The Big A

Our thanks to Debbie, Greg, and Mickey Sherman for their help with this post.

On March 31, 1962—4 days after the State of New York seized Albany’s 98 acres— the Knickerbocker News “Night Owl” column reported that Ambassador owner Marvin J. Sherman and his regular customers were “thinking of forming a Citizens Society to Exempt the Ambassador” from demolition. The author quipped that a protest march emerging from the bar at 180 State Street, just across from the Capitol, would “have the best starting point in history.” In fact, such a protest would probably have received a sympathetic hearing from legislators of both parties. Along with lobbyists, newsmen, call girls, and a bookie known as “Gaga,” legislators were among the bar’s most loyal customers.

Marvin was only 24 years old in 1945, when he and his father, David, opened the Ambassador. David—a South Pearl Street grill owner and former bootlegger—stayed in the background. Marvin, whose name appeared on all the publicity for the new business, was a locally famous combat veteran. For his service as a B-25 bombardier-navigator in Italy and India, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Purple Heart, among other decorations. Only two months after his discharge, the tavern started serving lunch.

While home on leave in June 1944, Marvin assisted with a local war bond drive. Used by permission of the Times Union.
While home on leave in June 1944, Marvin helped promote the sale of war bonds. Used by permission of the Times Union.

The Ambassador’s first years in business were rocky. In the summer of 1947, it appeared that the tavern would lose its liquor license. A customer accused Marvin of assault but refused to testify against him. A few months later, an early-morning brawl involving two bartenders sent another customer to the hospital with a broken ankle. At this point, the State Liquor Authority got involved. The Ambassador’s liquor license was revoked. But the Shermans were back in business a few months later and, thereafter, largely avoided run-ins with the SLA.

Marv Sherman at the bar of the old Ambassador, March 1963. NYS Archives.
Marv Sherman behind the bar at the old Ambassador, March 1963. NYS Archives.

Within a month of the reopening, Marv married Ruth Lynn Goldfarb, the 18-year-old daughter of a South Pearl Street grocer. Ruthie would later become locally famous for her hospitality as the Ambassador’s “hostess with the mostess,” but early in her marriage, she left the business to her husband and father-in-law.

Moderately priced and close to the political action, the Ambassador served steak dinners and sandwiches, along with lots of beer. In that, it was not so different from the other Capitol-area taverns. But, according to the “Night Owl,” part of what made the Ambassador special was night manager Otto Green, “a rough-hewn man who loved to sing ‘Mack the Knife,’” while tending bar. (The Sherman children still associate that song, as well as the smell of stale beer and cigarettes, with their father’s State Street bar.)

At a booth in the old Ambassador, March 1963. NYS Archives.
A back booth in the old Ambassador, March 1963. NYS Archives.

The “Night Owl” described the Ambassador as a “Damon Runyon sort of place,” where legislators and state workers rubbed shoulders with gamblers, reporters, and “show girls” from the Pierce Hotel, around the corner on High St.

First among the regulars was Arvis Chalmers. The dapper, mustachioed “dean of the state Capitol press corps” was there every night. Known as “Arvis the Charmer,” he always had a racy story, usually unprintable and often about his own extramarital escapades. Knick News photographer, Bob Richey, was another regular—as was Charles Torchinsky. Better known as Charlie Torche, the flamboyant lawyer and union lobbyist had all the political gossip, but he was not above starting rumors. (Although he may not have originated the epigram, Torche is still remembered for the saying: “Honesty is no substitute for experience.”)

CURE chairman Gren Rand sits behind the desk at 180 State. NYS Archives.
CURE chairman Gren Rand sits behind his desk at 180 State. NYS Archives.

Chuck Liddle described the Ambassador as “where you went to find out what’s going on.” Perhaps that was why the independent party, Citizens United Reform Effort, set up shop in an office above the bar, soon after the November 1961 election. CURE candidates for office (including Chuck) were, not surprisingly, defeated by the Democrats. But the young good-government reformers made a respectable showing, and they wished to continue their efforts to bring democracy in Albany back to “health.” The location also gave them good access to reporters.

Four months later, the State of New York seized 180 State Street, along with roughly 1,150 other structures.

