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For more than 50 years, Berk Motley has served his own brand of Incredibly Strange Entertainment live and in person at the Sirloin Room. Reservations are recommended. Otherwise, he might not show up.
The gaunt, pale old man stands at the microphone and surveys the crowd, a few dozen people eating and gabbing over their dinners. It is Saturday night at Berk Motley’s Sirloin Room in Colmar Manor, a bleak hideaway located just across the District line in Prince George’s County.
No mere observer of the feast of life, the man seems to be counting heads. He stands on a small stage behind a rack of clarinets, saxophones, and other horns. His black tuxedo hangs loose on his frail body, the mismatch of a man who has lost weight to illness. His drawn, unsmiling face reveals his exhaustion. But his restless gaze betrays the gnawing hunger of the entertainer who can’t resist an audience.
“You want to see the show?” he demands hoarsely, sounding more like a jaded peep-show barker than the owner and featured performer of the restaurant that bears his name. The audience shouts its approval, and he allows a hint of satisfaction to ripple over his Mount Rushmore expression. But Motley can’t be that easily persuaded. He dismisses one overzealous hand-clapper: “That’s my brother.”
If anything, Motley seems ready to walk off the stage. For the past few weeks, he has been too ill or tired to complete a full night’s performance. And earlier in the evening, the 81-year-old entertainer—backed by an accordion player and a guitarist—had already put on quite a show of blue humor and Incredibly Strange Music.
He nonchalantly played two clarinets at once, creating the sonic equivalent of a barfly’s bleary double vision. He mischievously skewered show tunes and old standards, leering, “I’ll be in at night to take your woman, when the saints come marching in.” He presented his crotch-grabbing imitation of Michael Jackson: “It’s so big,” he bragged, flailing at his zipper, “that I’ve got to use two hands.” He invited a 94-year-old crooner from the audience to sing a medley of Tony Bennett and Elvis songs. He shared the mike with a bulldog-jowled, retired Catholic priest who momentarily abandoned his meal to shout choruses of “Roll Out the Barrel.” During a between-songs lull, he indulged a woman in a dinner dress who stood up at her table for a wine-soaked, a cappella stab at “Unforgettable.”
That would seem plenty for an evening’s entertainment. Even more than plenty, considering there is no cover charge. Indeed, the rowdy audience—inspired by sirloin and spirits—has proved an effusive peanut gallery for Motley and his surprise guests all night.
But for Motley, these shenanigans are just the warm-up for the real thing. Enough of this sentimental foolishness—it’s time for some serious foolishness, done by a real professional. No more sharing the spotlight. After all, this is Saturday night, not amateur night. There are a lot of places where people can find tipsy karaoke and thick steaks. That’s not why these people drove from all over the Washington area to Berk Motley’s Sirloin Room. They have come not just for a show—they’ve come for his show. And Motley is here because they are.
“So you want to see my show?” rasps Motley, his question now resembling a taunt, which begs a further question: What’s he going to do that he hasn’t already? How much more risqué can an 81-year-old get?
Whatever his intentions, this is obviously no lovable old coot or happy-go-lucky geezer. His deadpan delivery, aloof impatience, and cadaverous face suggest William Burroughs more than George Burns.
The crowd plays to Motley’s tease, begging for his show. He finally relents, as if accepting the inevitable. He announces a brief intermission, what he winkingly calls “wee-wee time,” during which his rack of horns and mike are moved to the center of the small dance floor.
Then it’s show time.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” announces guitarist Richard Janicki Jr., who doubles as MC. He and his father Richard Sr. (on Cord-o-Vox accordion with keyboard attachment) have been accompanying Motley for years. “It is now my privilege and my pleasure to introduce the one, the only, the ORIGINAL—Berk Motley! Heeeeeeeeere’s Berkie!”
On cue, Motley makes his slow way down from the bandstand, too focused on his cautious steps to acknowledge the applause.
“Good evening. I’m Berk—I’m sick Berk,” he rasps.
Someone yells jokingly, “Get him a nurse!” mistaking Motley’s complaint for part of the act.
