An annual pilgrimage to NY
brings pleasures, letdowns
By GERALD NACHMAN
My usual year-end ritual--a trip to New York in October--has been going on for some 40 years. For 14 years, it was a paid working vacation as the San Francisco Chronicle theater critic reviewing new shows, but since 1993 Ive been forced into the galling position of actually having to pay for my own tickets and lodging, air fare and taxis.
In that earlier heyday, I luxuriated at the Algonquin Hotel, took cabs everywhere and went to as many shows as I could stuff into a 10-day stay. Today, I take subways, reside more humbly at a friends pad, and see maybe three shows. It isnt just the price of the tickets, its how few shows interest me now.
Its harder and harder to come up with even three shows I want to see. I settled on two - Young Frankenstein, though I was never crazy about the film, and a new play by Aaron Sorkin (creator of TV's The West Wing), The Farnsworth Invention, about Philo Farnsworths ill-fated attempt to do battle with RCAs David Sarnoff over patents for early television. Farnsworth kept suing Sarnoff, who tied him up in the courts for decades with high-powered lawyers until Farnsworth, broke and broken, jumped out a window.
By now, there is a pattern to my N.Y. visit: weeks of anticipation (even though I lived there twice, 10 years total) and the excitement still of arriving and driving into the city at twilight, past all those Queens cemeteries, then scooting across the Triboro Bridge before depositing me at my ex-wifes apartment, which she rents out to, in her phrase, friends, family and ex-husbands. Mary moved to Southern California five years ago but held onto her old apartment on the upper West Side, eight blocks from Zabars, your definitive Manhattan neighborhood.
At left, the poster
for Mel Brooks'
version of his
At right, Hank
Azaria as David
This year was a little different, but it settled into a few familiar grooves--ritual steak dinner with old buddy Randy Poe at Ruths Chris Steakhouse--my one steak of the year, sizzling in butter, part of my red meat orgy in New York: steak, pastrami sandwich at Arties Deli, hotdogs at Grays Papaya on 72nd Street, chopped liver at Juniors in Shubert Alley; a cheeseburger at P.J. Clarkes. These are must-feeds, and I did them all, feeling properly sinful in New York. One of my favorite only-in-New York haunts, the ageless White Castle, famed for their mini-burger sliders, is now homeless in Manhattan; I had a moment of silence, longing for my annual White Castle fix.
Clarkes on a Saturday night is a crazed crush of New Yorkers at their most raucous - everyone shouting to be heard, raising the decibel level to jet-takeoff levels. Randy and I were crammed into a corner with Harry Haun, who writes Playbill profiles (often under other names) and his partner Charles, a witty researcher at People and a major musicals freak, like all of us. Ive known Harry since he was movie critic at the Nashville Tennessean--a fount of info, trivia and dirt on and off Broadway, also Hollywood. He drops names with unabashed delight--not to impress you, its just the world he inhabits every night. He calls stars by their their first name (Hal is Prince, Steve is Sondheim, Mel is Brooks, Olivia is DeHaviland, etc.). He does seem to think of them as actual chums. He speaks in anecdotese and starts many sentences, Did ah evah tell you about the time ah interviewed Liza and she ).
One of my most anticipated meetings this time was with a colleague from my days in the mid-`60s at The New York Post, a pretty reporter named Lael Scott who e-mailed me after finding herself mentioned in my memoirs on thecolumnists.com as a patrician beauty who looked like she had walked off the cover of Vogue).
You made my week! she wrote, gave her number and asked me to call--which I did, at once, and we made plans to have a drink when I got to New York. At the paper, Id been too intimidated to do much more than say hello. Age is a great leveler.
I left The Post in `66, and Lael departed in `68 to become a lawyer. We met up at her upstairs brownstone in Greenwich Village. Shes still attractive, with silvery hair. On the way to her place, I passed two landmarks I loved when I lived there--Ye Olde Waverly Inn, where I had one memorable Thanksgiving dinner with an old Newsweek girlfriend. Its as New England-y as it sounds--great food, rustic ambiance and quiet refinement. I once saw John Wayne dining there, laughing loudly, sans toupee. Id never seen John Wayne laugh.
