Sign 'O' the Times

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

Karen has been working steadily as a lounge act since 1976, when she started at the Hilton. From there she segued to the Downtown Athletic Club, where she played several Heisman Trophy presentation dinners; by way of reminder, several photos of former college stars like Doak Walker and Steve Spurrier line the Rum House walls.

"The old clubs, they just can't survive," Karen says. "They're like dinosaurs. People don't take people out for lunch anymore. So that was closing down, and the owner of this club, he saw me there for three years, and he said, 'If you ever leave, give me a call.' "

Meaning Brown's been out of work for all of about six hours in the past 30 years.

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

Despite, or because of, Brown's near-nightly presence, the Rum House functions somewhere between a piano bar and the proverbial pub where everybody knows your name. Lately, talk does not concern the Democratic electoral sweep or Britney's divorce, but news that a regular passed away from a massive heart attack while on vacation in Key West. Such is the informality of this place that, during an instrumental break, a convocation consisting of Brown, a piano-bar habitué, and Patty, the Rum House's weekday waitress, discusses suitable tribute. Pertinent question: Is it proper to send flowers to the funeral of a Jehovah's Witness?

By nine o'clock on the Thursday following the Marathon, the bar has cleared of Morgan Stanley employees from across the street. A foursome of middle-aged marrieds who drove from Maine to New York by way of Pennsylvania take over one of the constantly turning tables. Then, a pair of professional women from Phoenix, savvy enough to make fun of fellow tourists who trudge at daybreak to surround the Today show studio for a chance to wave at the folks back home.

Karen enters her second home armed with plenty of tea bags and a clear plastic bear filled with honey. She's had a rough week—she recently lent her car to a friend, who gave it back wrecked to the tune of $8,000 in repairs. She returned to her Staten Island home one evening to find that King James, her 10-year-old Saint Bernard, had passed away. And on the night before that, her voice gave out during the final set. Her laryngitis lingers now, and she's more than willing to relinquish a few turns at the microphone in order to survive her three sets tonight, but she doesn't hold out much hope."Any time I'm under the weather," she says, "no one shows up. It's just what happens."

Tonight she's wrong. After a sparsely attended first set, the bar around Brown's piano fills. These patrons are, in effect, lining up to sing.

There's another element to the Rum House's clientele, situated as it is within a massive art deco structure. The Edison Building is one of the few Times Square destinations that retain even a smidgen of character. And Europeans, for some reason, flock to the place.

"The English feel very, very comfortable in this room," Karen says. "All the Brits."

Enter, as if on cue, Garrett, a stereotypically redheaded patron from Dublin who comes to the bar pre-lubricated, just in time for Brown's final set. Garrett requests—nay, demands— Irish tunes. Within five minutes there is no one here who does not know that Garrett is both Irish and immensely proud of it.

So when Mark, a big-voiced regular with a touch of Ronan Tynan about him, circles around the piano bar from his perch by the jukebox stool, Garrett yells, loudly, for "Danny Boy."

Brown has learned to smile through worse. "It goes with the territory," she says. "I'm not playing Michael Feinstein's. I'm not hired to go onstage and everybody's supposed to be quiet and listen. I basically entertain the people that are sitting here and be background music for the rest of the bar. That's the nature of the job and I took it."

Mark is a singing regular, a makeup artist for Hairspray, and one of several handfuls of theater workers prone to stop by the Rum House for a nightcap. In this bar he is known. And he will knock out Rodgers and Hart's "My Romance" or Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" (in French, mind you) like Mike Tyson felling a featherweight. But tonight the showtune du jour is "If I Loved You" from Carousel. Mark puts his Budweiser bottle down on the bar, closes his eyes, tilts his head back toward the far wall, and wails. I mean, the man takes a running start at a little-known number and tattoos it on the brain of every late-night tippler in the place, locals and lodgers alike.

Even Garrett. Mark the makeup artist delivers the love so immensely that for a brief moment in time Garrett forgets all about Danny, his boy, and where they both came from. A warmth once again envelops the room like tinsel on a tree, as he, like the rest of the patrons in this crowded bar, applauds with fervor.

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