Put Another Dollar In!

The City Review asked Daniel H. Lavezzo III,  the proprietor of P. J. Clarke's, the famed Third Avenue saloon, about its rather eclectic music box.

By Daniel H. Lavezzo III

Music, music, music.

It may make the world go 'round, but most of the time it just makes the time pass a little better, I guess.

My family has been involved with P. J. Clarke's for as long as I've been alive and my father still holds his irregular  court there regularly.

By the time, I settled into the place it had a few traditions, not the least of which was its relatively new-fangled jukebox with as eclectic a group of songsters, like Patsy Cline, Lotte Lenya, Edif Piaf and both the Hollidays (Billie and Judy), Fred Astaire, Chet Baker, Walter Huston, Stubby Kaye and Hoagy Carmichael, as the bar's diverse patrons.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Well, the old juke still worked, but the old 45's were wearing thin and so a couple of years ago, I jumped on the technology bandwagon and ordered a CD jukebox.

Now things do change, even at Clarke's.  A few years before, we stopped putting huge blocks of ice in the shoulder-height urinals in the men's room (that new patrons just can't seem to locate directly opposite the bar despite its stained-glass, domed ceiling.  A lot of regulars said they missed the ice, but begrudgingly accepted the sad truth that the old building really didn't need to be flooded quite so often.

The new jukebox had a bit more dazzle than the old one, but it was about the same size and many customers have not noticed the change, which is important in the saloon business because regular customers don't take too kindly to change.

Actually,  the vendor came by with a new CD jukebox that had a lot of bells and whistles and we tried it for a few days, but the kids couldn't play it so we brought back the first one, which is just the right height for kids for whom it's a toy.

But cabinets do not make the good jukebox.  It's what can be played that counts and ensuring a smooth transition was no easy task as a lot of our oldies were not readily available on CD.

Over the years, the jukebox filled with a heavy dose of great show tunes from the 30's, 40's and 50's and a lot of the great big bands like Erskine Hawkins, Louis Jordan and Hal Kemp, and some operatic arias by Jussi Bjoerling and Richard Tauber, reflecting my father's taste and the influence of some of the more intense regulars.  The jukebox vendors used to come around with their own supply of records, but my father would go out and fill the jukebox with what he liked.

My tastes certainly did not find fault with most these great classics, but inevitably I began to add a few of my favorites, which included a lot of early jazz and some Brazilian music since I spent much of my childhood in Brazil.

The CD technology not only improves the sound, but also enables a much vaster selection.

But CD's also tend to have a lot of selections that run longer than the old 45's and that can be a real hassle in a restaurant or bar if one patron slips a few dollars in to listen to some lengthy piece that may not be to everyone's liking and test their patience for the next song.  We no longer have "The Wave" by Antonio Carlos Jobim because most of the other selections on the CD it's on are too long.

Unfortunately, most CD's are not programmed with jukeboxes in mind and as a result some old favorites can no longer be heard at Clarke's. 

I've spent a lot of time running around town to the various music stores and collectors' havens, such as Colony, Tower and Rizzoli, trying to find some obscure CD and have had a fair bit of luck in getting some ordered although I still haven't found a good CD version of "Bye, Bye, Blackbird."

Some of the very best and most popular disks are on special anthology disks and a lot of customers have to take out their glasses to read the fine print.  The CD's own cover is displayed, but I have to print out on my computer the disc's track numbers and song details on forms provided by the jukebox vender.

In quite a few instances, we have versions of the same song such as "Some Enchanted Evening" from "South Pacific," or "September Song," and with Frank Sinatra we have him in versions on his recent "Duets" disk with his earlier "Songs for Swinging Lovers" and a lot of patrons will play both for comparisons.

Naturally, there is always a problem that some patron will just want to hear the same song over and over, but that is pretty rare.

We get requests and often when one of our favorite customers like Alice Faye, or Joey Bushkin, or Tony Bennett comes out with a new disc, we try to find a place for it on the jukebox.

A year or so ago, Joe West, a National league baseball umpire, came in with a CD of his country style singing, "Blue West," and we put it on and a lot people play it.

In a multi-generational place like Clarke's that has a very broad patron mix, of course, it's just good policy to have a pretty wide range of styles and we run a very wide gamut of tastes from early Scott Joplin and Lee Wiley to Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Streisand and Sting.

We don't make much money on the jukebox, but it was playing even during the end of the Stanley Cup final game.

Not everyone is satisfied, all the time. Some of my best friends occasionally get up the courage to suggest some additions or deletions, which usually results in an intense listening session that is accentuatingly therapeutic.

I've only got room for 96 discs and probably have at least another 960 goodies upstairs that I am eager to get on the "box." Actually, there is room on this jukebox for 100 discs, but I don't like the way it looks when the end panels are flipped.

The most consistent complaint I get from some friends is that I don't have many recent recordings on tap, especially the Top 40. Hell, we're not a disco! We've got a lot of history here and I really don't get many complaints at all. We do have a suggestions and complaints box next to the sidestreet entrance door, which frankly doesn't get much action apart from the occasionally absurd suggestion that the paper plates we serve the hamburgers on should be replaced with china. They were good enough for Nat King cole, who called our bacon cheeseburger the "Cadillac"!

The nice thing about he jukebox technology now is that it can keep track of which songs, or tracks, have been played.

Louis Armstrong's rendition of "What a Wonderful World" consistently tops our unofficial, unpublished chart and the first Gypsy Kings disc gets a lot of play as does Patsy Cline, Basia and Sinatra.

I have not detected any particular patterns of jukebox play based on the weather or time of day or national mood. A lot depends on who's in the restaurant.

A lot of customers actually aren't aware of the jukebox, but when they too discover it they get rather fascinated by it and ask a lot of questions and some actually begin experimenting.

Our bar is very wide and the jukebox is at its eastern end at the entrance to the middle dining room so it can get pretty crowded around it.

It's surprising how many customers never seem to get the knack of slipping a dollar bill into its note quite gaping receptacle and need help. The dollars make it a lot easier on the bartenders, who used to have to make a lot change for it and for the cigarette machine, which, because of the city's new regulations, is now empty and unused. I had the vendor allow the jukebox to give four, rather than just three, plays, for a dollar sometime after my 93rd attempt to stop smoking.

We've got separate speaker channels for each room, which we occasionally adjust.

Some patrons, of course, want the music to be booming, but we're not that kind of place.

As much as we love music, we love conversation more.

I know the next question will be about the "antique" cigarette machine and its peeling felt or the less than shiny mirrors behind the bar, but have you heard....


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