Dusty: You lost or something?
Bob: No, why?
Dusty: What are you doing in a place like this?
Bob: I could ask you the same thing.
Dusty: I asked you first.
Bob: Well, I needed a drink so I came to the first place I could find…
I like bars, dark bars in particular. The kind of neighborhood bar that to “outsiders” might look a bit daunting, even dangerous, and anyone who wasn’t a regular would stick out like a sore thumb and would quickly be assessed as either “good people” or a mark (like Bob was quickly pegged by the entire group). I’m talking about the old school dark bars that don’t really exist much any longer (Siberia Bar, one of my original hangouts in NYC, The Office Lounge in Tallahassee [or Tippers, or Kent’s, or Julie’s Place…], and the original Churchill’s Pub in Savannah); and those that do still exist seem to have mostly been cleaned up, modernized, even (horror of horrors) gentrified, and in the worst cases made into almost a caricature of what they once were.
When I first found FLESHPOT ON 42nd STREET (actually the version I first saw was the butchered GIRLS ON 42nd STREET) I fell in love with the bar in which the above scene takes place (we’ll call it The Bar for the rest of this post). I felt a need to find this place, but of course after almost 50 years I held little hope that I would ever be succesful. I mean it couldn’t still exist, could it?
Well, as it turns out, some no, but a lot of yes as well.
It should be noted that while the following screen caps are from the VS release, the brightness on most of them has been turned up (and in one case turned down) to get a better view of the interior, and therefore they are not representative of the incredible picture VS has given us.
We first come to the bar from the outside, Dusty (the main character of FLESHPOT) ran into on old friend, Billy, while on her way to meet Cherry at “the club”, as it’s called in the previous scene (we’ll review this in more detail in a bit). We see Dusty and Billy walking down 42nd Street (one of the few bits of the film actually set on the titular street), and then down 8th Ave and finally onto 43rd Street, arriving at a no-name dive next to The Van Dyke Bar. After a crap load of digging I’ve determined that this had at one time housed BILL CONNELL’S RESTAURANT, and by the time of FLESHPOT it was known as BLUE’S, which was described as a “refuge, watering hole, and mecca to its patrons — purveyors and practitioners of the Times Square sex trade and other various related street business”. It eventually became the original Sally’s Hideaway.
But here’s the thing: EVERYTHING we’ve seen thus far, from the place Dusty and Billy meet, to the entire scope of their walk, as well as Blue’s and Van Dyke’s, has been demolished. Ugh! So that means The Bar, our Bar, Dusty and Cherry and Billy and the Simmons Sister’s bar is gone, right?
Well, not so fast my friends. Some things don’t stack up, and for us that is a good thing.
First, we see Dusty and Billy enter from the outside, then we cut to the inside where we see Dusty and Billy…and Cherry enter. Where did Cherry come from? I have a theory, but that is for a different post on another day. In any case for our purposes today the important thing is the door they enter through appears to be from a vestibule, not an outside door. Looking at the small footprint of Blue there’s no way there could have been a vestibule there,nor could it have been big enough to have a full bar AND a row of booths.
Second, once we’re inside, we can see a small window in front, which does not match up to the one we see at Blue. On closer examination (and by closer I really mean closer: I zoomed in during the scene) we can determine a) this is a two-way street (43rd is not), b) it is a busy street (again, 43rd typically isn’t), and c) it seemed to be a wide street, which again, 43rd is not. And after watching the zoomed in image way more times than should be healthy I could start to make out a lot, not buildings, and was that a truck, maybe even a tow-truck parked there…it started to feel like there was a gas station/garage across the street.
Third, on the wall perpendicular to the front window there’s an A/C and what appears to be another outside door. Which means wherever this place was had to be either on a corner or on an alley. Again, Blue’s was neither.
And finally in the latter scene in the bar we can see there is clearly another A/C in the front wall as well. And you guessed it, this wasn’t on the outside of Blue’s either, nor would there have been room.
So we were looking for a corner building, with a gas station across the street, that was wide enough to have a full bar, booths, and a vestibule, two A/Cs and a side door…with a strong pinch of salt on all that at this point.
With that I felt there was enough threads of light that I should dig further. And after many, many weeks (I think the correct ANSI Unit of Measure is Crap Load [CL]), I’m happy to finally say I believe, nay I know, I’ve found The Bar. But it’s not on 42nd Street (but then very little of the film is); and it’s not on 43rd Street either. In fact it isn’t even in mid-town…
So without further delay, and for your consideration, I give you…
Phebe’s Tavern and Grill – 359 Bowery, NYC
Now hold on, you say. That outside looks nothing like what the outside of The Bar should be, except that it is on a corner. Well, yes, you would be correct, today. However up until a few years ago the footprint of Phebe’s was much smaller. At some point in the late 70s/early 80s they blew out the walls and expanded out onto the sidewalk, as well as into the building next door. However the original footprint pretty much follows the outline of the roof sign, as can be seen in this picture at the right. And looking at this we can see the front window is in the right place and the right size, with an A/C in the right spot, and on the perpendicular wall we can see the second A/C unit and the second door right where they should be as well. I think if you add all that up, even before we get inside, you can’t chalk this up to coincidence.
And is there a gas station across the street? Well, sort of. There was a Gulf Station there at least into the late 70s/early 80s, and if you venture into the restaurant that’s there now you can actually see parts of the building still intact. And while I didn’t realize it when I was there (otherwise I’d have gotten better pictures), it appears the orange paint on the roof line is still intact as well. And while the Gulf sign is not still hanging on the wall, I do believe the current sign is in the same place, perhaps even using the same apparatus.
