Tony Lip, a nightclub-employee-turned-character-actor known for his mob roles who appeared in The Godfather among other films, has died at 82 in Paramus, NJ as reported by Evonne Coutros for The Record.
Lip worked in a string of mobbed-up Times Square joints including as a bouncer at The Wagon Wheel and Peppermint Lounge which were secretly owned by Genovese capo Johnny "Futto" Biello until 1965 when Genovese capo Matty Ianniello took them over, and then at the Copacabana where he eventually became general manager and was discovered by director Francis Ford Coppola and casting director Louis DiGiamo.
The Wagon Wheel at 114 West 45th Street was a sailor-bar-turned-rock-club which by the mid-1960s under Ianniello's stewardship allegedly also became a gay hustler bar which "seemed to court trouble," and historian and playwright Martin Duberman recounts the rough trade there in his 2002 memoir Cures: A Gay Man's Odyssey:
Only the front bar was considered hustler territory, and even there the mix was uncertain and volatile; the tough young hood sweet-talking an older man one minute might the next disappear with some stringy-haired blonde woman into the straight dancing area at the back of the bar and spoon away the night. If the unlucky older man experienced disappointment, he could console himself by remembering the beatings and robbery rumored to befall "lucky" patrons who succeeded in bringing one of the young toughs home.
According to Duberman dates between hustlers and johns at The Wagon Wheel were arranged by "a curly-haired young Italian guy," and he writes:
It turned out he got his kicks in life, and part of his income, from fixing people up. He combined the tastes of a madame and an entrepreneur and, not incidentally, got the side pleasure of enticing some of the more reluctant studs into his own bed, free of charge, by promising to fix them up with prosperous older men. "Clearly," he said, with a winsome grin, "you aren't an older man -- at least not old enough to be prosperous enough. Unless you got some inherited money. Do you?" I explained my limited means, gave him an ingratiating Tom Sawyer account of my life as a struggling writer, and kept mum about my academic credentials. He excused himself for a few minutes and then reappeared with "Ned" in tow. * * * Ned, at first glance, was no more than eighteen, and since physical culture was not in the sixties an established art form, I couldn't imagine at which temple of the imagination this astonishing-looking young man burned his devotional candles.
The Peppermint Lounge at 128 West 45th Street of course was where the popular dance the Twist was created, and until the place was discovered by slummers from high society in late 1961 was just another Times Square dive bar which also served as "the headquarters and hangout for Biello and his men, who operated loan sharking and gambling rackets out of the back room" according to John Johnson Jr. and Joel Selvin in their new book Peppermint Twist. The authors state that Biello took over the premises from his pal Sibbey Mamone who had to go on the lam in early 1958, and at the time it was a sailor bar dubbed the Gangpank after Mamone's prior venture in the space, a gay bar named Harry and Larry's, was shut down for a scandal involving a U.S. Senator's son. Biello renamed the place as The Peppermint Lounge with the hope of drawing young rockers, and in Turn the Beat Around disco historian Peter Shapiro claims the following: "In 1961, the New York Press started to report that celebrities like Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward, and Marilyn Monroe had been spotted doing the twist at this seedy sailor bar and gay pickup joint attached to the Knickerbocker Hotel."
Although The Wagon Wheel and The Peppermint Lounge at various periods over their histories apparently had a gay trade the owners, management and staff during these periods invariably were straight. Indeed, there may not have even been a gay customer base at either the Wagon Wheel or the Peppermint Lounge during their earliest years when Lip worked there as a bouncer. Lip must have been tough enough to work as a bouncer at the Peppermint Lounge which typically hired hulking ex-pro wrestlers with names like The Terrible Turk and The Bull.
Johnny Biello was whacked on orders of Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno in 1967, and Matty Ianniello, convicted in 1985 with several associates for skimming profits from various incarnations of The Peppermint Lounge and several other establishments including gay hustler bar the Haymarket, died earlier this year.
Apparently folks never tired of hearing Lip's stories from the club days: "Lip said at his 80th birthday party in August 2010 that people craved hearing about the celebrities he met while working at the Copa — especially if they were gangsters or touched by scandal."