Joan Pantzer, the former showgirl who created what would become the Odeon, has died

Joan Pantzer, who with her husband, Arty, took over the Towers Cafeteria in the fifties, making it a hangout and haven for local artists, died on March 16. She was 94 (born on July 17, 1929) and had retired to Southern Vermont many years ago. Arnie died in 2012.

The Towers Cafeteria would become the Odeon nearly three decades later, when the space was taken over in 1980 to Lynn Wagenknecht, who still owns the Odeon, and brothers Brian and Keith McNally. There’s a rich Tribeca heritage here from one restaurant to the other, and not just in the neon signage on Thomas Street. Joan and Arty started it all.

The young Joan Carter was a showgirl from Queens performing on 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 told me when we met during covid — outside in Vermont, which did not phase her at all, even in her ballet flats. “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 West Broadway and the cafeteria in it, which Louis Panzer, Arty’s father, had opened in the 1930s. Towers was a union shop, but Arty’s parents 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 said. “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 retirement home in Winhall, VT, and finally her apartment in Manchester.

She had dozens of tales, but when we met and she let me review her old photos (and I will tell you that at 91, she made no concessions to age), 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 artist John Willenbecher, who still lives above the Odeon, was one of her first tenants in 1970. “She loved artists and encouraged them to live in the building,” John told me. “She was fun, easy-going and a cat lover (Mini, a black and white mouser, used to keep her company at the cash register). A few years ago Joan stopped coming to town from Vermont to visit but we kept in touch by telephone and email. She was sharp as a tack ’til the very end.”

The Pantzers sold the building when they sold the business, keeping just the smaller building next door. Her days of coming down to the city were past her four years ago — it was too much, she said, and while she liked reminiscing, she didn’t seem the type to get nostalgic. There was plenty of fun to be had in the here and now.

Joan said then 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 those 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.”

Joan is survived by her son Dennis Pantzer (Madeline), grandchildren Caroline (Josh) Feldman, Michael (Alyssa) Pantzer and grandchildren Piper Feldman and Jack Pantzer.



  1. Wonderful piece. Thanks for this.

  2. Thank you for sharing Pam!

  3. What a nice piece. I never knew the history and have been dining there for 30 years..thank you!

  4. Love both photos of her, and her-story!

  5. Brings back memories….thank you; this is a nice tribute to her and Arty, and of course iconic Towers!

  6. Beautiful piece, yes. Thank you. Always loving Odeon cafeteria, now we understand the feeling, the vibes every time we go in. The art spirit & the spirit of a strong woman live there.

  7. Thank you for writing this Pam!
    Joan was my landlord for 17 years (my architecture is firm next to the Odeon). She had a comical way of expressing life’s struggles, a no nonsense woman with a very big heart. She often shared with me her words of wisdom and always gave me her support. She me feel like family. I will dearly miss Joan.