A tribute to the Sunny behind a great Red Hook bar

A tribute to the Sunny behind a great Red Hook bar
Photo by Tom Callan

Two pretty girls are banging on Sunny’s door.

Seventy-seven-year-old Sunny Balzano — the glittering patriarch and wayward trailblazer of Red Hook — leans out of his legendary bar, just after 3 pm, and says, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

The girls’ faces drop — trekking to the saloon was no easy feat — but then something softens in his face. “Tell ya what,” he says with a mischievous twinkle. “One drink.”

It’s that spirit — one in which small-town warmth trumps big city glitz — that makes his 120-year-old saloon special.

Sunny’s feels plucked out of a fishing village at the edge of the world: It is the town square, the theater and the temple of one of Brooklyn’s most-isolated neighborhoods.

At the center is Balzano, whose life story is as much a scrapbook of Red Hook’s history, starting back when longshoremen outnumbered painters, as it is a character sketch of a fascinating businessman — and cultural visionary — who has earned an almost cult-like following from his customers.

But now the cheery bar owner with darting green eyes, a waterfall of gray hair and a mouth full of blarney has faded from his daily post as the bar’s Jameson-drinking patron saint. And — in the wake of a hospital visit and some serious health trouble — his disappearance has left loyal regulars wondering one thing: Where has Sunny gone?

Antonio “Sunny” Balzano was born in 1934 in a brick apartment right next to the Conover Street bar, where much of his life has unfolded: He jumped from stacks of ship cargo into the New York Harbor in the 1940s (“Parents worried less back then”); survived street brawls in the ’50s (“You almost had to fight to survive”) and faced gun-slinging bar robbers in the ’80s (“My cheek hit the floor; I felt the barrel on the back of my head”) — all before the area morphed into a vibrant fringe-arts community.

His uncle, John Balzano, ran what was then called John’s Restaurant and Bar back when the neighborhood revolved solely around the shipping industry — and he remembers the channel buoy ringing offshore and wild packs of dogs running in the streets.

As a teenager, he took up boxing to fend off neighborhood bullies, then joined the Air Force — more out of wanderlust than patriotism, but was disappointed when the service didn’t lend itself to the “Gulliver’s Travels”-like adventure he’d hoped for. After living in California and India, he returned to help temporarily with the family business, which back then closed at 6 pm and pulled in only $150 per night — but he could sense something big was about to bubble up culturally.

“I was going to get out of here,” he remembers. “Then I began to meet all of these artists.”

His wife, Tone Balzano, a Norwegian feminist, was one of those artists. “Sunny made Red Hook what it is today,” she said, explaining the bar was the only real meeting point in the area for years. “He is a social genius.”

Around that time, LIFE Magazine had named Red Hook one of the country’s “worst” neighborhoods, calling it, “the crack capital of America” — but Balzano knew better.

So when his uncle died, he kept the bar and catered to the new art crowd by ditching the food and transforming the joint into a Friday night club, where live music would pulse and patrons would pay a small cover charge.

Everyone came: Fishermen mingled with banjo players and lawyers tossed back shots with painters. The bar — which still offers no tap beer or fancy drinks — has nevertheless been deeply ingrained in the community’s movements with Balzano as the jovial centerpiece.

Loyal customers now say his charm comes from a combination of “touchy-feely affection” and “genuine gratitude for customers,” a trait that makes even strangers feel welcome.

On a recent Friday, bartender Nate Luce told a story about his first day working at Sunny’s — a stressful one in which he felt overwhelmed and nervous. “Sunny put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You’re gonna be great; I can feel it,’ ” Luce said. “He’s the most charismatic man I have ever met.”

The bar has since earned such a cache — at least among Brooklynites with certain old-time, shot-and-a-beer values — that HBO recently asked Balzano to appear on the TV show “Bored to Death,” when it was filmed. The bar is also the subject of a documentary on Red Hook’s history.

Balzano has suffered some recent health problems so he does not come around the bar as much. Medication makes his mouth dry, he gets sleepy more easily and prefers club soda to whiskey.

But on a recent weekday, he sat at a small table, sipping soda across from a Pabst Blue Ribbon lamp, and explained that he’s fighting a winning the battle with his maladies — and that he’s still around. If he hasn’t been at the bar as much, he said, it’s partly because he prefers lazy days with his 9-year-old daughter to wild nights at the watering hole.

He also seems to think he’ll live forever.

“Everything I love is right here,” he said, flashing another mischievous twinkle. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Sunny’s Bar [253 Conover St. at Beard Street in Red Hook, (718) 625-8211]. For info, visit www.sunnysredhook.com.

Way back in the day, Sunny’s great grandfather, Raffiele Balzano, ran the bar.
Photo by Tom Callan