07 May 2013

Meet Otto, of Otto's Scandinavian Bar




A reader made me very happy yesterday by sending me some new information and photos about one of my favorite lost businesses, Otto's Scandinavian Bar. It stood for many years at the southeast corner of Columbia Street and Kane Street in Brooklyn, near the waterfront, and was, before it finally closed in the 1970s, one of the last remnants of Red Hook's Scandinavian past.

Until now, the only pictorial evidence I've had of Otto's are the photos seen above (from the 1960s) and to the right (a shot from the Jimmy Breslin-inspired 1971 film "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."

Now, I know what Otto Hansen looked like. This image (below) is from a Norwegian-language article the reader sent me. It's quite a long piece, titled "Otto's Bar, First and Last Stop," which was a motto painted on the outside of the tavern.


The photo is of Otto behind his dark, somewhat shabby, but charmingly eccentric little bar. The picture is from 1974, when Otto was 68. Notice he is his holding a cord that is connected to the bell, perhaps the closing-time bell.

Otto's history, detailed in the story, is related in a rather offhand manner, which leads me to distrust it a bit. But here are the basics. He was born in 1907 in Christiana (now Oslo). As a young man he took to the sea, working as a cabin boy. He eventually got work on a ship, the Norvega, going to America. The voyage was terrible. The crew was starved and there was no soap. When they docked in Portland, many of the men fled. Otto, however, told the captain he was waiting until they got to a bigger city.

There were many more adventures, and different ships, to Stockholm, to Rotterdam, to Chile. He won $1,000 in poker on one occasion. At some point, he was hired on as a cook on one ship, though he had no experience. He finally settled in New York in 1924. He took various jobs, and served in the Army during WWII.

His first bar was near the Bush Terminal, near Sunset Park. No date is specified for when he opened the bar at Kane and Columbia. The saloon was originally situated in a three-story building. The third floor was shorn off at some juncture.

The bar is described as so: "The bar itself was right when one came in the door, on the left side stood a few small tables. There was also a room in the [back]. It was, among other things, a billiards [hall]. On the left wall [were] ship pictures. There were several famous scenes from different time periods." There was also food served. Dach evening, two police officers regularly stopped by for a hamburger and "a shot of Fleischman" before they continued their rounds. 

Apparently, Otto, as a way of advertising, would go down to the docks and hand out comical cards to sailors, featuring this photo (right) of him. It worked. Many of the seamen found their way to Otto's bar. 

Otto allowed many sailors to buy on credit, and kept a book recording how much they owned. According to the article, the amount the seamen owed Hansen added up to $12,000, and many of the debts were never collected. He married three times, first in 1931 to a Norwegian woman with whom he had a daughter. The daughter was born in Norway, and never met her father. During the war, he married again and had another daughter. This wife died in 1963. He kept a house on Court Street and lived with an Australian woman named Betty Bass. They got married in 1966. 

In 1978, before a trip to Norway, Otto closed the bar. In 1982, he and Betty moved to Hudson, New York. He died on March 29, 1985. He was 77.

3 comments:

Neil J Murphy said...

Nice post. But I think the cord he's holding in the third picture isn't for the bell, but rather looks like it lifts the lid of the toilet seat, which seems to be a frame for the photo of himself.

AB sailor Jens, Sweden said...

Correct, Otto would pull the string when someone bought a round for everyone in the house. If you look closely, you can see that the reward was seeing a picture of none other than Otto himself, in the toilet seat frame.
He had an old sailor for a cook who reportedly made excellent hamburgers, but was drunk much of the time.
As a genuine seamen's waterhole, there are thousands and thousands of stories from Otto's bar.

Glenn Jakobsen said...

Thanks for the article. My two brothers, both merchant marine sailors on Norwegian vessels in the 70's, would talk about nights spent with shipmates at Otto's. They note that the area had become increasingly sketchy necessitating a taxi or walking in a group to and from the pier. I will pass this article along to them, one I'm sure will bring back fond memories of late nights and morning headaches.