Farewell to RAGBRAI icon Barry Katz: His New York City life was so different from ours.

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, April 13, 2024 – Barry Katz, one of my favorite RAGBRAI riders and one of the big ride’s greatest characters, is gone.

The theatrical agent, recognized by many as the honorary “Mayor of Hell’s Kitchen” in the heart of his beloved New York City, died on April 6 at the age of 68 from heart damage.  He’d been hospitalized there nearly two months, his family has told friends, suffering from an infection that had started in a leg and took over his circulation system.

He’d ridden 35 RAGBRAIs, starting in 1988 and including the hot and challenging one last summer.


“I have now personally ridden across the state of Iowa 35 times, and have ridden for all 245 consecutive RAGBRAI days – though I have not done every mile,” he wrote on his Facebook page at the end of that ride, including a photo of himself, which he went on to explain.  “Per RAGBRAI tradition, I am dipping my front tire in the Mississippi River.  Traditionally I have also done the same pose for 35 years. It would be interesting to put all the pictures together and watch as my body and hair color changed.”

Then he added: “This year was really tough on everyone. Out of my 35, I rank this as the second hardest ride. But barring unforeseen circumstances, I will be back in 51 weeks.”

His family and friends will gather this Sunday, April 14, for a funeral service at 1 p.m. EDT at Guttermans Funeral Home, 8000 Jericho Turnpike, Woodbury, N.Y.  There will be an online stream available via Zoom at www.Guttermansinc.com.  

The family will be observing the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva” later Sunday, and on Monday and Tuesday from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. both those days, at the home of Barry’s sister Ellen Katz on Long Island. You can learn more details on Ellen’s page on Facebook.

The news of his death has hit many veteran RAGBRAI’ers particularly hard, following too closely the recent deaths of other well-known Iowa participants Huck Thompson of Des Moines, Matt Bernhard (“Mr. Pork Chop Jr.”) of Bancroft, Bob Saar of Burlington, and Ken Klein of Iowa City.

The two of us at a long-ago RAGBRAI pie stop in the basement of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Imogene, Iowa.

As I said, Barry Katz was one of my favorites.

“You’re Offenburger, aren’t you?” he said, sticking out his hand to shake, when we first met at a midday lemonade stand along the ride in about 1990. “I’ve been reading your stories. I’m Barry Katz from Hell’s Kitchen, New York.”  He had that neighborhood’s name on his T-shirt and sign on the rear of his bicycle, too.

I couldn’t resist: “Where in the hell is Hell’s Kitchen?”

Just west of Times Square and the theater district, he said. “Named because it had so many apartments packed together and, in the summers before air conditioning, it’d get so hot there, tempers would flare up and there’d lots of fights and other trouble.”

He looked out over the small Iowa town we were standing in and asked, “How many people live in a town like this?”

“Maybe 200,” I answered.

He shook his head and said, “There are more than that in my building!

He went on to tell me that he was a theatrical agent, one who rode his bicycle a couple miles to work every day – from the West Side to the East Side – sometimes right through Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza.

That’s when I realized why I was instantly liking Barry Katz.

Nearly everything about his life – except bicycling – was so different from my life.  That’s a big reason I came to like him – actually came to love him – and why I thought it was so good and important that he keep coming to Iowa to ride with us.

Barry Katz, the honorary Mayor of Hell’s Kitchen, New York City.

You may remember that in the summer of 1995, as a promotion for Iowa’s Sesquicentennial celebration coming the next year, I was one of the leaders of the “Iowa 150 Bike Ride: A Sesquicentennial Expedition.”  There were 308 of us who rode our bikes coast-to-coast, 5,048 meandering miles, telling America about our home state. 

Other RAGBRAI’ers joined us along the way for shorter hitches.  One of those was Barry Katz, who rode with us our final weekend on the route, from Gettysburg, Penn., to our finish in Washington, D.C.

“Iowa is my alternate reality,” he told me on Sept. 3 in Reistertown, Maryland. “And RAGBRAI is my one week of escape from New York every year. I really wish I could have taken the whole summer to do this ride across the country with you, but at least I can do this last weekend.”

Let’s go back to early 1988.

Barry’s adventurous mother, Sylvia Katz, was waiting in the office of her New York dentist when she picked up a magazine and chanced to start reading a story about this bicycle ride that had become a big deal in Iowa – wherever that is.  She liked the story, loved the photos, tore the story out of the magazine, went back home to North Massapequa on Long Island and told her family that, come summer, she’d be riding her bicycle across Iowa.

Her oldest son Barry, then in his early 30s, reluctantly said he’d go along.  Youngest daughter Naomi, more excited than Barry, said she’d go, too.  Second son “7Song,” a name he took later in life and still uses, and oldest daughter Ellen stayed home with father Sheldon Katz.

The bicycling Katzes had a ball in Iowa. Mom Sylvia just rode that one time, but Naomi came back for two more RAGBRAIs and Barry, as I said, totaled 35.

In dozens of conversations – on the bikes, at food & drink stands, on the phone and in a wonderful 2011 visit to New York City – I learned a whole lot about Barry Katz.

