The Alley Monthly Newsletter
Welcome to the new Alley newsletter! This monthly email will keep you up-to-date on Oakland's Alley piano bar and its regulars, and take you back through Alley history. If you would like to support the sustainable reopening of The Alley, contribute to The Alley's GoFundMe campaign here. Thank you for keeping The Alley alive and well!
In this issue:
The Alley has reopened! The bar opened again on Thursday, April 29. Doors open at 5:00 p.m., dinner service begins at 5:30. Musical entertainment runs from 7 to 11 p.m., with Bryan Seet on Piano Bar Thursdays and Saturdays and Jef Labes on Fridays. Paul Hlebcar will be returning soon for Guitar Bar on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but is not back just yet. Under COVID safety measures, patrons must sit at tables and order dinner, and may stay for 75 minutes. Only one singer at the piano at a time. Call (510) 444-8505 for a reservation. For further updates, visit The Alley's website here, or Facebook page here. See you at The Alley!
Alley Cat Angelique is reviving her popular live Rose Garden opera concerts! Come to Oakland's Morcom Rose Garden Saturday, May 15th at 3 p.m. to hear Angelique sing art songs and opera highlights in French. The concert is free. For updates, see the Facebook event here.
We at the Alley Preservation Society want the magic of this special piano bar to be sustained through the 21st century. The Alley is a registered historical landmark in Oakland with more than 7 decades of history.
Here is this month's historical Alley fact:
Q: Which notable architect designed The Alley’s interior in 1934?
A: The Alley’s interior was designed by Francis Harvey Slocombe, who also designed The Little Chapel of the Flowers, a designated Berkeley city landmark. The 1934 permit for The Alley’s interior construction says, “The work to be done consists of installing booths and a counter to be used as a restaurant . . . Details include an ‘Alley Loan Company’ sign, a woman’s silhouette at another fake window, lingerie on a clothesline . . .’.”
Alley Cat Of The Month:
Alley regular Nancy Smith walked into the bar 13 years ago never dreaming that she'd sing, let alone become a songwriter with a studio-recorded album, My Serenades. Nancy talks to us about first singing with Rod Dibble and how dropping your self-judgement lets creativity flow.
Sights and Sounds
Bryan Dyer & James Davis perform "Baby Grand" on the first night of the Alley reopening. April 29, 2021.
Rod Dibble blows out the candles for his 82nd birthday party. November 2014
Stories from The Alley
Remembering Paul Rose
by Tim Beneke
When I first began singing (rather haplessly) at The Alley, Paul would gently coach me. “Sing higher,” he would whisper. Or, “That was good.” I needed and trusted his objectivity. I was frequently anxious about reaching high notes that would crack my voice. Once, he remarked, “It’s your fear of hitting the high notes that makes it hard to hit them.”
I remember how he once took some time to orient me as we stood back from the piano. He pointed to several regulars and shared details about each one, and informed me of the typical goings-on of The Alley. I felt like I was being welcomed into the fold. He was so kind.
I learned from Paul. Once, when he was trying out a new song with Rod Dibble, and they were having problems making it work, Paul observed, “You’re trying to follow me and I’m trying to follow you” -- a formulation I’ve found applicable in other contexts, especially the volleying of human relationships.
Paul was so special – he was a very bright man who did not intellectualize, or compete, at least around me. And he spent some 40 years working as a lawyer, where, at times, it is necessary to be very competitive! (What a mystery!) But whatever competitiveness he deployed as a lawyer did not spill over into the Alley. I once observed that a lot of lawyers seem to come to the Alley. “Yeah,” he said, “we lawyers need to blow it off.”
Once, as I was getting to know him, he was wearing a Boalt Law School anniversary sweatshirt. I asked him about his legal career. He said, “Mostly, I was a good guy.” When he graduated from Boalt, he and his wife moved to D.C. where he was one of the first African American lawyers to work in the Department of the Interior, doing anti-trust work. After a few years he joined a silk-stocking law firm in Pittsburgh that defended corporations accused of violating anti-trust laws.
“I always felt that the situation was unfair because the firm had so many more resources to fight the government’s case. I always felt I was on the wrong side,” he said. He told me that he was not proud of the work he had done – but he did want to understand how large firms functioned and he learned a lot.
After traveling a bit he returned to San Francisco where he ran a Legal Aid office in Oakland.
As one who is all too sunk into myself, living within my obsessions and the productions of my mind, I envied Paul because he seemed so beyond himself. He so easily flowed out of himself – into a song, a person, the mood of an evening.
He defied certain stereotypes. As someone, who, to a considerable degree is a product of the Deep South, I have seen a lot of racism, and have stereotypes in my head about how racism must affect black people – but little real knowledge. I wondered how much Paul, as someone born in the 1940s who’d grown up in a poor section of Shaker Heights, Ohio, had been touched by racism. Obviously, he would have experienced a lot of it. But he seemed to carry so few scars of any kind.
