Hundreds of mourners gathered at the enormous Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary cathedral in Red Hook on Tuesday to bid farewell to Sunny Balzano, a widely-beloved neighborhood lodestar who died on Thursday at the age of 81. In addition to his pursuits as a painter and musician, Sunny oversaw a convivial bar on Conover Street that became a cherished destination for decades, in large part because of the proprietor's uniquely charismatic personality.
"When God made Sunny, I think he must have gotten tired of making boring people," said Balzano's wife Tone Johansen during her moving eulogy. "So I like to think that God decided to go for a long walk, to corners of the universe where He hadn’t been before. And I think He stumbled upon a place with the most extraordinary and colorful clay." Johansen continued:
So He sat down and made a man out of this clay. And I like to imagine, that since God was playing, and having fun, He made this man playful and fun. He decided to give him a heart full of glitter, so whenever he gave somebody a hug, it would rub off and stay with them for a long time. Two sparkling diamonds for eyes, that would make him laugh, and others laugh. But as we know, God is not in the business of making robots, so he left out a couple of bits. See, that’s for us to figure out. We all have to go through the school of life.
Johansen, also an artist, took over management of the bar in recent years, bringing it back from the brink after the building sustained significant damage during Hurricane Sandy. Formerly open only on Friday nights, the bar's operating hours have long since expanded to six days a week, and it's hoped this will continue after Sunny's passing.
Balzano's widow Tone Johansen and their daughter, Oda Sofia, look on as pallbearers carry his coffin from the church. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Following the service, a Dixieland jazz band led a funeral procession from the church through the streets of Red Hook, finally coming to a stop at Sunny's. A silver hearse bearing Balzano's coffin idled outside for about a half hour as the band played on the sidewalk and the crowd danced, laughed and wept. The immediate family then pressed on to Farmingdale, Long Island, where Sunny was interred at Saint Charles Cemetery, leaving the others to linger at the bar and reminisce. Many had a hard time believing he could possibly be gone.
"I'll miss the way he tilted his head to the side when he spoke," said Lillie Haws, through tears. "The way he touched his giant hand to my face when I was sad."
"I'll never forget one night some guy in the bar stood up and declared that he was going to leave and wasn't going to pay his tab," recalled photographer Pascal Perich. "And Sunny didn't try to fight with him or get upset. He just tried to calmly explain to the guy, 'You're only hurting yourself.'"
Inside the bar, those who tried to pay for drinks were informed that "the first round was on Sunny." This was quintessential Sunny, generous (and indifferent to profit margins) to the end, and it reminded the bereaved that Sunny's generosity was bigger than any one person. It's physically impossible for Sunny to buy anyone a drink ever again, and yet, there we were, thanking the dead man for the beer and reflecting on the larger force of universal kindness, of which we are all instruments. Sunny, on his best days, was one such excellent instrument, whose soulful music inspired the rest of the orchestra to resonate with richer harmonies.
As I thought about how Sunny's ghost had just given me a buyback, I recalled the best and only time I'd been ordered to leave a bar (that I can recall, anyway). It was past four in the morning, and I was loitering in a back booth with a few others, taking our sweet time calling it a night. Sunny appeared at our table, smiled radiantly upon our motley crew, and threw us out of his bar by singing an improvised song that could have been lifted from a Lerner and Loewe musical. What I remember of it began, "It's time to go hoooome / It's time to get out of my hooouse..." We exited, laughing as we left what was, in fact, Sunny's house.
Sunny improvised a bit of soft-shoe as he sang us out, and on some subsequent Friday night I brought my old tap shoes as a gift to Sunny, in part by way of apology for overstaying our welcome. That night I left before last call (perhaps overcompensating) and missed the evening's climax, later recounted to me by bartender Mike Maronna when I returned the following Friday. "Sunny tap-danced on the bar after you left," he told us, grinning wondrously as he flashed back on what he'd witnessed: an old school Red Hook guy in his 60s tap-dancing on a century-old bar at the outer edge of Brooklyn at four in the morning.
I think that's how I'll remember Sunny: tap-dancing absurdly, imperfectly, ecstatically, audaciously... defying gravity with pure joy, tapping a morse code message of anti-boredom halfway above the ground floor of the house where he was born, a place he turned into a home for all of the friends on earth he hadn't yet met.
Former bartenders Scott Murchison, Francis Kerrigan, and Mike Maronna got behind the bar during the memorial for old time's sake. (John Del Signore)
Here is Johansen's eulogy in full:
When God made Sunny, I think He must have gotten tired of making boring people. So I like to think, that God decided to go for a long walk, to corners of the universe where He hadn’t been before. And I think He stumbled upon a place with the most extraordinary and colorful clay. So He sat down and made a man out of this clay. And I like to imagine, that since God was playing, and having fun, He made this man playful and fun.
He decided to give him a heart full of glitter, so whenever he gave somebody a hug, it would rub off and stay with them for a long time. Two sparkling diamonds for eyes, that would make him laugh, and others laugh.
But as we know, God is not in the business of making robots, so He left out a couple of bits. See, that’s for us to figure out. We all have to go through the school of life. It’s not easy learning sometimes.
I hope you all got a mass card. Sunny loved St. Francis. The mass card has St. Francis’ prayer on the back. It was Sunny’s favorite prayer. He would recite it all the time. Ask not be understood, but to understand, not to be loved, as to love. Please, don’t put this card away in a drawer, but read it, and learn it, and live it. It was Sunny’s life philosophy.
Sunny was a very spiritual man. And he had an excitement for life, and an appetite for life that was contagious. The minute you met him, your life took a little left turn and you felt that you could throw away some “preconceived notions” as he would say, and allow yourself to live. I’m sure we’re all gonna be sitting around now for a while, sharing Sunny stories.
And from seeing all of you here, it looks like he left some glitter in your hearts too. Do me a kindness, make some more glitter and spread it around. Make him proud. I used to say to Sunny: "Sunny, you’re a Saint." And he would reply, "No I’m not." Well, not for nothing Sunny, but in our hearts you will always be the saint of love.