Karen Kristal, 88, stern partner in CBGB with her ex, Hilly

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Karen Kristal, partner with her late husband Hilly Kristal in the renowned rock club CBGB in the East Village, died Tues., May 20, three weeks after being admitted to New York University Medical Center. She was 88.

Although Hilly (short for Hillel) was the public face of the club that opened in 1973 and closed because of a rent dispute with the landlord in October 2006, Karen Kristal was the legal owner, constant caretaker and stern protector of CBGB, whose logo she designed.

At first, the club showcased country, bluegrass and blues (hence the name), but its programming changed to what later became known as punk and hardcore rock, with bands playing original music.

Karen Kristal in her younger days.  PHOTO COURTESY DANA KRISTAL
Karen Kristal in her younger days. PHOTO COURTESY DANA KRISTAL

Blondie, the Ramones, Mink DeVille, Talking Heads, the Heartbreakers and the Fleshtones were among the bands that shot to fame at the Bowery club.

The rule at CBGB was that a band had to play primarily original music and had to move its own equipment.

“It was really because my mother didn’t want to have to pay ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] the royalties on published music,” said their son, Dana. “I remember my father telling some reporters about his new ‘philosophy,’ and I asked my mother why she didn’t say what the real reason was. She said, ‘He needs it,’ ” Dana recalled.

Despite Hilly’s pre-eminence as the face of the club at 315 Bowery, patrons, employees and musicians were aware of Karen’s presence at the door, behind the bar and on the floor, keeping the place as orderly as possible.

“I will always remember Karen on Sundays, checking IDs and calling kids’ parents when she sniffed a false one,” said David Poe, the singer, songwriter and former sound engineer at CBGB, in an online interview recently.

“Her contribution to CBGB is well known, and it’s true enough that venerated space would not have existed as it did had it not been for her efforts,” Poe said. “Karen was a true patron of the arts and embodied the indie spirit.”

“Skinheads obeyed her command and the Ramones hid their joints when they saw her coming,” said a Village Voice article a few years ago.

“I was more afraid of Karen than I was of the skinheads. They all had this respect for her,” said George Taub, a member of False Prophets and former CBGB employee. “She started the famous Sunday matinees. It was all her idea. The club really started the whole hardcore movement in New York.”

At one point, Karen turned the house amplifier down because neighbors were complaining about the noise and threatened to close the place down. The bands protested.

“I think those musicians were stupid,” her son Dana said. “Like wild kids who didn’t want to listen to their own mothers and fathers. They didn’t realize that my mother was trying to keep the place open.”

Roberta Bayley worked the door at the iconic club and later became a top punk rock photographer.

 “I understood much later that the liquor license at CBGB’s was in Karen’s name,” Bayley said. “So she was very careful about not getting busted — she would grab joints out of people’s hands! She got crazy about me drinking the Heinekens that Merv, CBGB’s manager, would bring me from Tin Pan Alley because CB’s didn’t serve that brand. They only had this vile import called Dinkelaker.

“Back in the ’70s Karen was sort of forced to be ‘bad cop’ to Hilly’s ‘good cop,’ ” Bayley said. “But she was smart and an innovator. I think she championed the hardcore matinees.

“In the end, it did seem like Hilly may have gotten Karen to sign away her rights to the club, I really don’t know. We all heard that Hilly had 3 million when he died. His daughter Lisa inherited the bulk of his estate. I don’t think Karen got anything. Sad story.”

Karen Kristal was born in 1925 and raised in Boston.  An aspiring actress and singer, she was six years older than Hilly, a musician and singer whom she met in an opera class in New York. They were married in 1951.

“My mother joined the Canadian Army sometime between the end of World War II and the Korean War,” Dana said. “I don’t know how long, but she trained as a nurse. She then studied at the Boston Institute of Fine Art — she was a talented graphic artist, but acting was her passion. She ran an acting improvisation group at the club in the mornings,” said Dana, who took care of his mother, especially over the past nine years with the onset of her dementia.

Karen Kramer designed the famous CBGB logo.
Karen Kramer designed the famous CBGB logo.

Hilly and Karen opened Hilly’s on W. Ninth St. just east of Sixth Ave. in the 1960s. The place, which featured live music, moved to 315 Bowery in 1969, becoming Hilly’s on The Bowery for several years before the name change to CBGB. The liquor license of both places was under Sareb Restaurant Corp., a contraction of Sara Rebecca, Karen’s name before she married Hilly and changed her name to Karen, which she thought was better theatrically. The couple divorced even before the club’s move to the Bowery, but Karen remained an active partner.

In 2005, CBGB became involved in a rent dispute, the landlord claiming that the club owed $91,000. Hilly contended that he hadn’t been informed about rent increases, but, in the end, agreed to vacate the place after a year. The club finally closed in October 2006, and Hilly announced that he intended to reopen in Las Vegas.

However, he died in August 2007 and left his estate to their daughter, Lisa Kristal Burgman. But a bitter legal dispute broke out pitting Burgman against her mother and brother over ownership of the estate.

Burgman claimed that Karen had signed over legal title to the club to Hilly before he died, and submitted a document to that effect, but Karen said she didn’t remember the signing.

“I don’t know if she signed it, but even if she did and didn’t remember, it shows she didn’t legally know what she was doing,” Dana said.

The case was settled by October 2010 and Burgman ended up in control of the club’s logo and its memorabilia. Burgman sold those rights in 2012 to Tim Hayes, who is the founder and executive director of the CBGB Festival.

Karen’s health problems became acute at the end of last month when she was hospitalized for back ulcers, Dana said.

“She developed pneumonia in the hospital and they tried to hide it from me,” said her son, who blamed the hospital for failing to treat his mother properly.

LindaAnn Loschiavo, a neighbor of Karen Kristal’s at 24 Fifth Ave., remembers her fondly.

“Her stern manner put a lot of people off, but not me,” she told The Villager last week. “I learned a lot about city government and tenant-landlord relations from her.”

With reporting 

by Lincoln Anderson

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