20 January 2009

Toots, Toots, Tootsie, Goodbye

New York isn't kind to famous restaurants, bars and clubs. When they die, they die. No funeral, no mourning, no plaque. But hot spots that reigned mid-century, when Midtown was king, suffered especially ignominious deaths. Not only were they kicked to the curb, but the building they were kicked out of was torn down, and the curb repaved.

I'm thinking of the temples of pre- and post-WWII Cafe Society. Rarely has a culture so dominated the City and then been so thoroughly erased from the streets. I'm talking El Morocco, The Stork Club, The Colony. Don't look for El Morocco on E. 54th Street, or The Stork on E. 53rd Street, or The Colony on E. 61st Street. Not a trace! In most cases, the grave of the haunt in question lies under the tons of steel and concrete of a towering office building.

I am brought to these thoughts by Toots Shor. I've been thinking of Toots a lot lately, mainly because I recently picked up the 1951 book-length John Bainbridge profile of the salt-of-the-earth "saloonkeeper" and read it through. Celebrities went everywhere they could get a free meal and some attention, but Toots Shor's place was known for particularly attracting the stars of the sporting world and the journalists who wrote about them. It's was an almost exclusively male dominion, a place of steaks and bear hugs and heavy drinking and maudlin male bonding. Toots was a mountain: 6'1" and heavy, he began his career as a highly popular bouncer. (Imagine that.) He worshiped athletes and was friends with most of the big ones; Joe DiMaggio was a close friend.

His original joint was on 51 E. 51st Street. (There were two subsequent reincarnations, before Shor's finances tanked in 1971. Big on loaning dough to his pals, he wasn't so big on paying government taxes.) There's nothing there now, just a hulking gray office building and a measly plaque (though that's more than the Stork has going for it). Not due respect for a man who dominated New York society in the 1940s and 1950s like few others.

A good part of me knows I wouldn't fit in at Shor's even if it were in business today and the big man were still alive. I pace my drinking, am not fanatically devoted to the sports scene, enjoy visiting a variety of restaurants, don't really care for being called a "crumb bum" and am likely to balk if someone suddenly hit me up for a $25,000 loan—all personal traits that would cause Shor to loathe my very presence. But I still wish the place was around, or at least vaguely remembered. Anything but completely airbrushed from the City's face.


David Freeland said...

Interesting history on Toots Shor's, Brooks. Did you know that the first Stork Club (its original speakeasy incarnation) is still standing? It's on West 58th Street between 6th and 7th. I'll try to get an exact address for you.

Marsha said...

Have you seen this documentary Toots Shor's granddaughter put out last year? FANTASTIC!! http://www.tootsthemovie.com/

Brooks of Sheffield said...

No. Want to.

David Freeland said...

Hi Brooks - So the first location of the Stork Club, during Prohibition times, was 132 West 58th. Along with its immediate neighbor, it's the only 19th-century row house on the block. The last time I passed it, there was a restaurant in the space.

Signed D.C. said...

I imagine you're not the type to bother with cable TV, but one of the finest time capsules of the way things were in midcentury New York is broadcast daily at 3 a.m. on the Game Show Network--the truly entertaining "What's My Line." Among its many highlights, John Daly (most underrated television personality EVER!) and Bennett Cerf have a tendency to mention the goings-on at Toots Shor's quite often.