When It Was Illegal to Dance in New York Bars
The Big Apple finally overturned its arcane cabaret law this past week.
Back in 1980, when I was a sophomore at New York University, I was living at the Bellevue School of Nursing, part of the massive Bellevue Hospital complex on Manhattan’s east side, about a mile and a half from campus. NYU had run out of dorm rooms and so it was forced to lay off some of its students on whatever other schools in the area that had rooms to spare. A couple of my friends and I volunteered to be among the 30-odd students sent to Bellevue in part because, unlike the overcrowded NYU dorms, there you got your own room, but also (I must confess) because we thought living in a nursing school might have a positive effect on our social lives.
And it did—not that we got any more dates than we did when we were in the NYU dorms. But the nursing students, female and male, were a lively bunch, and one of the things they liked to do at around midnight on a slow weeknight is pack about eight or 10 people into a beat-up old station wagon one of the guys owned and drive down to Mickey’s Place.
Mickey’s was in Tribeca. Nowadays, Tribeca is one of the most expensive residential neighborhoods in America, 40-odd blocks of impeccably restored old brick loft buildings, studded with pricey restaurants and French patisseries and places where you can drop $400 on a baby onesie with a Sonic Youth logo on it. In 1980, though, most of those lofts still housed printing companies or import-export operations or architectural-model makers or whatever else people did back when Manhattan still had industrial neighborhoods. There were a few artists lurking among the blue-collar workers, living illegally in big empty lofts or legally in the few verminous, worn-down 19th-century row houses left in the neighborhood.
Mickey’s was a corner saloon, occupying the ground floor of one of those row houses. Only it was a house without a row: it was in the only building left on its block, standing proud in the parking lot that surrounded it on three sides. As a bar, it was nothing special: beer, whiskey, the usual highballs; stools at the bar and a few booths along the wall. In 1980, there were dozens of bars like it in lower Manhattan. It wasn’t even the best bar in its immediate neighborhood (that honor went to the warm and woody Puffy’s Tavern, still there today). But Mickey’s did have one thing going for it: it had a great jukebox, liberally studded with Otis Redding and James Brown and all kinds of up-tempo 1960s soul raves (these were the original 45s, most of them rare collector’s items). And in front of the jukebox was a little patch of floor, about the size of two bath towels laid side by side. That was the dance floor.
When a good, pumping number came on like, say, “Shout and Shimmy” by the Isley Brothers, everyone—nurses, English majors (me), architectural model-makers, printers, artists, everyone—would pile on to the dance floor, jamming ourselves together like straphangers at rush hour, waving our arms up in the air, wiggling and bumping and grinding and jumping up and down. When the song ended, we’d all go back to their drinks and conversations until another good one came on.
This was very, very fun. And a big part of that fun was the fact that it was also illegal. New York, you see, had the Cabaret Law, which dictated that there was to be no dancing where alcohol was served unless the establishment had a cabaret license, and the city granted cabaret licenses with the same abandon with which Donald Trump grants apologies. Most bars observed the law: there were inspectors, and fines were heavy. You’d start shimmying a little, what with youthful exuberance and Kamikazes and all, and next thing you know the bartender is yelling at you to stop that damn dancing over there. Be good or be gone.
Of course, some places cared more than others. One of the stipulations of the law was that if you had live music in a bar, the band could be no more than three people and it couldn’t have drums or horns. That tells you how old the law was: it was passed in 1926, as a measure to shut down speakeasies; back then, before electric guitars, it took drums and a mess of saxophones, clarinets, cornets, trombones and such to propel people around the dance floor.
I found that stipulation amusing in 1981, when I was playing bass in the house band at a weird little art bar-cabaret in the East Village called Club 57, in the basement of a Polish Church. Not only was there no cabaret license, but every Tuesday night we used to host the “Beat Cocktail Lounge,” where we’d play fake jazz and the various oddballs, dope fiends, punks and proto-hipsters who showed up would fake the foxtrot, tango and waltz. Besides bass, we had piano—and drums and a saxophone. Highly illegal.
But Club 57 was windowless and nobody passing by could see what was going on in there, thank God (even by the rather loose community standards of the East Village in 1981, goings on at Club 57 tended to the extreme). Mickey’s, on the other hand, had big bar windows and hid nothing, daring the city to shut it down. The city never got the chance, though: John Belushi came into the bar one night, liked it, bought it, and closed it to use for his private parties. Our Bellevue crew looked around for another Mickey’s but nothing else was as spontaneous, eclectic and, basically, healthy. Nowadays, that whole New York is gone. There’s a Whole Foods on the block where Mickey’s was. Club 57 closed decades ago and all the people who made it such a crazy place abandoned the neighborhood soon after.
And, on Wednesday, November 1st of this year, New York City finally repealed the damned Cabaret Law.