An Unlikely Theater

An Unlikely Theater

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


Old Reliable Theatre Tavern
231 E 3rd St, New York, NY 10009