“Here’s the proof,” sighs Motley, solemnly holding up his wrist to display a yellow hospital band. He was in for a visit earlier that day; a nagging winter cold tops the list of recent infirmities. “But the show must go on.”
Indeed, every Friday and Saturday night—health, weather, and enough reservations permitting—Motley performs his vaudeville-style show at the Sirloin Room, just as he has for more than a half-century. A veteran of the big band era, Motley has lost many of his skills to old age: He can no longer hit all the right notes, and his voice is ragged and hoarse. Nor can he perform the acrobatic musical stunts—playing three clarinets while pumping the piano with his feet, or blowing two horns while standing on his head—that earned him a place in Ripley’s Believe It or Not back in 1944. He stopped these stunts when he was 75 years old, because doctors ordered him to.
But he remains the consummate trouper, and for the most part, the shows—down to the set list of songs and the very wording of the gags—haven’t changed much. His trio’s sound—sumptuously off-kilter lounge music—can seemingly transform any popular song of this century into an instantly recognizable hum-along number.
Despite the band’s appeal (many lounge-slumming “alternative rock” acts would kill to sound this schmaltzy), it’s not the supper music but Motley’s outrageous, supremely outdated routines that keep customers coming back: There’s the one-armed piccolo player and the German U-boat bit, among many other routines. And there’s his very own invention, the so-called “douche-o-phone,” which he claims was inspired after exploring his mother’s bathroom when he was 3 years old.
Holdovers from a long-lost era, Motley and his Sirloin Room are the last survivors of the old Bladensburg strip. For nearly five decades beginning in the ’30s, the stretch of Bladensburg Road from the District line to the Peace Cross in Prince George’s County boasted some of the most notorious nightspots along the mid-Atlantic coast.
Those days are over: The strip is now a decaying commercial corridor crammed mostly with commuters passing through. Except for Motley’s, an incongruous log-cabin-theme restaurant, all the old places have been either torn down or converted into nondescript office buildings. The only local performers standing on their heads these days are the tired dancers reaching for dollars at the Three Captains, a topless go-go club a few miles north.
Many of Motley’s old friends and customers—those still alive—are too frightened to drop by the Sirloin Room, at least after dark. Violent crime plagues the area, and shooting has replaced striptease as the most popular after-hours activity. The front porch of one quaint cottage home is guarded by a Cerberus trio of Rottweilers. Even fast-food workers cower behind bulletproof glass at the drive-through windows.
In all, a blighted urban area, definitely not a promising place to survive as a restaurant—or to start a new one. Motley’s son Bucky, who worked at the Sirloin Room as a boy, went to Greenbelt to launch a successful chain of restaurants. His clientele are young professionals; his marketing strategy doesn’t include vaudeville and run-down neighborhoods.
Despite such daunting odds, Berk Motley long ago decided to make a stand in Colmar Manor, a final refuge for a vanishing way of life. To ever-dwindling weekend crowds—usually celebrating birthdays and anniversaries—he continues to perform the only act he knows. It’s way too late to stop now.
Stuck in the parking lot of a pancake restaurant, the “Welcome to Colmar Manor” sign greets visitors to this small, drab hamlet, bounded by Bladensburg Road, the Fort Lincoln Cemetery, and the Anacostia River.
Amid a concrete blur of strip shopping centers and discount liquor stores, BerkMotley’s Sirloin Room is easy to pass by; one might easily mistake it for a tidy pile of lumber in an often empty lot. If its log-cabin architecture seems out of place, its interior emanates Twin Peaks-style weirdness.
Entering its darkness from a bright afternoon is a journey into another realm: Blood-red shutters are nailed shut over the windows, protecting the rarefied atmosphere from any outside light. Varnished tree-trunk timbers sprout from floor to ceiling, an indoor forest petrified by decades of whiskey-and-smoke exhalations. Biker-black leatherette booths hug the gleaming, untrimmed log walls. In this musty antithesis of a fern bar, few plants other than cave moss could hope to survive.
Near the door glows a show-bizzy shrine to Berk Motley: Dressing-room light bulbs illuminate a framed color portrait of the Jazzman as Aging Restaurateur, circa late ’80s. Nearby, black-and-white photos show an agile young Motley doing his vaudevillian tricks, next to a reproduction of the illustration that appeared in Ripley’s. This montage hangs above the old Wurlitzer piano that he used to play with his feet.
