Sign 'O' the Times

A respite from Times Square holiday madness resides at the Rum House piano bar

There is, of course, no reason to go to midtown. At least not this time of year. No reason to deal with the church groups—adorned in matching sweatshirts with stenciled sanctuaries and mottoes like "New York '06! God Is Love!"—so absurdly accepting of predetermination that they rumble blindly across intersections, traffic lights and oncoming cabs be damned. No reason to risk tripping over tiny-footed pre-women determinedly toddling toward the American Girl Doll store. No reason to fight armies of anxious AARP members released en masse by Pennsylvania-plated tour buses to cash in their early-bird coupons for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Absolutely no reason to relinquish your sidewalk to phalanxes of red-jacketed, bake sale–veteran band members from parts unknown, eager for their moment of network marching stardom in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

No reason to endure any of this. Unless, of course, you work in the neighborhood. And Karen Brown does.

For 11 years the lounge singer has held court five nights a week from 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. at the Rum House, a relatively tiny, wood-walled bar tucked away in 47th Street's Hotel Edison. In that time, performing alone or as an accompanist, she's plowed through somewhere north of 125,000 numbers, with "Fly Me to the Moon" and "New York, New York" appearing with the regularity of a New Jersey Transit express to Trenton. On one not-too-distant Marathon Weekend past, that latter exemplary example of excursionist experience—"Start spreeeadin' the newwwws"—rang out no fewer than three times in one night, each chorus roping in more and more lusty, track-suited international voices.

Karen Brown, patient but dominant ringmaster
photo: Rose Callahan
Karen Brown, patient but dominant ringmaster

Still, the atmosphere is charming and quaint-in-a-good-way. And in coming weeks it's only going to get quainter. With the holidays now officially upon us and that nearby giant-ass Christmas tree attracting rubberneckers like a Midwestern car wreck, Karen Brown's home base—anchoring the intersection of Times Square and Rockefeller Center—serves as a retrotastic respite in a neighborhood substantially void of local, non-neon color. For the Rum House is, without question, one of the last of the small-time piano bars in Manhattan. Sure, there's a number of Times Square hostelries that post a pianist on the premises, but you might as well be in the lobby of a suburban, mall-anchoring Nordstrom's for all the good it'll do your heart rate.

Conversely, the Rum House is fully participatory, with the caveat that Brown is the undisputed ringmaster. "When I first started working here, word got around that there was a new piano player," she says. "So all the singers were coming in, bringing their music, putting it on the piano bar, and ordering a club soda and waiting for their turn. So when I saw that was happening, I said, 'No, no, no. This is not what happens here. You don't come here to sing. I invite my customers to sing. You've got to come here to drink. You've got to come here to spend money.' If I end up with a bunch of people here drinking club sodas and we don't make money, the first thing they cut is the entertainment. The very first. So I put a stop to it. Come here to have a drink. I'll get to know who sings and who doesn't, and who spends time here and who doesn't. That has to be controlled too. It's calledcontrol."

Thus does Karen Brown dominate one of the strangest scenes in NYC tourist hell.

The night before this year's Marathon, the room is barely half full. Brown plays an opening set by herself, but for round two, Pamela Gray—a tall, winsome actress currently playing the role of Nathan Lane's wife in the Broadway drama Butley—approaches the piano bar. It's obviously a melancholy evening for Gray and her companions. When Brown asks for her name, she simply replies, "Pam from Connecticut," as if longing for the anonymity of some late-night radio call-in show. Her renditions of "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "My Funny Valentine" are stylish, if shaky, and she seems more relieved than rejuvenated when it's over.

Next is Terry, an orange-haired regular dressed in synthetic black, who slams down "Since I Fell for You" like an empty shot glass. It is a warm, earthy, throaty effort, and for a moment in time we are comrades, compadres, no longer strangers passing in the night. And yet we're in New York. Bright lights, big city. With Broadway just out the window.

The genial mood quickly passes. Terry is followed by yet another singing regular who, while possessing confidence, lacks the voice to warrant it. It's like listening to a Yoko Ono record alone. A bone-chilling sterility sucks at the air. She sings around, through, but never quite on "I Believe"—not the Louis Armstrong version or the R.E.M. version or even the Blessid Union of Souls interpretation, but the 1964 hit by the Bachelors. And then, astoundingly, she sings another.

"I let everybody have two songs," Brown explains. "I just have to make sure it doesn't get out of hand."

Though settled in this most working-class of artistic pursuits (dim lights, no dressing room, sporadic applause), the Staten Island–born and raised, Berklee-educated Brown has aspired to little else. While still in her teens, she took a band out on the road. Her mother went along as well, and neither particularly enjoyed the experience. "I just didn't like living out of a suitcase," says the blonde and sequined 52-year-old. "I didn't like the traveling aspect of it. I'm a good traveler for vacation. But not working. I like being in New York City and having one spot. Let everybody come to me. It's easier."

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