KGB Bar - A Brief and Distorted History

By Denis Woychuk, Founder & President
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In the years since it opened in 1993, KGB has become something of a New York literary institution. Writers hooked up in the publishing world read here with pleasure and without pay to an adoring public over drinks almost every Sunday evening (fiction), Monday evening (poetry), and most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The crowd loves it. Admission is free, drinks are cheap and strong, and the level of excellence is such that KGB has been named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and everyone else who bestows these awards of recognition.

The story of the KGB Bar and how it came to be is a long tale and some of you readers may want to skip it. KGB Bar isn’t even mentioned until page six.

Well… If you’re still with me, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  It all started when I was a child ...

When I was a small boy growing up in Brooklyn, my father took me regularly to visit his haunts in Manhattan. We got off the D train at West 4th Street and Sixth Avenue and walked east, past Washington Square Park and NYU, past Lafayette Street, past the two gas stations at Bowery and East 4th, and into the heart of the most Ukrainian neighborhood in New York, the Lower East Side. It would be years before the “East Village” was invented by enterprising real estate agents who convinced the world that everything north of Houston Street, south of 14th Street and east of the Bowery, was a very special place, but I knew it already. In those days the neighborhood was seedy and tough but, for me, there was no where else like it. On Sundays we went to a place called the Ukrainian Labor Home, a social club for Ukrainian socialists. They had a little building at 85 East 4th Street, an obscure red brick tenement (to call it a townhouse would be pushing it), with a single large room on the first floor known as the great hall where they held their banquets, dances, and parties; and above that, hidden away on the second floor, their own private speakeasy. There were no posters of the great Soviet revolution, no photos of the politburo with Breshnev presiding, no propaganda whatsoever visible anywhere--all that was hidden away in a double-locked room on the fourth floor because these people had been subject to McCarthy’s feverish persecutions and they didn’t want to advertise their political sympathies.

Across the street was La Mama’s theater complex and Club 82, the first openly transvestite night spot in the city. Two doors up was Truck & Warehouse Theater (now the New York Theater Workshop) where Sullivanian cultists indoctrinated runaways to betray their parents.

On Sundays in the Ukrainian Labor Home’s great hall there was a dance class for children just a little older than I--I was about five at this time--they dressed in folk costumes from the old country and pranced to an accordion. Did I want to join them? No, I did not. The room was too large, twenty-five feet wide and one hundred feet long, larger than any room I’d ever seen before, and the sheer size of it took my breath away; it gave me vertigo. Rather than dance lessons, I preferred the company of my father’s cronies in the intimacy of their private club one flight up. There, we drank. (Yes, we drank.) Formerly a Lucky Luciano joint called the Palm Casino, the bar was built during prohibition well before the membership of the Ukrainian Labor Home bought the place in 1948. This was the members’ true domain, and my dad and his pals set themselves up with shots of whiskey, vodka, Four Roses or whatever--with a little shot for me. I tried to drink it down without spitting it up while the men laughed. We had a good time.

Years later my father moved to East 10th Street. I stayed with my mother in Brooklyn where I had my friends, my school, my life, and, for a while, I lost touch with my father’s friends. It wasn’t until much later--and by this time I was teaching writing at Pratt Institute (the art college in Brooklyn) and putting myself through school at Fordham Law--that I began stopping by again. Law was practical, a means to make it to the middle class; but “creativity,” the arts, was where my heart lived. The boom-boom 1980's were upon us, the East Village was a hotbed of artistic activity, and the great hall where I’d watched the children dance was essentially unused. Age had taken its toll and the members of the Ukrainian Labor Home were past feasts and big parties. Now they needed money, so they offered me the great hall to use as an art gallery. Once again it took my breath away and, so, with a nod to my forebears the Kraine Gallery was born. We did exhibitions by day and soon thereafter theater at night to help with the cash flow; I ran operations by telephone from my law office on Park Avenue.

The old men kept the bar. They weren’t that old--pushing eighty or so--and they could still drink. It was still their club.

