By Miranda Lin
It’s 9pm on Saturday night; do you know where your neighbor is?
If you’re a resident of Red Hook, chances are you’ll find them at Hope & Anchor Diner on 347 Van Brunt Street. During the daytime, this 1950s-styled diner happily plays the role of quaint family restaurant complete with a classic burgers-and-shakes menu and kitschy pin-up girl decor. But as the night sets in, the lights slowly dim, the music rises and before you know it, you’re watching a 6’8″ drag queen in 5-inch patent leather heels singing Boy George’s “The Crying Game” as soccer moms howl from their seats and hip twentysomethings pump their fists in the air. Welcome to Karaoke Night in Red Hook.
The now weekly Thursday-to-Saturday ritual began in 2002 when the diner opened its doors. “There had not been a new sit-down restaurant in Red Hook literally in decades,” recalls owner Joe Bernardo as he watches a stream of well-heeled customers file through the door. The once desolate street now bustles with activity as word of the up-and-coming neighborhood has drawn winers and diners from all five boroughs. And as more and more people come to Red Hook, Hope & Anchor’s Karaoke Night has become something of a gathering point for residents and visitors alike. “It’s really a godsend,” says Rosemary McGettrick. “When we arrived here in 1988, there was nothing on Van Brunt to eat or do. But there is still has such a warm atmosphere here that we drop in every week.”
According to Bernardo, karaoke is an ideal way to bring the community together since it creates a bond between participants similar to that of “soldiers going to war,” only instead of war, it’s singing in front of a live audience and risking total public humiliation. The first brave soul to volunteer tonight is a graying, pot-bellied man named Ron. His song of choice: David Lee Roth’s “I’m Just a Gigolo.” As he clears his throat and unzips his black leather jacket, his wife shifts nervously in the seat of her corner booth. The couple they’re dining with looks on with curiosity and mild skepticism. However, by the time Ron launches into his grand finale, “Wooon’t some sweeeet mamaaa cooome and take a chance with meeeee,“ the entire room, including his wife – and a table of young giggly women – are on their feet cheering. Ron, it appears, is a karaoke pro.
The next volunteer takes the stage and soon a long line of willing victims has formed in front of the karaoke booth. Some are just as good as Ron, while others are a less so, but each singer’s skill is hardly the point. “It’s all for fun,” says McGettrick. “Even the bad ones have a good time.”
While the restaurant prides itself on providing a friendly and supportive environment for people to meet, some of Karaoke Night’s appeal is that it allows customers to lose themselves in the music and adopt an alter-ego that no one has ever seen. Friends and families seem stunned to discover that their loved one can actually sing, or that their white-collared, gel-haired boyfriend is a fan of angry Eminem rap music, or that their mother knows all the words to Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” (“I’m your private dancer, a dancer for money, I’ll do what you want me to do“). In their brief moments on stage, with their eyes closed, veins bulging from their necks, sweat forming around their temples, those karaoke singers can be whatever they want to be.
The star of the show, though, is mistress of ceremonies Dropsy Desmond. By day, she is better known as Reggie Flowers, a soft-spoken Big Friendly Giant who graduated from the Yale School of Drama and leads a children’s performance arts charity in Red Hook. But as soon as the disco balls starts to spin, Dropsy the Grand Dame of Karaoke comes out to play. Since taking over hosting duties in 2005 after the previous emcee, Kay Sera, aka artist Richard Eagan, retired to become a bee farmer in upstate New York, Dropsy has earned a loyal following and has even had a burger on the diner’s menu named after her. Inspired by the divas of the 1950s and 60s like Nina Simone and Eartha Kitt, Dropsy describes herself as a “loving, mothering and nurturing spirit, especially around tipping time.” She says she likes to mix up her looks each night, saving her most glamorous and outrageous outfits for Saturday. On this particular evening, Dropsy is channeling something of a Jessica Rabbit lounge singer, with a lush blonde wig and a gold-sequined backless mini dress to show off her leggy physique. In between karaoke sets, she struts around the restaurant serenading the audience, pausing occasionally to crawl across the bar top or dance on top of banquettes.
Even if Dropsy is a larger-than-life figure, she knows her role is to ultimately make everyone feel at home in the small neighborhood diner. “I give a lot of affection,” she says. “I treat every one of them like they’re a regular.” For Red Hook’s newcomers and old-timers alike, that is music to their ears.