Over a gas fireplace hangs a huge landscape painting of the flea-market genre, as ancient and sooty as an unrestored old masters canvas. It depicts a bucking ram poised on the edge of a snowy cliff; another ram stands across the gorge. The horned hoofers seem to be contemplating the yawning abyss that separates them. In fact, a Sirloin Room regular once wrote a poem interpreting the rams as a pair of star-crossed lovers. Smaller—and less gloomily existential—landscapes are tacked onto the shutters, peaceful green glades drowning in a background riot of red.
Like the inexplicable longhorn hovering over the coat rack, the clashing decor perfectly suits this mountain lodge marooned on the former swamp that is D.C.
Most impressive of all is the Sirloin Room’s massive leatherette island bar, shaped like a coffin and crowned dead center by an old-fashioned, manual cash register. In its heyday, the bar was packed six nights a week, as was the entire club: The tables and booths were filled, and you had to make reservations weeks in advance to catch Motley’s show.
That was back in the ’50s, when the Bladensburg strip was booming.
In the muckraking, McCarthy-era classic, Washington Confidential, authors Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer sensationalized the strip as a sleazy hangout for local gangsters, rummies, and lowlifes: “It’s a long strip predominately devoted to gaiety, night life, gambling, and whoring….Depending on the road you take out of [D.C.], you soon reach Bladensburg or Colmar Manor. The latter is Rum Row, with several blocks of dirty drinking-joints where wind-broken broads solicit drinks, roll drunks and whore, often as a pastime when no dough is available….[F]or its size, [Prince George’s County] probably has more slot-machines, strip-teasers, resident hoodlums and general deviltry than any other place in the world.”
There were a dozen or so strip joints, along with gambling halls and saloons and nightclubs. Originally, the Bladensburg strip stretched all the way from Eastern Avenue, where gangster Jimmy La Fontaine ran his notorious gambling house behind a high green fence, to the town of Bladensburg several miles north. The scourge of law enforcement during the ’30s, La Fontaine’s was out of operation by the ’50s.
Despite La Fontaine’s demise, the strip remained a mecca for hustlers on the make: “Clean up or no,” stated Washington Confidential, “there are usually more floating crap games, illegal bookies, and after-hours spots in Prince George’s than there are in Reno, where all such things are legal.”
Indeed, the strip was just hitting its peak as the Eisenhower era ended. Unlike strict D.C., which forbade serving alcohol after midnight, Prince George’s County allowed bars to sell booze until 2 a.m. and even later. (Virginia law at the time prohibited the sale of mixed drinks in clubs altogether.) So naturally, nighthawks, hellraisers, and partygoers throughout the region flocked to Prince George’s.
“This county was wide open—oh God,” recalls Howard Campbell, a retired D.C. homicide detective and longtime Sirloin Room regular. Back then, he worked as a teen-age bouncer at several of the Bladensburg clubs. “There was only 44 police officers [for the entire county]—nobody was getting hurt, so nobody cared. The whole area at the time was like Damon Runyon….But that was a long time ago in another galaxy.”
Legendary stripper Blaze Starr had her own lounge here for a while, and she also performed her burlesque act at a large, wildly popular club called the Crossroads. Located near the Peace Cross about a mile north of the Sirloin Room, it was once owned by local gangster and counterfeiter Snags Lewis. Washington Confidential dubbed it a “barnlike structure” featuring “stripper and corny shows. Its huge bar is loaded for pick-up. In case you do, but are not prepared, “sanitary rubber goods’ are dispensed in slot-machines in the men’s room.” In the ’60s, the Crossroads became a haven for such country music stars as Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean, and Roy Clark.
In its prime, the strip boasted a wealth of clubs: the Wagon Wheel, the Palo Alto Tavern, the Dixie Pig (there were actually two—the first burned down), Basin Street, Romano’s, and many more, all gone the way of the bulldozer.
The only one still around is Berk Motley’s Sirloin Room.
