NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—If the old Court Tavern was run like a pirate ship, as characterized by one of its longtime employees last year, it sadly lost its beloved captain when former owner Bobby Albert passed away in May at the age of 63.
His passing comes at a time when the fate of the old rock and roll club is uncertain. It has sat idle since 2019, while the site of the demolished Ferren Mall and Parking Garage across the street has sat vacant, awaiting implementation of an ever-changing redevelopment plan.
Albert relinquished the Court Tavern in a 2012 forced auction, putting an end to his family’s ownership of it since 1961.
He came aboard in 1981 to help his father run things after the original tavern relocated across Church Street. The new Court Tavern soon became an oasis for the city’s nascent rock scene.
And while many could respectfully claim to be Albert’s first or second mate on the pirate ship, there was just one man who worked the plank that whole time, by whom all Court Tavern patrons had to pay tithe to enter the basement for a rock and roll bath: doorman Marc Lanzoff.
Lanzoff manned the hall for nearly thirty years, from roughly 1985 through 2012.
It wasn’t an easy job, and he didn’t often make it easy on others, either.
One band last year remembered him as “grumpy,” and “the cranky ass door guy.” They laughed about him getting pissed if they didn’t bring exact change.
But their other remembrance of Lanzoff was simply “historic.”
“I had a reputation there for being kind of a—I don’t know if you heard about that—kind of a scowly guy,” Lanzoff confessed to New Brunswick Today on July 31, on the phone from his home in Menlo Park.
But he’s not a scowly guy, this reporter countered.
“Nah, nah, not any place else,” he said. “It was just there.”
When he showed up last month at Pino’s in Highland Park, where 1990’s Court mainstays Buzzkill and Boss Jim Gettys performed a reunion show, Lanzoff greeted many of the guests as longtime friends, and they did the same to him.
“There were plenty of people I hadn’t seen since 2012, when the bar closed, so that was a very nice surprise to see them at Pino’s,” Lanzoff said.
“And that made me feel good, that people were glad to see me, because I had that reputation,” he giggled. “But everybody thought it was OK and they were glad to see me, which was very nice, very gratifying.”
Over the phone, Lanzoff frequently giggled about his reputation, and about some of the things he’d said and done at the Court, over a decade ago now.
Not just an essential part of the Court Tavern scene, Lanzoff was also somewhat of a Hub City man-about-town over the decades, living in many places in New Brunswick from about 1976 through 2017, he said.
He made dozens of cameos in the local Home News Tribune coverage, just by hanging around, it seems: working and acting at the George Street Playhouse in the 70’s (as “Officer Klein” in one play), offering political commentary from the train station, telling Mayor Lynch where he could stick his helicopter, cheering for Rutgers women’s basketball, and for his work at the Court Tavern and his parody band, the Punsters.
He was born in the early 1950’s in a military hospital in Virginia, another fact that made him chuckle, and said his father worked with the Pentagon. He and his family later settled in Old Bridge for about 10 years.
“I lived there until 1970, ‘71, and I hitchhiked around for a while, around the country, bumming around. And I ended up in New Brunswick, where a friend of mine from back in Old Bridge was living,” he said.
“So some of this is not very edifying on my part, I was a bum at the time, so you don’t have to put that in.” (It seemed essential.) “But I ended up in New Brunswick.”
He started hanging around at the Rutgers College radio station WRSU and met a couple important friends, including Michael Townsend and the writer Robert Kaplow.
Along with a few others, they formed the Punsters, which would go on to release cult classic comedy and parody records, and performed sketches that appeared on shows like Dr. Demento, WNEW’s Prisoners of Rock and Roll, and other NPR programming.
“We had a kind of pocket of following. Not very big, but it was a following,” Lanzoff said.
“We started playing around, doing a bunch of covers. There was a place called the Golden Spike in New Brunswick which doesn’t exist anymore. It was in a parking lot on what was—or what still is—Little Albany Street, so we played a couple of times there.”
