Sign ‘O’ the Times


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.

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.”

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.

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.