“Susan, you can call me Stefani.”
That’s Susan Haddad, owner of Later Alligator in Center Wheeling.
And, Stefani? Well, that’s Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.
Lady Gaga’s invitation to call her “Stefani” left Susan speechless this past Thanksgiving weekend. The table of 14 in the back room was filled with relatives from the Wheeling area and “I think a special friend of Lady Gaga’s,” Susan noted.
Susan happened to be out of the restaurant for 15 minutes Sunday around noon, and in those 15 minutes, the family called for a table, arrived and was seated.
“One of the servers who has waited on the family for years, said, ‘Susan, guess who’s in the back room?’… ‘I don’t know’ … [She] said, ‘Lady Gaga’s in the back room!’ and my heart fell on the floor!
“So, after I calmed down, I walked back in the hall … and staring at me with her back to the courtyard, there she was in all her normalcy. She had on a little T-shirt and her glasses, and she’s just looking at me. I tried to act like it was an everyday occurrence.”
And even though Lady Gaga arrived through the front door (her family suggested the back door, but she declined), none of the patrons realized who was brunching there that day. One couple who saw her walk in joked that she was a Lady Gaga look-alike.
She came “incognito,” according to one employee. Not that she looked like she wanted to stay under the radar. “She walks in and has on a fur coat down to her ankles and wild sunglasses,” Susan pointed out.
Susan was thrilled to tell Stefani a story about Paul Bissett Sr., Lady Gaga’s grandfather, who passed away in 2013.
“I said, ‘I think you’ll enjoy this story,’” Susan said, and continued: “’We’ve been open 12 years, and 12 years ago, I have to tell you, I didn’t have a clue who you were.’”
“And she looked up and said, ‘Susan, nobody knew who I was 12 years ago.’”
Susan proceeded to tell her story.
“Your grandma and your grandpa used to come in here, once a week, once every couple of weeks, for lunch or dinner or whatever. … They would come in, and we had music playing … the local station that played the up-and-coming music. Your grandpa would hear something on the radio. … We didn’t know who that person was singing. We didn’t recognize the song, and here’s this older gentleman over here, sitting with your grandmother, and motioning over a server, embarrassing grandma, and saying, ‘You know that’s my granddaughter,’ and the servers would leave and go behind the bar and say, ‘you know, that guy is a little daft.’ … We had fun with that for a couple years until we figured it out!”
Susan said that Lady Gaga laughed at the story, and “Grandma [Ronnie Bissett] chimed in ‘There came a time he didn’t have to hear her music. He just offered to anyone he saw that he was Lady Gaga’s grandpa.”
But that wasn’t the best story to come out of Sunday’s visit, Susan said.
“I had a gal out in the courtyard tidying up, all the leaves, cutting back the liriope … And, who comes out to smoke? The girl who’s tidying up the courtyard is smoking, and they’re talking about hair and hair coloring and whatever. Gaga is helping her move tables around the courtyard while they’re there smoking. She had no idea! Finally, Stefani said, ‘Hi, I’m Stefani,’ and the other girl said, ‘Hi, I’m Erin.’”
Susan heard later, from one of Lady Gaga’s cousins, that “Gaga loved that particular moment. … When she went home in the car, she told the family about her encounter with the gal in the courtyard who didn’t know who she was, and she loved that part.”
Cindy Lewis, the Bissett table’s server, said she was a little nervous — but, mainly because she wanted to be sure Lady Gaga “didn’t feel overwhelmed. I just wanted to make her feel so comfortable.” Lewis has waited on the family scores of times, both at Figaretti’s and at Later.
Lewis said she did tell Lady Gaga, “’I’ve always wanted to meet you,’ and ‘I love and adore your family,’ and she goes, ‘I love and adore them, too!’”
Sunday wasn’t Susan’s only brush with fame. Back when she owned a business in Bethany, W.Va., Jefferson Airplane was in concert at the college’s field house. Grace Slick and band members came into town to go to a bar after the concert, and “Gracie” crashed her car into a telephone pole outside of Susan’s establishment.
One more claim to fame for Susan — she’s the proud owner of a ticket to The Beatles’ second U.S. performance. Susan attended a boarding school in Washington, D.C., and the father of one of her classmates was in charge of lighting and sound at the concert venue.
“He got the entire senior class tickets,” she said.
And, that was her first-ever rock concert. Feb. 11, 1964. Section 20, Row L. Seat 2. At the Washington Coliseum. Ticket face value? $4.
But, back to Lady Gaga.
She and her mom were the last to leave Later Gator on Sunday.
“They were coming down the hall, and I just took a leap of faith and asked, ‘Stefani, may I get a picture with you?’”
While they were having their photo taken, Lady Gaga talked “about how nice it was to come into town, particularly to see her grandmother,” Susan said.
“It was like Christmas Day for me. I won’t lie to you. I was like a 5-year-old getting the best present in the world.”
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.