Lanzoff had a knack for characterizations of singers like Bob Dylan, on “I Dreamt I Dreamt of Gefilte Fish,” from their album Songs With the Words ‘Gefilte Fish’ in the Title, and Bruce Springsteen on “Boardwalk Santa/Ghetto Santa.”
They released a mini-LP with help from the owner of Cheap Thrills record store, who financed the recording and pressing of a thousand records.
One record that sold a few years ago from Revilla Grooves & Gear in Milltown still had the Cheap Thrills price tag on it ($3.49). Another Punsters record was picked up by a fan in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
It was through the Punsters that Lanzoff got involved with the Court Tavern, sometime before 1985. “I became friendly with Bob [Albert], and he said, ‘You wanna do the door?’, and I said, ‘Ok, I will,’ and that was how it happened. That was it.”
For 27 continuous years, Lanzoff would be there on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as the occasional one-off show during the week.
“I would get there by 9:30 and set up my little table in the back. And when it was time, when they said it was open downstairs and they did their soundchecks, I would sit there from 10 ’til probably quarter after 1, something like that,” he said.
“And then I would pack up. I would give the money to the owner of the bar, and depending on where I lived, I walked home or I took a cab.”
He said he didn’t really hang out at the Court when he wasn’t working. “I didn’t drink alcohol, which was probably to my advantage, working with money. If I had been a drinker, I would have been terrible.”
At his workstation, he had a dry marker board behind him showing who was playing and how much money it was.
“There were two little boxes on either end of the dry erase board. It would say, ‘three bands,’ and on the other side it would say, ‘three chords,’” he laughed, poking fun at the extent of many a punk rock song.
“And I had a thought balloon over my head, where I had drawn a bed, and then the bed had a thought balloon, with a stick figure of me, so I was dreaming about going to sleep,” he laughed again.
About that reputation for being a scowly guy, he said it was really to help the bands.
“The bands didn’t get a lot. The most a band could make a night was maybe $100, cause there were three bands sometimes. So you try to [charge the admission fee] as long as you possibly can to make the most money,” he said.
People were always trying to get downstairs without paying, and as the evening went on and bands came off stage, he would still charge the full amount, which irked some, but never the bands.
He put grifters down sharply, was sarcastic with others.
“If people stood there for 2 minutes still looking at the sign, I said, ‘Listen, you’re not buying a car, what’s going on here?’” he giggled.
“I’d be nasty sometimes. Cause you’re just standing there and other people want to go in. If you don’t wanna go down, don’t go down, jeez, it’s not a big deal. That’s all. And it was a very small space, it was a landing on the stairs, there wasn’t very much room there,” he said.
“I had to deal with that crap all the time. I didn’t entertain people who were trying to be smart-assed with me.”
But it wasn’t just about refereeing smart-assery. For some patrons, Lanzoff’s ire was raised if they merely didn’t have exact change.
“I really flipped out when people gave me large bills,” he said, giggling again, “at the beginning of the evening, because they didn’t give me any change.”
He would have to abandon his post, slice through the crowd over to the bartenders and make change for the large bills.
The demand for exact change was notorious. A 2004 Home News Tribune report commended the late actor James Gandolfini, who while on a homecoming visit to his alma mater Rutgers made a pit stop in the Court Tavern basement.
“He paid and went down to see all the bands,” the report said. “He even had exact change for doorman Marc Lanzoff.”
So not even Tony Soprano could slip by Marc Lanzoff for free, with all the risks attending that.
As it goes at a bar, a lot of people drink and would then get ornery with him. But Lanzoff was unbreakable.
“A kind of embarrassing story I’ll tell you is a girl tried to get down without paying. And I said, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ So she pulled up her dress and flashed me, and she said, ‘can I get down there now?’
“And I said no,” he said, and paused for a laugh.
“That happened once,” he giggled. “So there you go.”
