by Ryan Maye Handy
A crowd of Coney Island locals gathered on the boardwalk this Saturday to say goodbye to an old friend.
After 76 years, Ruby’s Bar and Grill, the boardwalk bar known for its vintage photograph-covered walls and classic jukebox, was closing for good.
Every October, Ruby’s Bar and Grill shuts down after the summer season. But this year, when Italian amusement park behemoth Zamperla did not renew the lease, Ruby’s owners opened their beloved bar for one last round.
“Today is not a day of mourning. Today is a day of celebration. Let’s celebrate Ruby’s the way Ruby wanted,” said co-owner Michael Sarrel to a crowd of Ruby’s regulars.
Watched over by a few bewildered tourists and a couple of disinterested policeman, a crowd of five dozen gathered over a few beers and cups of onion rings to reminisce.
Vito Viloante, 65, a retired Queens policeman, said he had been coming to Ruby’s for decades.
“We don’t want Coney to change to Disney. It’s gonna get gentrified like 42nd Street – that’s not for here,” he said.
Like many in the crowd, Viloante wore a “Save Coney Island” shirt, which could be purchased at the bar. He and his wife Patrice, 59, stood among a group of friends and traded stories about Coney Island in its heyday.
The Ruby’s core group of regulars go by nick-names only. There’s Popeye, Tony Cigar, Frankie Oil and Tony Corona. Along with Viloante, they led the crowd in chants of “Save Coney Island!” and said wished they could have a little music from the famed jukebox.
“The jukebox was fantastic. But they already have taken that away,” Viloante said sadly.
Pat Ritter, 54, who calls herself a regular “Coney Island hanger-outer” came so she could help petition to save Ruby’s. As the sea wind whipped her bright-magenta hair, she wandered through the crowd getting signatures.
“This is ours. How can they change that after all this?” she said, referring to Zamperla’s plans to transform the iconic boardwalk into a sleeker condo and restaurant complex. Zamperla executives, based in New Jersey, could not be reached for comment.
“If this was Macy’s you’d be hearing about it,” she said, adding that she feels the rest of New York has ignored the plight of Coney Island.
Even though Melody Sarrel – who co-owns the bar with her sister Cindy Allman and husband Michael – wept as she bartended, the crowd kept the mood light.
Two middle-aged men in leather jackets swapped their favorite Ruby’s stories.
“Remember the men’s room toilet?”
Or: “The only I thing I wanted today was the jukebox.”
While friends helped her sister to dry her tears, Cindy Allman addressed the crowd, and went around receiving hugs and condolences from Viloante and crew.
“Coney Island needs a Ruby’s. You don’t throw history away and you don’t throw memories away,” she said.
When their father Ruby became ill, Cindy and Melody took over the bar and kept it running. But Ruby had turned the bar into a place where people felt at home, and like many of the people he served, he could not stay away from Coney.
“He would drag himself up the boardwalk, take a look at the ocean and breathe in deep. That was the best medicine in the world,” Allman said. “He believed in nostalgia.”