The bar had a little kitchen belonging to the old men’s wives, and I dined Friday nights with my artist friends on perogies and three bean salad, maybe a little pot roast or some kapusniak, served by these little old Ukrainian ladies who made everything by hand. All told, a four course meal with a shot of vodka cost $5. Even artists could afford that. And if you left 75 cents or a dollar on the table one of these sweet old things would chase you down with a shout, “Hey Mister, you forgot your money on the table!”

Eventually the membership of the Ukrainian Labor Home grew too old to continue their little bar/restaurant and the operation closed. By this time it was the early ‘90's and my gallery was out of business, in large part due to the stock market crash in 1987 and the subsequent disappearance of most of the galleries in the East Village. I’d left my Park Avenue practice years before and established myself in the public interest area of psychiatric law; now I had an office at a maximum security hospital for the dangerously mentally ill where I represented patients’ rights. It was interesting work, without the killer hours of private practice, and gave me a chance to pursue an old hobby, theater; but with a twist: for the first time, the theater was making money. Although it had been started as an afterthought to the gallery, it had become the success while the gallery folded. Also, the bar had become available; it was empty.

I’ve always said, an empty bar creates a vacuum, and a vacuum wants to be filled. So what could I do? Although my Ukrainian grandfather was a successful bootlegger back in the ‘20's, I myself knew nothing about the bar business. I asked for advice and one of the first bits I got was, “Don’t open a bar on the second floor. There are no bars on the second floor for a reason. They go bankrupt.” I was never much for free advice and with a little help from friends going back as far as junior high school (I sold them a 49% interest) I got ready to open the bar for business.

But what do you call a place that’s almost impossible to find without special knowledge or a guide, a place with a history of left wing radicalism, which I intended to establish as a legitimate counter-culture venue? KGB seemed my obvious choice. I called the Department of State in Albany and told them I wanted to register a new corporation. “KGB!” the clerk on the line replied. “You can’t call a corporation KGB, not in New York State. Not KGB, FBI, CIA, or even GAY. You can’t just pick a name out of a hat. You have to justify, give a good reason for whatever name you choose.” He was wrong as a matter of law but you don’t argue with clerks at the Department of State. “Okay,” I said. “I want to call it Kraine Gallery Bar, after my gallery of the same name.” “That you can do,” he replied reluctantly. And so Kraine Gallery Bar, d/b/a KGB Bar, was legally born.

A business’s first obligation is to survive, and the first year we were barely meeting that obligation. Potential patrons could not find the place, we had only the tiniest sign, the first manager was suspected of embezzling and revenues were low. Yet somehow I had undying optimism. I knew that once people found KGB, its walls now plastered with authentic propaganda posters, photos and paintings from the fallen Soviet empire, they would love the room, the sense of history and vibe. Then I got a stroke of luck: I hired Dan Christian, someone who actually understood the bar business, as bar manager. Things began to run more smoothly, freeing me up to conspire with Melvin (one name--like Madonna, and one of my partners) about what to make of our diamond in the rough.

We were both writers. I had published a couple of books, and he a bunch of novels, and we looked at each other over our drinks and it was clear. We wanted writers. Writers who would come and read their work for no pay but a few free drinks. KGB would be open to the public without charging a cover. Drinking would be encouraged but not required.

We booked Frank Browning for our very first reading in the summer of 1994. Somehow the New York Times heard about it, sent a reporter and photographer, and that week ran an article about the new reading series at KGB. Melvin posted signs at Columbia University: Interns Wanted--No pay. Big Prestige. Help Run Our Reading Series! --along with a copy of the article. We were barraged with offers, both from would-be interns and authors. And it hasn’t let up.

KGB has been rocking along ever since. Its obscure location turned out to be more of an asset than a hindrance, operating as a kind of velvet rope for the uninitiated. We didn’t even bother to put up a real sign until 2000--seven years after we opened--and bankruptcy is the furthest thing from my mind these days. It sure beats working.