Sammy Fuchs and Friends: Revisiting the Legendary Sammy’s Bowery Follies [HISTORY]

Posted on: September 21st, 2016 at 9:33 am by
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When we last came together around history, our subject was Weegee; it is therefore apropos that we focus on one of his closest friends. A famous man throughout the old Bouwerie. A man whom, without Weegee, would not have had his establishment documented so thoroughly. A man named Sammy Fuchs, the proprietor of Sammy’s Bowery Follies.

Sammy Fuchs was born in 1884 and grew up on the Bowery. He was a busboy, waiter, and a restaurant manager before he opened up his famous saloon at 267 Bowery in 1934.  According to Weegee’s book, Naked City:

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This image has been archived or removed.

Note the reference to the “poor man’s Stork Club.” What is that, you ask?

Allow me – a swanky place for the elite, elitists, the wealthy and the famous. Really rich. Really famous. These upper crusters, at one point, became so enamored with the idea that they had a poor counterpart in Sammy’s that this happened:

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Jewish Chronicle, Jan. 1945

Here’s more from their website:

The Stork Club was the epitome of American glamour, sophistication and elegance from 1929 until 1965, when it closed. It remains an icon of 20th century American culture.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the best and brightest of American culture-makers gathered at the Stork Club; the list of regulars was endless, encompassing the czars of New York society, government figures, royalty, journalists, poets, actors, directors, songwriters and military men.  Can you imagine J. Edgar Hoover rubbing elbows with Ernest Hemingway; the Harrimans and the Kennedys seated next to Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin; Carl Sandberg sharing a bottle with Jimmy Durante.

And it all began when my father, Sherman Billingsley, arrived in New York from Enid, Oklahoma, and started a little bar that became the world’s most famous nightspot.

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Elizabeth Taylor and parents 1947

Curiously, Sherman Billingsley sometimes found himself at Sammy’s as part of a so-called “slumming tour.” His dates were always flawless beauty beauties. Queens headed downtown. In sharp contrast to the Bowery’s very own Queen, darling Tugboat Ethel, often drinking with her allegedly abusive boyfriend (hence the black eyes).

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This image has been archived or removed.

Weegee captured the awkward class dichotomy all too well in these shots. This social mixing photographed at Sammy’s might only be equivalent to, perhaps, the patrons at McSorley’s rubbing elbows with those at the University Club (?). Neighborhood regulars and well-to-do outsiders seemed to equally enjoy analyzing one another. Coming together in an unlikely place. Each enjoying the freak show that was the other.

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Ethel. (Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

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Weegee: Ethel lighting her cigarette with Sammy.

Mark Barnett (aka Barney Marks) was the official Master of Ceremonies, singer and dancer there. His daughters, Sharon and Marcelle Barnett, who were eight and ten when they first walked into Sammy’s in 1959, spent every Saturday night until the venue closed sitting at a corner table with their mom, oftentimes performing themselves, but mostly watching their dad.

The two sisters are now in the process of creating a musical about the establishment. They agreed to share a few memories with Bowery Boogie. Without further ado, Marcelle Barnett (herself and on behalf of her sister, Sharon):

“Let’s open the show by saying hello to everyone out there.
Entertain you by the score by those you will adore.
Memories of  long ago.”

My Dad Mark Barnett a.k.a. Barney Marks sang and wrote this song nightly on the stage of “Sammy’s Bowery Follies” which was located at 265-267 Bowery.

He was the youngest male entertainer (a song and dance man) and most of all the M.C. (master of ceremonies).  Sammy’s was a Gay Nighties Cabaret which was nationally and internationally known.  Sammy Fuchs, the proprietor was the unofficial mayor of the Bowery.  Sammy’s opened in 1934 and closed in September of 1970.

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Mark Barnett, Sammy Fuchs and Rex Harrison Courtesy of The Barnett Sisters

The rich and famous like President John F. Kennedy, Rex Harrison, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, Jane Mansfield and the Rolling Stones along with the  patrons  of the neighborhood and tourist from the Grey Bus Tours  all sat side by side rubbing elbows. Sammy’s entertainers were also famous and renown.  On the bill was Mabel Sidney the sister of director, George Sidney who was famous for the movie “Jumbo.”  The glamorous Gladys Carr, a former showgirl who starred in Earl Carroll Vanities; Billy Pollard, a former vaudevillian; Joanie Lynne, the youngest female singer and Dora Pelletier was known as the oldest entertainer.  She was still doing kicks on stage at 90 plus years old nightly. Along with Roy Allen, the piano man who had worked with Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra; Rita Gearon and her pretty daughter, Claire were hat check and camera girls.  Woody Allen’s Dad,  Martin Konigsberg was a waiter.

A night at Sammy’s Bowery Follies was a night to remember.  It was filled lots of laughter, song and nostalgia.   My sister, Sharon and I can still close our eyes and relive our childhood days.  We can visualize our father on stage singing an Al Jolson tune.   Sammy’s Bowery Follies  will always hold a special place in our hearts.

My sister Sharon Barnett along with Adam Shorsten (Book), Michael McFrederick  ((Music) has written  the musical “Sammy’s Bowery Follies”  based on this club.  A reading directed by Producer (Fun Home)/Director Kimberly Loren Eaton and in an association with Kamen Entertainment is scheduled for October 2016.   For more information contact Sharon.

Check out their father in  “Heaven Wants Out.” It was filmed at the original Sammy’s Bowery Follies over 40 years ago. Take special note of the stage.

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