The Saturday-night crowd at the Sirloin Room is getting frisky, and Berk Motley knows what the hoots and shouts mean: These folks are ready for the raunchy stuff.
Though a few elderly couples take their leisurely meals, most of the tables are filled with boisterous, middle-aged parties looking for something other than TV to spike up their Saturday night. It doesn’t matter that these hard-core Berk boosters weren’t even born when the entertainer was busy standing on his head blowing horns in nightclubs across the U.S. In Motley, they’ve found the archetypal crazy old uncle who livens up family reunions with silly pranks and general mischief. They crave all the crude jokes and hokey gags—the staler, the better. And Berk Motley is more than willing to take them back to the golden age of the Whoopee Cushion.
“I had all kind of bad luck today,” grouses Motley. “On the way to work, someone threw a brick through the windshield of my car—hit my girlfriend right in the chest.” He pauses. “Broke four of my fingers.” The audience roars, and Motley throws his zinger: “Good thing they didn’t throw that brick earlier—it would’ve broke four of my teeth.”
Though he remains pale and haggard, he is gaining strength as his act goes on. He seems pleased that he decided to present his real show to a crowd that can appreciate it.
He turns to a nearby table and serenades a woman celebrating a birthday:
“May you live a million years
May you drink a million beers
May you get plastered, you big bastard—
The recipient of this abuse shrieks her thanks: “I will for you, Berk!”
Motley seems to appreciate her outburst. Then he gets mock-reflective, and begins a parody of a musician looking back on his career.
“See, I’m a natural born musician,” he says, standing behind his arsenal of clarinets, saxophones, and trombones. “I played all the horns. When I was 3 years old, I went into my mother’s bathroom and I found her douche bag and I started making music with it.”
He holds up a homemade contraption: a rubber hot-water bottle with a hose connected to a tin flute. It resembles a backwoods bagpipe made of spare parts from the outhouse, but he cradles it as if it were his most prized instrument.
“Heard of a saxophone? Well, I call this the douche-o-phone,” he explains. “It’s made me a living. I’ll blow anything for a living.”
The spectators are howling in their seats. The straight-faced Motley continues with his deadpan delivery: “I’m gonna play a little tune on the douche-o-phone made by Eddie Douche—he was a famous piano player back in the ’30s. What was the name of the song?”
He hesitates, not for dramatic effect, but because he really can’t remember the song title. The guitarist whispers a clue from the bandstand. Motley drawls: “It’s called “The Love Bug’ll Bite You If You Don’t Wash It.’ ” By now the audience is in near-hysterics. Fingering the douche-o-phone gingerly, Motley begins to play a wobbly, off-key version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” That nursery-rhyme melody was probably one of the first songs that Motley ever learned; he is a self-taught musician.
Hailing from Danville, Va., Alonzo Berkeley Motley Jr. grew up in the Old Dominion and North Carolina. “I’ve been playing since I was 9,” he says. “I played any wind instrument from oboe to kazoo. I fooled with all the horns, but my favorite was trombone.”
As an adolescent, he performed at local Elks Clubs and American Legion posts, and traveled with tent shows that roamed the country. He was still a teen when he got his first break. In 1933, Glen Gray’s Casa Loma Orchestra, featuring the legendary trombone player Jack Teagarden, came to town: “I was just a kid and wandered up to the bandstand which was about three feet in the air. I was down on the dance floor and I pulled [Gray’s] pants leg and said, “How about me sitting in with the band?’ He says, “OK, son,’ and I sat in with the greatest trombonist in the world.”
Motley eventually hit the road as a professional musician, first with Gray, then with Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, and other legends of big band jazz. Back in North Carolina, he joined Hal Kemp’s orchestra for several years. He taught himself to read music, and was soon doubling as an arranger.
During these Depression years, he found work wherever he could. He played several vaudeville revues, backing up big-time comedians like Red Skelton and Bob Hope. Watching their acts, he began to work out his own routines: “I’ve played everything—burlesque, striptease joints, the best theaters, county fairs,” he says. “Any kind of entertainment that takes musicians, I have experience.”
