Neighborhood eclipsed: Red Hook bar owner Sunny Balzano is dead at 81

Sunny's Bar in Red Hook.
for Brooklyn Paper
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Iconoclastic Red Hook bar owner and artist Antonio “Sunny” Balzano, who survived a gunpoint hold-up, partied with Andy Warhol, and quoted Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett at whim, died of a stroke on Thursday at Methodist Hospital. He was 81 years old.

The twinkle-eyed, wild-haired bon vivant, who painted abstract expressionist originals and screened classic Martha Graham dance performances on a projector, was the subject of numerous documentaries, articles, books, and television shows, including Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservatio­ns.” But he was happiest tending bar and matching wits with a motley crew of honky-tonk musicians, artists, mobsters, boozers, nuns, longshoremen, and self-professed kooks at Sunny’s Bar, his family-owned watering hole on an abandoned strip of Conover Street by the river and a knot of railroad tracks leading to Siberia.

Balzano’s death eclipsed the neighborhood, said friends.

“I’m going to miss not seeing Sunny walking around,” said Red Hook artist David Gonzalez, who grew up with Balzano’s niece. “He was the friendliest guy with the loveliest personality, and when you talked to him you just wanted to embrace him.”

His departure left a void, added another pal.

“A lot of people will miss Sunny, he was a real character,” said John Heyer, who knew him for 40 years. “I felt bad when I heard he had died.”

Balzano was born in a brick apartment next to Sunny’s, which his great-grandfather opened in 1890. An uncle took over and renamed it John’s Restaurant and Bar back in the day when Brooklyn was still a shipping crossroads, the channel buoy rang offshore, and packs of wild dogs and brawlers roamed the streets.

“You almost had to fight to survive,” Balzano told this newspaper in 2011, relaying how he thwarted street thugs in the 1940s only to battle gun-slinging bar robbers four decades later.

The former Air Force serviceman traveled across the country and to India, where he worshipped at the feet of a guru, to fulfill his wanderlust. He returned home to help with the family business and took over after his uncle’s death. Balzano transformed the languishing spot into a popular night club for a new and energetic fringe-arts community that was immediately drawn to the exciting grand-daddy of trail-blazing beatniks.

“Going into Sunny’s was like being let in on a secret,” said cartoonist and Courier arts editor Bill Roundy. “It was like going into his living room and being welcomed like part of a club.”

Roundy immortalized the tap room in his Bar Scrawl cartoon column, “Let the good times roll again at Sunny’s,” when it re-opened after Hurricane Sandy, calling it “a destination bar.”

Balzano, a renaissance man who could have lived anywhere in the world, chose to stay in the neighborhood of his birth and sleep in the room where he was born until his death, but he will be best remembered for making Sunny’s an enduring Brooklyn symbol that Tim Sultan explains in his book “Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World.”

“Imagine that Alice had walked into a bar instead of falling down the rabbit hole,” Sultan writes.

A wake will be held for Sunny Balzano at Scotto’s Funeral Home in Carroll Gardens. Details were not available at press time.

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

C De from Red Hook / Bay Ridge says:
A special friend and cousin who had an inner beauty and spirit which filled a room with a sense of calm and serenity. A story teller of the history of the old bar, memories of my grandparents working there and how he came back in the 80s and turned our family establishment into the place it was in the past and more. He will be truly missed by so many and especially me.
March 12, 2016, 1:12 pm
BrooklynGersh from The WT says:
A great obit of a great man. I love the lead photo! Much better than the New York Times, which ran Sunny smaller than the room he was in. If you knew Sunny, he was always the BRIGHTEST LIGHT in the room. Shame on you, NYT!!!
March 14, 2016, 11:18 am
DorisRiddle says:
He was a great man. He was my special school friend of mine. Always going to remember him in all my school memories. No matter wherever we stay around the world we used plan and meet once in a year. I am going to miss him.
April 13, 2016, 2:41 am

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