"Unlicensed saloons in Pennsylvania are known as 'speak-easies'."They were "so called because of the practice of speaking quietly about such a place in public, or when inside it, so as not to alert the police or neighbors". The term is reported to have originated with saloon owner Kate Hester, who ran an unlicensed bar in the 1880s in the Pittsburgh area town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, often telling her rowdy customers to “speak easy."
Imagine if for one evening you could time travel to 1920's bar, casino and cabaret lounge illegally serving alcohol during Prohibition Era. The Speakeasy is an immersive, detailed venue depicting just that - the glamour, glitz, grit, and grime.
The whole experience begins with the entrance to the club. The entrance is kept conspicuously inconspicuous! You don’t learn where to meet until the day before the performance. An email instruction states to meet a man in a black hat near the Mee Mee Bakery on Broadway and Stockton, approach him and say the code phrase.
When we arrived, the street was deserted and dark and the bakery looked abandoned. It wasn't easy to notice a man standing in the corner dressed as 1920's Gangster mob in all black blending in with the dark. We approached him and asked if he knew where we could get a piece of a good pie. The men gave us a cold stare at first, then asked for our phones and asked to turn them off completely. We handed it to him. He placed our phones inside a sealed paper bag and gave it back. Bag's label reads, “Do Not Even Think About It”. When you have to put your phone away, you know you're in for some serious fun. After a pause the man in the black hat directed us to Sammy's Laundry just around the corner.
The entrance to Sammy's Laundry gave no hint as to what was waiting of us inside. Transformation to 1920's era begins as we walk down narrow staircase leading to the club below. Decorations and props resemble of an entrance to an illegal underground club. The door is covered with laundry sheets. People dressed in 1920's attire standing in line to get in.
To get inside we had to knock on the heavy wooden door. A man looked in the peephole then slammed it before opening the door to us. His name is Vinny. He is the owner of the club. He showed us to our table and asked to speak easy in a heavy Italian gangster style accent and manner.
As we sat at the bar multiple, different "storylines" were played by actors all around us. No main story, mainly character development and interaction. Some guests become part of the play. If you're game and you respond well or even take initiative with talking to cast members, then you can have some fun, unique "scenes". Velma (Megan Wicks) the cabaret’s lead chanteuse greeted everyone at the bar with her signature line, "Hey suckers!" before hitting those high notes.
After a few drinks, music and acting performances, we decided to move into the casino lounge. A large wooden bookshelf served as a secret passage to casino room. There you'll find a table of crops, roulette and a black jack. While playing, you maybe interrupted by a performance of the actors.
As you exit casino room you find yourself in the dark, narrow corridor facing the wall with tiny glass windows looking inside a small room where you witness a show between two actors while listening through the headset. Then you continue walking down the dark, narrow corridor and find yourself near a heavy, velvet drape. Behind that drape is a large Art Deco cabaret space. Big stage and orchestra, silly comedy routines, cabaret dancing, Velma the cabaret's leads chanteuse and live music.
But that's not all ladies and gentlemen. Follow a passageway behind the stage. Through one of many secret doors you'll encounter along the way, you’ll spy the cabaret’s dressing room through a two-way mirror; here, the performers you just saw onstage might touch up their makeup, gossip, brawl or pop pills in the dressing room.
Although you aren't allowed to bring your phone here to film, The Speakeasy provides a photographer who'll take photos of you inside. Price per photo $35. So don't worry you won't leave this place without memories. Oh yes, the exit. Ask someone with a feather on their jacket where the exit is and when you do, they'll lead you through a secret wall passage which will take you to a staircase leading you back to 2017!
After Nov. 26, The Speakeasy will go on hiatus, reopening on January 5, 2018 with a few new plot twists. In December, audiences can also look forward to a special presentation of The Kinsey Sicks and a New Year's Eve Party which also celebrates the opening of a new bar, the Gaslamp Lounge. More info is available here.
The Speakeasy: By Bennett Fisher and Nick A. Olivero. Directed by Michael French, Leah Gardner, Erin Gilley and Nick A. Olivero. Ongoing. Three hours, 30 minutes. $85-$130. Secret venue near North Beach and Chinatown, S.F.
Text: Juliet Belkin
Photos: Peter Liu