The Penny Arcade was one of the most revered rock music clubs in Rochester history.
The bar was on the northernmost part of Lake Avenue in Charlotte and one of the oldest clubs in the area. Musicians like Bon Jovi, Foghat, Bad Company, Gregg Allman and Joan Jett have played at the Arcade, but the place has always been closely identified with its founder and longtime owner, Greg Sullivan.
Sullivan opened the club at 4785 Lake Ave. in 1973, when he was fresh out of college. He took over a location that had housed a pizzeria and before that a shop window. The Arcade quickly became a favorite among the long-haired, hard-rocking, hard-partying crowds of the 1970s.
The Penny Arcade changed hands several times in its later years, but always had a hard rock edge to it. “Thrash-rock” or “speed metal” succeeded heavy metal in later incarnations. Local rockers knew they were hitting it big when they performed on the Arcade stage.
Lisa Falardeau-Inzana worked there from 1977 to 2000, starting as a waitress before becoming a bartender and then manager of the club. She remembers the golden age of the Arcade from 1975 to 1990.
“We never had less than 300 to 400 people there, and on the weekend we had 600 or 700,” says Falardeau-Inzana, who still lives in the Charlotte neighborhood. Sullivan “was a huge mentor to a lot of musicians. People would sit in his office and talk to him for hours. There were so many famous people in that room, it’s unbelievable.”
Falardeau-Inzana was working nights when Billy Joel, in town for a 1986 concert at the War Memorial, stopped by the Arcade unannounced. “He came with his little entourage,” she said. “He partied a bit and went on his way.” The Metallica members came over while they were recording locally, she said, but like Joel, they didn’t play the Arcade.
Kevin DeHond was a bartender at Penny Arcade from around 1977 to 1986. He remembers a few nights of loud entertainment and more than a few stories of ribaldiness.
“People were a little crazy back then,” said DeHond, who still lives in Charlotte. “We had two dressing rooms. God only knows what was going on there.”
Sullivan always booked groups uphill or downhill. DeHond revealed a few other favorites, like Robin Trower, Molly Hatchet and Iron Butterfly. John Valby, a McQuaid-educated Jesuit nicknamed “Dr. Dirty” for his obscene piano songs, was a regular. Years later, acts included bands like Saxon and Biohazard.
DeHond said the Penny Arcade has partnered with radio stations WCMF and WSAY to influence an entire generation of musicians and clubbers.
“Although the Penny Arcade has undergone many changes over the years, its importance to the Rochester music community has never been greater than it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “, DeHond wrote in an email. “Although there were other fine venues during this time, NONE came close to influencing Rochester’s musical culture.”
And that was largely down to Sullivan. He sold the Arcade in 1992, but got the place back a few years later. When plans to close the Arcade were announced in early 1995, Sullivan responded within days, saying he was coming back and swearing, “The Penny Arcade isn’t going to fold up and disappear… This is my life. “
Democratic music critic and longtime columnist Jeff Spevak called the Arcade “Rochester’s best bet to catch a heavy metal act in years.” He also called the club the city’s “longtime noise temple” and said the Arcade might have had the best sound system in town. Spevak described the appeal of the bar in a 1999 Democrat and Chronicle article.
“The 1970s and 1980s were a classic time for rock, a time when the guitarists had hair like Farrah Fawcett and the lead singer had a tattoo in their pants,” Spevak wrote. “The Arcade always celebrates the era with tribute bands.”
Among the club’s treasures, he noted, were a plastic beer bucket autographed by former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde and a cardboard cutout of Ozzy signed by Ozzy himself.
Sullivan sold the club again in 2000, and the Arcade underwent a few ownership changes before closing for good in 2009. Sullivan died last year after suffering a serious heart attack at home. The bar he ran for years is now called Lake Siders Bar & Grill, but the presence of Sullivan and the Arcade is still strongly felt.
A plaque on the front reads: “In memory of Greg Sullivan/founder of the Penny Arcade/”Rochester’s Rock Concert Night Club”. The large Penny Arcade sign still sits at the top of the club, above the marquee Lake Siders in front of the Penny Arcade memorabilia has nearly 3,500 members.
“When Greg died, it was horrible,” Falardeau-Inzana said. “It was like losing my father, my favorite teacher. He was always very good to us.”
Sullivan’s widow, Lana, met her husband at the Penny Arcade. A 2015 Democrat & Chronicle story said she ran a funeral home just down the road from the bar.
“The Penny Arcade meant a lot to me,” said Lana Sullivan. “My bridal shower was there. My baby shower was there. It was kind of an institution. I still feel like Greg is there.”
What happened to…? is a report on the Rochester haunts of yesteryear and is based on our archives.
Morrell is a freelance writer based in Rochester.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in July 2015.