A big night for the Night Owl and ’60s Village music scene

Joseph Marra sporting owl suspenders at his 85th birthday party at The Bitter End. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | For one night earlier this summer, the Village music scene of the 1960s came to life once again on Bleecker St.

The occasion was the 85th birthday party of Joseph Marra, who ran the Night Owl Cafe, on W. Third St.

The fete’s venue was another famous (still standing) Village music club, The Bitter End, a few blocks away on Bleecker St.

In addition to Marra, who was sporting shorts and owl-pattern suspenders, stars from the Village’s musical heyday who once graced the Night Owl’s small stage performed, including the Lovin’ Spoonful’s frontman John Sebastian and bassist, Steve Boone, and Peter Sando.

From around 1963 to 1967, the Night Owl, which was located at 180 W. Third St., between MacDougal St. and Sixth Ave., played host to many of the era’s top acts, as well as some who were just starting out and weren’t well known — but would be soon enough. Local favorites the Lovin’ Spoonful were among the bands that began to make their name there.

Marra’s father owned the building and the space had previously been a restaurant. At first, the music venue had no alcohol, but later did get a liquor license.

“It’s hard, nightclubs in New York,” Marra recalled after the party, recalling all the regulations and red tape, while having a nightcap at Arturo’s pizza restaurant, on W. Houston St. “You’re battling the Fire Department, the Police Department.”

On another note, he proudly recalled, “They said I had the best ear in the business.”

His place drew a young crowd, but he said, “There weren’t drugs. There wasn’t alcohol.”

One thing that set him apart from other operators, according to him, was that he actually paid his acts.

Most of the Village venues from back in that day were known as basket houses, where a basket was passed through the audience to collect cash for the performers.

“My club paid everybody — not like the [Cafe] Wha? or [Cafe] Bizarre,” he boasted.

Recalling some of the memorable talent that played at his place, he said, “Tim Buckley — he could sing five octaves. I had Gram Parsons. He was a Greek god. I had a young Stephen Stills. He was gorgeous, he was blond. Nobody was in the place. Nobody knew him. Mary Travers used to come in my club and sit in the back with her shock of white hair, very serious. They used to call her ‘Big Mary’ because she was tall. And there was ‘Little Mary,’ Mary Vangi, who was a notorious drug addict. … [Peter] Sando, he used to jump off the stage.”

At first, his club catered to the folk scene. But in 1965, he transitioned to rock, which drew acts that people would actually pay to see.

“We had folk singers,” he said. “It was tough. You had 25 people for each folk singer — they didn’t spend any money. Bob Gibson was the biggest folk act I had. In ’64, I paid him $1,000 for a week, the most I ever paid. … I couldn’t make money with folk singers. I had to go to rock and roll. I had The Blues Project, I had the Lovin’ Spoonful.”

Along with the success stories, there were tragedies, too, great talents who just couldn’t keep it together.

“Tim Hardin, he wrote ‘Reason To Believe,’” Marra recalled. “He’d say, ‘Joe, I need $2 for a cab,’ 100 times a week. It wasn’t for a cab. … He was brilliant, but just too messed up on drugs.”

Hardin would fatally OD on heroin in 1980.

Another reason he closed the club, he said, was because he was having ear issues, which he chalked up to the loud rock music.

“I had trouble with my ears and balance,” he said. “It was like I was underwater. My Eustachian tubes were clogged.”

The fact that everyone in the place smoked probably didn’t help matters, either.

At the birthday show, there were also some former Night Owl audience regulars, like Ann Clemente, 77, a retired stewardess who flew in from Seattle just for the occasion.

“He really is a living legend,” she said of Marra. “I first met him when I was a student in 1962.”

Marra lived in the Village and Lower Manhattan for his whole life until moving to New Jersey a few years after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He currently lives in Battery Park City.

“I was down here when they bombed the first time,” he said. “They could have blown my ass up!

“My dad had a tiny, little bar on Downing St.,” he recalled. “I went to P.S. 3.”

Peter Sando, one of the Night Owl’s performers from the 1960s, performed at Joseph Marra’s party.

In another music club connection, the Cafe Wha? building used to be a stable where his grandfather — who had a fruit-and-vegetable business at Bedford and Downing Sts. — would keep his horse.

As for what happened with the Night Owl’s original location, he said, “My dad swindled me out of the building.”

Marra owned a brownstone on W. Houston St. between LaGuardia Place and Thompson St. but sold it in 1992.

“I had no money. I couldn’t eat the bricks,” he laughed.

Before the Night Owl was a music venue, it was a restaurant and late-night hangout, a franchise of Art Ford’s, which also had a location in Midtown. It drew some rough customers along with the newer Village types.

“You’d see these guys gambling — against hippies,” Marra recalled. “There were bowling machines, 20-feet long.”

Some of the patrons had to be catered to…carefully.

“You were trapped,” he said. “Some days I’d be there till 12 in the morning. They’d say, ‘Hey, kid, cook me a steak.’ We would get the musicians, the strippers, the gangsters. It was quite a mix.”

Nowadays, you can find Marra Wednesday mornings at the historic Caffe Reggio on MacDougal St.

“It’s the last authentic cafe, the Reggio,” he said. “It’s like Uncas, the last of the Mohicans.”

At the end of his birthday show at The Bitter End, Marra’s nephew and his assistant tossed out to the crowd T-shirts with a Night Owl design the late Keith Haring made for him 25 years ago. After he closed the music club, Marra relaunched the Night Owl as a poster and T-shirt store / head shop, eventually moving it to a spot closer to Sixth Ave., next to the current McDonald’s; Haring lived on the block, and Marra used to buy things for his own store at Haring’s Pop Shop, on Lafayette St.

“I asked him to do the design,” Marra said. “I said, ‘What do I owe you?’ He said, ‘Give me 100 shirts.’ He had just done an Absolut ad on the back of the buses for $250 million.”

The crowd got free Night Owl T-shirts featuring an original design by Keith Haring.

That Absolut figure might be slightly off, but Marra definitely got a good deal. The former music impresario had one shirt left and, working from the original design, and using a five-screen printing process, made 100 shirts to give away at his birthday party.

David Amram, 87, who was on the Village scene back during the Night Owl’s days, recalled it fondly.

“It was a wonderful, comfortable place,” the iconic multi-instrumentalist reflected. “It was fun. I would go there just to hear people play. The whole commercialization of the music scene changed it somewhat.”

Of Marra, he said, “He was always gracious and made everyone feel welcome. There were no ‘A’ tables. Everybody had an ‘A’ table.”

For a video of an interview with Joseph Marra, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *