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Happy to Be Here: A hearty farewell to John Larsen


John Larsen should have been pleased last Tuesday when local folks got together to bid him farewell. Family members and friends came together to remember the founder of John & Peter’s, the New Hope music club, who died last October.

John and his wife, Robin, who had her own claim to fame as founder of New Hope Arts, were leaders and conveners in the town that had a reputation for finding and nurturing artists in every genre — music, photography, painting, writing, dance and sculpture.

Almost 200 of John’s friends turned out for the entertainment — because John was all about show biz. And this was a show with music, not to be mistaken for a memorial service.

John’s daughter Liz Larsen, Carole King’s mother in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” a steady Broadway presence and television’s “Law and Order” regular, arranged the show with her husband, Sal Viviano, another Broadway regular and singer on concert stages around the country.

Viviano’s powerful voice came from the rear to open the show with “Pennies from Heaven,” one of John’s favorite songs, and the mourners happily joined in.

John and Robin married in the 1980s, after Robin moved to New Hope with her 8-year-old son, Sean Power. In his dark blue suit and white shirt, Sean, an engineer, said softly more than once, “I don’t do this.” He dryly described his childhood, with John teaching him to drive and then driving John around as his eyesight failed. “The focus,” Sean said, “was breakfast at Duck Soup and shopping. He would always walk out with something.” For years John relished routine breakfasts with friends, including photographer Jack Rosen and painter Joe Crilley.

And Thanksgiving dinners were an extended family affair. “Somehow, Penny was always there,” Sean said. Penny Larsen Vine, a gregarious family member, John’s first wife, was devoted to the Broadway stage, a theater reviewer and once the publicist for the Bucks County Playhouse. She and John were parents of Liz and Karen Larsen.

Sean’s wife, Sheila, son, Ian, and daughter, Meredith, were in the audience. Ian brought down the house with his description of a day with “PopPop” one summer when he was about five years old and not at day camp that day. He entered the dark bar at the back entrance, passed through a group of young men, and settled into the back office. Sean learned the combination to the safe (37-44-76). He spent the afternoon counting bills then loading them into John’s Lincoln. The bank teller gave him an extra piece of candy.

“I think there are so few people in our lives who take you on an adventure like that,” Ian said, grateful to have such a grandfather.

Amy Yates Wuelfing captured the John & Peter’s spirit in a book of interviews she assembled with Joan Arkuszewski and Loren Hunt, “Still Drinkin’ & Smokin’ Rockin’ & Rollin’: An Oral History of John & Peter’s.”

“He raised all of us,” she said.

Geoff Morgan considered himself John’s adopted son. He met John at 16 “with both feet firmly planted in thin air.” Geoff sang the Irish “Parting Glass,” for John. The endearing “Goodnight and joy be with you all,” may have been the one teary note of the evening.

Comedian Anita Wise hung out for years at John & Peter’s. She lightened the mood with a memory that featured John’s swimming pool. “I was nude and you made me naked,” he barked to the guest who objected to his lack of attire. And she described movie binge weekends, when John Larsen and his brother-in-law, Peter Price, would check in to watch a string of movies.

“John created a culture that was not just tolerant. It was warm and accepting,” Anita said. “It was so free — every night he would call us into his living room,” and his friends were at home.

Wenonah Brooks, the oldest of the Brooks Sisters, added her clear gospel sound to “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

“John lived in peace,” she said. “gracious, kind and caring.”

The Brooks Sisters started singing at John & Peter’s in 1974. John asked them to sing together every Christmas Eve, and they would pack the house.

“This tradition lasted many, many years through the ‘70s and ‘80s until raising children took precedence to singing the night before Christmas,” said Christine Ramirez, executive director of New Hope Arts.

She is typical of the young men and women John and Robin, and later, just John, took under their wings. Christine was studying art at Skidmore when her sister, Jennifer Wohl, was managing the bar at John and Peter’s. She found extra jobs for Christine, as a door person and occasional waitress. Robin arranged Christine’s first art show at age 19 at the Rosemont Cafe.

“When I graduated from college in 2002, I moved back home and went straight to John & Peter’s where I was hired as a waitress and bartender full time,” Christine said. When Robin founded New Hope Arts, Christine worked with John Danaher cleaning up the old Gerenser Theater as the arts organization’s headquarters. With two young children, she worked for both New Hope Arts and John & Peter’s part-time. This spring, Christine took her place as leader of New Hope Arts.

Robin’s sister, Sharon Wilchar, let the audience know that it was she who brought Robin to New Hope. Sharon moved to New Hope in 1975. Robin moved from New Orleans soon after. “Robin stayed on a layaway plan,” Sharon said.

Jim Proser began joining the breakfast at Duck Soup about 10 years ago with Janina Akins, and his roommate, Anita Wise. “He was the son of Monte Proser who owned the Copacabana, in New York City, then moved to New Hope with his five kids after a divorce,” Christine explained. “Monte went on to build the Playhouse Inn.” Jim spoke at length about John’s life — born in Copenhagen, son of a boxer, expert on baseball statistics, raised in an orphanage before the Bronx, machinist for the Navy, vice president of Sylvan Pools.

Jim Proser described the founding of the coffeehouse that became a nightclub after John’s brother-in-law, Peter Price, came up with $17,000 to buy a liquor license. “John was a good man and a true friend,” Jim said.

Glenn McClelland, of Ween, was at the keyboard through the show with Courtney Coletti, of Johnny’s Dance Band, on guitar. They joined Tony Giuliano on harmonica and singer Lee Johnson in “Some Day You’re Gonna Set the World on Fire.”

Toward the end of the show, Alessandro Gian Viviano and Joseph Dante Viviano, John Larsen’s grandsons, sang the touching Beatles standard, “Imagine.” One of the grandsons resembles John.

Friend Liz Lynch provided photo collections showing scenes from John Larsen’s full life — partying, laughing, singing, listening.

John Larsen and Peter Price sold John and Peter’s to longtime bartenders Chris Williams and Mike Weiners along with their friend and J&P’s “regular,” Kevin Rauch. The three bought the bar in 2017 with the promise that they would keep the beloved establishment exactly the same as it always has been.

After the celebration, Christine recalled, “John & Peter’s has become a cherished haven for anyone who works there or visits regularly, often known as ‘the misfits’ bar’ for its inclusive atmosphere. Over more than 50 years, it has cultivated a warm and loving community of bartenders, musicians, and patrons, both past and present. For those of us who are lucky to be a part of the John and Peter’s family, we know the renowned bar owes much of its charm to John Larsen himself. John had a way of making anyone feel good and welcome.”

Earlier, Mayor Larry Keller lamented John’s loss. “So many legends have left us,” he said.

The family of John Larsen has started a matching gift challenge. They are encouraging donations to New Hope Arts in John’s memory and are matching all donations, dollar for dollar, up to $15,000. Donations can be made to

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