Demolition of the Ambassador at 180 State, December 1964. Used by permission of the Times Union.
Demolition of the Ambassador at 180 State, July 1964. Used by permission of the Times Union.

For many small businesses—like Hudson Shoe Rebuilders and Hunter’s Pharmacy—this meant death. For the Ambassador, however, it proved to be a rebirth. In place of the old tavern, the Sherman family built a swanky, new restaurant and banquet hall at 27 Elk Street, on Albany’s “Quality Row.”

Losing the old Ambassador was painful for Marv, who withdrew during construction of the new. Ruthie stepped in and—with help from her children and chef Pasquale (Pat) Rocco—made sure the Elk Street restaurant was ready to open on the first of May 1964. This may help explain why the new Ambassador was so different in style from the old.

27 Elk Street today.
27 Elk Street today.

The new restaurant was a place where husbands took their wives, parents their children. In place of the jukebox was space for live entertainment, complete with a piano and organ. Although the Ambassador still served sandwiches, it was best known for its Saturday night smorgasbord, featuring food “so ingeniously prepared … that it looked like everything but what it was”—a fountain made of shrimp, a turkey dressed like a man, a melon boat with sails and swizzle stick oars representing “The Good Ship Ambassador.” The smorgasbord was the creation of Chef Rocco, famous for his elaborate cakes and spun-sugar creations.

If the new was fancier and its clientele dressier than the old, the Ambassador, nevertheless, retained its essential character and most of its regular customers. Arvis Chalmers was still a habitué and probably had a private glass stored in the back bar, built from South Mall bricks. Politicians and newsmen continued to drink, dine, gossip, and make deals at “The Big A,” and in even greater numbers.

Marvin opens wine for Mayor Erastus Corning and friend, nd. Courtesy Debbie Sherman.
Marvin opens wine for Mayor Erastus Corning and friends, nd. Courtesy Debbie Sherman.

Although he missed the grand opening, Marv was soon back behind the bar—serving martinis and bloody marys as well as beer and wine. Ruthie excelled at her new role as co-manager and hostess. The kids waited tables and helped out in the kitchen.

For a decade after its rebirth, the Ambassador prospered. By the time of the Hugh Carey administration, however, something had changed. Instead of on a bar stool, legislators tended to congregate on the tennis or basketball court. Others jogged on the basement track at the YMCA.

The Ambassador went out of business, but it was not alone. In 1984, the New York Times published an obituary for the Albany political saloon—Keelers, the Bleecker, Downtown Johnny’s, as well as the Ambassador. “[T]he dark pouches that once seemed permanently fixed under the eyes of legislators, lobbyists and high state officials are now rarely seen,” Edward Gargan reported, but the loss of after-hours conviviality appeared to have diminished legislative camaraderie.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow! What memories!!! I had not thought of the Ambassador years. And the characters inc. Arvis Chalmers & the incomparable “Charlie Torch!” We don’t have people like that anymore. And, indeed, no one is hanging around bars to get “scoops,” or just to listen to characters like Charlie and them anymore. Everything today is sound bites.
    It saddens me with every post on pages like 98 Acres, Albany the Way It Was, etc., to remember what we lost with the construction of the mammoth Empire State Plaza complex and still later with that of the Knickerbocker Arena cum Pepsi Arena cum Times Union Center. (And, of course, the requisite parking…. At different times, my mom, my sister & I all worked downtown. There was NO expectation that one’s job came w/a parking place. How we got to work was how we got to work. How we got home was how we got home. There was parking for Managers but at a steep cost!)
    Besides the people displaced and homes & business like the Ambassador destroyed, there is also the tax revenue that was lost. No wonder we’re going broke….

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Unlike most small businesses, the Ambassador survived the Empire State Plaza. In fact, the Elk Street incarnation of the Ambassador was probably more popular and influential than the first.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a story! I can’t help wondering if the whole fitness craze of the 70s and 80s had something to do with politicians choosing to meet on tennis courts and in the basement of the YMCA. Perhaps the fat cats wanted to live longer than their forebears.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But what’s life without a little whiskey?

      Like

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