Still Rockin’ After All These Years

Pawling’s Towne Crier Café celebrates 35 years as a matchless musical showcase

Opening night, November 21, 1972. Just three years after Woodstock. A new music venue called Towne Crier Café, equal parts coffeehouse and hippie hangout, opens its doors in a former general store and stagecoach stop in Beekman. The first act: the Wretched Refuse String Band.

Not exactly Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

But a few weeks later, when an obscure English folksinger’s car broke down on the way to the gig, the club hosted the first of many more-celebrated performers. “This singer was friends with Pete Seeger,” owner Phil Ciganer remembers. “He hooked us up with Pete. So, by accident, in walks Mr. Folksinger himself. No one complained.”

And there have been few complaints in the 35 years since. In an industry where clubs come and go with the latest musical fad, the Towne Crier has a history that’s hard to match anywhere in the country.

The club was a hit early on. “People came out because it was the only venue of its type in the Valley,” Ciganer says. “They were curious.” And they were treated to some fine music. Ciganer, a former Wall Street trader, would seek out talent himself. “I designed the place in 1972 to be a place I wanted to go to. I ask myself, would I pay to see this person? If the answer is only maybe, I pass.”

Over the years, his taste has proved impeccable. Such performers as Leon Redbone, Suzanne Vega, and Shawn Colvin served as opening acts before they became household names. A teenage Béla Fleck ventured up from New York City to hone his banjo chops. These days, Ciganer loves playing musical matchmaker. “Pat Metheny and John Scofield came to me and asked to play together,” he says. “David Byrne and Richard Thompson collaborated. Just last week, John Sebastian was here, and Paul Shaffer jumped up on stage to do some old Lovin’ Spoonful. Then Will Lee from David Letterman’s band hopped up. That’s just what happens here all the time.”

Making a living in the music business is tough, Ciganer admits. He moved the club to its current, more spacious location near Pawling 19 years ago. The coffeehouse fare evolved to fine dining. European-trained Chef Erich Panhofer and Pastry Chef Mary Ciganer offer cuisine that’s a far cry from the herbal tea and brownies of the ’70s.

“The key to survival is that the club has adjusted with the times,” Ciganer says. And even though he has “broken 60,” he has adjusted as well. “Sometimes I ask myself how I could be doing it this long,” he admits, “but when people come out of the club walking on air, looking at me with joy in their eyes, I know why I am doing it.”

— David Levine