RED HOOK — Legendary bar owner Sunny Balzano, the man behind Red Hook's iconic waterfront tavern Sunny's Bar, has died, friends and family say.
Born and raised in Red Hook, Balzano's storied life has been the subject of books, documentaries, news features and even an episode of chef Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" cable TV show.
His waterfront bar at 253 Conover St. once served legions of longshoremen who worked nearby on the docks and has since turned into one of Brooklyn's most iconic dive bars.
Balzano, 81, was taken off life support Thursday after he suffered a stroke earlier in the week and collapsed, according to Gothamist.
Sunny's Bar looks largely unchanged in appearance since his family opened the bar in 1890 and Balzano wanted to keep it that way, he told Bourdain during an episode of the travel show. Bourdain imagines solicitors urging Balzano to turn the old-world space into a restaurant or lounge.
“Tony once a month there are people who come through. You know it pisses me off when they do,” Balzano said. “Because they got ideas to do things with this place that has nothing to do with what it is or isn’t about.”
“You walk through. You can feel the history of time.”
In October 2012, Sunny's Bar was forced to close for almost a year after extensive flooding from Hurricane Sandy caused structural and electrical damage.
Ten months later, it finally reopened and the neighborhood rejoiced.
At the celebration in August 2013, Balzano and his wife, Tone Johansen, thanked friends and neighbors for the support during their efforts to bring the bar back to life.
"It's what all of you have done and I thank you for it," Balzano said at the time.
To say Balzano led a colorful life would be an understatement.
In a documentary that explored his life, filmmaker James Reid captured some of Balzano's wild stories, including being held at gunpoint and partying with Andy Warhol.
Most recently, Balzano was the focus of a new book released last month, "Sunny's Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World".
In an editorial for the New York Times, author Tim Sultan recalled Balzano as a painter, actor and "reluctant heir to the family business."
Despite being open only one night a week for years, Sunny's Bar thrived and drew patrons from across the city to Red Hook when gentrification in the neighborhood still seemed a long way off, he writes.
In his later years, Balzano was less involved in the bar's daily operations.
Once news of Balzano's death spread Friday morning, patrons, well-wishers, Red Hook residents and longtime friends mourned his loss.
#SunnyBalzano has died, owner & heart of 1 of City's great bars. Kind of character that made NYC great. Once plentiful, now in short supply.— Robert O. Simonson (@RobertOSimonson) March 11, 2016
This evening my Father passed on to join the collective universe after 81 vibrant years. Saying "rest in peace" for this truly legendary man seems somewhat unfitting, I think something like "OFF INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER" is much more like it. If you are curious to know more about my dad and his amazing life, just google him. I promise you will not be bored. I love you DAD! TO SUNNY 🍻 #sunnybalzano #stillmorelegitthanbalzano
I was at Sunny Balzano's bar the last two nights. I'm reading a book about his bar right now. This is a gut punch. https://t.co/Gq3c72shzA— SoheilRezayazdi (@SoheilNY) March 11, 2016