by Kathryn Gallien
The 1964 photos of 100-102 Jefferson Street in downtown Albany reveal a building whose better days are well behind it and whose days ahead are seriously limited. Indeed, the building next door has already been torn down to make way for the coming South Mall project, later renamed the Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza.
But anyone who thought “Rocky” Rockefeller’s bulldozers could forever doom the Palais Royale grill didn’t know Victorocco “Rocky” Nigro.
Yes, the photos seem to capture the sad end of an era. The living quarters are decidedly modest, the furnishings sparse and tired. The grill bears the words LIQUORS, BAR, and HOT DOGS. Glimpses inside reveal an establishment lost to time, its wooden booths empty, its jukebox silent, its huge fan stilled. On the porch, a small man gazes up the street, toward the future.
But this Jefferson Street joint—run by Leonardo Nigro and his son since the Prohibition era—is still warmly remembered. Those who go back to the days before the South Mall talk about Galigal or Galla-Gal or Gally Gals, the Nigro family’s feared dog, who wandered the neighborhood and beyond.
Leonardo came to the US from Italy in 1907. He was a cigarmaker and a grocer, and by 1930 he and his wife Angeline and their son had opened a store at 100 Jefferson Street. Once the repeal of Prohibition seemed a sure thing, they began the work to convert the store into a tavern, though it is more than likely drinks were poured there before 1933. Rocky admitted as much in 2000 when he told a Times Union reporter that he worked in his father’s speakeasy, and “when beer came back, we went legit.” As Knickerbocker News columnist Charley Mooney would note in 1962, “In parts of what is now called the South Mall there were more speakeasies than a fellow could shake a cocktail at.”
In 1934, Rocky and his father refinanced the building, perhaps signaling that son would run the tavern, while his father pursued other business interests. After Rocky married Betty Sherman in 1937, the couple ran the tavern. With the exception of army service in WWII Rocky spent the rest of his long life in Albany, tending bar and telling tales.
Well before the South Mall project was a gleam in Rocky Rockefeller’s eye, Rocky Nigro sought to expand his tavern business into other sections of the city. He got a liquor license in 1951 for the Joya Hotel at 65 Madison Avenue, in the area known as Albany’s “Gut,” a block from Milham’s Grill, the Palombi Hotel, and the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Mission. The Joya would also fall victim to demolition, and Rocky’s subsequent effort to transfer the Joya’s liquor license to an establishment at 57 Hudson Avenue was rebuffed by the State Liquor Authority in 1965 in frank terms: “To Issue a license for on the premises consumption of alcoholic beverages at 57 Hudson Avenue, would entail a high degree of risk and hazard” due to “undesireable characters” who had frequented the previous establishment, described as a “clip joint,” at that address as well as the presence of four other bars within 400 feet.
But the Knick News concluded, “All is not lost for Mr. Nigro. He has a restaurant with liquor license at 164 Jefferson Street. He moved there and was licensed by the SLA Sept. 10, 1964, not long after the Joya Hotel was torn down.”
Mooney, whose column was filled with nostalgia for Albany’s colorful past, bemoaned the loss of Prohibition era bars to the South Mall: “A few of the boys were standing around in one of the town’s better-known watering places the other night discussing the changes to be wrought by the time the South Mall is a reality, when the talk inevitably swung around to the Prohibition era. One fellow remarked that the few sites that yet remain, of those where Albanians were wont to wet their whistles during the Noble Experiment, will be only memories once Governor Rockefeller’s crews and their bulldozers move in.” But not the Palais Royale.
Rocky brought to the new location his idiosyncratic and growing collection of decorative stuff. In time the Palais was a wall-to-wall collection of ephemera so original and authentic you couldn’t pay to recreate it—collectible mugs and decanters, strings of Christmas lights, beach balls hanging from the ceiling, a tabletop bowling game, a Dolly Parton pinball machine, Monkeyshines calendars that he would give away to pretty girls, an old upright piano he sometimes played, rows of dusty Campbell’s soup cans, a classic old popcorn machine, and two jukeboxes—one in each room—playing different songs at the same time.
With the new location, and the passage of time, came new generations of Palais Royale devotees. Famous authors and politicians mingled comfortably with students, young professionals, and street people. Many, if not most, would hear Rocky’s story about shining gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond’s shoes at the tavern.
Duncan Crary was one of them. “Legs gave me a 15-cent tip for shining his shoes. That was a lot of money for a 16-year-old kid,” Rocky told him in a 2002 interview. As Crary wrote in his blog post on the famous gangster, “you don’t have look hard in Albany to find a story with Legs.” A communications consultant now based in Troy, Crary had found his way to the Palais with his Albany school chums and was a regular through the 1990s and early 2000s. “It was a dive bar in the true sense,” recalls Crary. “I always found it really cozy. And I loved the music. Some of the songs that would always come on were ‘Dominick the Donkey’ and the ‘Utica Club Natural Carbonated Beer Drinking Song’.”
The Palais was cozy and then some at Rocky’s surprise 90th birthday party on July 23, 2000, when generations of regulars happily mingled in the beloved establishment. Stuffed with people and his unique collections, the tavern was a far cry from the spare rooms in those 1964 photos. Proclamations were read from dignitaries, including Governor George Pataki, Mayor Jerry Jennings, and State Senator Nancy Larraine Hoffman, who was on hand to celebrate the event she had planned. Times Union writer Kim Martineau reported that when he wasn’t “flipping caps off $1 Rolling Rocks” and worrying about running out of beer, Rocky enjoyed the attention. The Palais was “the genuine article,” she wrote, concluding: “On the day that Rocky Nigro turned 90 everything changed—And nothing changed.”
But after Rocky died in 2004, the family sold the bar, and it did change. Longtime friend and barkeeper Jeanne Owens—whose mother Peggy had also tended bar for decades—had hoped to buy it and keep it as it was, but that was not to be. The new owner spruced it up, installed a nice wooden bar, and added beer on tap, while trying to preserve some of the original charm.
So the Palais Royale stands today as likely the only continuously operating tavern from the old South Mall neighborhood. Rocky Nigro is long gone, but memories persist of the “diminutive barkeep and raconteur who wove into the mythic fabric of Albany a rickety neighborhood bar with an improbably grandiose name, Palais Royale Grill,” as Times Union writer Paul Grondahl put it when Rocky died.
“The Palais is not a ‘palais.’ It’s not ‘royale.’ It isn’t a grill,’ wrote Crary in his epitaph. It was a dive bar, a “havenhovel for bums and barflies, pols and pontificators, starving artists and students.” And Rocky, he said, “taught us how to get along.”
Rocky Nigro’s tavern survived Prohibition, the Depression, the war, and that other Rocky’s bulldozers.
The people’s Palais still stands.
Want to see more? Check out our new South Mall Bar Crawl on Urban Archive!