New York City buildings are known to adapt with the times, and sometimes their history gets lost between changes in ownership and each evolution of the building. While it’s a sad thing to lose part of the past, the culture of a location and rumors spread by word of mouth can often be fascinating. The Parkside Lounge, on 317 E. Houston Street in the East Village, is one such place: with a murky and mysterious history that almost seems too crazy to be real, the bar certainly isn’t lacking in character. Regulars often speak of ghost sightings and the bar’s supposed Mafia roots as visitors sip on their “Wongotinis” while watching the delightfully campy musical, The Wild Women of Planet Wongo, in the lounge portion of the bar.
The current Parkside Lounge was built in 1908. Although it was always a bar, it wasn’t named the Parkside until the 1950s when the original Parkside burned down three blocks away. The exact location of the original bar is unknown, but it was likely either on Houston at Allen, or closer to the East River on Houston (next to a median park area, which is likely how the bar got its name). Most of the early history of the current Parkside is unsubstantiated but Christopher Lee, the bar owner, found a 1940 liquor license with the name “7-4 Social Club,” buried in the basement.
According to rumors, the bar was supposedly a hotbed for a lot of illegal activity — with roots as a Mafia hangout, an ice house, a fencing house where people could buy and sell goods stolen from the neighborhood, and most outlandishly, a funeral home. A boarded up tunnel exists in the basement of the bar that extends all of the way to the East River and rumor has it that it was a dumping ground for bodies, in addition to being a resource for water and ice.
With such a tumultuous and dark history, it’s not surprising that patrons have felt the dark energy of the Parkside; many customers, staff, the owner’s partner, and ghost experts speak of paranormal activity regularly. In addition to non-physical manifestations, multiple people claim to have seen physical sightings of the ghost of an older man (a drawing of him was done by a psychic) and a young girl in her teens. Some bizarre, unexplained phenomena regularly occur, such as constant electricity malfunctions, things flying across the room with no visible cause, a bullet hole in the ceiling that leaks what appears to be blood, and self-stacking beer in the basement. One of the ghosts is believed to hate redheads and when the Parkside Lounge put on a show called “Clown Bar,” the red wigs caused quite a ruckus.
Everything started to break, pipes burst, and things went missing, only to reappear directly in the center of the room during the performances, which centered around a clown bar that served as an allegory to the Parkside’s history with gangsters. Later, a visitor, who claimed to be clairvoyant, was discussing one of the spirits’ disdain for redheads when the owner of the bar, Christopher Lee, surmised that that was the cause of all the unexplained activity during the shows.
However, the Parkside isn’t just doom and gloom. It’s not surprising that a place with ghost sightings and a tunnel to a potential body-dumping ground would find success with visitors. Not only does the Parkside have a host of retro arcade games in the bar area, its lounge has been home to a stellar run of the Sci-Fi comedy musical, The Wild Women of Planet Wongo, since September. The entire bar becomes a stage during Planet Wongo as audience members gather around the cast. The immersive setup lets each guest see the musical from his or her own unique vantage point, allowing everyone to have their own original take away from the show.
Traditional musicals generally have well-behaved audiences who silently watch the show and clap as the lights in each number dim. Wongo audience members become Wongettes (inhabitants of Wongo) while they take part in fun intermission games, assist the characters on their adventures, dance along during the Wongo Luau and down their Wongotinis (Vodka, Midori, Tequila and lime juice). Don’t be surprised if the cast sasses the audience during the show (we received a sassy talk for un-stealthily taking notes as the show unfolded).
Donned in pointy, purple, swirling wigs, the primitive warrior women of Wongo attempt to use the men who crashed their Cheesy Moon Crater Chips ship onto planet Wongo to repopulate the all-female planet. Set up like a 60’s parody, the musical alludes to the 1958, one to two star rated B movie, Wild Women of Wongo. While the musical is campy, fun, and aims to make people laugh, there are some strong messages that resonate with many theatergoers.
Wongo tackles sexism by flipping common sexist ideas on the head by swapping gender stereotypes and presenting them in an exaggerated way: the group of alien warrior women, for example, are led by a slightly tyrannical queen (played by Amanda Nicholas), who view the men that landed on their planets as slabs of meat only good for repopulation.
The witty dialogue of Planet Wongo is filled with too many puns to keep track of (and a fair bit of adult innuendo and disrobing). As such, the musical is only for guests 21 and over; each ticket also comes with a free Wongotini. The Wild Women of Planet Wongo certainly makes for an exciting Thursday or Friday night, but the show is entering its final week of performances. Grab tickets for June 15th or 16th before the Wongettes take off in a spaceship headed for an unknown galaxy.
Next, check out 12 of NYC’s Lost and Demolished Theaters and Burlesque Through the Ages in Philadelphia: May the Fourth be With You a Star Wars Burlesque Show. Get in touch with the author at LitByLiterature.