Saturday, May 26, 2018
News Roundup

John McMahon, popular bartender of Old New York, New York, dies at 63

CLEARWATER — For nearly 30 years, the Old New York, New York Niteclub drew a loyal clientele of transplants and Florida natives, seasonal visitors and drivers who just happened to notice its apple-shaped sign on U.S. 19 N.

Behind the bar with which he was one (he called it "my wood"), John McMahon drew from the well of an elephantine memory. He remembered names and the drinks that went with them. He could compete with whoever was playing Jeopardy! on television or tell you who won the 1951 World Series (the New York Yankees).

At home he read the newspaper from front to back, made snacks for the kids when they came home from school and then headed to work.

New York, New York catered to an older crowd, if only because the same people spent the better part of 30 years there. The club offered a ladies' night every Wednesday, live music on Thursdays and dance parties Fridays and Saturdays.

On Jan. 27, 1991, the busiest night in New York, New York's history, Mr. McMahon worked full-speed for several hours as fans of both the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants called out drink orders during Super Bowl XXV. He stayed on until the club's closing in 2012.

Mr. McMahon, who went out of his way to help customers and co-workers for 35 years, including nearly 28 years at New York, New York — believed to be the longest-running nightclub in Clearwater — died April 1 of a neuroendocrine cancer. He was 63.

Bartending is an art. You have to do about five things at once and make it look easy.

"You carry on a conversation that seemingly never stops for years," said Alan Engelstad, 49, who tended bar at New York, New York for 25 years. "We had people that come down seasonally but you remember what they drank, you continue your conversation. You never really say goodbye."

Mr. McMahon started at New York, New York at 18573 U.S. 19 N not long after its opening in 1984. He took a brief break but was back for good by 1986.

Co-workers knew him as the one likeliest to organize a cash drive if any of them were in the hospital or needed a plane ticket to an out-of-state funeral.

"One time a woman came in for the first time," said Jimmie Bonbright, 77, who owned the club from 1991 to its closing. "One of her kids had been killed. She sat at John's station.

"Six months later she came back in. John remembered her name and what she drank. She kept coming back ever since."

John Kevin McMahon was born and raised in the Niagara Falls area of New York. He graduated from Niagara University with an English degree, but preferred tending bar to any other job.

Mr. McMahon worked at the Pierce Arrow Bar and Grill, an upscale bar in Buffalo. After moving to Clearwater in the early 1980s, he lured former Pierce Arrow bartender Ronnie Scrinzi to join him at New York, New York.

The two friends bought a house, the site of memorable parties — including one that lasted three days, to which male and female guests arrived wearing boxer shorts and bow ties.

"He used to tell me, 'The odds of a single guy getting married over 40 are 1 in 1,000," said Scrinzi, 56. In 1993, Mr. McMahon, then 42, and Debbie Gorby were married in the back yard by a notary.

The bartenders saw customers get married and sometimes served as pall bearers at their funerals. Business held on, even as U.S. 19 was being overhauled. But owner Bonbright, who had tried to buy the property several times, was unable to escape a land lease. On its closing night, June 2, 2012, customers lined up outside to say farewell.

Mr. McMahon, who had by then been diagnosed with cancer, put his listening skills to work for the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 250 people attended his funeral on April 5, many of them former customers from other states.

Now the man is gone, but those who remember him continue an endless conversation.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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