CBGB Made Hilly Kristal a Millionaire—His Ex Got Nothing


Here’s a shocker: Hilly Kristal turns out to have been a millionaire. Just weeks after the legendary former CBGB owner passed away, his heirs—who thought Kristal was broke—are finding out that the old punk impresario was worth a surprising $3.7 million.

And that kind of money, naturally, is not going to be divvied up without a mosh pit of family infighting.

Kristal’s son, Dana, isn’t happy at the way his sister Lisa Kristal Burgman, for example, encouraged his mother, Karen Kristal, to sign away any rights to the corporation that ran CBGB almost three years ago—when Karen, 82, was already showing signs of senility and may not have realized what she was giving away.

Through the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Karen was a fixture at the door of CBGB and behind its bar. In that time, she developed a reputation, among patrons, bouncers, bartenders, and musicians alike, as a bit of a humorless hard-ass. Skinheads obeyed her command. The Ramones hid their joints when they saw her coming.

“I was more scared of Karen than I was of the skinheads,” said George Tabb, a founding member of the False Prophets, former CBGB employee, and longtime Kristal family friend, as well as a reporter who covered the scene at the club for Maximum Rock’n’Roll. “They all had this respect for her. She put on the matinees—it was her idea, and that basically started the whole hardcore movement in New York.”

But there was a reason that Karen Kristal was so tough: Her name was on CBGB’s liquor license, and she wholly owned the club’s parent company. It had been that way since 1973, when Hilly’s on the Bowery became CBGB.

In fact, the corporation that did business as CBGB & OMFUG was named after her. The “Sareb” in Sareb Restaurant Corp. is an amalgam of Sara Rebecca, her given name. She began going by “Karen” after she married Hilly because she thought an alliterative name would help her acting career, and she kept the name after their divorce in the late ’60s to have the same last name as her children.

Karen remained the president of Sareb Restaurant Corp. until January of 2005, when she signed over the liquor license and her entire interest in the company—10 shares, or 100 percent of Sareb—to Hilly. She received no compensation, according to a letter furnished by Dana Kristal. State Liquor Authority records confirm the transaction.

When presented with the letter last week, Karen stared at it for a moment with confusion and said, “Did I sign this? That’s my signature?”

At 82, Karen Kristal still has bright eyes and the vocal projection of a trained actress, but she slipped in her apartment over the Labor Day weekend and broke her elbow. She appears to be slipping in other ways, too: She asks questions over and over and exhibits other signs of a mind affected by age. Dana says that his mother’s brain scans show marks that are indicative of mini-strokes and that she has water on the brain. He also says that his sister Lisa, who was a fixture at Hilly’s side, pressured Karen to sign away her rights to the club when she didn’t have the presence of mind to understand the consequences of her actions.

“You did sign it, Ma,” Dana tells her with exasperation. “Don’t you remember Lisa kept calling the house, leaving messages saying, ‘You gotta sign it, you gotta sign it’? ”

Signing away the rights to the Sareb Restaurant Corp. didn’t seem like a big deal when it was thought that Hilly had nothing. Dana and Karen Kristal both say that Hilly and Lisa repeatedly told them there were no assets to speak of. Dana was shocked to learn that, according to 2006 New Jersey property records, Hilly owned a house in Asbury Park that was purchased for $600,000.

And the ex–club owner turns out to have been worth $3.7 million, according to his last will and testament. Karen Kristal wasn’t named in the will. Dana was left $100,000 in a trust. Lisa was named co-executor of the will and left all of Hilly’s tangible property.

“Well, I didn’t think my own family would double-cross me for money,” says Karen. “I was fair with them, so I’d always thought they’d be fair with me.”

Even though she and Hilly were divorced before CBGB opened, Karen says she worked at the club for years with little or no compensation. She said she never bore a grudge against her ex, even if his philandering precipitated their breakup. “He was so handsome,” Karen says of the man she met in an opera class. “And all the women threw themselves at him. Eventually he gave in to it, and I couldn’t take it anymore. . . I was heartbroken, because I was faithful. When he died, I cried. How many women would do that for a man who was unfaithful?”

She said Hilly always told her that a payday would come—but now Hilly’s dead and she never got her due. She lives alone in a rent-controlled Fifth Avenue apartment, getting by on her savings and Social Security. Dana Kristal says his mother needs a full-time aide.

“She needs a nurse now,” Dana says. “She needs a shunt. She needs a brain operation. You need a nurse after that.”

Dana has conferred with lawyers and is weighing his legal options. The will cannot be finalized until he signs off on it. He says the real issue is his mother—that she gets the recognition for her role
in CBGB, as well as compensation enough to
live her last years in health and dignity.

“She was waiting to get paid, and they were waiting for her to get confused,” says Dana. “Even if she does get paid, she’s gonna get paid when she’s really not all there. That makes me sad. She should have gotten that money 20 years ago, when she would have enjoyed it.”