A group of bar regulars is asking for help to forestall yet another pandemic-driven closing of an institution near and dear to so many: Oakland’s historic Alley piano bar. The timeless Alley, the third oldest bar in Oakland, has been at 3325 Grand Ave. since 1933, but with the pandemic keeping its doors closed, its owner since 2009, Jacqualine Simpkins, says it is on the brink of closure.
The dedicated, die-hard Alley community has been meeting via social media, including through live, virtual events, to sing and stay connected ever since the piano bar closed in March. Through the long months of the pandemic, Alley regular Rachel Howard says, the fellow fans and singers got to know each other better and, once the situation turned dire, the Alley Preservation Society was born. Alley pianist Bryan Seet, along with Howard and another Alley supporter, Dave Schweisguth, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $75,000 to keep the bar afloat for the next five to six months. That money will go to pay the Alley’s mortgage, property tax and utilities. As of publication, the campaign has raised more than $58,000.
Everyone involved in the effort to save the Alley hopes the East Bay community will step in to help preserve this colorful, historic, dive hangout — the only holdout remaining from the lively East Bay piano bar scene of long ago. Along with the GoFundMe campaign, the group plans to host a live online event and auction in February.
One local fan who’s been sounding the alert for saving The Alley is writer, producer Rafael Casal, whose 2018 film with fellow Berkeley High grad Daveed Diggs, “Blindspotting,” featured the bar, and introduced a whole new audience outside of Oakland to the place once known as “the most Bohemian bistro in the whole Bay Area.”
In recent days, Casal shared word of the Alley’s fundraiser on Instagram, and on Twitter wrote: “Save all Bay Area local landmarks and waterholes at all cost. The culture. From gentrification, from this pandemic, from a corrupt government that refuses to save working class people and businesses from a problem officials denied, downplayed, neglected and then profited from.”
Even before “Blindspotting,” the Alley attracted tourists from all over. As owner Simpkins told Nosh in a previous interview, “We’re listed in guidebooks!” Known far and wide as a dive bar with a colorful history, the Alley also created a community of sorts for old and young alike. There is something about gathering around a piano to sing that helps form relationships.
In fact, Howard became best friends with another Alley devotee, an elderly gentleman she met at the bar several years ago when he was 90 years old.
“He died in 2016, aged 97. I miss him so much. I used to take him every Thursday night,” Howard said.
(Note: Coincidentally, the same gentleman struck up a conversation with this reporter at the piano bar, the one time I got up the nerve to sing with longtime Alley pianist, the late, great Rod Dibble. Friendships form easily at the Alley.)
Generations of visitors have literally left their mark on the Alley’s walls — with business cards, carved initials, and memorabilia — that all adds to the “ramshackle roadhouse look” of the joint. The building was designed by a well-known architect, Francis Harvey Slocombe, a master of the Period Revival and Moderne styles of architecture. But there is nothing like the Alley’s “Berkeley eclectic” façade anywhere else around; the Oakland Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board designated the Alley as a Heritage Property in 2016.
Simpkins will eventually need to update the building to meet Alameda County building codes, renovations that will cost about $100,000, according to the organizers of the GoFundMe campaign. They say that funds raised over the campaign’s $75,000 goal will be used for this purpose.
No one knows what, if anything, will need to change about the Alley in the future, but the important thing is that it has a future.
As the old Peter Allen tune “Everything Old is New Again” — a song that might’ve been in Rod Dibble’s songbook — says:
“Don’t throw the past away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again”