Thanks to these years on the road, he became a crackerjack all-around entertainer, as much a comedian and MC as a musician. Like many vaudevillians, he needed a gimmick, something to separate him from the herd. He claims that he started performing his notorious routine as a teen: First, he’d blow standards like “St. Louis Blues” and “Anchors Aweigh” on three clarinets at once. Then, using his elbows and a couple of blocks, he’d stand on his head and take requests, playing them upside-down armed with two clarinets. Back on his feet, he’d take off his shoes and socks, grab the extra clarinet, and head for the piano, which he would play with his toes while blowing Dixieland tunes on the horns.
In his busiest nightclub years, Motley would often perform these stunts five times a day.
Motley claims that all his routines are original—an arguable boast. Music novelty acts of the ’20s and ’30s really ran the gamut: the skeleton-playing xylophonist; the pianist who banged the keys with fruit; the rifleman shooting chimes from a theater balcony. There were hundreds—and, with many performers doing the same shticks, it’s hard to determine which act was truly “original.” As George Burns once said, “We would steal from anybody.” To Motley’s credit, though, few of these novelty acts made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
By the late ’30s, he had his own 16-piece band, the Berk Motley Orchestra. During one show at a college gymnasium in Boston, he met a female singer who caught his eye. “I saw her and she was the prettiest girl in the place, so I set my mind on [courting her],” he said. She joined the orchestra, and a few years later they were married. The band toured the country, alternately dubbed Berk Motley’s Orchestra or Agnes Hudson and Her Men of Music.
But World War II broke up the band—the draft snatched nine members. Motley forged on with a six-piece ensemble, which began playing big-time venues such as the Loews Capitol Theater on F Street NW in Washington. After the show downtown, the band would drive out to the Bladensburg strip and play late-night gigs there. “When we came out there, we were a bunch of celebrities,” recalls Motley, whose vaudevillian music stunts drew crowds and by 1944 had earned him his entry in Ripley’s.
Performing regularly in the bustling downtown D.C. scene, Motley was soon also leading the house band at a club out on Bladensburg called the Rustic Cabin, a former strip joint that had been built from cured cedar logs in 1936. When Berk and Agnes Motley decided to settle in Washington, he bought the Cabin, eventually renaming it Berk Motley’s Sirloin Room.
There was a period of several years when Motley went back on the road and leased out the Rustic Cabin. When he returned in the mid-’50s, the club had begun catering to the rock ‘n’ roll craze. “They were playing junk music, I call it,” scoffs Motley. “I didn’t like the image. I played the old-time music, like “Melancholy Baby.’ The crowd I wanted to cater to was high-class, which is what I get now. We don’t get any bums.”
Motley preserved the club’s log-cabin look on the outside, but he gave the interior a complete facelift: He installed the leatherette booths and the island bar, and added exotic touches such as imitation Spanish moss and ceiling lanterns. For years after, he continued to serve as the club’s manager and jack-of-all-trades, making repairs and additions as needed.
Except for a few visits by rowdy country stars (Roy Clark once drove his motorcycle around the bar), the Sirloin Room has, since the ’50s, featured family meals and the old-time entertainment of Berk Motley. More than any place on the strip, it earned a reputation as a genuine supper club. “It was the most popular place around,” says Motley. “We put it on the map.”
In the ’50s and ’60s, there was entertainment six nights a week, year-round. On weekends, lines of people stretched outside the door. Motley’s son Bucky, born in the ’40s, worked as a parking attendant, squeezing the cars into the jampacked lot. Today, his children and grandchildren still help out at the Sirloin Room. His daughter Paddy serves as manager, and her son Gene often works behind the bar. Bucky himself has three successful restaurants, in Greenbelt, Crofton, and Baltimore.
By the late ’70s, the Bladensburg strip had died down. The nightclubs went under, one by one. But the Sirloin Room hung on, even as the shows were curtailed to weekends only. In the ’80s, things grew dramatically worse; the local economy plummeted, businesses failed, and longtime residents moved out. Plagued by town-hall corruption and near-bankruptcy, Colmar Manor became a ghost of its former self.
