“Uncle Willy” Guldy has been everyone’s favorite wacky, star-spangled uncle since the ’70s. That’s when he threw himself his annual birthday party and invited every kid in Rosendale to come feast on his birthday cake and ice cream, no forks or spoons allowed. During the festivities, a young partygoer turned to him and said, “You’re my Uncle Willy!” The legend was born.
He and Joe Misasi recently opened Uncle Willy’s Bar on North Front Street. “Don’t ask me my age, because I am going to lie,” said Willy as I flipped open my laptop to begin the interview. Uncle Willy is best known for his spectacular wardrobe mosaics of eye-catching vintage, hippy colors, patterns, textures and accessories, He’s always dressed as the bon vivant dancing through every local parade — sometimes in a cape, crown and American flag socks. He’s a blast. He’s smart. Free. And spinning up a storm to anyone who sits next to him. Talk to him and you might easily start to wonder, is this guy trippin’? Or am I trippin’? Is Uncle Willy maybe kinda burnt from enjoying his hippy days so much? “Yes, the Christmas tree will be up till July, so you will have plenty of time to enjoy it,” he says.
Carrie Jones Ross: Where were you born and raised?
Uncle Willy: Kingston, N.Y. I’m a local. I went to Kingston High school. Daytona Beach Junior College after I got out of the service. I tried to go back to the high school to learn some secretarial stuff for shorthand, but the guy knew what I was up to, and so he recommended that I go to Daytona Beach Junior College instead of trying to be in a classroom. He knew I wanted to be in a classroom with all the girls; imagine at that time that girls wore crinolines, slips, lots of clothes in the Northeast. But then in Florida it was warm and sandy and they wore bikinis and being 17 years old, I had died and gone to Girl Paradise Heaven, so it brought out the best in me and my eyesight improved.
CJR: What did you do in the service?
UW: Aviation storekeeper in Sanford, Fla., Key West. Stationed 40 miles from Daytona Beach, ’till I got too nuts.
UW: Bea, just turned 21 years old. On my birthday, I always had a party for the kids with ice cream and cake no spoons, no forks, just dive in …
CJR: Tell me about The Well, and the Astoria Hotel.
UW: The Well [in Rosendale] was born in 1970, it was a bar since the 1930s and owned by Jack Daily. It was painted with beautiful murals. First time I ever walked in, and at that time I was wearing mohair suits and California-cut hair — and I had 13 cents in my pocket, but my suit was a $100 suit — and I walked into the Well and I said to my partner that I was going to own this place. Then I went from Mohair suits to patch dungarees, and the last time I shaved was 1968 and The Well was born. The Well was the most famous bar in its time. After a few months, I brought in musicians Jurgen and Joe, and they were from Ellenville. The place got packed. My brother Flower said, “Willy, you got your rock ’n’ roll club,” and then I had music seven nights a week and then The Well got famous, and I got famous. The Well went from 1970-76, never had a bad thing against it, except for how it looked, and it was the redneck bar, and I brought in a ton of hippies. I helped the economy of Rosendale! Always took care of the kids and the older people. Only problem I had were people my age who couldn’t take it. I had parades, but they had problems with music seven nights a week.
CJR: The Astoria?
UW: I could see The Well was coming to an end on account of the music, and I was getting too strong for New York. I was making money, and then I made stupid mistake of running for president, which pissed them off. I had write-in votes from California, all across the country. I got maybe 1,200 votes, but they had to register them and it pissed off a bunch of people and they shut it down. I purchased the Astoria in 1974. And then there was a mystery fire, where the something with the chimney and they chopped up the bar and I was basically out of business. I used to rent a room out for $21 a week; $3 per night. I based my rate off the Swiss American hotel in San Francisco where I had once stayed three nights.
CJR: What’s the name of the little dog you always walk or push in the baby carriage in parades?
CJR: At the new place, will you be having music? Food?
UW: Joe Misasi is the owner, and he asked me if he could use my persona. So he gave me a position here [as head bartender]. There will be music. Blues, rock and roll, and talented people will play. There will be an open kitchen, there will be food, music and Uncle Willy.
CJR: What’s with the costumes? What kind of privileges do they give you?
UW: The crown and cape in baseball became known. NBC did a special before the 1979 All-Star game on my costume when I became well-known as “Uncle Willy.”
CJR: What are some of your costumes? Anything I see that I like?
UW: (Shows off his patch pants, polished penny loafers, white tube socks and the special ingredient … a derby hat.) A lot of clothing is given to me. I started the Rosendale Street Festival, and when I am in it, you will see me change 20 times in two days.
CJR: How many pairs of American flag socks do you own?
UW: Many. So many.
CJR: Say something about George Montgomery.
UW: George was my man. He was [f-ing] crazy. But he was such an honest man, and loved to be known as a beatnik. He tended bar for me. He had a lot of influence in bringing out Uncle Willy. We drove him crazy. We ran for town supervisor together. In 1976, when Rosendale was changing to a town, they needed a mayor for the last fiscal year. I ran for mayor. I lost by 22 votes. I would have the police chief, and they knew it. They knew in the last half-hour I was winning, and I would have been in charge of the police. They took away my money-maker, The Well, and they thought they got rid of the hippies. [As deputy mayor] I wouldn’t have done anything wrong, I would have run the police like a taxi service. I would have taken away their guns. Imagine, I would have had my own car …
CJR: Tell me something cool you did in Rosendale.
UW: They close down the town meetings during the holidays. So during Hanukkah, I went to the meeting ’cuz I knew it would be about me and closing my place. The guy running it was an Irish Catholic, just like me. I demanded to have the meeting closed, because it was Hanukkah. I had the prettiest girl in town with me, and she was Jewish, and I said, “Come on, out of respect for her and the Jewish community, this meeting has to be closed.” And they did. If you look in the old village notes, they closed the meeting. It’s in there. That pissed them off.