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GVSHP Oral History: Maria Kenny

GVSHP is excited to share our oral history collection with the public, and hope they will shed more light on what makes Greenwich Village and the East Village such unique and vibrant areas. Each of these histories highlights the experiences and insights of long-time residents, usually active in the arts, culture, preservation, business, or civic life of the neighborhood.  Recently we launched new collections focusing on the East and South Villages, and have been highlighting some of the featured individuals on Off the Grid.  These posts can be found here, and the entire oral history collection here.

Maria Kenny at the offices of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, June 10, 2015. Photograph by Liza Zapol.
Maria Kenny at the offices of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, June 10, 2015. Photograph by Liza Zapol.

Kenny’s Castaways was a bar and music venue located on Bleecker Street from 1977 until 2012.  Pat Kenny, the founder and original owner, was an Irish immigrant who moved to NYC and started the original Kenny’s as a supper club on the Upper East Side.  However, as a lover of music, he wanted a venue that would showcase diverse, up-and-coming talent as opposed to established acts. As a result, Kenny’s Castaways was established.

Through the years, the venue saw a wide range of performers, including Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Willie Dixon and the Fugees. However, rising rents in its last years forced this Village institution to permanently close.  Maria Kenny is the daughter of Pat and also a contributor to the GVSHP Oral History Collection.  Not too long ago, she sat down with us where she discussed her father, the venue, and the impact Kenny’s had on the Village music scene.

Maria first discussed why her father moved the club down to the Village:

“The reason he moved down to the Village was because his lease was up uptown. He already had a very successful business up there. The rents got so crazy he ended up leaving after ten years. There was a bit of a hiatus because he was trying to negotiate the lease and all sorts of things and get everything together to open downtown. I think there was a three or four-month window where he didn’t have a place. Then he found Kenny’s on Bleecker Street.”(Kenny p.1)

Maria also talks about the kind of vibe her father wished to cultivate at his venue, which was less about money and more about the music:

“I don’t think any of them played there for the money, because there was never any money. He paid people, but it was very minimal. He couldn’t afford it anyway.
It wasn’t about that. It was about the scene. It was about performing. It was about your friends. It was a jam, sort of in a non-traditional way, almost a ceilidh, which is an Irish version of a jam…all these different people come and either story-tell, or they play music, or they sing, or whatever it is that they can contribute. It was sort of his version of that.”(Kenny p. 8)

Maria also goes on to describe the different bands, musicians, and characters who had attended Kenny’s over the years, like Doc Pomus, who served a guiding role for some of music’s greats:

Here’s the Dolls and the Smithereens…Doc Pomus was such an amazing character and really liked my dad. He used to come into the Kenny’s, and he was in a wheelchair. He was a large man. He used to come in, and he would sit in the back row. It was his table
He’d just sit in the back, and he had a presence about him…People would come in and sit down. Linda Ronstadt would come in, and she’d sit down. She’d be wanting advice. Joni Mitchell or whoever it was would sit. He would basically hold court. He would be in the back, and his chair would be here, and then somebody would come inand just sit down…”(Kenny pp. 7-8)

Kenny's Castaways, outside.
Kenny’s Castaways, outside.

Maria also discusses the kinds of attitudes that ultimately lead to the decrease in the Village’s popularity as a music venue, an attitude she find ridiculous and nonsensical:

“This whole business of bands not wanting to…play here. They want to play the Lower East Side, or they want to play in Brooklyn. They don’t want to play in the Village. Excuse me. This is where it started. I’m a costume designer, and I’ve worked on Broadway…Everybody wants to do Cats. Everyone wants to do Phantom. You know why? Because everybody’s gone through there. That’s your training ground. That’s where you learn your skills. That’s where you get your chops.

That’s what you should do as a musician. All these people [say], ‘No, we only want to play here because this is the hip place,’ and ‘Oh, I want to—’ It’s bullshit. I don’t know if I should say that. As a musician, you should play where you want to play. You should not try to be so rigid in your thinking, especially as a young musician. What the hell do you want to worry about how many seats you fill?”(Kenny pp. 22-23)

The full transcription and audio for Maria’s interview can be read 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. 

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