Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Remembering Vincent Sardi Jr.

Dinner at Sardi's. That's owner/host Vincent Sardi Jr. is on the right.
January 8th, 2007 — New York lost one of its legendary restaurateurs last week when Vincent Sardi Jr. passed away at age 91. In his day, and before that, in his father’s day, Sardi’s restaurant on West 44th Street between Broadway and Eighth was the culinary social mecca for the giants of the American theatre – producers, directors, chorographers, composers, lyricists, playwrights, actors, actresses, stars – all went to Sardi’s. To see, to be seen, to make their way, to make their day.  It was a theatre restaurant with its lunch and dinner hours arranged tightly around the theatre’s schedules.

In the mid-1960s I was living in New York, pursuing a career as an actor (not very prosperously, to be sure). Looking for some part time work and a friend of mine Peter Gina, (pronounced Gin-ay) who was the nephew of Vincent Sardi, recommended me to his uncle to work as an assistant to the maitre d’ at the dinner hour and the Wednesday and Saturday matinee lunch hours.
Vincent Sardi in the main dining room on the first floor, circa 1980s.
Sardi in the back of house.
I reported for work at 5 and it was over at 8 when the restaurant would virtually empty out with everyone going to the theatre. I was given Ruritanian officer’s red and gold jacket for the occasion. The maitre d’ was Jimmy Molinski, known by all the rich and famous and regulars as Jimmy, who had started as a busboy at Sardi's when he was a kid. By the time I met him he was a very polished complement to his boss, Vincent (“Mr. Sardi”) who was also his contemporary.

Jayne Mansfield in the doorway at Sardi's, c. 1955
Photo: Getty Images
My job was to stand at the door as the customers entered and if I didn’t recognize them (stars, VIPs, etc.), I was to ask them if they had a reservation. If they did, I directed them to Jimmy. If they didn’t: upstairs (unless there were open tables downstairs).

The little square entrance area where I stood was the hub of the restaurant. It was where the hatcheck was, where the entrance to the bar was, the staircase and the maitre d’s desk which opened to the main dining room.

Soon I got used to the cast of characters who frequented almost daily: agents, press agents, producers. (David Merrick would walk in and out a couple of times, often followed by his two deputies, Jack Schlissel and Allen Delyn). A ruddy faced blond man named Lawrence Shubert Lawrence came and went with his two lieutenants, Bernie Jacobs and Gerry Schoenfeld. Almost all businessmen still wore hats in those days.There were stars in the casts of the local shows who came in for early dinner so as to be in their dressing rooms by 7. And many of the staff of the New York Times which used Sardi’s as its local tavern. This included everyone from the Sulzbergers right down to the boys and girls in the newsroom.
David Merrick, Ginger Rogers, Jerry Herman, and David Burns celebrating the 1,000th performance of the Broadway hit, Hello, Dolly, at Sardi's. (Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)
At Sardi's, circa 1946: left to right, Comedienne Gracie Allen (George Burns' wife and comedy partner), Jack Haley (who played the Tin Man in "the Wizard of Oz"), actress and dancer Portland Hoffa (also the wife of Fred Allen), Fred Allen, a very famous comedian with his own weekly radio, and later television show, noted for his dry wit, small town all-American wit), and Mary Livingston (who was also Mrs. Jack Benny). (Photo: Fink/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
Then there were the theatre legends. Jack Kirkland, who had one hit, but a bonanza in “Tobacco Road.” By the time I got to Sardi’s Mr. Kirkland was a lonely but loved figure at the bar. Dorothy Fields the lyricist (“I Won’t Dance,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love…”) came every Saturday and was the only person, man or woman who ever gave me a tip. A buck, passed discreetly to me as she exited. Often lunching with Mrs. Martin Beck. Two older ladies (to these eyes) in their minks, with their drinks, their cigarettes, then some cannelloni. Hal Prince, sunny and prolific at all times, arriving in his grey chauffeur-driven Jaguar. Also the white-on-white and all pailletted Miss Hope Hampton (of yesteryear even then) arriving for the after theatre opening I her black Rolls, ready for her closeup.
Arthur Schwartz, Broadway composer ("Dancing In the Dark," "You and the Night and the Music," "That's Entertainment"), with lyricist Dorothy Fields in 1939 when they were collaborating on an Ethel Merman show, "Stars in Your Eyes." Fields, who was 35 when the photo was taken, was one of the great Broadway and Hollywood lyricists. She wrote more than 400 songs including "A Fine Romance," "I'm in the Mood For Love," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "The Way You Look Tonight," "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Fields would lunch at Sardi's every Saturday when I worked there, always with her pal Mrs. Martin Beck. Mrs. Beck was the widow of the man who was a theater owner — who built the Palace — and founded the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, which later merged with the Keith-Albee circuit, which later became RKO Pictures (without Beck).
Everyone came through the doors in those days (late 1960s). “Hello Dolly” was down the street. “Cabaret” was across the way and “Fiddler On the Roof” a few doors down. Richard Burton was appearing in “Hamlet.” The night he came in with Elizabeth Taylor after the show, the cops had to close off the entire block because of the thousands of people wanting to get a glimpse of the stars. Mrs. Onassis came; the Ford Sisters, Anne and Charlotte, with their mother, the three of them all aglitter and 60s haute, setting off the front room center like Diamonds as Big As the Ritz. Movie stars, new stars, old stars; June Allyson looking like she’d just walked out of a movie I’d seen when I was six.

