Playwright Michael McGrinder frequented the Old Reliable before it became a theater, and in 1968, McGrinder staged his first play, The Foreigners, at venue, which quickly became a second home for him.
The Old Reliable was one of the many Polish-Ukrainian bars scattered throughout the neighborhood—a beer-and-a-shot type of place with a stinky dog named Cornflakes that slept on the sticky floor, amid the peanut shells, spilled beer, and broken glass. Many of the bar’s regulars were likely on welfare or were drawing from a pension, and the large back room had previously been used for dancing on the weekend. “The dancing basically was dry humping,” said playwright Michael McGrinder, who frequented the bar before it became a theater. “Mostly, it was black guys and white girls, and music from an old Wurlitzer jukebox” (the neighborhood had long been a safe zone for interracial couples). The Old Reliable began opening its back room to the Off-Off-Broadway crowd after playwright Jeannine O’Reilly put on shows there. “She invited us over to see them,” Robert Patrick recalled. “So when the Cino closed, there was no question that I would move to the Old Reliable.” The owner, Norman Hartman (also know as “Speedy”), was a thin man in his forties or fifties who spoke with a very heavy Polish accent and outfitted himself in a fedora, along with other snazzy flourishes. “Speedy was an unlikely Off-Off-Broadway producer,” said Walter Michael Harris, who also performed there. “He seemed like, ‘Well, why not? What the heck? Let’s give it a try.’ And so he let all these crazy artists in.” The Old Reliable’s former dance floor was retrofitted with a two-sided stage with an L-shaped seating arrangement that could hold around seventy people. Robert Patrick was gregarious and likable, and he probably made a good impression on Speedy, who was something of a ham. He seized any opportunity to make announcements or play an on-or offstage role.
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In 1968, Michael McGrinder staged his first play, The Foreigners, at the Old Reliable, and it quickly became a second home for him. “Michael McGrinder was very rare in those circles,” Robert Patrick recalled. “He’s a heterosexual. That was an amazingly gay crowd at the Old Reliable.” As for the clientele in the front bar—which was mostly composed of straight truckers and dockworkers who came by for cheap booze and friendly girls—that didn’t really change. And for the most part, the two groups maintained a peaceful coexistence. “I think everybody, including the drinking workingmen, appreciated the surreal aspect of it,” Patrick said. “If I did some crazy musical where actors would be entering from the bar, you’d just be leaning on the bar itself in between two Polish laborers to support your costume, or headdress. And when it was time for your entrance you said, ‘See you later, fellas.’ And they’d say, ‘See ya.’ ” As Paul Foster observed, “I find that blue-collar people don’t give a damn what you do as long as you pay your way and don’t try to get sassy with them.”
The little world these Off-Off-Broadway renegades created at the Old Reliable was wild, just like the streets that surrounded it, and the neighborhood’s foreboding atmosphere only added to the excitement. “The way to get to the Old Reliable,” Jeannine O’Reilly used to quip, “is to turn left at the burning car.” The Old Reliable was located on the same block as Slugs’ Saloon and the Young Lords Headquarters, along with an eclectic assortment of retail and other businesses. For Walter Harris, the Old Reliable was the farthest east he could remember venturing. “You always had to have the appearance of looking like you were going somewhere and not just wandering around, as a way to avoid trouble.” Adventurers going to the bar walked down the middle of the street because there would be almost no one on the roads in the evening, and one could avoid potential dangers lurking around the corners of alleys or basement stairwells. Homeless people burned trash in barrels, providing a little light where the streetlights no longer worked. “People who would go to the Old Reliable would walk down Third Street because they considered it safe, because of the Hells Angels,” playwright Michael McGrinder said. “The Hells Angels kind of made trouble among themselves, but they didn’t make trouble for others, for the most part.”
CBGB had been around since 1969 in an earlier incarnation, Hilly’s on the Bowery, which was named after owner Hilly Kristal. He began his nightlife career in 1959 as the manager of the jazz club the Village Vanguard, and went on to open Hilly’s on East Thirteenth Street, where he booked folk and blues acts throughout the 1960s. Like many in the downtown’s bohemian circles, Kristal put down roots on the east side. “One of the drinking places we went to when I was doing shows at the Old Reliable was a place called Hilly’s on the Bowery,” recalled playwright Michael McGrinder. “It was a big, big, place. One day there was a new sign outside and it said, CBGB & OMFUG. I said to Hilly, ‘What’s going on? What do those letters mean?’ He said, ‘CBGB—Country, BlueGrass, Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers.’ I don’t know if it was a whim or what the hell was going on, but Hilly couldn’t put his name to anything because he had no credit left in the world. Everything was in his wife Karen’s name.”
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore