The arc of a rainbow is a single majestic parabola. It ends, if you believe in such things, in a pot of gold. But the arc of the Rainbow Room, one of New York City’s most iconic bars, isn’t a single graceful curve; rather, it’s a series of up-and-down sine waves.
First opened in 1934, the pet project of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the Rainbow Room was a light-flooded marvel of modern architecture. As noted in Architectural Forum in 1936, “To the speakeasy generation, inured to smoke-filled catacombs, it offers supreme luxuries: high ceilings and windows to look out of.” Built on the 65th floor of what was then the RCA Building, it featured a rotating dance floor and an organ attached to a colorful light display (hence the Rainbow Room name). Though lauded at the time, the Rainbow opened and closed in fits and starts with a rotating cast of proprietors. Renovations came and went, some more successful—that is, faithful to the glory of the first dawn—than others. By 1977, the space had, according to The New York Times, “slipped over the decades, and in recent years the room seemed to coast along primarily on memories, tourists and the view.” However, the fortunes of the Rainbow would soon change again.
After a nearly $20 million renovation—which eventually ballooned closer to $30 million—under the tenure of the showman restaurateur Joe Baum, the Rainbow Room was restored to its glory. Baum, with architect Hugh Hardy, painstakingly recreated the glamour of the original Rainbow, going so far as to find the grandchildren of the man who made the rotating dance floor and commissioning a new one from him. For just over a decade, the Rainbow Room was brilliant again. This time, it wasn’t just a nightclub and restaurant, but a bar that would come to have an outsize impact on American cocktail culture thanks to Dale DeGroff, who oversaw the revolutionary cocktail program. For months leading up to the opening, DeGroff had dug deep into the classic cocktails of London, Paris and New York’s social clubs, intent on restoring luster to drinks of the late 19th and early 20th century. He eschewed shortcuts, insisting on fresh juice and no premade mixers. His drinks were strong, stiff and serious, laying the groundwork for the second golden age of cocktails we still find ourselves in today.
Under the tenure of Joe Baum, the Rainbow Room was restored to its former glory. | Photo: Courtesy of Dale DeGroff
Celebrities came; noncelebrities came; everyone met at the Rainbow. The party lasted largely unabated until 1999, when a real estate mogul named Jerry Speyer, of Tishman Speyer, abruptly kicked out the Baum family—Joe had been joined by his son, Charlie, as the GM—and replaced them with the Cipriani family. It was an ignominious end of an era. Today, the place is open only for private events. But it hasn’t lost its relevance. In fact, now that the old is new and the new is weird and the young are flocking to places like Palm Court and Bemelmans Bar, we thought it time to talk to the main players of the Rainbow’s halcyon days about what made the place so special. We called up Dale DeGroff, King Cocktail himself; Bismark Irving, the maitre d’ and “Mayor of Rainbow”; Charlie Baum, Joe’s son; and a few others to take us on a Technicolor journey to the 65th floor.
Dale DeGroff (head bartender): “In 1986, I was living in Los Angeles, but I moved back to New York to work at Joe’s restaurant Aurora. Aurora was a fine dining restaurant in a celebrated French style, which was funny for Joe, who wasn’t really a Francophile. Even funnier is that he asked me to make a cocktail list that was a 19th-century classic cocktail menu at this little fine dining French restaurant. So I worked on creating these classic cocktails and even inventing some of my own, like the Ritz (Champagne, Cognac, lemon juice), even though we didn’t put a lot of them on the menu. I was confused, to say the least. Then I started seeing all these people coming into the bar like [glass artist] Dale Chihuly and [graphic designer] Milton Glaser. Then one day Benny Goodman arrived at my bar to meet Joe. I said tothe wine master Ray Ellington, ‘What the fuck is going on with all these people coming in and out?’ He said, ‘It’s the Rainbow thing.’ ‘The Rainbow what?’ He said, ‘The Rainbow Room, the famous supper club on top of the Rockefeller Center. Joe’s got the gig to restore it. Jesus, he’s been working on the Rainbow Room for six months already.’ Then it made sense. I was a lab rat.
Bismark Irving (maitre d’): “Prior to the Baums’ restoration of the Rainbow Room, I worked as a waiter at Aurora. It was the fanciest restaurant I had ever been to. I came from Kansas. I studied theater in college and we would drive on our breaks to see Broadway shows. (43 years later, I’m still here.) I would overhear all this stuff about the Rainbow Room during meetings Joe had with Hugh Hardy, the architect. One day I heard him say they were going to open up the nightclub with world-famous entertainment. I thought, I’d like to run that place. I said I wanted to be a part of it. When it opened, I started as a captain in the dining room, in the main room, but my goal was to work in the nightclub. A year after they opened, I became the maitre d’ at the nightclub. It was my baby for nine years.”
Charlie Baum (general manager): “Long story short, my father went to the hotel school in Cornell in the 1940s. Apparently there was a class trip to Rainbow and he said, ‘Someday I will be back.’ Well, he was true to his word. My memory is that I was unaware of the process of when he and his company were bidding. I became aware because Aurora had opened a little bit before, but he had a long-term relationship with Rockefeller Center with the Forum. I don’t know if they reached out to him or vice versa. It was a long and ongoing procedure of him with his feet up on his desk and there’s big drawings and plans around.”
A New Year’s Eve party at Rainbow Room. | Photo: Jerry Ruotolo
Don Mell (regular): “At the time Rainbow opened, I supervised the [Associated Press] photo desk. I had worked for the AP in Beirut, but I couldn’t go back there. [Mell was with Terry Anderson in Beirut when Anderson was abducted in 1985.] At the AP you were on constant deadlines and we worked late, but the Rainbow Room, which was in the building, was a release.
“New York was on a high at that time, except of course the 1987 market correction. But that area was so alive. The AP was there. NBC too. CBS was three blocks up. ABC wasn’t far away. Time magazine was on Sixth Avenue and Newsweek was on 44th and Madison. It wasn’t just U.S. media organizations and banks. All the international news organizations as well as international banking operations. It was the epicenter of New York. You don’t think of Midtown as being the creative part of New York but there was a lot there at the time. The other thing is that Rockefeller Center in those days was a user-friendly, employee-friendly place. There were barber shops, bookstores, dry cleaners, things people used normally. It wasn’t just a friggin’ mall. There was an entire ecosystem—with Rainbow at its center.
“When that place opened, it was the most special place in New York. For a lot of reasons. People don’t look at throwbacks to being great, but it was a throwback to an era with the big band and the room itself. There was the spectacular view. All those rooms were beautifully renovated and redone and brought back to that 1930s and 1940s glamour. I would say it was unique not just in New York, but in the world.”
Baum: “My great, great memories were of New Year’s Eve Parties. They were spectacular. My father instigated a Fellini-themed New Year’s party and, as GM, some of that responsibility fell onto me. The parties stretched into all four rooms of the 65th floor. My father had very big-time entertainers in the Rainbow for New Year’s. Once it was Tommy Tune. Once the Fellini theme kicked in, a lot of Fellini characters were incorporated into the entertainment. Carrie Robbins, the designer, did all the costumes, which were over the top. One year, we had a “8 1/2” theme. The “1/2” was a little person. But the big, big deal was the conga line. At midnight, the orchestra in Rainbow started a conga line. We opened all the doors, front and back of the house, so everyone could circulate over the entire 65th floor. It became a miasma that didn’t care what direction they were going. The noise and the joviality and real celebration of this incredible social swarm of people. It was a wave of happiness and celebration.”
Irving: “Those years were one of the greatest times of my life. I was the maitre d’ of the most famous nightclub in the world. Every two weeks, we’d have another opening night because the shows changed. Every opening night, every daily newspaper was there—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer—every major magazine, New Yorker, Time, every major television network. Along with that came every celebrity that was alive at the time. The first act was Tony Bennett. He played two weeks, 10 shows a week. We had all sorts of classic acts, from the McGuire Sisters to Rosemary Clooney. She played there every February from the beginning to the end. [Her nephew] George Clooney would come in. He would hug me when he saw me.