One good thing was there weren’t too many fights. He remembers that bartenders would cut people off before anything would happen, and doesn’t remember any blowouts.
“So I don’t know if it was a mellow place, but that kind of thing didn’t happen there,” he said. “It was a dive bar, so there wasn’t that pretension. It wasn’t like the Melody Bar which was kind of a shi-shi place. [The Court] was kind of a gutbucket place, you know.”
The Court Tavern and the Melody Bar presented different flavors in their 1980’s and 1990’s heydays.
The Melody Bar was New Wave-central in the ‘80s and continued its ‘80s-themed dance nights right up until the day it abruptly closed in 2001.
The 1980’s Court Tavern swung more towards the punk rock scene, and to the subsequent hard rock of the 1990’s.
But even in its home bar, certain styles wouldn’t go unremarked upon by the Court Tavern watchman.
“I would make fun of people who had sleeve tattoos,” Lanzoff said. “You know the sleeves, they have the whole arm tattooed. And sometimes I couldn’t find a place to put my stamp on because everything was covered. And I would look at them and say, ‘Your parents must be very proud.’ I would say those types of things,” he laughed.
“And people who had piercings all over their body, if they had a lot of piercings, I would say, ‘When you’re downstairs, be careful don’t get too close to the electromagnet down there,’ that kind of thing.”
Sometimes people were amused, and sometimes they weren’t. Not everyone who walked in the door could possess the stomach for that type of inquisition.
But this was the Court Tavern, where the motto was “Cruel But Fair,” after all.
Resolutely demanding his fees, and poking a little fun at patrons’ expense, that sounds like the right disposition for a door guy, especially at a gutbucket place like the Court Tavern, no?
“Well, I don’t think it was. Some people would argue against that, that I had the right disposition. But the moment I stopped working there, that second when I handed the box, I was fine, I would talk to people, and be fine,” Lanzoff said.
“But it was just there, I didn’t want to give up that thing and become a softie with people. Because then if I started with one, then there would be 10 people who didn’t pay to go downstairs, so that’s what it was.”
Well, it had to be some fun for the Punster, what with all the pranks, and the insults, yes?
“No! It wasn’t fun at all, it was for the money. I’d get paid for the weekend, you know, a hundred dollars for the two nights altogether, so that was good. That’s why I did it, it was a job,” said Lanzoff.
“I did like talking to certain people, the people I know. But most of the people just wanted to give you a hard time about paying to see a band. I dealt with that like twenty times a night, the same kind of people,” he said. “So you get really impatient with people like that. I was probably wrong, but I did.”
Twenty times a night, 100 nights a year, for 27 years, that’s something like 50,000 lifetime requests for a free pass downstairs. At $6 a pop, that comes to a pretty penny, that Lanzoff didn’t give away for free. That might help explain why Bobby Albert had his back all that time, keeping the same doorman for nearly three decades.
“He was annoyed with me, too… but he knew what I was doing was for the bands,” Lanzoff said of his former boss. “That’s what he understood, was that I wasn’t stealing money, I was doing it for the bands. And I think that some of the guys in the bands knew that that’s what the case was.”
A company man at a special place to be one, Lanzoff says nevertheless he tested Albert’s patience for being “so ornery.”
“People complained about me all the time. And he kept me there because he knew that I was there for the bands. And he sort of was amused by me, so there ya go. And his wife liked me, too, and the bartenders liked me, they all thought I was OK, ’cause I didn’t deal with them very much. But they were all good guys: Neil Burke and Seth Grodofsky… this guy Sluggo, Doug Vizthum, he was in a band called Bad Karma, he was a bartender there. Lot of good people.”
Lanzoff had other gigs in town, including from 1997 to 2007 at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, where he was a greeter, a patient escort, and an equipment wrangler, a job he really liked.
But he kept the Court Tavern job the longest, and he got to see some bands. Or at least hear them, while sitting at his station.
