Owner Hopes To Benefit From Same Name, Same Location In Downtown Hartford
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
October 05, 2011
The owner of the reborn Russian Lady the iconic downtown Hartford nightspot of the 1980s and 1990s is betting that the same name, location and memories of the long-closed bar will form a firm foundation for building the next generation of patrons.
Along with the memories, the place includes many of the massive antiques that once outfitted the original Russian Lady.
"It has to be one of the most talked about places in Hartford," said owner Jerry Fornarelli, who also operates Up or On the Rocks and The Tavern Downtown in Hartford. "It's a landmark in Hartford. You didn't say, 'The Russian Lady was near the Civic Center; the Civic Center was near The Russian Lady.' "
Fornarelli and his builder/designer, Rick Donohue, say they have received hundreds of emails from former patrons, sharing their memories, with some recalling that they met their future spouses at The Russian Lady. Over the years, such celebrities as Bob Hope, Paul Simon and Angela Lansbury visited the venue.
The reborn Russian Lady on Ann Uccello Street will open to the general public Oct. 14 at 4 p.m., preceded by an event for former and current employees of The Russian Lady on Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. On Oct. 12, a "sneak peek" for Hartford residents only will begin at 6 p.m.
The opening was 18 months in the making, as Fornarelli and Donohue tracked down many of the original antiques that created an eclectic, yet comfortable, feel in the three-level venue. The ornately carved back bar a centerpiece of the first floor was discovered through a dealer known as "Cowboy Bob" and carted back to downtown Hartford, along with other original pieces.
The huge bell that was rung at closing time simultaneously with the playing of the "1812 Overture" also is in its old spot.
The big prize the massive statue, allegedly of Catherine the Great is still proving elusive, however. The statue was perched atop the exterior of the building and provided the inspiration for The Russian Lady name and the dιcor of the original bar, which opened in 1976.
They know where it is at a hotel in New York City. The copper-clad, 1,000-pound statue would be difficult to remove because it was installed as part of a renovation, Donohue said.
"We're working on it," Fornarelli said.
It could be a pricey proposition. The hotel bought the statue for $250,000 in 2004.
For now, there is a drawing on the second floor of a portion of the statue, Donohue said.
"It was our first attempt to bring 'The Lady' back," Donohue said.
John Rimscha, the original owner, still had the sign that hung over the front entrance until the bar closed in 1997. It was stored outside and heavily damaged over the years. But its distinctive gold lettering and red flourishes a nod to Russia have been restored and the sign will soon be raised to its old spot on the building, Donohue said.
Among new additions, the first-floor bar, which will serve imported and domestic beer, has a counter formed from centuries-old doors originally from China.
The new establishment will be larger than the original because subsequent tenants enlarged the space. That allowed Fornarelli to add a billiards room to the vodka lounge that is planned for the second floor. The rooftop also will be used, this time for a cigar lounge, including humidors that can be rented by patrons.
Fornarelli declined to reveal how much he has invested in the project or how much he paid for the antiques.
On Wednesday, the space was buzzing with activity, with carpenters working, one man sanding down a floor and deliveries arriving. Fornarelli and Donohue stepped over power cords as they spoke of their hopes for the new venue and how it will add to downtown's night life.
"It gives people another reason to come downtown," Fornarelli said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at