“The room was always full of energy. Everybody that walked in there and everybody that worked there was proud because we were in a landmark institution. You got to see celebrities all the time. John Gotti, for instance, used to come on Friday nights. He tipped everyone $100 bills and ordered Dom Pérignon. He was usually there with a mistress and he wanted to be seen. One time, John wanted our 12-piece orchestra to play a particular song. They didn’t know the piece so someone ran to Colony Records and bought the sheet music, and we copied it all for all the musicians. I don’t remember how many thousands he gave them. Later we realized it was an alibi. Everytime he showed up, there’d be a murder in Brooklyn.
“Nevertheless, I formed all of these close personal relationships. Phyllis McGuire, at the time, was [mob boss] Sam Giancana’s mistress. One day she said, ‘Biz, you look tired. Come stay with me for a while.’ She would send me a ticket to Las Vegas and I’d stay in her five-bedroom guest house. I’d have a driver and a housekeeper and I’d have someone come give me a massage. We’d go see shows. We sat in her living room that would seat 200 people and which had a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Rosie Clooney, who lived in George Gershwin’s house in California, used to invite me out. She’d just tell me where the key was and I’d make myself at home.”
Dale DeGroff pouring cocktails alongside author Barnaby Conrad III | Photo: Aubrey Rueben, Courtesy of Dale DeGroff
DeGroff: “While I was still at Aurora, I made a meeting with Joe and I said, ‘Listen, I’m aware of the big dealings over 30 Rock and I have a great idea.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘How about we do a menu of classic cocktails from some of the famous bars and supper clubs in the shadow of that beautiful RCA Building: the Stork Club, the Colony, the Copa, Dempsey’s. We’ll take a little bit from each of the menus and put together and celebrate these great old establishments.’ He said, ‘Show me a menu.’ Joe suggested I find a book called How To Make Drinks, by Jerry Thomas— I have no idea how he knew about it—which was, at the time, very difficult to do since it was out of print and very rare. Michael Whiteman, Joe’s partner, helped me out. He found it and another book called Bottoms Up, a collection of very classy female nudes and cocktail recipes gathered from the high-end cocktail lounges and hotel bars from around the world. Eventually, drawing from these, I put together 28 drinks. When the Rainbow opened, we didn’t use any pre-squeezed juice and no mixers. Everything was from scratch. But the drinks were so complicated, the poor bastards behind the bar wanted to find the nearest lamppost. Eventually I simplified the drinks.”
Baum: “What made Dale’s drinks special is that they were more accurate. They tasted the way they were meant to taste when they were created. Other places were adjusting for sweetness to make them ‘accessible.’ I think Joe was going for authenticity. And Dale responded.”
Mell: “Dale brought back the classic cocktail to the American palate. Dale is almost singularly responsible for that. Joe and Charles Baum and the other partners realized they had something special there. They were setting a trend. It was a mixture of New Yorkers and out-of-towners. Tourists and visitors from around the world would come there, but it wasn’t either an insiders bar or a tourists bar. Everybody was treated the same way, whether you came in for the first time. People would fly in from San Francisco or London or Dallas for the holidays. Dale would remember them.”
Baum: “In 1996, Jerry Speyer took over Rockefeller Center as the president of Tishman Speyer. We wanted to continue and the negotiations went on and on and on, as they do. But my father was very ill and I think they felt that if he wasn’t around to guide the ship, that it was going to be difficult to maintain the benefit to Rockefeller Center and for the bottom line to the landlords. My father passed in October of 1998 and Rainbow closed after New Year’s Eve. I think my dad knew and it didn’t help his health at all to know the days of Rainbow were numbered.”
Irving: “I remember the closing act was Lou Rawls. He was my closing act. He was here for one month prior to the restaurant closing. I just remembered the excitement of the city because everybody knew the Rainbow Room would never be the same, and of course it hasn’t been. The energy was still there. We still had a show to do. But the show was just bigger. The last night, we stayed up, and then most of us ended up at Hurley’s, the bar on the corner. (Now the Pebble Bar.)”
Baum: “The final New Year’s was very bittersweet. After Rainbow closed, I kept an office downtown at Windows on the World. All of my files of all my years there were incinerated on 9/11. [Rainbow’s closing] was tough but it was a chapter for all of us lucky enough to have worked there and have that daily and nightly experience. To have that in our hip pockets of memory is a wonderful thing.”
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