“I could always tell if the band was okay because the drummer was keeping time,” Lanzoff said. “If the drummer sucked, it didn’t matter what everybody else did if the drummer couldn’t keep time. I always noticed if the drummer was good or not.”
“I think that’s the most important thing. Most people forget that the most important thing in the band when you’re playing live, in a recording studio you can fix things, but when you’re live, if the engine is going right with the drummer, everything else just moves along fine,” he said.
He had plenty of favorites.
“They weren’t big anywhere, but I liked True Love, which was a trio. I liked their music. There was a band early on called Wooden Soldiers that I like,” he said.
“Who else?” he pondered. “I liked the drumming of the guy from Boss Jim Gettys, his name was Austin, I thought he was a very good drummer.”
Ween, from New Hope, Pennsylvania, played the Court Tavern pretty often when they first started, eventually pilfering a few of its staffers and musicians with them on tour.
“I wasn’t a big fan of theirs,” Lanzoff said. “But one of the guys from Ween liked our song ‘Jive in Jersey,’ he thought that was funny. Mickey I think his name is. I remember him liking our one song. I gave him a copy of one of our CD’s, the Steven Spielberg CD. I asked him what he thought of it, he goes, ‘“Jive in Jersey” was the bomb.’ And I said, ‘What do you think of the other stuff?’ and he goes ‘Ehh, it was ok. But I liked that song.’”
“By the way one of the funny stories about Ween was Phish covered one of their songs, I don’t know what it was, but it became a very popular song of Phish at concerts,” he laughed. “And I asked Mickey, that guy, I think it was Gene Ween, right, and he goes ‘Ah, I hate that band.’ So that was the ironic thing, they hated Phish cause they were kind of like a Deadhead group, but they covered one of their songs.”
He remembered Glen Burtnik, who played in the Slaves of New Brunswick and Styx, and Ben Vaughn, who ended up in Los Angeles and wrote the theme song to the sitcom Third Rock From the Sun.
“He was kind of a rockabilly, rudimentary. He had a song called ‘I Dig Your Wig,’ ‘I’ve Got a M-M-Motor Vehicle,’ kind of funny ironic songs, and he was a fan of [the Punsters] and I was a fan of his,” Lanzoff said.
“What was that band, shit, the band that Wayne Coyne fronted. They were kind of a psychedelic band that became very big nationally, they weren’t from New Jersey?”
The Flaming Lips. “Yeah, they played there once,” he said.
“Shades Apart had kind of a following. Towards the end of my working there, Gaslight Anthem, of course. Screaming Females, too. They got their start there at basement shows in people’s houses and they started at the Court Tavern and they’re quite well known now. I’m trying to think of who else…” he said.
“Oh, of course, the Smithereens, well they were very good friends, three of them were very good friends of mine. Pat DiNizio, he would say hi but he never really had much to say to me. But the other three guys were very nice guys,” he said.
“One of them, Jim Babjak, when [the Punsters] started out in 1980, he had a record store in town called Flamin’ Groovies and he let us sell one of our singles there. He’s a really nice guy. They all were, those three guys. Dennis [Diken], he and Mike Mesaros were the best. And they should have been bigger than they were.”
He remembered when one of the guys from ‘80s Philadelphia punks the Dead Milkmen played there once. “They had that song ‘Bitchin’ Camaro,’” a goofy number right up the Punsters’ alley.
Henry Rollins came up from Trenton once to perform his poetry.
“He got in trouble with the guy who booked City Gardens in Trenton,” Lanzoff said. “They threatened to never book him again if he played at the Court Tavern again, a small place like that, because they would lose business if he were doing that. I remember that was one of the things that happened. I wasn’t there that night for some reason.”
The Court Tavern and City Gardens were more contemporaries than rivals. For one thing, City Gardens, a former auto dealership building, regularly fit 500-600 people with room for several hundred more, while only 150 souls could cram into the Court Tavern basement.
