Frank Sinatra’s Uncle Babe Garaventi Ran Hoboken Bar Which Lost Liquor License For Employing A “Female Impersonator” As Host And Entertainer

In January 1953 the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control revoked the liquor license of the Sportsman Bar and Grill on the ground floor of a four-story 15-room hotel at 212 River Street in Hoboken according to recently-released agency records. The license was held since 1949 by Margaret Garaventi who also apparently owned the building out of which the tavern and hotel operated according to an ABC record; however, the agency found that “she had very little to do with the operation of the establishment,” and her husband Lawrence Garaventi had an active hand in running the colorful joint. Among the reasons the Sportsman lost its license was because Mr. Garaventi allegedly was renting out the hotel rooms to the bar’s patrons “for the purpose of sexual intercourse” and employed a “female impersonator” as the otherwise straight bar’s “genial host” who entertained on stage “in a lewd, indecent and immoral manner” and engaged in “foul, filthy and obscene conduct.”

Lawrence Garaventi was the maternal uncle of Hoboken’s favorite son Frank Sinatra, and as the ABC records reflect was referred to as “Babe” by the bar patrons. Babe Garaventi previously was a welterweight boxer under the name Babe Sieger, and he also had a criminal record which disqualified him from holding a liquor license or even being employed by a licensee. His record included convictions for “robbery in 1922 and operating an illegal still in 1936” according to ABC records. In his book Frank Sinatra: An Extraordinary Life, Spencer Leigh fleshes out the robbery conviction: “In 1921 . . . Lawrence . . . was arrested for driving the getaway car in an armed robbery which left a railway worker dead. He could have been executed so he was fortunate to receive 10 years hard labour.” And author James Kaplan writes in his book Frank: The Voice that a family relative recounted Lawrence “was a hijacker with Dutch Schultz with the whiskey and stuff.”

ABC agents visited the Sportsman multiple times in November 1951, and among their observations were the performances of a “female impersonator” identified as Joe. An investigator testified at the enforcement proceeding about Joe getting on the band platform, and singing “Heart of My Heart”:

During his song he sang in a high-pitched voice, and he put his hands on his hips and swished his hips back and forth as a woman would do, and also moved his hands about in effeminate fashion. Several times during the song he would say “Whoops,” and jump forward and put one of his hands to his posterior as though he had been goosed. During the act, during his song, he had a handkerchief in his hand and he rolled it up to a point in a long form, elongated form. He held it in one hand and bent down as though to lick it, and when he bent down to lick it he would work it so that the handkerchief would fall over.

After the song Joe then collected tips from patrons for his performance, “swishing” through the crowd “moving his hips as a woman would,” and when he approached the undercover investigators Joe grabbed one of them “at his groin, his private parts, and said ‘Oh what beautiful blue eyes you have.’” Two bar waitresses were with the undercover agents when this occurred, and they “giggled and said they didn’t have to worry about Joe because he is a queer.”

When not entertaining on the band platform Joe was the tavern’s “genial host,” and Margaret Garaventi described a “genial host” in her hearing testimony as someone who “sits patrons when they come in, and he is pleasant, takes care of them, makes sure they have a place to sit.” She further testified that she had seen Joe perform but he “sings good songs, no bad ones,” and recalled his performance of “Easter Parade”: “Well, he would sing around, swing a little, sway a little, Easter Bonnet, he had a bonnet and put it on, tie it around his neck.”

Joe himself testified at the hearing, and the 59-year-old said he has lived with his wife during their entire 37-year marriage, been an entertainer for forty years and worked at the Sportsman for the last two: “He testified that he ‘sings songs, sing a hundred different songs, all popular tunes,’” “impersonate a lot of stars,” and “never did anything of a vulgar or indecent nature while he sang.”

Alas, ABC Director Dominic Cavicchia obviously was easily offended, and revoked the Sportsman’s liquor license after concluding, among other things, “I am convinced, from the evidence that Joe’s entertaining was not legitimate histrionics of a decent and acceptable character but, instead, that Joe was a female impersonator in the bad sense,” and that “Joe’s performances were grossly lewd, indecent, immoral, foul, filthy and obscene.”

Lawrence Garaventi died at 75 in 1978, and his wife Margaret had predeceased him.

Author of “The Mafia and the Gays,” “Railroaded: The Homophobic Prosecution of Brandon Woodruff for His Parents’ Murders,” & “Queer Joints, Wiseguys and G-Men”