One night right after the dining room had emptied, Warren Beatty came through the door looking for Barbara Harris. (His girlfriend at the time.) A funny question because she was appearing in “The Apple Tree” across the street at that very moment. He turned around and left. Unbeknownst to me, however, only minutes before, in the middle of the first act, as she was about to perform a musical number, Miss Harris stopped and said to the audience, “I can’t do this,” and walked off the stage, out of the theatre, down 44th Street to Times Square and got on a bus going downtown. (She later resumed her role in the show).
Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly (later Princess Grace of Monaco), and William Holden in a scene from "Country Girl" (Kelly won an Oscar for her role), filmed in Sardi's, 1951.
Steve Allen and Ingrid Bergman at Sardi's, January 19, 1957. Photo: Getty Images
And in the middle of all this was Vincent Sardi always moving around the room and amidst the crowds in constant gathering at the entrance doors, coming and going, he'd be greeting, hallo-ing, clasping a hand, patting a shoulder, sharing a quick joke, opening up his hearth and home to YOU.

He was not a tall man, maybe 5’10” if that. Bald with a good Roman head; turned out usually in a charcoal grey bespoke suit (to his maitre d’s dark suit); that fit him impeccably. He was solidly built, broad shouldered, thick arms and neck looking like you’d think an ex-Marine officer (he was) might look. With this came a world class personality, an ambassador’s finesse with a royal flourish yet warm and effusive. He had a very audible almost booming yet soft voice with a bit of a rasp to it. It’s a vocal quality that always appeals. He lowered it as he leaned in and spoke to his guests, almost deferential, but not, as if with a slight bow, and when he moved away there might be a burst of laughter between everyone. And on to the next….
Scenes at Sardi's from "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," 1960. Doris Day with David Niven (top) and Janis Paige (above).
I’d stand by the door and watch him with his clientele. They were always glad to see him, always charmed. To most he was a celebrity whose name was synonymous with Broadway history. His attention was light and brief, but intensely focused, as if to leave its mark. He was a pro: while talking to them, even if for twenty seconds, he was with them. Then might come the laugh, and then he turned away and moved on to the next hello-hello. Again the same intense focus, brief convivial, in that voice. It was a marvel to behold. There was a precise technique, and conscious of it or not, he knew what he was doing; this was his stage, and all the stars came to it.

Everyone, everything came and went but Vincent Sardi remained. And when he sat down to dine, which was rare, the conversation would often slowly raise in decibels to accommodate his convivial charm. He was a pleasure to be around, and he extended that charm to everyone who came into his realm.
Vincent Sardi Jr. with Lillian Roth. Roth, once a famous stage and film star in the '30s who later wrote a best-selling memoir made into a hit film with Susan Hayward called "I'll Cry Tomorrow," had made a "comeback" when when photo was taken, starring in "I Can Get It For You Wholesale," the Broadway show where Barbra Streisand got her start in a small role as Miss Marmelstein (and became a star over night).
As a manager, the owner, Vincent he was decisive and definitely the boss. But he had an executive in charge just as he had Jimmy (and Mr. Valentine at supper) at the door. They were the team and he was the leader, the king. He socialized with his clientele, went to their parties, skied and summered among them. The theatre in his lifetime was a powerful social institution even within the confines of Manhattan society. It was very much part of the elite, and Vincent Sardi was as much a part of it as he wished to be.

As it is in his business, marriages can be difficult. Vincent had three, and four children with his second wife Adele.

I worked there for a little more than a year and decided to leave when Vincent asked me if I’d be interested in going into the restaurant business. I could see its allure but I could also see how it owns you; it is your wife, your partner. When I left my job at Sardi's I was replaced however briefly by a young comedian who just a few years later became a household name on the original SNL Chevy Chase.

The business changed as the theatre changed. The '70s and early '80s saw a big drop-off in the Broadway theater-going. Changing tastes and economics. Vincent sold Sardi’s in 1985 to a group of investors to who lost it back to him several years later.

By the 1990s, the theatre had come back to prosperity but the audience had changed. An obvious measure of that is the average theater-goer’s mode of dress. When Vincent Sardi started out in business working for his father, men wore top hats to opening night. When I was working the door with Jimmy in the late 1960s, all opening night after parties were held at Sardi’s, the women wore jewels and long dresses and furs, and men wore black tie. Today they wear anything but. The fashion is whatever you want and nothing much matters. So by the time that he had abdicated his role as the ambassador of Broadway, Broadway had changed too. Vincent Sardi’s passing marks the closure.