Oral History: Sunny Balzano: Beloved barkeep and community figure. 2016


Sunny Balzano was the beloved owner of a legendary bar, some 90 years old, which became known as Sunny’s.

Born in 1935, Sunny grew up in Red Hook where his father run the family bar at the foot of Conover St, a stone's throw from the water, and the family lived upstairs. The bar was one of many in the 1930s-60s that catered to longshoremen and other folks working on and along the water.

In our interview, Sunny pointed out that there were no women in the bar then.  Sunny remembers a childhood on the Red Hook waterfront and describes why kids drew straws before swimming: the loser had to jump in first and push the flotsam and turds away for the others.

Sunny moved away as a young man, seeking a life in the arts, and came back in the 1990s to run the bar after his uncle died. He ran the bar for years, without a license, as the Red Hook Canoe and Kayak Club. It was only open on Friday, one of its many eccentricities.

In that special era, to track your tab, guests got little cards with maritime drawings on them.  You put your name on the back and a tick mark for every drink - they were all $3. At the bar, Sunny emanated the vibe of theatrical poet, shaman, convener of people, not so much a bartender.  In fact, he was not good at mixing drinks, but he was a magnet.  Sunny died in 2016 less than three weeks after we recorded this interview. The bar continues in operation.

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His wife Tone Johansen described him well in her eulogy http://gothamist.com/2016/03/16/sunny_balzano_funeral_photos.php#photo-32 

Many obituaries were written about Sunny Balzano; here are two: 


Shortly before his death, a book was published about the special Sunny era at the bar  Sunny's Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World. by Tim Sultan, 2016.

The following audio interview is unedited and presented in several links

Images

Sunny and Francis in car, Photo by <a href="http://www.scottwbaker.com" target="_blank">Scott Baker</a>

Sunny and Francis in car, Photo by Scott Baker

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In that special era in the '90s, to track your tab, guests got little cards with maritime drawings on them.  You put your name on the back and a tick mark for every drink - they were all $3.

In that special era in the '90s, to track your tab, guests got little cards with maritime drawings on them. You put your name on the back and a tick mark for every drink - they were all $3.

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Audio

What Red Hook looked like when Sunny was a boy

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Swimming off the docks as a boy

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Water was dirty: swam anyway

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Waterfront slang and working on the docks

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Breakfast, lunch and dinner served at the bar

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Lunch whistles and air raid sirens

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Ethnic groups in the Red Hook neighborhood

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Date:

2016

Official Website:

Sources:

  • Sunny Balzano interviewed by PortSide NewYork, 2016

Rights:

  • Not for use elsewhere without permission of PortSide NewYork

Item Relations

This Item is related to Item: BOOK: Tim Sultan, Sunny's Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World
This Item is related to Item: Sunny's Bar
Item: Taking a Dive : Swimming in the Atlantic Basin, 1964 is related to This Item

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