Three Anchor stories

New Haven’s legendary Anchor Bar closed last month, perhaps for good. Even if comes back under new management, as has been suggested, why would it be the same? Was Rudy’s? Was Bookworld? Was Kaysey’s?

The bar’s regulars and other supporters are tossing brickbats at landlords and managers for allowing the place to die. As someone who once oversaw a precious New Haven landmark (BookWorld on Chapel Street) and saw it crumble from my grasp, I know how complex and confusing a failing business can be, and how it’s too easy to blame the money people. Times change, and commercial businesses are dealt with differently than other landmarks. It’s inarguable that the Anchor Bar was a monument to old New Haven. But it had more competition than ever for the current-day hipster drink dollar, and that means something.

I stopped drinking over a decade ago, and basically stopped going to bars which didn’t offer local band shows. But before that, the Anchor was definitely a regular stop on my downtown rounds. I was there dozens if not hundreds of times, and can boil my most potent memories down to extraordinary encounters, good friends and creative fulfillment. All the other memories are gone, thanks to too many martinis made with bottom-shelf Clyde’s Gin.

1. Summer, 1995. Just a few months before he collapsed on a New York street corner and died, the eminent funny novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern (The Magic Christian; Candy; Flash and Filigree; Dr. Strangelove; Easy Rider) spoke at the Summer Lecture Series at Yale. The talk itself was disappointing, but directly afterwards a bunch of hardcore Southern fans (me, novelist Darius James, playwright/Weekly Reader editor Forrest Stone and others) strolled over to the Anchor, chosen for its probable appeal to the great Southern. I mostly stared at Southern that night, but the next day, in a different now-defunct New Haven bar, at the Colony Inn on Chapel Street, I spent three hours with the man discussing his word, sharing stories and even getting invited to his East Canaan home (though I never did take him up on that).

2. Dec. 31, 1999. Betty Buckley had just performed a concert at the Shubert. My old friend Cheryl McCloud had traveled from Boston to New Haven to see the show with me, and was staying (on my recommendation) at the Duncan Hotel. We chose the Anchor Bar as the place to ring in not just the new year but the new century. We were joined by Dan Perkins (Tom Tomorrow of the This Modern World comic strip) and Beverly Gage. My then-future wife, Kathleen Rooney, was visiting her mother in Massachusetts. She had squirreled a note into my coat pocket, with instructions to open it at midnight. It held a note and a quarter, with instructions to call her as the new year dawned. But the pay phone at the Anchor was on the fritz and I could only send her telepathic messages. This was the time of the “Y2K” computer scare, and technological breakdowns were on everyone’s minds. When midnight struck during our third or fourth Anchor cocktail, we joked that the best way to ring in 2000 would be to flick the lights off in the bar for a minute and freak everyone out, then turn them on again and celebrate, knowing what we hadn’t lost.

3. Winter, 2000. I was directing a production of Julian Barry’s play Lenny for New Haven Theater Company, at BAR on Crown Street. We had just finished auditions and adjourned to BAR’s BruRm to make the final casting decisions. I’m very collaborative at times like this, and was tossing ideas at all the designers, stage managers and crew. But the vibe wasn’t right. BAR would be a gracious host to the production for several weeks of rehearsals and performances, but wasn’t making it as a creative business office. So we rushed out in the cold over to the Anchor, where we could spread the actors’ resumes and mugshots and our own notes and charts around one of those big round booth tables. The place had the feel of a bar that Lenny Bruce might have drunk at, and had in fact been blessed for decades by the presence of Thornton Wilder. This was the red-vinyl vibe we sought. BAR had the dark theatrical environment we needed for our play. The Anchor had the inspiration.