For Art D’Lugoff, at heaven’s gate


By Jerry Tallmer

He lit on me. “What kind of newspaperman are you?” he shouted. Said his name was D’Lugoff. An unlikely handle. What was that apostrophe doing there? A token of royalty?

He was pissed off over a one-inch ad he’d run — at the cost of a big $4 — for a folk-music concert he was producing in the Village. It was either that there was something wrong in the ad as printed or that he was demanding a reviewer be sent to the concert, I forget which. More likely it was both. Quid pro quo, you scratch my back, I scratch yours. Modus operandi.

Little did I think I would ever see Art D’Lugoff again, or that that encounter would be the start of a more than 50-year professional relationship — friendship — that ended with cruel abruptness last Wednesday night, November 4, 2009, in New York Presbyterian Hospital.

Within two years of D’Lugoff’s invasion of the fledging Village Voice, we and he were jointly bringing the banned Billie Holiday back to New York for a historic late-night concert at Loew’s Sheridan, here in the Village. In a borrowed car, I drove her up from Philadelphia.

From a pay phone in a bar at the Canal Street end of the Holland Tunnel — “Stop! I have to make weewee!” she had cried when she saw the neon sign BAR — I somehow reached Art, up there midst the turmoil in Loew’s Sheridan.

“It’s past midnight,” he said. “The house is packed. I can only hold the curtain and stave off the cops a few minutes longer.”

“I’ll have her there in 10 minutes,” I said — and I did. Lady Day was back in New York.

In truth, lots of Art’s concerts and special events were (truly) historic — not least, before all this, the Carnegie Hall one-nighter by political outcast Paul Robeson, whose passport was returned to him by the State Department shortly after that momentous occasion.

Or how about — early on — blacklisted Pete Seeger, at midnight, at Circle in the Square, a sellout thanks exclusively to leafleting throughout the Village.

Or the appearance of Louis Armstrong at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on a showbiz-dead Thanksgiving night.

Dr. Burt D’Lugoff, four-years-younger brother of Art D’Lugoff, remembers it:

“When Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, arrived in his limousine and saw the gigantic crowd, he was totally shocked — and started scalping tickets.”

Within three years of D’Lugoff’s invasion of the fledgling Village Voice, the newspaper was holding its annual Obie Awards ceremonies in the Village Gate that Art (and silent partner Burt) had launched in a huge basement — once a laundry room for the flophouse above — at 160 Bleecker St., between Sullivan and Thompson.

And that Obie Awards collaboration continued season after season.

Some memories that stick in my mind from the Village Gate:

Larry Adler creating an entire symphony orchestra out of one not-to-be-believed harmonica.

Thelonius Monk brooding over his keys.

Nina Simone ditto ditto.

Gorgeous Miriam Makeba, in boots and tongue clicks, bringing us “The Lion” and other songs of her people in South Africa.

Unknown stand-up Woody Allen telling nervous, hostile jokes about his ex-wife. It turned me off. Years later, Art D’Lugoff would tell me and others: “I had to teach Woody how to use a microphone.”

John Belushi tearing up the joint as one of the gang that would flower into “Saturday Night Live.”

Jacques Brel spinning like a top. Or a “merry-go-round.”

Tiny Barbara Garson jumping up and down, with glee — also so as to see over everybody’s heads and shoulders — the opening-night performance of her wickedly subversive J.F.K. / Lyndon Johnson / Vietnam play, “MacBird!”

Paul Krasner, in the upstairs cabaret, mixing politics and his bodily functions.

John Coltrane. Jerry Mulligan. Mort Sahl being hostile. Dick Gregory being hostile.

Dustin Hoffman, who only a few years earlier had waited tables at the Gate, putting some raucous Obie-dissenters in their place. Another year: Groucho Marx at a total loss as Obie master of ceremonies.

Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin trading wisecracks at the press conference in the Village Gate at which Norman announced his candidacy for mayor of our fair city.

Odetta shaking the walls of the Gate with her power.

It was on an evening much, much later, an honoring of Odetta at N.Y.U. — only a year and some months ago now — that I last saw Art D’Lugoff, who was there to nurse her through the gathering and take her safely back to her front door. But then she beat him through death’s front door.

After the Village Gate had had its 30-year run, Art dreamed up and/or pursued one wishful enterprise after another — a Jazz Museum, a Folk Music Museum, a documentary film about this very scene, the Village of the 1950s and ’60s.

I got used to having the telephone ring. “Hi, it’s Art D’Lugoff. I’ve been talking with this guy from Washington who wants to back that documentary. He wants to meet you… .”

None of it ever came to pass, at least not to date. Nor, so far as I know, did Art ever finish the autobiography he would sketch out for me from time to time. But the causes for which Art D’Lugoff spent a lifetime fighting — racial, artistic and otherwise — by and large have come to pass. The N.Y.P.D. cabaret card, for instance, without which, you could not, as an entertainer, work in this city — Art ultimately demolished that.

In truth, Art the club owner, Art the born radical, was bucking cops and license bureaucrats and assorted “inspectors” all his life, and usually winning. The irony was that the Village Gate, plump in the heart of territory controlled by Chin Gigante on one side, Tommy Ryan on the other, was also from time to time beset by mobdom’s heavy-handed representatives. He didn’t buckle to them either.

Alan Gerson, the city councilman who was working with Art toward establishment of a Folk Music Museum, wryly said to this writer, the day after Art left us: “He was still planning and plotting and finagling to the end.”

Where was this Folk Music Museum to be located?

“That was the difficulty,” said Gerson. “Art was stubborn, and he insisted it should be in the Village.” Pause. “I’m determined to go through with the project in memory of Art,” Gerson said.

Only now that he is gone do I learn from the obits that Art himself inserted that apostrophe in D’Lugoff to give it some class. He was born August 3, 1924, in Harlem, but grew up first in Coney Island, then in Midwood, Brooklyn.

“We were poor,” said Burt D’Lugoff.

Eighteen-year-old Art volunteered his way into the U.S. Army Air Force, learned how to be a radio operator, was sent to China, and more than once “flew the Hump” over the Himalayas. He also started to think up theatricals to entertain the troops.

It was the G.I. Bill that gave him the education he could never have afforded. One year of law school — he decided it wasn’t for him — was followed by three years at N.Y.U. And where was N.Y.U.? Why, in Greenwich Village — which “to kids like Art was like Paris,” said brother Burt.

Jobs were a different matter. Art did all sorts of things: drove a cab, was assistant to a tree surgeon, became a union organizer, and then — more consequentially — a copy boy at the strongly leftist but short-lived (New York) Compass. From there it was but a hop, skip and jump to researcher for the no-less-leftist I.F. Stone.

And then, one day, Art D’Lugoff bumped into blacklisted Pete Seeger… .

There is much more to the Art D’Lugoff story — notably, for me, his and Burt’s backing of an unknown play called “A Raisin in the Sun” by an unknown 28-year-old Greenwich Villager named Lorraine Hansberry.

There is also Art’s lifelong devotion to his wife, Israeli-born Avital Achai, whose own illness of late years bore heavily on her husband. My memory of them, in their book-lined West 86th Street apartment before they moved to Riverdale, was of two aging grandparents trying to cope with the two tiny, energetic kids that one of Art and Avi’s daughters had wished on them.

There are three daughters — Sharon, Dahlia, Rachel — and one son, Raphael. There will, said Burt D’Lugoff, presently be a memorial service at 160 Bleecker Street, between Sullivan and Thompson Sts., where once the Village Gate made life, and the nights, a little more — a lot more — worth living.