The Bitter EndIt was the summer of 1961.
Exhilaration fueled the country as John F. Kennedy's Camelot rode into our hearts and minds in full blaze and an entire post-war generation began its ascent to power. Greenwich Village was like a magnet for them, luring young people drawn by the ever-growing, ever-intensifying drumbeats of poetry, music and a new, more substantial comedy that spoke of politics, social issues and change.
It was a new beginning for club owner Fred Weintraub too.
He was looking for a more authentic way of life and so he had done what so many would do during the '60s at Timothy Leary's invitation: he dropped out. Leaving behind a trail of wreckage as he left his wife, two young daughters, a beautiful home in Westchester and a successful baby-carriage business - Fred Weintraub simply sought something that would bring him fulfillment.
His search led to Europe and Cuba and ultimately full circle back to Greenwich Village where he started The Bitter End nightclub.
Harold Leventhal, who managed Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie and many more, remembers the times well:
"This was the beginning of the social revolution that ended up being called the '60s. It wasn't actually born there at The Bitter End, it was really born with the Weavers and in the protest movements and folksingers of much earlier times. But what's important, and what's so special about Freddie, is that it all surfaced at The Bitter End. It was nurtured there. It was more open to the public there.
"The success of The Bitter End was an absolute combination of Freddie's personality and being in the right place at the right time. He was respectful of people's beliefs, and he had a good sense of humor. Fred Weintraub showed folksingers respect and we showed him respect back."
Joan Rivers, who at the time was under contract to Weintraub and his Bitter End venue as part of a comedy trio called Jim, Jake and Joan, vividly remembers her "salad days":
"Freddie was brilliant, beyond smart. The Bitter End was really run professionally, it was run like a tight ship. You were paid on time, which in those days was very rare, and to many of us who were struggling to start careers, that was a matter of life and death.
A star moves people, Freddie used to tell us. He only brought back the ones that had that certain star quality."
And it's lucky for Woody Allen that Weintraub thought he recognized a star when saw one, because the legendary funnyman's success at The Bitter End was anything but quick in coming.
Rollins, who along with Joffe would manage other luminaries like Dick Cavett, David Letterman, Robert Klein, and Robin Williams, recalls those early days at The Bitter End as very special: " Existing cabaret had been around for years, places like the Blue Angel, Bon Soir, the Copa and the Latin Quarter.
The new comedians couldn't go into the Copa, the audience there would look askance at them. It was a new breed. They didn't do 'Take my wife, please' jokes, they did reality.
Freddie's place was in a way the most ideal place for the beginning of the rise of comedy," Rollins concludes, "After Freddie's place, then the comedy clubs sprang up, the Improv and so on."
Bill Cosby was a young up-and-comer. He was a fixture at The Bitter End, and Weintraub says the man had that uncanny ability to be funny, sometimes without even trying.
If, as some say, The Bitter End was the launching pad for so many stars of the future, then the list of graduates alone should make 147 Bleeker Street if not an historical landmark, then a national treasure:
Harry Chapin, Lily Tomlin, Kris Kristofferson, the Four Seasons, Better Midler, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Phil Oakes, Robert Klein, George Carlin, Helen Reddy, Richie Havens, Jose Feliciano, Jackie Mason, Buffy St. Marie, Flip Wilson, Carly Simon, Pete Seeger, Cass Elliot, the Highwaymen, Frank Zappa, the Mothers of Invention, Dick Cavett, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Woody and Cosby.
The bustling corner of Thompson and Bleeker attracted a vibrant mixture of creative people.
Joan Darling agrees. She is an Emmy-winning television director probably best known for helming the famous "Chuckles the Clown" episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
But back in The Bitter End days, she had formed an acting troupe, including George Segal, Gene Hackman, Ron Liebman and Dustin Hoffman, and taken up a storefront theater called The Premise. They performed improvised political satire by day - and by night wandered across Bleeker Street to The Bitter End.
Darling especially remembers the incredible patience Weintraub had with developing artists:
"No one else had an open mike policy," she says," so new stand-up comics had a place to go. Other clubs were for singers only, but Freddie gave a forum to a whole bunch of people.
The Bitter End quickly became the workout room. And all the performers loved to watch each other perform. Weintraub remembers, "It wasn't unusual for Bobby Gibson or Mike Settel or Hamilton Camp or Tom Paxton to get onstage with The Tarriers. One night what we heard was the brilliant new comedian Richie Pryor."
Within a fairly short time Weintraub began Hootenannies where anybody could get up and perform, and ultimately later in the '60s he put the familiar Brick Wall on national televison with his Hootenany on ABC, and later the TV series 'Live At the Bitter End" TV series, where he showcased Janis Ian, Frank Zappa, Richie Havens, Odetta, Woody Allen, Chad Mitchell, Stiller and Meara, Carly Simon, Serendipity Singers and countless other acts destined for stardom.
The Bitter End may have been a long time ago. Well before his storied career as a Warner Bros. Studio movie executive - and the man who gave the greenlight to filming Woodstock - and all those incredibly popular movies of his with stars like Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, George C. Scott, Martin Sheen, Peter Fonda, Tommy Lee Jones, Yul Brenner, Tom Selleck, Kirsten Dunst and many more.
Yet the memories of the early days remain vivid, like the proud parent who gave girth to so many careers.
"What made The Bitter End magical was the performers," says Weintraub. "If the audience loved them or hated them I booked them again. If the audience said, 'That's nice' I'd never book them again. Passion for the artist is what counted."
On July 23, 1992, the City of New York bestowed Historical Landmark status to The Bitter End.