The Inn was recently bought by Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter and turned into a Yuppie singles scene, or whatever Yuppies are called now--Generation ZZZ? My other Village landmarks are all long gone--the little Blue Mill on Bank Street, and the Ninth Circle, a gay hangout before gays officially existed, which served salads in wooden mixing bowls and great cheap steaks. We searched for a place to get a drink, and finally were forced to grab a beverage at a sandwich chain called Cosi, sipping smoothies on the sidewalk while discussing the whereabouts and/or demises of various New York Posties.
Part of the trip was to research my book about The Ed Sullivan Show, so I spent several afternoons watching old shows--not just Sullivans but his rivals, the dated but fascinating Colgate Comedy Hour and the Sunday night Steve Allen Show, which could be rerun today and still get genuine laughs. I was amazed how well it held up--not just the Man in the Street segments but the sketches and Allens lightning, often dazzling, ad libs, playing off everything in sight.
In one sketch, Allen and Anita Ekberg (thatll pinpoint the date for you) sang Tea for Two in Swedish. In another, he did a standard banal variety show chat with her but in a romantic, dimly lit setting with sexual innuendos in every cliche, to fit her screen image: Allen, in a come-hither voice, asks, What is your next film, Anita?
I had lunch with my archivist friend, Jane Klain, at the old Museum of TV & Radio - now grandly and misleadingly renamed the Paley Center for the Media. Jane has been hugely helpful on my two earlier books and on the Sullivan opus, sending me reams of old CBS publicity releases and copies of TV Guide articles, plus tons of other stuff. While there, Sheila MacRae, a friend of Janes, called to talk with her and told her that Ed Sullivan had wanted to marry her and even sent her a diamond ring. Who knows? New York is paved with such cultural nuggets, some of it fools gold.
I went over to the Plaza Hotel to talk to Ed Trinka, the hotels oldest doorman and allegedly the oldest working doorman in New York--hes 82 but looks 62--who told me that Sullivan used to come by and buy a newspaper for himself and one for him. Just one tiny anecdote but a usable one.
...made time for Nachman
I sat in on an interview with Robert Klein for a documentary on comedy in America that Michael Kantor is putting together (he did the big three-part PBS series on The Broadway Musical four years ago). Kantor talked with Klein for two hours, and got great stuff; he had interviewed me earlier at my home, now that Ive become a comedy guru since Seriously Funny. I cornered Klein afterwards and asked for an interview later in the week--he did the Sullivan show six times--and he gave me an hour at his place overlooking Central Park; as always, Klein was full of amusing stories, insights and vivid memories of playing the show in the late `60s.
Despite a second attempt to get to Stiller & Meara, who played the Sullivan show 37 times, a near record, I was politely turned down--Theyre both very busy right now --but not long after that the real reason popped up on Turner Classic Movies, where Robert Osborne was talking to Jerry Stiller, who mentioned the Ed Sullivan show and said he was writing a book about the teams early years. But Ive not yet given up.
Every morning, I had breakfast across the street from my place at a great basic N.Y. coffee shop called Viand, with a comedian friend, Jeremy Vernon, who speaks 20 languages and can fake the rest; he bantered in Greek with the waitress. Viand makes superb egg-white omlettes and matzo ball soup, two New York deli-casies.
A couple of incidents reminded where I was: on a packed rush hour subway, a man and a woman screamed at each other for 10 minutes because he said she was blocking the door and she said he was a racist, and it spiraled downward from there. People were telling them to shut up--one guy screamed Peace!--but the best part is that neither of them could even see the other, it was so crowded. All you heard were two lunatic New Yorkers screeching at each other and not caring who heard them.
Another only-in-New York moment occurred during a pelting rainstorm at 5:30 p.m., an impossible time to get a taxi under perfect conditions but now in the realm of sheer fantasy, even science fiction. Suddenly, my New York survivor chops kicked in and I took refuge from the deluge under a hotel awning, where a lone guy was in front hailing cabs wildly.
A taxi went past him, pulled up next to me and let someone out. I jumped in, but the other guy said he been there first so I said, in desperation, Lets share this. Where are you going? Many New Yorkers might have screamed that it was their cab and told me to take a hike, or just pushed me into the traffic, but this fellow was so happy to find any kind of a cab, he said, Thats very nice of you. Come again? He was in town from Toronto and headed for the airport. He dropped me first and I thrust $10 at him. He said, You dont need to do that, expecting to pay the entire fare. Canadians are nicer, as advertised. Ten bucks seemed dirty cheap; I might still be looking for a cab otherwise.
