Ernest Scinto, 88, owner of the Back Fence

Ernest Scinto on the closing night of the Back Fence in September 2013. Villager file photo by Tequila Minsky

BY GABE HERMAN | Ernest Scinto, who owned and ran the beloved Bleecker St. live-music venue the Back Fence with his brother Rocco from 1958 until its 2013 closing, died July 29. He was 88.

Scinto’s health had been worsening the past three years from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, though his mind stayed sharp to the end, said his daughter Marilyn.

Ernest Scinto grew up in Little Italy on Mulberry St. He was born on Oct. 28, 1929, “the day before the stock market crash, he always liked to point out,” his daughter Lori recalled.

He attended Transfiguration School, on Mott St., for primary school, going on to Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx.

After getting an undergraduate business degree —“He was a proud Manhattan College graduate, he loved that school,” said Lori — he went to graduate school at New York University, working toward an M.B.A. But when his father died, he dropped out to take over the Back Fence with Rocco.

The Back Fence, at Bleecker and Thompson Sts., was opened in 1945 by Ernest’s father, Ernest J. Scinto, and uncle Silvio. Before that, they had run the Pioneer Nut Club on the Lower East Side, which featured female impersonators.

It was originally called the Back Fence Bar, but when the folk music scene hit the Village, the focus shifted to live music and it just became the Back Fence. Throughout the years, performances were mostly cover songs and mostly acoustic.

“The crowd, they wanted to hear familiar songs,” remembered James Porcaro, Scinto’s son-in-law, who worked there as a bartender and manager from 1989 until its closing in 2013.

“When they first started the music back in 1969, that was the folk era,” Porcaro recalled. “The neon sign outside said ‘Folk / Rock.’ ” He noted that some years later, as tastes changed, the sign would change to read “Classic Rock.”

The bar featured a rotating group of about 30 musicians, who would play once or twice a month. Richie Havens and Tracy Chapman auditioned to play the Back Fence, and Mary Travers played once before going on to help form Peter, Paul and Mary.

In a 2013 Villager article on the Back Fence’s closing, Ernest Scinto noted the quality of the club’s performers.

“Bob Dylan lived down the street and used to come in and listen to the music,” he said. “Anytime anyone would recognize him, he would take off. No one became famous — but we had a lot of quality musicians. It’s a tough business: You not only have to be talented, you have to be lucky.”

“The bar was known all over the world,” Porcaro said. “We used to kid around and call it the world-famous Back Fence, but it really was. … There were so many tourists that came, and they found the Back Fence somehow and they all loved it.”

Porcaro said the Back Fence had a special vibe.

“The people that worked there, the music, the peanut shells on the floor, the sawdust on the floor,” he recalled. “You just don’t see places like that anymore. It was a special little bar.”

“He was really a much-loved gentleman. He was just a kind person,” said Scinto’s daughter Lori. “He had employees at the Back Fence that worked there most of their lives, 30-plus years.”

Lori said that her father was a big reason for employees’ loyalty, in large part due to his generosity toward them.

“He was really good to them, everything from Christmas bonuses,” she said, “he paid their Social Security for them, and other benefits that weren’t typical for a bar owner to do… . He was extraordinarily generous to his family, friends and employees.”

His son-in-law Porcaro noted that day to day in the bar, Ernest “was all business. He was my father-in-law, yes,” he said, “but that didn’t give me any kind of special compensation, because if I did something that shouldn’t be done, he was right on me.”

Outside the bar, though, Porcaro said that Scinto was the “nicest, most generous man that you could ever in your life meet. He was just a true gentleman. He was cut from a cloth that you’ll never see again.”

“He just never had a bad thing to say about anybody, he was just so kind,” recalled his daughter Marilyn, who is married to Porcaro. “I don’t think anybody would ever have a bad word to say about him.”

Beyond the connection people felt with the club, Lori said it connected people to each other.

“A lot of people met their spouses there,” she said. “My brother met his spouse there. Some of the musicians met their spouse there. So it was that kind of place, too, it was a real good gathering place. It had a nice feel to it.”

Lori even recalled being her father’s date to the wedding of a longtime employee about six years ago.

Despite growing up in the city and having his business there, Ernest preferred to live elsewhere and have some property, according to Lori. He and his wife, Florence, moved the family to Atlantic Beach, Long Island, in 1973, and they would move again in later years to Tenafly, New Jersey. He and Florence were married for 51 years, until she died in 2003.

“It was all about family for him. He always wanted family together,” said daughter Marilyn. “My son the other day just said, Grandpop is the one that taught me to be a gentleman, because that’s what he was.”

In the final years of the Back Fence, son Ernest Jr. took an increased role in running the business.

“I’m 83, time for me to retire,” Ernest, Sr. told The Villager before the place’s closing five years ago. He noted that business had slowed due to the economy, and the landlord wanted a rent increase of 75 percent. “The rents all over Bleecker St. are going haywire,” he said back then.

Lori recently was going through photos for the services for her father, she said, when she found a card from one of Ernest Scinto’s employees, written when the Back Fence closed.

“Her last line was, basically, ‘It’s been a privilege to know you, and we should all strive to emulate the kind of person that you are,’ which I thought was so touching,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people say that about their boss, let’s put it that way.”

Ernest Scinto is survived by his brother, Rocco; four daughters, Lori, Marilyn, Marie and Linda; two sons, Ernest Jr. and Michael; seven grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

There was a viewing at Greenwich Village Funeral Home, at 199 Bleecker St., on Tues., July 31, with a Mass the following day at St. Anthony’s Church, at 151 Thompson St.

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