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Douglas Turner: Walsh’s death signals the end of a great era

“Elysium” is the way ancient Greeks described a piece of heaven. Let me explain: For you, it is like hearing guitarist Ana Vidovic play “Cavatina.”

My Elysium was a bar hidden on Pearl Street in Buffalo, just behind what then was the Art Moderne W.T. Grant department store at Main and Huron streets.

The place was called Jew Murphy’s Omega Steel Bar and Grill, for the couple who owned and husbanded it – Harry Berger and Ann Murphy – through Prohibition and beyond.

Bing Crosby used to sing there late at night after performing at the old Shea’s Hippodrome. So did Bob Hope, and the legendary Al Jolson. Band leaders like Les Brown stopped in for a nightcap and scrambled eggs. Their autographed pictures covered the walls.

Buffalo politicians, mostly Irish-Americans, sang their hearts, sometimes their lungs, out in the wee hours in that steep and narrow place.

'JB' Walsh dies; noted figure in law, government and the arts

The last of those troubadours, attorney J.B. Walsh, will be memorialized at 10 a.m. Monday at Mass in St. Michael’s Church. In a large way, his Mass will serve as the very last hurrah for that once-famous café.

J.B., as he was universally known, was, in the manner of his generation, unashamedly devoted to his church, which is Catholic, his Democratic Party, his schools, Canisius High School and Canisius College, and his law school, Georgetown Law.

An accomplished attorney by day, sundown transformed Walsh into a muse. At Murphy’s. He seemed to visit there every night, certainly every weekend.

J.B. always, always crooned, “Every Day is Ladies Day with Me,” a song Victor Herbert wrote for the show “The Red Mill” – about the time Frank Lloyd Wright saw the completion of his Darwin Martin House on Jewett Avenue.

The year 1906 did not seem so impossibly long ago when my late wife, Mimi, and I first heard J.B. sing it in 1956. But now?

Walsh was not bashful. If Murphy’s revered pianist, Marian Healy, wasn’t there, J.B. accompanied himself, according to a tale former Buffalo Bills lawyer Ralph Halpern confided to Buffalo News reporter Robert J. McCarthy recently.

To be honest, it was the gifted Miss Healy and the way Harry and Ann ran the place that made it popular. The owners did not suffer fools for long. They and a muscular bartender had idlers moving along quietly.

Murphy’s had been an illicit speakeasy for nearly 15 years. It posted a forged state permit that allowed it to operate as a “social club” through Prohibition.

Healy knew every Broadway show tune by heart and could transpose it with ease into any key. My wife knew all the words. Edward C. Cosgrove, the former district attorney, remembers some of the Irish powerhouses from Lackawanna and South Buffalo who sang, or attempted to sing, at Healy’s upright.

They included the late Michael F. Dillon, former DA and presiding Appellate Court judge, and the late Family Court Judge John Honan.

Others who popped in after dinner parties included Robert O. Swados, the lawyer who founded the Buffalo Sabres, Blossom Cohan of Studio Arena Theater, the late Family Court jurist Mary Ann Killeen and members of the Schoellkopf family, who once owned the spillway at Niagara Falls.

One of the most famous, in his day, was Jack Yellen, a Hollywood songwriter, who was raised in the old Jewish community on William Street, and who later lived on a farm in Springville. Yellen’s most enduring song was “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Now Walsh, Yellen, Cohan, Swados and the judges have all passed into history. But, that’s what “Elysium” is for.

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