I was in town from Oct. 9-20 but it didnt feel much like autumn yet. A few humid days reminded me why Id finally left New York in 1977. The first truly brisk, perfect, sunny fall day occurred the morning I was in a cab on the way to the airport. This global warming thing can be very dicey.
One day, I journeyed way-y-y uptown to visit pianist Peter Mintun, once a San Francisco fixture who was forced to head east when he couldnt get a regular hotel gig of the sort he had for years at LEtoile, itself long gone. Mintun, one of the countrys premier cocktail pianists and a formidable expert on popular music of the `20s, `30s and `40s, moved to New York about 10 years ago and been scrambling since he left Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel. New York used to be a haven for so-called cocktail pianists like Mintun--George Feyer, Ronnie Whyte, Barbara Carroll, who is still at the keyboard at the Algonquin Hotel but more of a jazz pianist.
Mintun lives, as he did in San Francisco, in a roomy, brooding brownstone--in the Bronx near Washington Heights, about the furthest uptown Id ever been, with Yankee Stadium over the horizon. When you re-surface above ground, youre in a no-mans land with shop signs in Spanish and lots of deserted storefronts, but keep walking and you wind up near an old mansion in a pretty little park.
No cabs venture that far north (no return fares going south), so you have to call a car to take you to lunch; no restaurants in the vicinity. We went to a near-empty Italian restaurants run by blacks, with a menu printed around 1967, so faded it was hard to read. The food was a new kind of fusion cuisine--sort of Southern fried Italian, a tasty but heavily breaded chicken dish of some sort.
Both Broadway shows I caught were disappointments. Young Frankenstein was in the second night of previews but the buzz wasnt good, much of it aimed at Mel Brooks, who (allegedly; I dont trust anything he says) wrote the songs to the musical version of his film parody with Gene Wilder. The Broadway community resents him jacking up premium orchestra prices to $450 (the irony is that the stagehands strike didnt affect him). I bought a Telecharge seat in Row Z, which I figured would be on the sidewalk, one of the last non-premium priced seats available at a mere $120.
When I arrived, Row Z was gone, but a house manager told me Id been upgraded to Row M--a much better seat but it didnt help the show, a cranked-up version of the film with ear-shattering special effects--e.g., a lab that shoots sparks and crackles crazily. The songs were just OK, nothing special, but the new monstrous Hilton Theater is so huge you cant hear the lyrics or see any facial expressions, even from Row M.
Roger Bart in the Wilder role is passable but not as unique as the dithery, googly-eyed Wilder; Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher is good (she always is) but too far away to enjoy (Martin Short, her original SCTV colleague, was in the audience); and the charming Broadway ingenue Sutton Foster lacked her usual Thoroughly Modern Millie/Drowsy Chaperone sweetly sexy appeal in the Teri Garr role. The one memorable, amusing performer was Christopher Fitzgerald as the hunchback Igor (Marty Feldmans role). Susan Stroman, director/choreographer, was on auto-pilot and the big numbers were mainly exhausting, not clever, inspired or winning. Its big and goofy but not funny--and not even brazen or tasteless by Brooks low standards (Act I anyway); Act II features a giant inflatable penis, critic John Lahr reveals, not an encouraging sign.
Ive seen far worse shows but I left at intermission, more interested in watching the baseball playoffs on TV than Act II of a loud, charmless, assembly-line musical. I missed the big number, Puttin on the Ritz, but figured it for a minor loss; the ballgame sounded more promising.
When I got home and flipped on the TV set, what should appear but Young Frankenstein, which I watched just long enough to realize that Brooks hadnt improved upon the movie (recycling the same gags) and was working against his own movie: the film was deft and inspired as a horror movie genre parody, whereas the musical was just a rehash of the movie on a big Broadway stage, so all the satirical movie shtick was missing--one reason most Broadway musicals made from movie musicals (Singin in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis) or just cinema dramas (Sweet Smell of Success) are semi-comatose on stage. The fun or charm or satire is nontransferable.
The Farnsworth Invention was lifeless in its own way. Its narrated by Sarnoff, played by tall, strapping, handsome Hank Azaria, when in fact David Sarnoff was a runty Jewish guy who should be played by a Danny DeVito or a Kevin Conway, so that instantly irked me. Azario is a tall sleek hunky guy, out of TVs Mad Men, not a hustling Russian émigré. (I knew a little about the Farnsworth saga from research I did for my book Raised on Radio, and it ought to be a far more compelling saga.)