It should be noted that Phebe’s has actually gone through at least one other major transformation: originally known as The Landmark, up until roughly the 1940s (I think) there was an entire second floor on this building, but for some now unknown reason that was removed, leaving this small, unassuming single story dive bar to fend for itself on the Bowery.
Phebe’s deserves a post of its own, and it will get one soon enough over on our sibling blog A Scrod in New York. For now I’ll just mention that in the June 29, 2003 article “Still Positively 4th Street” the New York Times says Phebe’s “was popular in the 1970’s with avant-gardists like Andy Warhol and later a hangout for the punk crowd”, or just about what it seemed like in FLESHPOT.
Although Phebe’s is anything like a dive bar now, in fact it has, and it hurts me to say this, it has kinda been cleaned up, modernized, even (horror of horrors) gentrified to a degree (where have we heard that…). But I will say it has not become a caricature of itself, and I do believe that the shepherds of Phebe’s have done their best to try to stay “up with the times” (so I think that means society is to blame). In any case, I have enjoyed a few rounds there in the last month, and I do invite you to stop in and try the place out, but don’t expect to see the likes of Dusty or Cherry or Billy or the Simmons Sisters; although I did get the chance to talk with an “old-timer” who started coming here in the early 70s, not long after FLESHPOT, and he still comes round every once in a while and remembers the joint like it used to be (in fact he said he’s friends with the guy standing on the sidewalk in that picture, go figure!). But I think that was just Andy smiling down (or up?) on me I think, giving me a little extra for my effort.
So let’s do some backing up of this assertion.
First, as I’ve already noted, the window and the two A/Cs and the side door all seem to “fit”. And while most of the walls were taken out when they expanded onto the sidewalk, remnants of it do still exist, as can be seen in these pics, which appear to be evidence of where the vestibule wall would have been attached.
These next pics would be facing the main door and the booth where Dusty, Cherry, Billy, and the Simmons Sisters sat. Note the distinctive brick-work, including the yellowish line of smaller bricks.
This would be roughly the setup for where the Simmons Sisters did their Big Number (remember the original walls and vestibule are gone).
And this is the general view from where Dusty overheard Cherry’s deceit.
And as for the bar where Dusty met Bob…well the bar is in the same general location on the south wall, however when they expanded they apparently expanded the bar as well. So if you had dreams of sitting in the same exact spot as Laura Cannon and Harry Reems I’m sorry, that’s now behind the bar.
And in a final wink to its past, in the back of Phebe’s by the bathrooms, there’s a single poster for La Mama, harking back to the wall behind Cherry and Billy nearly 50 years before (this screen cap has again been lightened so we can see the posters, and thanks to the VS release we get to see all of them in this full-frame version), and to Milligan’s link to La Mama as well, although I doubt they know that.
Now we’ll move again to the outside when Bob and Dusty are leaving, which is markedly different from what it looked like when Dusty and Billy entered (because it IS different). In fact it’s not 43rd Street at all, but, wait for it, the Bowery, right in front of Phebe’s!
We see Bob hailing a cab and then him and Dusty getting in, then in the new VS version we cut to the camera inside the cab and seeing them enter again…but one block down 4th Street! That, however, is for another post at some point in the (hopefully) near future. And that red car we see, well I’ve got a theory about that as well…
One final bit to confirm Phebe’s as the location of The Bar:
Cherry: I tell you what let’s do, let’s go out to dinner tonight. We’ll stop in at the club, see if some of the kids are there, then we’ll take in a double horror bill at the Lyric, TORTURE DUNGEON and BLOOD THIRSTY BUTCHERS. OK?
Dusty: Yeah, I am sorta hungry. Hey, maybe we can get a steak at Phebe’s.
Dusty actually freaking tells us they’re going to Phebe’s! For nearly 50 years the answer was staring us in right the face the whole time, damn it!
While we’re back in Cherry’s apartment, let’s briefly pick backup a few seconds after the above dialog:
This actually is more fuel for my theory that there might have originally been an additional scene between Dusty meeting Billy and the three of them entering The Bar. I believe we see Dusty and Billy actually entering “the club”, where Cherry is already hanging out with “the kids”, then all three go over to Phebe’s for the steaks (whether they made it back over to the Lyric to catch Milligan’s films is of course anyone’s guess).
And by the way, that phone number on Cherry’s wall(524-6000) is for Macy’s (you’re welcome).
But is Phebe’s the kind of joint I’ll frequent? Probably not, although that doesn’t mean it’s a bad place, or that you shouldn’t try it. It’s just not near where I’m usually at, and now that I’ve been there (twice) it’s not compelling enough to make a special trip back to. But I am glad it’s still here. And if I happen to find myself in the neighborhood I’ll of course stop in and raise a glass to Dusty and Cherry and Billy and Bob and the Simmons Sisters, and Andy too.
But chances are when I’m in NYC you’ll have a better chance at finding me at Jimmy’s Corner (44th just off Times Square), Johnny’s Bar (Greenwich between W 12th St and Jane), Tavern on Jane (8th Ave and Jane), or on select nights Don’t Tell Mama’s (46th between 8th and 9th). The first two being still authentic dark bar joints, Tavern on Jane being just a good neighborhood pub with decent food, and Don’t Tell Mama’s…well we all have our guilty pleasures, don’t we?