You might know Lee Romero from his New York Times photo credit — Librado Romero. Alternatively, it could be his art for sale on the walls of Domus or decorating the back room at the Landmark Tavern. Last week in his studio, he turned up a little piece of Hell's Kitchen history — a 2002 sketchbook of Druids bar on 10th Avenue (now The Waylon). We got together with Lee and Michael Younge (who owned Druids, and now jointly owns Landmark Tavern) to reminisce.
Michael took over Robert's Bar (from the owner, Robert) in 1995. Before that, in the 1970s, it was the Sunbrite Bar, a notorious Westies hangout where Eddie "the Butcher" Cumminsky was gunned down by Mad Dog Sullivan while enjoying a drink.
"When I took over, it was rough on 10th Avenue still, but by then we attracted a theater crowd and artists. We used to do art exhibits every month," remembered Michael. "I give a lot of credit to the previous owner, Robert."
He inherited from Robert a former bartender called Joe Mulligan (as a regular client), but not his other more famous bartender, Bruce Willis. "Bruce used to bartend there and lived on 49th Street. You'd see him rollerskating around. Luckily he didn't have to stay too long. He got a short run on Broadway, and then was in Moonlighting," recalls Michael. "He came into Landmark last year and we chatted. Bruce said: 'That was a tough crowd. One night when I was working behind the bar, someone threw a shot glass at me.' I said, what did you do? 'I ducked!'”
Lee worked as a photographer at the New York Times. He would leave work around 5, and then wait for his wife Mary Hardiman, who was a picture editor at the paper. His waiting room, place of fun, and sketch studio was Druids. "I started going to Druids because I needed a place to wait for Mary to get off of work. She worked two to three hours later," Lee remembers. "We had a pool. Mary would call me and say she'd be over at 7:30. So we would write down 7:30 and someone would take 7:45. Someone might take eight o'clock, 8:15... 15 minute increments, with a dollar for each spot. There'd be a pile of dollars. And then Mary would come in. We put the dollars in front of whoever won. She never knew what was going on."
Lee and Michael had nicknames for everyone. There was Tom Thumb (he was a carpenter who had an accident and chopped off his thumb); there was Dominic the Poet (obvious reasons); and Tom Law & Order (he used to work on Law & Order).
There were other names and memories. "Eloise who was a Rockette"; "Kim who'd come in to meet her girlfriends after her graduation"; and photographer Bernd Obermann from Dusseldorf who created books on New York.
Lee always worried if his sketches could capture the people and the moment: "Trying to make sketches of people is touch and go. The only time they ever look like someone, you get lucky. Michael was impossible to draw. There are no real characteristics. Normal eyes, normal mouth. Very difficult."
Lee explained that Michael ran a tight ship. He wouldn't allow dancing, but Lee would record the occasional indiscretion when the boss had left for the evening.
Some of the nicknames didn't really tell the full story. Bob the Killer (Bob McCuen) was not what appeared on the surface. Michael describes him as a "phenomenal high school teacher" at Park West High School (opposite the bar on W50th and 10th Ave). "I spent a day with him," recalls Lee. "I tried to do a photo essay for the Times. It was a very good story where he literally break up fights, serious fight. It was real."
The sketches that Lee made in the book are from a few months, 18 years ago. He had more books, but an "English guy said he would publish the 15 others, and I let him have them." He's not heard from him since.
In Lee's sketches, things look very different. There are cigarettes, and newspapers/books/magazine instead of scrolling iPhones.
Lee and Michael both agreed Druids was a "Cheers Bar". Which led to their final piece of nostalgia.
Mobil Jim worked for the Mobil gas station nearby (of course!). He came in most nights in uniform, often with envelopes full of paperwork to pick through after work.
So George Wendt walked into Druids. Nobody said "Hey Norm", but it was one of those moments. He sat at the corner of the bar waiting for friends to arrive, and in walked Mobil Jim in his uniform. He sat right next to George in his uniform, shifting through his envelopes of papers. George thought it was a set up and was looking rapidly around the bar for cameras. This had to be a plant for Cliff the postal worker! Who knew that in real life you can sit at a bar and it can seem like Cheers!
Some more from Lee's sketchbook.
You can learn more about Lee at Domus (and buy his art).