Catching Up With: Joan Pantzer

I had the good luck to meet up with Joan Pantzer in Manchester, Vermont, last week — we both nearly froze sitting outside for a chat in the North Country in January. But it was worth the chill to meet her in person finally, after sharing many recollections over email.

She is every bit the animated and dynamic woman I had heard about, and at 91 she gives few concessions to age. I wanted to hear the origin story of Towers Cafeteria, which she and her husband, Arty, sold in 1980 to Brian and Keith McNally and Lynn Wagenknecht, who then created The Odeon. There’s a Tribeca heritage here from one restaurant to the other, and not just in the neon signage on Thomas Street.

The young Joan Carter was a showgirl from Queens doing the club circuit in the ’40s — New York, Vegas, Miami, Cuba — leaving her young son at home with her mother in Richmond Hill. It was at a club in Miami that she met Arthur Pantzer, known better as Arty; they married not long after in 1950.

“I was an Irish Catholic, divorced with a kid,” she said. “He was a Jewish Park Avenue guy. You’d think it would ever work?”

The pair returned to New York and his family made it clear that her showgirl days were over. But there’s was no way, she said, she could just “sit home and do nothing.” At that point, Arty had never worked — he didn’t need to — but the family owned several buildings in Tribeca, including 145 W. Broadway and the cafeteria in it, which Louis Panzer, Arty’s father, had opened in the 1930s. Towers was a union shop, but the Pantzers agreed that when the cashier left, Joan could have the job. She and Arty then took what was a lunch spot for local workers and, as residents started to come to the neighborhood in the ’70s, turned it into a haven for local artists.

“I took the energy of a dancer and put it into the cafeteria,” Joan says now. “It was a businessman’s spot and it was like I was on stage all the time. It was a lot of fun.”

As more and more artists became regulars, Joan had one wall of windows filled in so she could host small shows. She and Arty converted apartments out of the floors above the cafeteria, making them affordable for artists. She also bartered: food for art. The work of Susan Rothenberg, John Willenbecher and Rand Hardy covered the walls of the couple’s original apartment at 11 E. 86th St., then their house in Winhall, VT, and now her apartment in Manchester.

She has dozens of tales, but one particular snapshot reminded her of the time the sculptor Richard Serra, who lives on Duane Street, wiped the glasses and plates off a table in a fit of rage during argument with Arty. “That’s it,” Joan told him, “you’re barred for life!” But two weeks later, Philip Glass came by, pleading the case for Serra to return, as Serra stood across the street outside on the corner. “I said alright. But he better behave himself.”

The Pantzers sold the building when they sold the business, and while Joan still owns the smaller building next door, at 141, she says her days coming down to the city are past her. It’s too much, she said, and she doesn’t seem the type to get nostalgic. There’s plenty of fun to be had in the here and now.

Joan says it was not hard to let the Towers go. She and Arty spent the decades to follow skiing (Joan at one point was a top ski racer in the over-60 class) and travelling until his death in 2012 at the age of 86. Over 62 years they had some real adventures, and left their mark here on the neighborhood along the way. “He was a great guy,” she said. “Much nicer than me. I was always the loud mouth. But we had a great time.”


 

20 Comments

  1. I absolutely love this story. What great history!

  2. Such a good story. Thank you

  3. Thank you for this! What a lovely backstory to a cherished neighborhood institution.

  4. Great story and pics. Bravo !

  5. Don’t know what Alvin and I would have done without Towers!

  6. Beautiful. Heart & history. Thanks Pam.
    Warmed this freezing air as I was transported back to that corner of the neighborhood and best knowing The Odeon can hold a vib.
    Sounds like a wonderful art collection!

  7. Loved this story, thank you so much for sharing.

  8. What a charming woman with an interesting past. A former showgirl now in Manchester, Vermont! Manchester is lovely but so different from Manhattan. As I remember it from when I visited Manchester, there was a large independent bookstore and restaurant in Manchester — the real heart of the town that was a community gathering place. Hope it is still there and hope she has occasion to pass the time there.

    • Pam! Wonderful post! These photos and the history Joan shared are priceless. I hope she’s happy in Manchester. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there and it’s lovely…and a perfect counterpoint to busy Manhattan. And Jane Slavin: Yes: Northshire Bookstore there is magical!

  9. Spent many a morning in the Towers with my Times and poached eggs, listening to Joan and Artie’s banter and feeling connected to a neighborhood through them. Thank you to Joan and Pam for the memories!!

  10. What a fascinating history! I loved reading this.

  11. what a treat of a story. So wonderful to see old pics of the hood and relish their history. Just fantastic Pam, Thank you!

  12. Love this story. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. Heart-warming story. Thanks Pam!

  14. Joan is a hoot,she’s the real deal. They don’t make them like her anymore.

  15. Great article! I’m glad The Odeon still thrives, most of those from the 70’s and 80’s are gone. Like Market Diner, Teddy’s, Hamburger Harry’s, How’s Bayou, Tommy Tangs, Delphi, Riverrun, Bouley, so many.
    Again, great article of history and nostalgia .Viva L’Odeon

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