If the old days of the strip were a bit seedy, at least it was a bustling seediness. Now, the landscape outside the windowless log cabin was an asphalt desert. But, stubbornly, Motley stood his ground. On most Friday and Saturday nights, the twin gas torches outside the Sirloin Room still blazed in the night, a sign to longtime patrons that the show was on.
Recently, though, it’s not the indifferent, modern world that threatens the future of Berk Motley’s Sirloin Room.
“In the last four years, my father’s health has really failed,” says Bucky Motley. “It’s like a rocket that’s just been going straight up for 80 years and then hits its peak. Age caught up with my father very fast—he’s really not the same guy today he was four years ago.”
Plagued by physical infirmities, Berk Motley has been making ever more sporadic appearances. When he does perform, his shows are often abbreviated—mostly brief musical revues peppered with a few gags during the dinner hours. Even his wife, whom offstage he calls “the most beautiful woman in America,” recently underwent a serious cancer operation.
In between performances, Motley spends his days quietly at home, trying to renew his strength for the next performance. He couldn’t even muster the energy to do more than perfunctory interviews for this article. “I’m not trying to be nasty,” he said after declining repeated requests to talk about his life and career. “You just came too late.”
Still, the showman in him can’t be denied. Last month, just days after a hernia operation, Motley checked out of the hospital to make a special New Year’s performance.
The afternoon regulars at Berk Motley’s Sirloin Room sit stolidly on their bar stools, seemingly as rooted to the place as the timber posts around them.
Long before happy hour, these old men get quietly toasted in their perpetually twilit world. They talk about the old days, when the bar would fill with water every time the nearby Anacostia overflowed. The flooding didn’t stop them from drinking; they just took off their shoes and socks and got even more sloshed.
All of these fellows have known Motley for years, sometimes decades. But one of the most faithful of the Sirloin Room regulars never bellies up to the bar.
Nearly every Friday and Saturday night, 94-year-old Rolfe Kennard comes to the Sirloin Room and takes a special table near the portrait of Berk Motley. There he sits quietly, usually sporting a dark suit, a red sweater-vest, and an antique gold watch chain.
He sips a scotch to clear his throat, waiting for Motley to call him to the stage to perform a few songs.
A retired government worker and native Virginian, Kennard boasts his own music career, if not one as colorful as Motley’s. Back in the ’40s, he composed the victory march for his alma mater, the College of William & Mary. (He has attended 71 consecutive homecomings at the school.) He also wrote the song for the Lambda Chi Alpha national fraternity, a moonstruck, smoke-ring ditty called “A Vision of Loveliness.” He often regales patrons with tableside renditions of these and other songs.
Kennard didn’t start singing in earnest until his brother died a few decades ago. “I didn’t want to upstage him,” he says. “He was a graduate of the Louisville Conservatory of Music, and he had a voice like [Irish tenor] John McCormick. Since he died, I’ve tried to come out from underneath and sing for myself.”
In the late ’50s, a nightclub owner heard Rolfe Kennard softly serenading his wife at their table; he invited him onstage, and he’s been singing as a hobby ever since. A decade later, he and his wife dined regularly at the Sirloin Room, just a few miles from their home in Cheverly. One night, Motley asked him to sing, a weekly ritual that has continued ever since. Now a widower, Kennard even stops by for a daily lunch at the Sirloin Room.
About midway through Motley’s first set, Motley beckons Kennard to the dance floor, where the 94-year-old takes the mike and gently croons standards like “Danny Boy,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and “Love Me Tender.” His voice is still remarkable, and his demeanor—gesturing operatically and singing romantically to individual women—provides a stark contrast with Motley’s irascible stage presence. It is a brief performance, though, and Kennard soon ambles back to his seat.
“People keep coming in always wanting to know if I’m going to sing. They ask, “Is that old-timer going to sing tonight?’ ” says Kennard. “If Berk isn’t here, I can have my way, but it’s his place….If you get a big crowd in here, he’ll play like the devil and be his old self again.”
Recently, Kennard has sometimes been joined in performance by a toupee-topped customer, a Benny Hill lookalike who simply grabs the mike from Kennard and begins duetting on whatever song is in progress. Kennard doesn’t even know the man. Onstage, Motley silently condones these occasional intrusions—which have made for some odd moments—as if acknowledging that the crowd is finally taking over the show.
