On Saturday, December 1st, the Hamilton Gallery Theater in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, hosted a benefit for a Red Hook landmark, Sunny’s Bar, in attempt to help bring it back from the verge of storm-ravaged closure. Sunny’s Bar, only a short distance from the waterfront, was filled with water and sludge by Hurricane Sandy, and its electrical systems, particularly, obliterated. The destruction of Sunny’s hit Brooklyn hard, a punch right in the heart of the artistic community specifically. For many, this was a retreat and a gathering place where memories were made for decades, and, thankfully, they weren’t prepared to let Sunny’s go down without a fight. Marketing, Public Relations, and Event Management professional Anica Archip , and her brother Dmitri Archip, spear-headed the benefit to complement the Sunny’s Kickstarter campaign, still underway, and provided the Hamilton event space. Local businesses donated refreshments, and a devoted arts community supplied over 5 hours of performance in honor of Sunny’s. Emmy-award winning comics artist and arts curator Dean Haspiel rounded up the talent and helped spread the word via social media while Sunny’s staff supported the event through set-up and bartending.
100% of the proceeds went to helping one of the most remote, and most beloved hangouts in Brooklyn back onto its feet. What started out as a small event elicited an overwhelming turnout to the point of rotating crowds off of the event floor to get as many people past the donations table as possible as performances ranged from readings of screen projected comics, poetry, and prose, to comedy performances, and lastly a few hours of wide-ranging musical sets by volunteers. The atmosphere was highly charged, emotional, but also celebratory throughout the night as community support for the benefit became more and more evident. In effect, it became a relocation of Sunny’s own events nights, a home away from home, prefiguring a return to its mecca status in days to come.
A number of the comics and prose performers hailed from Brooklyn’s own digital literary arts salon TRIP CITY, including co-curators Dean Haspiel, Seth Kushner, Chris Miskiewicz, and Jeffrey Burandt, joined by TRIP CITY member Jen Ferguson, and Brooklyn poet Denver Butson. Haspiel performed a comics meditation on Brooklyn and Manhattan during a time of crisis, Beef with Tomato, while also previewing a new creator-owned comic appropriately titled RED HOOK. Photographer and writer Kushner presented an event-inspired essay “My Brooklyn” with slides from his photo book Brooklynites, while writer Miskiewicz provided a haunting narrative set at the bar itself, “Last Night at Sunny’s”. Ferguson, an artist, narrated a CulturePOP photocomic featuring her own Brooklyn Bridge artwork, and writer and musician Burandt presented a recent Brooklyn-set comic “Bibbin’s Bodega” to the accompaniment of a mellow bass-line. Butson proved that poetry could hold its own as performance art with startling observations about the secret emotional and imaginative lives of ordinary citizens. The thematic pieces were well chosen, highlighting the role of community and geography as inspiration for creative work.
The comedy performances of the evening were raucous and added to the positive vibe building up during the benefit, turning the fund-raiser into an affirmation rather than a reflection on the devastating effects of the hurricane. Brooke Van Poppelen brought a Brooklyn perspective to the vagaries of working in Manhattan and commented on the increasing gentrification of Brooklyn itself, subtly asserting that enduring “real” Brooklyn culture continues in the face of change. Angry Bob came out from Queens to punch holes in the political climate of the recent elections and present the all-too human reactions to hurricane damage including outrage over cable outages in less affected areas. Meanwhile, donated beer on tap was flowing, along with wine, and the crowd situation on the floor was becoming intense. Between performance blocks rotation provided access to Sunny’s supporters.
The musical portion of the evening showcased an astonishing breadth of local talent, including the newly formed band Two Beards: One Heart with lead-singer Jeffrey Burandt debuting new material, John Pinamonti, The Black Coffee Blues Band, and Smokey Hormel supporting The Luna Sisters, many of whom perform as regular bands at Sunny’s on its own event nights. While blues music was particularly appropriate, The Luna Sisters, including Sunny’s proprietor Tone Johansen, really stole the show with their nostalgic and hypnotic performance of classics like “It’s a Wonderful World” and “Bye, Bye Blues”. “Yes, even after Sandy”, Tone declared, “it’s a wonderful world”. Proprietor Sunny himself too the mic to conclude the event, offering his heartfelt thanks and astonishment at the monumental support demonstrated for Sunny’s Bar. Appearing weathered, wearing waterproof clothes, he was nevertheless unbowed by the natural disaster that had struck at his life’s work. It was clear no one really wanted to go home, having missed gatherings at Sunny’s since the storm, but the owners vowed that next time the party would be “at home” when Sunny’s doors, aided by a big push from its denizens, opened again.
