More than 100 people gathered on a closed-to-traffic stretch of Conover Street at about 8pm last night to sing “Happy Birthday” to Sunny Balzano. It was his 79th, and he stood beaming in the doorway of the beloved Red Hook bar that takes his name. The last time I saw so many people there was the weekend after Sandy, when employees and friends stood around a garbage can, burning wood and drinking bottles of beer. The bar has been closed since, but it reopened last night after tens of thousands of dollars of repair work. Outside, the group-singing soon shifted to a short set by Sunny’s wife, Tone Johansen, one part of an Andrews Sisters-style trio fronting a cookin’ band. They sang standards as a large red velvet cake, sitting on the hood of the old truck that’s always parked outside (which, for the occasion, was festooned with a string of lights), was cut up and passed out. After a few numbers, the crowd slowly single-filed inside, moving in—and in, and in, an ever-swelling crowd of regulars and hangers on. It was the party of the year in Brooklyn.
The man himself, in a brown fedora and red shirt, toting a bunch of flowers, stayed surrounded by friends and well-wishers all evening, glad-handing like a politician or a made-man. We were all surrounded by a few hundred of Sunny’s closest friends, too: until about 11pm, it was shoulder-to-shoulder in most parts of the bar, including the greatly expanded outside, about three times the size of the old one, having taken over the neighbor’s backyard, adding more seats, plants, and a barbecue nook. Large trays of food were carried in and out, the grub lasting until a “last call!” at 10:45pm. (“I’ve never heard a last call for barbecue,” someone said.) To get some, you had to wedge through the throngs—or to get drinks, to take drinks away from the three-deep bar, to get outside or near the bands, which were lively as always, representing multiple styles with myriad instrumentations, some amalgam of upright bass, tuba, clarinet, sax, fiddle, electric guitar. “I hope it’s not always this crowded,” someone cracked as they crammed through the crowd. But, Jesus, at least Sunny’s is back.
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