Typically, Kennard sings his love songs solo to an appreciative crowd, then leaves just as Motley is preparing to take center stage. Though he remains a fan, Kennard has seen the act enough times. And after all, 94-year-olds need their rest.
UIET! I’m back in business,” snarls Berk Motley, after taking a break to fix the mouthpiece on one of his horns. “You folks must brush your teeth with gunpowder—you like to blow your mouths off.”
His show is in full swing now, and he’s starting to get inspired. Suddenly, he rips off his black tuxedo coat and his bow tie. He tries to puff out his chest and yells: “Look at that body—150 pounds of dynamite with a 2-inch fuse—not bad!”
The crowd is back with him again: It’s probably the biggest roar of the night.
“You know, I’ve been married 57 years,” Motley says. “I’ve got a wife so mean that every time we’re making love she keeps her eyes closed. I ask her why—she says, “I hate to see you enjoy yourself.’ ”
The laughter rains down, but the old pro doesn’t let it break his momentum. He knows he’s on a roll now.
“She’s so ugly that she woke up one morning and stuck her head out the window for a little fresh air, and she got arrested for mooning.”
He picks up his horns and blows bits of old jazz songs he once played in big theaters. Just as he nails a melody, though, he seems bored by the music. He stops his recital and confronts the audience, which seems to delight in anything the old man does.
“Now what am I gonna do? I do so many routines. I used to stand on my head. I have so much talent—until I go to bed.”
The audience is hanging on every word.
“I do imitations,” he says. Spurred by more applause, he adds, “I love imitations.”
He grabs his coat and puts it over his head like a hood, with one sleeve pointing up: “Here’s an imitation of a German U-boat.” The accordionist makes a foghorn noise as Motley holds the pose. No reaction; the gag is beyond even this adulatory crowd. “I can do two German U-boats.” He sticks up the other sleeve, accompanied by more foghorn blasts from the accordion.
World War II jokes obviously aren’t working. But he knows what to hit ’em with now.
“The greatest imitation of them all is Piccolo Pete. You ever seen a one-armed piccolo player?” He puts his coat on, but tucks one arm in his belt, letting a sleeve hang loose. He tries to play a few songs with the band, but of course he’s hopelessly out of tune.
A minute later, he’s walking up to a table of women, coat sleeve still dangling. But now his hand is poking out of his zipper, bawdily holding the piccolo. The women are near tears with laughter, and even Motley finally seems to be having some real fun.
For just a moment, he looks almost spry enough to stand on his head and play clarinets. But the moment doesn’t last. After a few more gags, he begins to breathe hard, and his pale complexion—temporarily colored by an adrenalin rush—returns, even whiter than before. The bonds of old age and history have him once again in their grip.
“Well folks, that’s the best I can do under the circumstances,” he says, his hoarse voice cracking painfully. “I’d like to do more, but tonight we’re not going to do more. Eat, drink, and be merry.”
The band launches into a languid version of the Platters’ “Only You.” A pair of white-haired, high-heeled ladies invade the dance floor and begin to waltz drunkenly together. One falls, sprawling to the floor, but her partner props her up. They’re both smiling, and everybody laughs. But not Berk Motley.
After making sure the women are indeed all right, he heads back to the bar. He is completely drained, his face ashen, his body limp. The show’s temporary jumpstart has quickly reversed itself. Nevertheless, he doesn’t sit down to rest; instead, he starts supervising his troops.
“We did 58 dinners tonight, Mr. Motley,” one of the employees tells him cheerfully. Already engrossed in helping replenish the bar stock, he doesn’t seem to hear.
“He’s a tough old bird,” observes one of the regulars on the other side of the bar. “He’s like Henny Youngman.”
Motley moves from behind the bar and walks slowly through the empty dining room, past his lit portrait, past the darkened stage, to the far end of the restaurant. There, he reaches to turn off the flickering gas fireplace.
The torches blaze outside in the cold winter night. But Berk Motley’s Sirloin Room is officially closed for the night.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Susan Pardys.