Manor celebrates Prohibition’s centennial

Photo by Myles Ma
Attendees mingle at a party commemorating Prohibition’s 100th anniversary.

By Myles Ma, Correspondent
NUTLEY, NJ — A winter storm covered Nutley in more than two inches of snow on Saturday, Jan. 18, but the Kingsland Manor was the hottest spot in town.

The manor’s newly restored basement speakeasy hosted a party to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Prohibition, complete with a secret password, 1920s clothing and a pretend bust-up by the police.

“This is an event to commemorate the beginning of Prohibition,” said Leon Kish, president of the Kingsland Manor Restoration Trust.

Close to 60 people braved the snowy weather to attend the throwback party. When they arrived, they received a secret password — “bank’s closed” — to tell the doorman guarding the entrance to the basement speakeasy.

Once inside, guests found a dimly lit bar with a phonograph playing jazz. A bartender poured spirits called either “gasoline” or “kerosene.” John McCullough, playing speakeasy owner Bernard “Bus” McGinnity, welcomed them.

The cast included actors playing McGinnity’s mother, Katherine, and a World War I veteran with his arm in a sling. They mingled with the guests and occasionally broke out into the Charleston. It was a faithful reenactment, aside from the guests taking selfies on their phones.

Every 20 minutes, a siren would go off to warn of a police raid. McCullough and the other actors ushered the guests into the cold to “escape,” before returning them to the house right afterward.

McCullough, a recent college graduate, worked as a tour guide at Kingsland Manor while he was in high school. Every year, on site, he reads “A Christmas Carol” as Charles Dickens.

Kish helped him prepare to play Bus McGinnity.

“Leon just sent me a ton of research,” said McCullough.

McGinnity, a newspaper cartoonist, ran a real speakeasy in Kingsland Manor from the beginning of Prohibition until 1933. He transported liquor to the manor via a secret tunnel, according to Terry Kish, recording secretary for the Kingsland Manor Restoration Trust.

Speakeasies proliferated during the Prohibition era, which began on Jan. 17, 1920, when a constitutional amendment banned the manufacture, sale and transport of alcohol. The law is widely seen as a failure today. Many people, like McGinnity, flouted the law, and the illegal sale of alcohol became a huge revenue source for organized crime.

After Prohibition ended, McGinnity and his mother converted the speakeasy into a bar called the Colonial Club.

Stacey Barbosa, of Nutley, is a regular attendee of events at the Kingsland Manor.

“It’s just a great place to get friends together and have a great time,” she said. “We’re having a blast. It almost transported me back to the 1920s.”

Kingsland Manor, a brownstone Dutch colonial, was built in the 1760s. The Kingsland family owned it from 1796 until 1909, when Daniel and Katherine McGinnity — Bus McGinnity’s parents — purchased the home. Bus and his mother ran the home as a club and later a convalescent home until they fell behind on taxes.

The building fell into disrepair until 1973, when the township purchased Kingsland Manor and tasked the volunteers of the Kingsland Manor Restoration Trust with renovating it as a local museum and community resource.

Kingsland Manor is now listed in the New Jersey and National registers of historic places. The opening of the speakeasy is the final step in its renovation, said Terry Kish.

“We really wanted to do it for the 100th anniversary of Prohibition,” she said.
Nutley resident Gabrielle Bergen said the weather posed no obstacle to her family’s attendance.

“We were coming no matter what,” she said.

Bergen had recently attended a Halloween-themed wedding, so she had most of her 1920s-style ensemble in her closet already.

“It was a really good time,” she said of the Prohibition party. “I feel it’s great to bring life back to historical landmarks.”