The evening came off without a hitch, and the funds raised were the best possible scenario for what started as an ambitious exercise in elbow grease. Anica Archip and Dean Haspiel agreed to tell me a little bit about what Sunny’s means to them and why they poured so much of their time and creativity into making the benefit happen. Archip and Haspiel, like many, have their own deeply personal memories of the beloved bar.
Anica Archip: I’m a Brooklyn, Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens neighborhood native, Red Hook, Gowanus, and Brooklyn Heights was part of my playground. I remember the first time I set foot in Sunny’s Bar, it was a late summer afternoon around 1994. My car was towed from my street in Carroll Gardens and the lot where the city kept towed vehicles was located directly across the street from Sunny’s. My husband and I (I was married then ) were picking up the car and we were laughing over the whole incident because the day prior we were searching hours for the car convinced that we forgot where it was parked, versus the reality that it was towed. Anyway, as we exited the lot the door to Sunny’s Bar was open and we walked in for a drink. The bar was empty yet magical. The bright setting sun poured in through the window and once my eyes adjusted to the room, I realized we entered a realm frozen in time, a waterfront bar scene from the 1950’s. Behind the counter was a gentle faced man with long hair who looked like he stepped out of 1968, it was Sunny. We sat at the counter, told him of our car adventure and began to chat. I mentioned that my brother tends bar on Atlantic Ave, and just at that moment Sunny looked into my eyes, cupped my face with his large hands and said in his sweet tone, “I know who you are, you’re Dimitri’s sister.” Sunny’s Bar was instantly “home” – a place of comfort, where I could relax and I knew belonged. Needless to say I’ve been going back since.
In 1995 I became an active member of the Brooklyn arts organization BWAC (Brooklyn Waterfront Artists’ Coalition). Their yearly art show was held in the warehouses on the piers of Red Hook around the corner from Sunny’s. We would hang out at Sunny’s on Friday nights (the only night it was open back then) and listen to live music, it was impromptu not planned; talk with the neighborhood old timers; drink some Pabst or Schlitz beer, and just hang into the wee hours of the morning. You never arrived before 10pm, it became packed with artists, musicians, writers, dancers, and local neighbors by midnight and then closed about an hour or so before sunrise. And Sunny was always there to greet you with a big warm hug. Sunny’s hugs are special, just about everyone wants to be hugged by Sunny. It’s even listed as one of the items people can receive if they pledge a donation on the “Bring Sunny’s Back Home!” Kickstarter site:
Dean Haspiel: When I first moved to Brooklyn in 1997, I heard whispers about an old bar in Red Hook that hadn’t aged. When I first entered Sunny’s, it was like stepping into the past. An era I never lived in but always wanted to visit. And, it was one block away from the sea. It was the first bar I ever went to where the goblins in my head were quelled by the folk art and bluegrass music. I would just melt into the background for hours. It was a destination spot for people who wanted to get away and raise their glass to the Statue of Liberty and toast to an era of New York City that artists and blue collar workers could afford and pontificate a week of hard work.
Sunny himself would often appear like a specter of levity and brighten the room with his long hair and infectious smile. I got friendly with the bartenders and eventually met Tone, Sunny’s wife, who sings songs and curates the art shows in the back of the bar where musicians assemble and play music. I remember when Michael C. Maronna, star of the 1990’s kids TV show THE ADVENTURES OF PETE & PETE, would tend bar. Sunny’s is where my pal, Jonathan Ames, introduced me to actor/song writer, Jason Schwartzman, right before we started shooting HBO’s “Bored To Death.” In fact, a scene from “Bored To Death” was shot at Sunny’s. These days, I’ll occasionally bump into actor Michael Shannon and trade late night quips. But, more importantly, Sunny’s draws people who are worth their salt because it’s not easy to get to. Sunny’s is the last bar at the end of the world and when the apocalypse happens, that’s where you’ll find me.
Haspiel and Archip also commented on the strange genesis of the idea for the event, which easily might have fallen by the wayside as Brooklyn, and the rest of the East Coast pushes to rebuild the essentials as quickly as possible.
