Oral History: Maria Kenny of Kenny’s Castaway
In 1977, Pat Kenny opened Kenny’s Castaways at 157 Bleecker Street, a “dusty and dim New York music club” which for 36 years welcomed some of the most iconic performers in music. The legendary venue closed its doors in 2012, with so many heartfelt stories and condolences from longtime friends. But its legacy will not be lost, thanks to Pat’s daughter, Maria Kenny, who ran Kenny’s Castaways with her brother for over a decade and generously shared an oral history with us in 2015. Maria’s oral history, conducted on June 10, 2015, reflects such respect and admiration for her father’s hard work, making his way as an immigrant from humble beginnings to create a quintessential Village spot.
Mr. Kenny came from County Roscommon in Ireland, and Maria explains that he lived in New York for a short time as a child – his father tried to earn a living here, but eventually sent the family back to Ireland and essentially abandoned them. He grew up in meager conditions in Ireland, educating himself with the dictionary and serving in the army before starting a life in New York. As Maria describes, her father held jobs typical for an Irish laborer at the time – carpenter, electrician, etc. – but always loved music and dreamed of owning a bar. And so he did, by the early 1960s, with his brother Jimmy, on Webster Avenue in the Bronx.
Wild, Wild Bleecker
After a few years of business at the Webster Avenue bar, in 1967, the first Kenny’s Castaways opened in Yorkville as a supper club, bringing unfamiliar genres and undiscovered artists to “create such a stir” on the Upper East Side. About twenty minutes into the conversation, Maria explains that the first group to really shock the neighborhood was the New York Dolls, a band quite unlike anything else the area had seen before. The venue – with “a lover of all types of music” at the helm – became a central spot for diverse, up-and-coming artists to debut their work. A decade after it opened, when the original Kenny’s lease ended, the business moved down to Bleecker Street, which, “at that point, was kind of the Wild Wild West,” says Maria (about 35 minutes into the recording, or on page 12 of the transcript). With Mr. Kenny’s great passion for – and friendly connections with – the downtown music scene, the venue naturally became right at home on Bleecker Street.
Daughter of Music History
Not only does Maria tell incredible stories about her father and his partners in business, but she also makes fascinating points about her own role in the picture. Being a child of immigrant parents, and working at her father’s Village music club from a young age, she discusses her experiences of getting to really know her father during those working hours and immersing herself in this world. On page 33 of the transcript, after the interview itself concludes, there are six pages with images of the heaps of photographs and documents that Maria presented to the interviewer, Liza Zapol. During their conversation, Maria points to people in the photographs, each one inspiring detailed stories and reminding her of the countless other individuals who passed through Kenny’s Castaways. A real sense of family and closeness comes through her descriptions of the colleagues and artists who knew and loved Mr. Kenny.
157 Bleecker, Today
Of course, as we hear in so many oral histories and other documents about the Village’s recent history, particularly in the music and art realm, we’re losing this welcoming, creative environment that used to thrive here. On page 30, Maria laments this and explains some of the factors that contributed to these changes. “I hate that there’s very few [clubs]”, she says, noting the stark difference between the bustling venues of the mid to late 20th century and the streamlined bars that now line the streets. Today, 157 Bleecker Street is home to Carroll Place, an Italian American wine bar. Though a few Bleecker mainstays still stand, the neighborhood that Maria remembers is ever fading. She hopes that the radical newness and expression will come back someday. For now, she says, “there’s definitely a void.” But thanks to her oral history, and the 40+ other recordings in our archive, memories of the area’s vibrant past will at least remain alive and accessible for all who wish to listen.
The full transcription and audio for Maria’s interview can be found here. To learn more about our oral history project, listen to some interviews, and read the interview transcripts, be sure to visit our website’s Oral History Collection page. Also, be sure to stay tuned as we interview more village individuals and upload more oral histories to our website.