Once, he made a subtle reference to slavery when a young man who was a terrific singer, after performing for the first time, began to leave. Paul shouted, “Grab his shoes!” It took me a while to realize that he was making an implicit reference to slavery. Slave owners took away their slaves’ shoes at night so that they could not run away.
His impressive gifts led him to Stanford and Boalt Law School. His father was a P.E. teacher while his mother worked in the home. Paul’s aunt was a distinguished lawyer and a member of the Ohio legislature – Paul once described her as someone who was smarter than anyone else around.
I felt appreciated by him. He loved to sing with people. On one of those Thursday nights where I frequently stayed until two a.m., if I started to leave early, he would look disdainfully at me and say, “Where do you think you’re going?” Or, when I was in no mood to sing, he would look at me and say, “Come on over and sing, Tim.”
Once, as we sat next to each other at the piano, Paul glanced at a man sitting at the bar, and said, “He looks so unhappy – if I knew what I could do to make him happy, I’d do it.” That was Paul. He had been a social worker in New York for a short while, “as part of the noble effort to avoid the draft,” he said. But his soul had the spirit of a social worker – he liked to help people and was skillful at doing so.
Singing is about projecting one’s emotions into a multiplicity of perspectives. It offers a knowledge of human emotion, coupled with a distance from it. Paul fell in love with singing when he was young. He had a yearning to move to New York and try to make it as a singer in Broadway plays – but said that he did not like his voice enough. He had voice lessons when he was young, but said that they never “took.”
Paul was almost unique among people I know at The Alley in the apparent steadiness of his mood. Most of us arrive at The Alley, in varying degrees weighted with the concerns and obsessions of the day, some of us more self-involved than others. But Paul always, or almost always, just seemed like Paul, relatively untouched and emanating joy. His wife had died when I was away in China; when I returned, I saw him and said, “I’m sorry to hear about your wife, Paul.” He laughed his explosive laugh and said, “Not nearly as much as I was!” It was a strangely joyous exchange, witty and true. That was Paul, witty, and as true as a healed bone.
I'm Going to Go Back There Someday Very Soon
by Rachel Goodman
"I'm going to go back there someday" is the name of my favorite song to sing at the Alley. I usually refer to it as "the Gonzo song", because Gonzo famously sang it, but it seems important to call it by its true name this time because I am going to go back to the Alley someday. Someday very soon.
I knew I loved the Alley immediately when I sauntered inside its swinging doors almost four years ago. But I didn't know how much I loved the Alley until I couldn't go there anymore, at least temporarily. COVID took many things from all of us, and I am lucky and grateful that my world has been relatively intact during this time, but I have deeply missed the Alley.
"Is that a song there? And do I belong there?"
It was the piano part of the bar that lured me in because I was on a break from romance and I had decided to surround myself with music. A friend thought I would like the vibe and he was right. It was nostalgic and whimsical but this was not what hooked me. It was that right there, in the center of it all, was a family. I discovered a group of regulars who sat at the piano all night long, and who had a shtick, like characters in a sitcom. But these characters were real! And I wanted in. I also quickly discovered that everyone in the Alley family was either very talented or very funny and I wasn't sure that I had enough cachet in either of these areas to be "welcomed in". Most people think I am serious and earnest when they first meet me. And I was a novice singer. But I also had a lot of chutzpah, so I kept showing up, and I also kept surprising Bryan Seet with newly memorized songs.
"Come and go with me. It's more fun to share"
Little by little I joined the family. If Jon and I were both there on the same night we would make a mad dash for the same seat at the piano. Angelique and I developed a habit of playing hangman, which also allowed us to gossip about Bryan Seet in code. And Joe and his dog gave me many rides home. But probably the moment I will remember most was the time when Bryan pulled me aside to tell me how impressed he was that the whole bar had gotten quiet when I sang my song, and that he had never seen anything like that. I had been incredibly impressed by how Bryan had found his way into the Alley family. I was also inspired by his quiet way of taking musical risks and growing. It was magical to watch Bryan sight-read something new. But Bryan was impressed with me! Knowing that Bryan thought I had musical potential meant a lot to me. Soon after Bryan began to take me under his wing and make suggestions to help me grow musically.
"There's not a word yet. For old friends who've just met."
You know how they say that love tends to find you when you are not looking? Well, one night at the Alley a muppet like man sat next to me at the piano and I perked up when he performed a beautiful rendition of "Rainbow Connection". When I became a regular I had been warned of the unspoken rule "thou shalt never date another regular", but I don't always heed warnings, especially when I fall in love.
A place where I can be my most goofy self and where I can grow emotionally and musically, and also unexpectedly find love, is a place that I will always cherish. But being away from it made me realize what I had begun to take for granted. The Alley is a true family. And I have been missing my Alley family.
"I'm going to go back there someday." Maybe next Thursday.
About This Newsletter
This newsletter is assembled by Rachel Howard and Colin Cahill, members of the Alley Preservation Society. To contribute writings, art, music, pictures, videos, or news, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to stay connected to the Alley online, please use the links below: