76 years ago tomorrow, April 16, 1944, PM published a photo of Dora Pelletier, an entertainer at Sammy’s. The photo and the accompanying words were the work of Weegee, a freelance photographer. Weegee’s reporting on Sammy’s for PM evolved into the picturesque and amusing 10th chapter, “The Bowery,” of Naked City. (Recently republished by Damiani and ICP). Other great photographers, like Lisette Model, Erika Stone, Lee Sievan, Alfred Eisenstaedt, etc. also made photos at Sammy’s, but it seems likely that Weegee spent more time and felt more at home at Sammy’s. And Weegee lived only a few blocks away, across from police headquarters. Perhaps, Weegee was attracted to Sammy’s in part because of the colorful characters; mixing of social and economic classes; loud, imperfect, and passionate performers; the nightly (apparently) wild or (perhaps) weird, photogenic, circus-like atmosphere; a poignant mixture of happy and tragic, fun and sad; a timeless escape; and a good place to work. Almost all of Weegee’s coverage of Sammy’s was made during World War Two.
PM, April 16, 1944, p. m4
Dora Pelletier singing loud and good at Sammy’s:
Inexpicably Dora Pelletier’s last name is not used in the article. She sings “I Want a Girl (Like The Girl That Married Dear Old Dad)” (Harry Von Tilzer, composer, and William A. Dillon, lyricist, 1911). The song was only about 33 years old (and the photo was made almost 78 years ago).
Weegee reports on Sammy’s, the Bowery
At No. 267 on the Bowery, among the missions and the flop houses is Sammy’s, the poor man’s Stork Club, the only saloon on the Bowery having a cabaret license. There is never a cover change. There’s no cigaret girl – a vending machine puts out cigarets for a penny apiece. There’s no hatcheck girl – patrons prefer to dance with their hats and coats on. But there is a lulu of a floor show, according to Weegee, who covers Sammy’s for us.
The place was opened 10 years ago by Sammy Fuchs as a regular Bowery barroom. Three years ago a well-dressed man wearing a monocle began dropping in. He would sit at a table by himself and drink. Then Sammy got curious and asked the fellow how come. The fellow answered, “I am an English lord who is tired of the stuffy and formal drinking places uptown and prefer the Bowery, where I know I will escape my friends.”
It grew and it grew
Sammy figured there must be hundreds of characters like that, so he enlarged his place, took out the cabaret license, put in an orchestra and entertainers and the place began to grow. Now Sammy has just taken over the building next door to double the capacity of the place.
As customers arrive from uptown in cabs they are besieged by a bunch of panhandlers asking for a dime for a glass of beer. They get it, too. The place is jammed, the uptown crowd mingling happily with the Bowery crowd.
Jimmy Durante once dropped in and gave a free show; also Irving Berlin and wife. (Mr. B. got his start in the Bowery, you know.) Toward midnight some odd types drop in for a quick one. There is a woman called Pruneface; a man called Horseface; Ethel, the Queen of the Bowery, who generally sports a pair of black eyes “that nature did not give her,” (according to Weegee); a man with a long white beard called The Bishop who, old timers say, is looking all over the Bowery for the man who stole his wife 40 years ago.
Weegee says that one evening “while I was at Sammy’s absorbing the atmosphere and drinks, a midget walked in. He was about three and one-half feet in height. I invited him to have a drink with me. He said he had just arrived from Los Angeles where he had been working for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., walking the streets dressed as a penguin advertising Kool cigarets. The midget was flush and started buying me drinks. He proudly showed me his social security card and told me that he was 37 years old, and single, as the girls were only after money. After the seventh round of drinks this midget got boisterous and offered to fight any man (his size) in the house.”
Scotch at $1 – and why
Sammy told Weegee the other night that the new 30% Federal tax hadn’t affected the volume of business. A sign over the bar says “Drinks of Scotch, $1.” Sammy gave Weegee the breakdown for the figure.
Drink of Scotch: $.75
Thirty per cent tax: .23
City sales tax: .01
The extra penny is added because Sammy’s cash register doesn’t add odd numbers. Bowery drinkers don’t mind paying a buck for a drink of Scotch, says Weegee, because it makes them feel important and besides they are helping the war effort by contributing the tax money to Uncle Sam. Sammy sells beer for 15 and 20 cents, rye for 55 and 65.
Sammy greets his patrons at the door. He frisks some of the Bowery ones if he spots a bulge on their hips. They sometimes try to smuggle in a bottle of smoke (straight alcohol) to drink in the washroom. Sammy is wise to the chisellers, but he is a friendly fellow.
Weegee (1899-1968), [“New Year’s at 5 in the morning in a night club, I found this 3 year old with his parents welcoming the New Year with milk.” Being carried by a woman with a camera], 1943 (14228.1993)
“I know Sammy gave $100 without being asked for it for a woman in the neighborhood who died and there was no money for for the funeral,” Weegee told us. “He also takes care of customers’ valuables. I also saw him turn men away from his bar, telling them not to drink till their day off. I saw one woman at the bar give Sammy her wrist watch and $30 to save for her until the following day.
“Sammy is sector commander of the air raid wardens in the neighborhood and has contributed $5000 worth of equipment. He is known as Mayor of the Bowery and his ambition is to become Mayor of New York City.”
PM, April 16, 1944, pp. m4-m5
I Want a Girl (Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad), American Quartet; William A. Dillon; Harry Von Tilzer, 1911