The truth be known, Gennaro Rovito wasn’t a big disco fan. Nor did he fancy punk rock. He was a classical music fan.
“It took me two years to convince him that it was the way to go,” said Rich Rovito, the son of the famed Weehawken bar/nightclub owner, who died last week after a long illness. “He wanted to keep it a bar and catering hall. My brother [Tom] and I worked on him constantly to turn it into a nightclub. We knew that we could make money that way.”
Rich Rovito remembered the date that the bar became a nightclub.
“December 15, 1978,” Rovito said. “We got off to a slow start.”
However, as the disco craze grew, so did the popularity of “Gennaro’s,” near the town’s border with Hoboken. Gennaro’s became a fixture in the Weehawken Shades and remained there for more than 25 years. Its 30-foot sign was the first thing that people noticed as they crossed over the Willow Avenue Bridge out of Hoboken. When disco was hot, Gennaro’s was hotter. When punk rock became the fad, Gennaro’s followed right along. Every Friday and Saturday night became an event, with avid nightclub goers flocking to Weehawken to get a piece of the action.
Sly Stallone walked in
“From 1978 through 1986, every weekend night was standing room only,” Rich Rovito said. “We went through all the phases, from disco to punk to live music.”
Not only was Gennaro’s the most popular music night spot in northern New Jersey, but it was also the location for several movies in that era, like “Deconstructing Harry,” starring and directed by Woody Allen; “Streets of Gold,” with Klaus Maria Brandauer and Wesley Snipes, and “The Color of Money,” the movie that gave Paul Newman his one and only Academy Award.
There was one day in the early 1980s when a familiar face walked into Gennaro’s to see if it could be used for a movie that he was directing, entitled “Nighthawks.” The face belonged to Sylvester Stallone.
“He wanted to see if he could used it for a location shoot,” Rich Rovito recalled.
“My dad and mom met him,” said daughter Marianne Lorenz. “And no one even bothered to call me. Sylvester Stallone was in my father’s bar and no one called me.”
As it turned out, Stallone couldn’t use Gennaro’s, but the story just adds to the legacy of the place and to the man who owned it.
Gennaro Rovito was more than just a business owner. He was all about Weehawken. The eldest of 10 siblings, Rovito was a lifelong resident and a dedicated public servant to the town, serving on the Board of Education for nine years and as board president for two years.
Rovito was also a charter member of the township’s Housing Authority and also served several terms on the Weehawken Parking Authority. Rovito was also a dedicated Boy Scout leader for more than 20 years.
“He’s always going to be remembered as ‘Mr. Weehawken,'” said son Tom Rovito. “It’s where he lived and breathed. He was the unofficial mayor of ‘The Shades.’ Everyone knew him and everyone loved him.”
“He loved Weehawken,” Marianne Lorenz said. “He wanted to come out of the hospital and die in Weehawken as well, because he was born here. His mother was born here. He was proud to be from Weehawken.”
Rovito was a veteran of World War II. During the war, Rovito was a staff sergeant in the United States Army, serving from 1941 to 1945, and fought in Africa, Salerno, Anzio and Monte Casino, Italy, and in France and Germany. He was wounded twice in battle and presented with two Purple Hearts.
Rovito also held many jobs during his lifetime. When he returned from the war, he worked in the Hoboken shipyards and had a stint as a Weehawken firefighter. He then spent many years working for Public Service Electric & Gas as a lineman and was a union representative for PSEG, before retiring in 1970.
“He always had a civic sense and was willing to stick up for the little guy,” Tom Rovito recalled.
Gennaro Rovito even sought public office in Weehawken on two separate occasions, running for a seat on the old Board of Commissioners in the 1950s and again in 1981, falling short both times.
“He always wanted to do what was good for Weehawken, especially for the kids,” Marianne Lorenz said. “He was insistent on the town giving jobs to kids in the summer, to keep them busy and out of trouble.”
After retiring from PSE&G in 1970, Gennaro Rovito first turned his property in the Shades section into an auto body and auto repair shop.
“Before it became Gennaro’s, there were 10 garage bays there,” Tom Rovito said. “He taught us all how to fix cars.”
“Before I could drive,” Marianne Lorenz said, “I had to learn how to fix a car.”
But the desire to own a bar was always there for Gennaro Rovito.
“He always wanted to own a bar and cook for everyone,” Marianne Lorenz said. “So he converted the garages into a bar and catering hall.”
And the catering hall became a nightclub in the late 1970s, eventually becoming the most popular disco nightspot in all of northern New Jersey.
“The thing he liked about it when it got busy was that he was able to make pizza for the people who came to the club,” Marianne Lorenz said. “People would line up in the alleyway for the pizza. He made memories there.” In later years, Rovito would use the bar, which became a Shades neighborhood staple in the years prior to its closing last June, as a sounding board to tell his many stories.
“That’s my lasting memory of dad, him telling his stories about his war accomplishments,” Rich Rovito said. “He always spoke about what he did in the war. The bar was like his personal preaching place. People said that they would come in just to hear dad’s stories. But they weren’t stories. They were experiences and they were all true. Sometimes, we’d hear the same stories like 10 times and they were always the same.
Added Rich Rovito, “The stories weren’t embellished. He said that he told it like it really happened, not like the movies.”
Gennaro Rovito was in failing health in recent years, so his passing last week was actually a blessing. It’s more than ironic that he died only a few weeks after the building was torn down, to make way for a luxury hi-rise condominium complex. The famous Gennaro’s sign that hovered high over the two Weehawken bridges came down with it.
“I always said that when the sign came down, he seemed to get worse,” Rich Rovito said. “When the building was gone, so was he.”
Marianne Rovito Lorenz said that she will remember the honesty in which her father professed.
“His handshake was his word,” Lorenz said. “He didn’t have to sign a contract with anyone. If he shook your hand, it was better than a contract. That’s just the way he was.”
Rich Rovito recalled one story of just how much influence his father had.
“For many years, the bar only carried Rheingold beer,” Rich Rovito said. “A salesman once asked dad if he would give Budweiser a try. He said that he would put Budweiser in the bar when [Budweiser chairman and owner] Gussie Busch walked through the door and gave him tickets to a Mets-Cardinals game. Well, that’s when we got Budweiser.”
Sure enough, the owner of the company, the late August Busch himself, strolled through the doors of Gennaro’s and handed Gennaro Rovito tickets to a Mets game against the Cardinals.
Rovito leaves his two sons and a daughter, six grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and many other loving relatives, not to mention the hundreds of friends who used to call Gennaro’s home.
“He was one of a kind,” Tom Rovito said. “And they don’t make them like my dad.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com