Plays with narrators addressing the audience have become an easy, lazy device that breaks the first cardinal rule of drama--show, dont tell. Narrative tells, and only rarely is it used seamlessly enough to work as a set-up for the scenes--as in The Glass Menagerie, say, or some Neil Simon plays (Broadway Bound, Biloxi Blues, etc.).
Too often, stage narrative is just a crutch to deliver a story that needs to be played out; thats why theyre called plays. Otherwise, they seem like staged audio-books, and you can almost close your eyes and visualize the events as well as you can watching them. I also detected a tin ear for the era, the `20s, when Azara says he took a meeting--a phrase from the `80s. Director Des McAnuff, riding high after Jersey Boys, staged the play with melodramatic, trendy, theatrical effects--blinding lights in a board room and a big thump to open and close the first act. Again, I departed at intermission; the baseball playoffs were still on, and they struck me much more honestly dramatic.
As always, I went to a concert version of an old musical at the York Theater, downstairs at St. Peters Church--a forgotten `50s show called The Body Beautiful, noteworthy only as Bock & Harnicks first musical and as one of Bert Lahr's last musical performances, playing the manager of a prizefighter who wants to quit boxing. The score isnt much save for a gentle ballad and a comedy duet by two women, the shows only clue to the inventive songs to come later from a young songwriting team whose next show was Fiorello, followed by She Loves Me and, finally, Fiddler on the Roof.
I ventured into a couple of definitive Manhattan nightclubs, where you always feel ripped off but no worse now than at a Broadway show, and at least in a club you get dinner for your $125. At the restored and prettied up Birdland, we saw the glorious Klea Blackhurst in her one-woman Ethel Merman tribute, All the Traffic Will Allow, as good a one-person show as there is. In fact, I had seen it twice at the Plush Room in San Francisco but wanted Randy to catch it. If it comes your way, get there quickly.
Blackhurst doesnt mimic Merman but channels her in a show thats an anthology of classic (and lesser known) Merman songs but is also an inventive, deeply researched and felt narrative of Mermans life--funny, insightful and clever, and it turned me into a Merman fan from my earlier view of Merman as just an over-the-top belter. Blackhurst gets inside her skin, her persona and her career. Find the CD if nothing else.
A few nights later we went to Feinsteins-at-the-Regency, Michael Feinsteins posh cabaret at the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, where, awaiting Randy, I experienced yet another singular New York experience--a chat in the lobby with a once-glamorous, heavily made-up dowager draped in gold jewelry awaiting her driver --and her close-up. The room itself is nice but not ritzy, yet the prices would cause Donald Trump to sweat, even by midtown grand larceny supper club standards--$18 for a bowl of chicken noodle soup, and steeply upwards. The bill arrived in a Mack truck and came to $368, plus tip.
But we werent there for the food--OK but nothing special--we were there to hear Mary Cleere Haran, a San Francisco native who has been a belle of New York cabaret for 20 years. I used to know her but weve lost track, so it was nice to pay a return visit (pay being the operative word here). She was doing a Doris Day tribute, and Randy wanted to see her since hes writing what should be a definitive book on the girl singers of the 1950s, of whom Day was queen bee--the only one to make it as a movie star.
I was never a fan of Doris Days (too perky and wrapped in protective plastic), and Harans show didnt quite turn me into one despite a scholarly narrative that, like Blackhursts, was far sharper than the usual boilerplate bio and gave you a sense of the singer. It was usually Days songs that didnt interest me, not so much Day-- candy-flavored pop like Secret Love (now the lesbian national anthem), Que Sera Sera, If I Give My Heart to You, etc.
New York is always a pain in the wallet but this time I was struck low the last two days by true pain--a nasty abscessed tooth, probably in rebellion against New York, and spent the last 48 hours riding back and forth to a dentist who said the tooth needed to go as soon as I got home. He pumped me full of 15-minutes of intravenous antibiotics for the plane trip and I have since bid farewell to an otherwise trusty molar that served me well--and vice versa, but I suspect it was all that evil red meat that finally did it in.
©2007 by Gerald Nachman. This column first posted Nov. 26, 2007.
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