62 West Ninth Street
New York, NY
Many performers got their start in the bohemian community of New York City’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s: Bob Dylan, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Woody Allen, and Joan Rivers. A new musical, The Fantasticks, was also garnering attention at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a small off-Broadway theater in The Village.
The Lion was a gay bar located in The Village at West Ninth Street on the ground floor of a typical New York brownstone.
Barbra's friend from those early days, Barry Dennen, lived in an apartment at 69 West 9th Street—right across the street from The Lion. He wrote in his memoir:
The Lion was not, as some reports would have it, a dive. It was very upscale, and all the men packed into the front bar wore jackets and ties. They had to, so as not to attract the undue attention of the police on the streets even though, on any given night, there was likely to be a cop in The Lion's rather nice dining room at the rear, cadging a free meal. On Tuesday nights, I discovered, they held a talent contest back there that was supposed to be a hoot.
Barbra participated in The Lion's contest because she was “out of money and out of work,” she said. “And then I entered this talent contest in a bar in Greenwich Village. Not as an actress though. As a singer— even though I’d never had a lesson.
“My unemployment insurance was up and though I’d never sung anyplace or done anything, I decided to try,” Streisand stated.
Barry Dennen told Just Like Buttah magazine: “What I did was really just help Barbra to get out in front of audiences, which is a very tough thing to do, and to sing in front of an audience, which is something she had never done in public before. And the way I did that was I knew that Barbra would respond to the idea that she was donning a character. So what I did for her was to help her create a character and a set of images that she could use to run through her brain while she was singing and use that stuff for the performing of the number.”
The Lion had a back room “where there was a little area that acted as a kind of stage, with the piano backed up at one end and the audience sitting at tables all around it,” Dennen explained.
Another of Barbra's friends during that time, Terry Leong, helped design Streisand's wardrobe. In the mid-1990s he sketched his early Streisand costumes, which she acquired at thrift stores. Above left: A 1900 bodice of jet and gunmetal sequins on black lace, with a black velvet skirt; Center: a feathered bed jacket in shades of purple from the 1920's (this is the outfit they say Streisand wore on her first evening at The Lion); Right: a fitted bodice, full sleeves falling into a surplus back, fastened by ruby and rhinestone brooch with a silk ottoman skirt.
The talent contest began at 11 p.m. Dennen wrote that it was a crowded weekday evening—Barbra competed against a couple of comics and a jazz singer named Dawn Hampton. Accompanied by pianist Patrick McElligott (“Patty at the Piano”), Barbra sang “A Sleepin’ Bee” that night and wowed the audience — “utter silence,” Barry Dennen wrote. “There was a breathless pause. The audience was dead still, frozen in time [...] and then suddenly the whole room crashed into applause, an eruption of yells and whistles, ear-shattering stomping and screaming. They wanted another song!”
She launched into the second number she'd rehearsed (“When Sunny Gets Blue”) and, as told by Barry Dennen, she walked through the crowd with the microphone.
Barbra won the $50 prize, and was invited back the next week to compete again against gay comedian Mal James (née Michael Greer) and eccentric singer Tiny Tim. “As I remember,” Greer told author James Spada, “she wore a tiny high-heeled shoe in her hair because she liked the rhinestones in it.”
She performed at The Lion on Mondays and Saturdays, and she changed her name from Barbara to Barbra. During her Timeless concerts in 2000, Barbra said she was “making fifty dollars a week and all the London Broil I could eat.”
The owner of The Lion, Burke McHugh, told writer Randall Riese that “there was definitely a buzz about Barbra. It started that first night at the Lion. A lot of agents came down to see her. Noel Coward saw her at the Lion.”
Streisand added “Why Try To Change Me Now” (by Cy Coleman and Joseph Allan McCarthy) and “Long Ago and Far Away” (Kern/Gershwin) to her act at The Lion. Her good friend Cis Corman came down to see her perform, as did actors Orson Bean and Paul Dooley. Barbra said: “Joel Schumacher, the director, said he was a waiter there when I was there.”
Bob Schulenberg, a talented illustrator, met Streisand on July 1, 1960. In the 2005 edition of New York Social Diary, he recalled his first meeting with her:
I turned around and there was this very exotic looking creature wearing a kind of lurex-y jacket of red and silver metallic threads and huge Elizabethan sleeves that puffed out, and underneath she had on a mulberry velvet short skirt about an inch and a half above the knee (minis didn’t come in to fashion for about another five years). She was carrying shopping bags stuffed with clothing – feathers, a beautiful lavender feather coat.
“When I won my first talent contest at the Lion,” Streisand said, “I didn’t realize it was a gay bar. Cis [Corman] came opening night after I’d won and I said to her, ‘Why are we the only women here?’ She laughed and told me where we were.”
With her success at The Lion, Barbra was then able to perform at a bigger club around the corner: The Bon Soir.
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