowed harder and faster, with bartenders buying rounds for customers they figured had been there all night.
The condolances and tributes continue.
“Sunny Balzano was one of the most kind, generous, funny, charismatic, and loving people I’ve had the incredibly good fortune to meet, a unique individual who created magical moments with his mere presence, in large part because of his ability to see the light and magic in others, and coax it to the forefront,” wrote patron John Del Signore for Gothamist.
“Sunny Balzano was an icon, artist and true Brooklyn original,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY-07) said in a statement on Monday.
“In many ways larger than life, Sunny was as big-hearted as he was engaging and entertaining,” she said. “Red Hook will be a little less colorful with Sunny’s passing, but the bar he animated will live on with music and culture, and we will never forget the smiles he brought to so many faces.”
What would Sunny have thought about all the fuss?
“Oh, of course he would have loved the sh*t out of it,” said Storch. “Everybody knew that. He loved a good time, loved people.
“What’s going to happen now? I don’t know,” she said. “Things change, it will probably change. Still the same of course. The vibes in here are unreal. They’re not even because of Sunny. They’re the vibes of his family, and the people. It feel like goodness, it stays here, it never disappears. It’s not going to be the same, it’s like it might still feel – there’s no telling.”
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