Memories of Manhattan’s grandest ballroom
While walking up 6th Avenue, out of left field I heard, “Billy Sternberg!” I’d crossed paths with Merrill Friedman and Dee, his girlfriend.
Merrill, rather than reminisce first, focused on pushing me to the scaffolding to insure a pedestrian walkway, something that’s usually my obsession. Merrill is an artist. It was ironic that we were standing in front of the old Trude Heller’s, because Merrill is a nuanced Rock and Roll fan. In the 1990’s we worked with Paul Klein, former NBC head of Programming and Research. Paul produced medical reality shows for CBS and NBC that got ratings those networks would die for today. His secretary was Merrill.
Merrill and I saw Marshall Crenshaw at CB’s but to impress Dee, Merrill told her about dragging me to Roseland Ballroom to see Nirvana in November of 1993. (It was their last live New York appearance available to the public. They played MTV Unplugged three days later, their last show before a live audience.) But Merrill forgot to say why I was obliged: He wrote–incoherent to me–a letter to Newsday to spank a reviewer who panned a show. I told him they would never publish it. They did. I went. But first, I made Merrill tell Dee why Roseland was his favorite New York small concert venue. Rather than ordering food at, say, The Bottom Line, Roseland had a hot dog cart that, instead of hot dogs, had Chinese food. Only at Roseland Ballroom, could one get a plate of fried rice and a shrimp roll and mingle on the dancefloor or sit at the bar before it was time to push up front in festival seating to see a band. When I told Dee that Merrill called the food cart four-star dining, she laughed, “That’s Merrill.”
The show we saw opened with Half Japanese. The Breeders came next. The Deal sisters had me at hello. When Nirvana came on, I yelled, “More Breeders!” But Nirvana was cool and I was happy to be in a chilly crowd, until… suddenly my mellow was burst. I felt myself shooting uncontrollably up in a jetstream of strangers, suspended in midair. I looked behind me and Merril was laughing, having pushed me into the mouth of the mosh pit. I was freaking out! When, finally, I had both feet on the ground, I needed air. I waited for Merrill outside with the bouncer, a big, black, bouncer. He asked me if I liked the band. I asked, “NeeerVaaanah?” He corrected me politely, “Nirvahnah.” I told him that I liked the Breeders a lot better. But in standing with him watching Roseland empty out, I took note that all races were well represented. When Merrill came out, finally, he said I blew it; that, mixed in with gibberish, was that someone, Dave Grohl, maybe, smashed a guitar on an amp. I said, “I saw The Who 20 year ago. If someone went across that dancefloor and smashed their guitar on that Chinese food truck, then I’d have missed something!”
I went to Roseland under different circumstances five years later. I recognized Steve, Store Manager of the late Downstairs Records, at a gallery opening at the Museum of the City of New York. While we talked he started selling me on Felix Hernandez’s Rhythm Revue at Roseland Ballroom. He must have given me passes; open invitations to these monthly Saturday night parties. He said there was a good mixture of people. I was a regular listener to Rhythm Revue and well knew the event. I knew people who listened but not anyone who had gone or expressed interest in wanting to. One Saturday night, however, seemed ripe. I went to a black tie wedding. The Church was on lower Fifth Avenue, only three blocks from where I lived at the time. The reception was at the U.N. The groom was a nephew of U.S. Senator Patrick Moynihan. When I saw the Senator at the Church, I told him that my grandfather managed Robert F. Wagner’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 1926. He said, “Then put her there. I worked with Mayor Wagner (the son) during the 1960’s.” The wedding and reception were lovely. Mrs. Moynihan complimented me on my colorful tie and cummerbund combo. Stealing a line from Four Weddings and a Funeral, I thanked her: “Why be dull?”
When the reception winded down, a single fellow at my table took me up on my offer to go to Roseland and check out Rhythm Revue. We cabbed it crosstown, sure that the party was just getting started. Was it ever packed? Steve said that the crowds were diverse but that crowd was 100% soul save for us two pasty Caucasians in tuxedos. Seeking safety, I looked for the Chinese food cart. It wasn’t there! I was reasonably sure that this night wasn’t going to be as good as the wedding, much less The Breeders, when a woman came at me full throttle. She said, “My name is Serene. I’m a Sagittarius and I like Sea Food. Here’s my number.” I asked, “Where do you live?” She said, “Newark.” I said, “Why don’t we go out now?” She said, “’Cause I’m with somebody.” Well, I never! The friend who tagged along was cool given the circumstances but begged out quickly. I walked around and got a kick when everyone took the floor for the Electric Glide but I was an observer. I headed upstairs and spotted Steve not far from Felix. He said that he, too, was surprised that the party wasn’t at all diverse that night. I told him about the woman who came on to me while she was on a date. He said, “That’s total bullshit. I hate that.” But most, if not all of the women were huddled together as if around the keg like at a frat party. I felt like a dressed up vanilla chip at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I called it a night.
But after co-mingling my only two experiences at Manhattan’s late Roseland Ballroom, I laughed. I should have told the lady who wanted me to take her out for seafood that if she’d only been at Roseland five years earlier, I could have bought her a shrimp roll from the Chinese food cart.