Scranton speakeasy opens with jazz, burlesque
When the red light goes on, the night begins.
That signal, long tied to old-time bawdy houses and the city underworlds in which they operated, today announces that a new downtown hot spot is open for business.
Madame Jenny’s — with its vintage decor and seating and cabaret-style stage — will open Friday, April 26, in the former private event space at the rear of Ale Mary’s, 126 Franklin Ave., Scranton, and help usher in a new era of drinking, dining and entertainment in Scranton.
“When I first purchased the Bittenbender Building more than six years ago, I envisioned opening a gastro pub and a speakeasy from the start,” said the building’s developer, Arthur Russo. “Madame Jenny’s is the culmination of that original vision. It’s something unique not only in downtown Scranton but in the entire area. We’re able to do this now that someone like Wendy (Wilson) has come on board with me. It’s something an older (crowd) is looking for and a younger crowd will appreciate.”
Local musician Tyler Dempsey will lead the venue’s house band, Madame Jenny’s Jazz Orchestra, during Friday’s sneak peek, when guests can enter for free. The grand opening then will take place the next night, Saturday, April 27, when Tansy Burlesque Troupe out of New York City comes to town. Doors open at 8 p.m., and the show starts at 9. Tickets start at $35 and are available on Madame Jenny’s website.
Wilson, the venue’s hospitality director, hopes the speakeasy will attract locals as well as people from the Lehigh Valley and the Poconos.
“We’re putting together a lot of incredible programs,” she said.
Russo previously converted the building’s upper levels into apartments and established bar/restaurant Ale Mary’s on the ground floor. He and Wilson, a longtime friend, had wanted to work together on a project for many years and finally united for the speakeasy. Joined in the project by Russo’s son, Zach, the group named the space for Jennie Duffy, who operated a bawdy house in Scranton for many years in the early 20th century. They renovated the space to reflect the style of the 1920s, the height of the Prohibition Era in which more than 150 speakeasies sprang up in Scranton, Wilson said.
“There’s honestly nothing around like this,” Zach Russo said.
Deep-red walls and dark wood envelope the room, which features a stage perfectly sized for small ensembles at one end and a bar to one side, all with vintage lighting, seating and glassware originally from the historic Waldorf Astoria hotel.
“Arthur, who is an aficionado of all things classic architecture, was able to get this through auction,” Wilson said.
In front of the stage, they set small tables, while larger booths and tables reach to the back of the room. Wilson said they envision guests being able to reserve the stage-side tables for an additional cost during some performances. But the venue also can arrange tables and chairs to accommodate various types of private events, including weddings and showers.
An adjacent lounge, meanwhile, boasts leather-inspired walls and a bar and will serve as another event space to complement the main room. If that main room is hosting an event, for example, guests can gather in the lounge until the main room is cleared for the next one, Wilson said.
Madame Jenny’s will open Wednesdays through Saturdays at 5 p.m. with entertainment beginning around 6 or 6:30, Wilson said, and it will follow what the crowd demands in terms of how late it stays open. The venue will accept reservations.
Guests can enter Madame Jenny’s through Ale Mary’s and into the outer lounge, where an old vault door from the property will lead them through a hallway designed to feel like a back alley taking them to a hidden speakeasy. Or, guests can come through a door in Raymond Court, the alley behind the Bittenbender. Both doors will have a red light outside them that, when lit, will let guests know Madame Jenny’s is open for business.
All that jazz and more
Wilson expects to bring in not only musicians but also stand-up comedians and burlesque, and with Jenny’s just a two-hour drive from New York City, it could attract national acts, too. She sees it as a revival of the old adage that if you can play Scranton, you can play anywhere. The venue’s soft opening earlier in April, for instance, featured an Édith Piaf-inspired ensemble featuring members of the touring “The King and I” production in its debut performance.
“The audiences here love these artists, and that inspires them,” she said, noting that out-of-town performers can stay overnight in an apartment above the venue.
Madame Jenny’s “goes hand in hand” with jazz, Dempsey said, who expects his group to perform a mix of jazz styles, from classic piano trio songs to New Orleans-influenced tunes on Friday nights.
“As soon as I was in and saw the stage and the space, I was thrilled. … It feels like a concert atmosphere,” he said. “(It) feels like a listening room.”
Madame Jenny’s will share a kitchen with Ale Mary’s, and Chef James Bodnar has crafted a French-inspired menu of small plates to compliment what Wilson called the classy, classic cocktails Madame Jenny’s bar will serve.
“We want someone to come in here and have the best Manhattan they’ve ever had in their life,” she said.
Zach Russo noted that they have named drinks after “people of the time,” such as other local madams and the Scranton mayor who led the shutdown of speakeasies and bawdy houses. They want Madame Jenny’s to complement Ale Mary’s, he added, with mixed drinks in the speakeasy and craft beer in the restaurant up front.
Wilson said she has been “so impressed” by the people who already found Jenny’s through social media and word of mouth. And seeing people gather for the soft opening brought tears to everyone’s eyes, she said.
“Once (my father) actually saw everybody sitting down, watching the show, seeing what we had on stage, he was blown away,” Zach Russo said.
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