He’d been introduced early to theater and music by his parents.  He earned theatrical degrees from the State University of New York at Albany and in graduate school at Ohio University.

Lovable as he was, he never married.

“It is true he did not find love,” sister Naomi told me. “He did not talk much about it, but he was never going to settle. He did try to date but it never really worked out.”

Part of it might have been that as a lifelong bachelor, he could look a little scruffy, shall we say, and I think he lived that way in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment.

“You’re welcome to stay with me at my apartment,” he said in 2011, when he was helping me line up a nearby hotel room.  “But I always tell that to my RAGBRAI friends who are coming to visit New York, but the only ones who’ve ever stayed with me are Team Bad Boy.”

But he could dress well and be as sophisticated as need be when his theatrical work required it.

He joined the now-well-known agency Dulcina Eisen and Associates in about 1980 – and never left.

“I had started the agency in 1978, and I had a whole string of young men and women who joined for a time, and few stayed, but Barry did,” Dulcie Eisen recalled on Friday. “Within weeks, he was almost irreplaceable, and he stayed that way for more than 40 years!

“He’d read or seen absolutely everything in theater, and he could remember it all.  He knew everybody, and everybody loved Barry.  We’ve represented hundreds of actors over the years, Barry knew every detail about them and never forgot anything.

“But, oh, he was the most stubborn goose you ever met! I’d say, ‘Barry, I’m your boss, and please listen to me!’ And he’d say, ‘No, Dulcie, we need to do this my way.’ And so we would.”

He was “terribly fussy about his chairs,” the boss continued. “We spent hours every day on the phone, building relationships.  Barry loved to lean way back in his chair, and he’d break them. I don’t know how many new chairs I had to buy him over the years, but every year or two.  Then he’d come ask for a raise, and I’d say, ‘Barry, fine, I’ll give you a raise, but you have to pay me back for the chair you just broke!’ ”

Dulcie Eisen said she knew better than to try to tell him he’d have to miss RAGBRAI any year because of some work project. 

“Your bike ride in Iowa was sacrosanct,” she said. “My birthday falls during that late July time period, and I always wanted to get away on a trip myself then, just to treat myself, you know?  I never could leave then because Barry was going to be gone then.”

She said he became legendary among the agency’s actors, actresses, his friends and Facebook followers for sharing photos of cats – “because his last name was ‘Katz,’ you know.  He had thousands of memes of cats.  I’d kind of sneak up behind him, look over his shoulder at his computer screen, hoping to see some actual work on the screen.  But it’d usually be more cat memes.

“But I never lost sight of what a treasure he was for this agency.”

She said he seldom spent much money on anything but travel and bicycles.

“Barry wasn’t very strong, physically, and he always needed a better bike,” Dulcie said. “It seemed like he’d buy a new one every couple of years, and that was important to him on his longer rides.”

He wrote about that in one of his Facebook posts from RAGBRAI last summer.

The end of the last RAGBRAI for Barry Katz.

“Odd physiological face about me,” he posted. “I have severe arthritis in my legs. As those who have spent time with me know, I can barely walk a block without pain. Biking is a lot easier. That fact became very clear to me yesterday on the first day of RAGBRAI, when I pedaled an extremely hilly 70 miles.”

His sisters both recommend you read more of Barry’s Facebook posts, if you want to know more about him.

“I think if you go to his Facebook page you will see information of what drove him and what made him tick,” Naomi wrote me. “I would say he was driven by his thirst for knowledge and adventure, travel and bicycling and theatre, and he loved movies. He loved his family and his friends. He was always interested in others but also driven by what he wanted to do. He always had his own agenda on what he wanted to do.

“And he loved (the soft drink) Mr. Pibb, Mexican food and chocolate cream pie.”

Both Katz parents are now deceased, Sheldon in 2009, Sylvia in 2020.  Barry’s survivors include brother 7Song, now 66, of Ithaca, N.Y.; sisters Ellen, 64, of North Massapequa, and Naomi, 61, of Phoenix, Oregon; a bunch of cousins, hundreds in the theater world, and thousands of RAGBRAI’ers.

I’m one of the latter, and oh how I’ll miss him, especially at RAGBRAI time.

I’ll never forget July 24, 1997, when we were all riding between overnight stops in Chariton and Bloomfield in southern Iowa.  As planned, I met up with Barry in the town of Millerton, because I wanted to ride with him into the next tiny town on the route – New York, Iowa, pop. 5.

I wrote about that experience in the next morning’s Des Moines Register.

“I’m home!” whooped theatrical agent Barry Katz of New York City. “I can’t believe this. It’s really exciting. I always tell people my favorite place is New Yorand my favorite people are Iowans.  Maybe I should just move here and I could have both!”

That was the real Barry Katz right there.

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

One thought on “Farewell to RAGBRAI icon Barry Katz: His New York City life was so different from ours.

  1. 35 consecutive RAGBRAIs?!! I feel like such a slacker having only done 8, (plus Iowa 150). RAGBRAI 13 being my first.
    Beautiful and inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it.

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