City Gardens kicked the bucket in the late 1990’s. It tried new formats under different ownership until about 2001, but the building lies mostly in ruins today.
The dormant Court Tavern has faced the wrecking ball several times in its history.
The first Court Tavern was felled in 1981, making way for the since-demolished Ferren Mall and Parking Garage.
That diagonal move across Church Street, from the original 1902 location, was met with Bobby Albert coming aboard to help run the family business.
“That’s the one thing you had to say about Bobby Albert. He went in there not really wanting to run the bar,” Lanzoff said. “His father was having trouble with it after he opened it in the new place, and he asked him to work with him. And that’s when Bobby started bringing the bands in, when he was in his twenties.”
In 2001, the Court community rallied to survive another eminent domain attempt from the city, flooding an April City Council meeting with hundreds of dissenters, and saving the establishment from certain doom.
Getting through that bout compelled another thriving musical decade, despite constant scaffolding and construction affronts from its downtown neighbors. But the good times came to an end in its 30th year there.
“It was in February of 2012, I was walking by the bar when Bobby Albert told me, ‘It’s all over, I lost the bar,’” Lanzoff said.
“He hadn’t been paying his property taxes, stuff like that. He was in arrears for so many years, trying to make a go of it over at the bar. And the city didn’t want him there.”
Lanzoff’s tenure at the Court Tavern ended alongside Bobby Albert’s. “When the other guy bought the bar, he didn’t ask to bring anybody in, so that was it. He had his own people,” he said.
Lanzoff stayed in New Brunswick for another five years after the bar closed. He’s observed like many others how the old rock and roll club has floundered under the present ownership group in the decade since.
In 2017, Lanzoff talked politics with New Brunswick Today editor Charlie Kratovil, while going through some housing issues.
“I’ve had some personal problems,” Lanzoff said on the phone last month. “But I’ve ended up on the plus side.” He now lives in an apartment in nearby Menlo Park.
His interests these days are in film. He’s proud to own a credit on IMDB, the internet movie database, that marks another high point in his lifelong friendship with Punsters bandmate Robert Kaplow.
Kaplow had written a novel on Orson Welles, and Lanzoff believed he had found the perfect actor for it while watching a play up in New York.
Lanzoff personally connected that actor, Christian McKay, with Kaplow. Shortly thereafter director Richard Linklater was brought in, and the movie “Me and Orson Welles” was released in 2008, starring McKay as Welles along with Zac Efron and Claire Danes.
The credit Lanzoff wanted for finding the star of the movie was the title of “pre-production publicity,” and that’s where it landed. “At the end of the film, my name is there,” he said proudly.
“People still buy it on Amazon and iTunes and there are recent reviews of it, and they all mention that guy’s performance. And that’s because I found him, which is remarkable. I’m just this guy, and I was part of something that’s much bigger than myself, which is cool,” he said.
One could say the same thing about Lanzoff and the Court Tavern, and about many of its former staff and patrons: being part of something that was bigger than any one individual.
Ten years gone from Bobby Albert’s ownership, with the city’s rock scene largely underground, the Court community’s bonds are still apparent, as seen at the Pino’s show last month.
“It’s funny how that night, that Boss Jim Gettys was there and Buzzkill, there were a lot of people there for them,” Lanzoff said. “And that’s a testament to those people being friendly with each other, and also liking that music.” He thought the drummer of the first band, John Thumb Experience, another Court Tavern throwback, was great.
“I couldn’t stay the whole night because where I live, I don’t drive and I had to take a bus back to where I live here. So I was only able to see the first band,” he said.
“But I said hello to everybody, I tried to do that before I left.”
It’s likely that any hardened memories, whether from an old showdown over exact change or some sharp jest offered by the notorious Court Tavern doorman, have since given way to reverie.
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today.
In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists for his coverage of the music scene in New Brunswick, past and present.