AA: A small group (4 people + 1 cat) of Red Hook artist friends took refuge at my house when they had to evacuate due to the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. The morning after the superstorm hit we walked over to Red Hook to check out the damage and check in on other friends. What we saw was unexpected and shocking. My childhood friend’s home was severely damaged, people were coming out into the streets in tears, huge trees were ripped off their roots and power lines were left dangling. The streets were slicked with a coating of oil from boilers that were damaged and destroyed. The air was thick with the smells of oil and gas from spills that now settled in the streets of Red Hook. Block after block looked like aftermath of a war. I knew I had to check in on Sunny’s because they’re located at the very edge, just where the water meets the land. When I arrived Tone was standing outside with a look of horror in her eyes, tears started to flow from her face. We immediately embraced and she muttered, “Water is still rushing into the basement, the water is still coming in, I can’t stop the water.” A few people now gathered in front trying to help her and I overheard someone say that the water main pipe that connects to the building broke. They needed to shut off the city line from the sidewalk. An emergency vehicle, I think it was a utility company, pulled up in front of the bar and Tone ran to tell them of the problem. As I walked back home in silence my mind was racing with all I had witnessed and I felt helpless.
Dean & I had touched base in the days after Sandy and we briefly talked about what we saw and the damage to our beloved Sunny’s Bar. I then received an email from Dean about his idea to help Save Sunny’s, he asked if I was interested in helping and I knew that I could execute his vision. I immediately said Yes! And then approached my brother about having the benefit in our home.
A side bar note here is that Dean & I would occasionally meet up at Sunny’s throughout the years – we still do. In the early 2000’s after hangin’ at the Smith Street bars, on a Friday night, we’d sometimes do the Red Hook scene – which was Lilly’s Bar (now closed) and of course Sunny’s. You always ended the night at Sunny’s. Dean would ride over on his bike and I’d either walk it or take a car service. Attached is a b&w photo circa 2004(?) taken by my photographer friend Judy Parker (who was visiting from the Bay Area with her sister) of a Friday night walk along Beard street from Lillie’s to Sunny’s. Pictured is me, Dean’s bike and his cast shadow – sometime after 1am. I don’t think Dean’s ever seen this.
DH: A couple of days after Superstorm Sandy annihilated New Jersey and ravaged NYC, I rode my bike over to Red Hook and saw everyone’s destroyed basements on the sidewalks. When I finally got to Sunny’s, I saw the staff pumping water and made eyes with Tone. Sunny’s basement was a box of sludge, the boiler was busted and the electricity panels were destroyed among other flood damage to the bar. And, to make matters worse, the foundation was compromised. I knew right then and there that I had to do something. As Brooklyn began to rally relief, I made it my mission to help out the place I call home on the Friday and Saturday nights I unchain myself from my desk. I contacted my pal/publicist/event manager/and longtime friend of Sunny’s Bar, Anica Archip, to ask if she would manage and host an event [along with her brother Dimitri] to help promote and raise funds for Sunny’s. Anica immediately said “yes” and we approached Tone who said “yes,” offering to staff the night with the actual staff from Sunny’s. We co-curated the event and I designed a poster with Seth Kushner but it was Anica who truly handled all the nuts and bolts. Along with select TRIP CITY curators and contributors reading prose and comix (Jeffrey Burandt, Chris Miskiewicz, Jen Ferguson, Zees Moreno), local bands, poets, and comedians (Denver Butson, Brooke Van Poppelen, Angry Bob, Black Coffee Blues Band, Smokey & The Luna Sisters), we created a stellar evening that would bring people and diehard Sunny’s patrons together for a donation based evening where we provided entertainment and drinks. Jeffrey Burandt debuted his new band, Two Beards One Heart, and I debuted my new comic, The Red Hook. We gave them a little bit of Trip City to nosh on while recreating a night at Sunny’s. It was glorious.
Following the event, Archip and Haspiel reflected on the highlights of the evening that meant the most to them and made it all worthwhile.
AA: This one’s easy. Seeing the happy faces of Sunny’s clientele – his family of friends – my friends. A month had passed since Sandy hit and everyday in Red Hook has been devoted to the clean up. Pumping water, throwing out damaged personal items, family treasures, furniture, vital equipment, parts of your house, applying for help, filing papers. Sleep, rinse, repeat. But on this one night friends gathered, took a break, met up as they normally would at Sunny’s. They enjoyed the entertainment, had a beer or two, were greeted by a smiling, happy Tone, chatted with their favorite bartender and got their hug from Sunny. Helping to reunite this community of friends was worth it all.
DH: Besides witnessing all the support for Sunny’s, I think my favorite parts of the night were hearing Tone sing with her wonderful Luna Sisters and seeing Sunny end the evening with his gracious praise and infectious smile. He reminded us that this wasn’t for Sunny’s Bar but for us. All of us. Sunny’s Bar isn’t just another ancient watering hole. It’s an everlasting community.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.