My daughter just left for a week in New York with her mom. It’s her very first trip there and she was so excited about it she wanted to start packing weeks ago. Since Leah is such a theatre fanatic they’re going to cram in a ton of Broadway shows, just as I always try to do whenever I go to New York.
I'll never forget my first trip to that city. It was August 1972 and I had just survived my Bar Mitzvah which had taken place during a particularly hideous time in my family. As a consolation prize my grandparents decided to take me with them to the Big Apple where my grandfather was being honored as the new president of the Menswear Retailers of America. I had barely been out of Chicago except for summer trips to see my relatives in Toronto so I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to see that fabulous New York skyline which was in the process of changing dramatically with the almost completed construction of the World Trade Center.
Because of my grandfather’s new position (I believe the MRA chose a new president each year) we were treated to a suite at the ultra-modern Americana Hotel on 7th Avenue. (The unusually shaped building is still there but I think it’s now a Sheraton.) I had my own room in the suite but what I mostly remember was my grandparents’ bed which seemed as big as a football field and was covered with an actual mink bedspread! There was a gigantic color television console in our living room and it was exciting to eat the fancy schmancy room service while watching "Marcus Welby" on such a huge screen!
On our first night in New York we went to meet an old friend of my grandparents who was living at the Plaza Hotel. As we approached the door to that amazing building a limousine screeched to a halt a few feet from us. The doorman scurried over to open the door and out climbed none other than Liza Minnelli. “Cabaret” had just been released a few months earlier to international acclaim and Liza had finally achieved a level of stardom that matched or perhaps exceeded her famous parents. She was in full Sally Bowles drag complete with long glittered eyelashes and dark red lipstick—she could have walked straight out of Berlin’s decadent Kit Kat Klub. I had recently seen her Emmy Award-winning special “Liza with a Z” in which she rattled off the funny title song about how frustrating it was that no one ever seemed to get her name right:
It's Liza with 'Z'
Not Lisa with an 'S'
'Cause Lisa with an 'S' goes ‘sss’ not ‘zzz’
It's 'Z' instead of 'S'
'Lie' instead of 'Lee'
It's simple as can be
I was running through those lyrics in my head when my grandmother spotted Minnelli making her way towards us.
“LEESA!! LEESA MINNOOLI!! COME OVER HERE AND MEET MY GRANDSON!”
Oy. Even at 13, I knew enough to be mortified. Liza swept by, waving and giving us a trademark Liza giggle before disappearing inside the hotel. Being the early 70s, she was probably on her way to Studio 54 where she’d overindulge and schmooze until dawn with Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol.
This is a photo (click to enlarge if you want to see the full horror of my suit) from the luncheon held the next day in my grandfather’s honor. I’m standing with my grandparents and I assume the other men were big machers in the menswear industry. I was clearly the only person under 60 at this lunch and I don’t think I had the foresight yet to appreciate the history that was in the room. The 1970s were like some kind of long transition between the Old and New Worlds. Both of my grandfather’s parents, who had grown up in a Polish shtetl and emigrated to Canada in 1907, had just died earlier that year. The mens clothing world was still called the “shmatte business” and was largely run by Jewish immigrants who were born in Russia or Poland or had Yiddish-speaking parents who had come over just before they were born.
That night we went to the taping of a talk show Steve Allen was doing at the time. It was my first visit to a television studio and I was ecstatic. Although I knew most of my favorite shows were filmed in California, I still hoped to run into Sonny and Cher or the Mod Squad (“one black, one white, one blond”). Steve Allen was a supremely talented host, spending a lot of time with each guest and asking funny, in-depth questions. His main guest that night was a young comedian named Woody Allen who had just released a new comedy called “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).” I’m sure most of Woody’s humor was over my head but I had loved “Bananas” and “Play it Again, Sam” and was thrilled to see him in the flesh. At one point Woody mentioned that his ex-wife, who was also in his new film, was in the audience. Steve Allen shielded his eyes against the spotlight and looked directly at where we were sitting. I turned around and there, right behind us, standing up for a quick nervous bow, was Louise Lasser. Woody and Louise had divorced the year before and she still wasn't that famous yet. She was probably best known for her popular Nyquil commercial (Man: “You’re a good wife, Mildred.” Woman: “I know, I know.”). Lasser was several years away from her ground-breaking turn as “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (a show both of Kendall’s parents worked on). What interested me far more than Louise Lasser was her companion that evening—Don Hollinger, aka Ted Bessell, Marlo Thomas’s boyfriend on “That Girl!”
We only saw one Broadway play on that trip but it was enough to whet my appetite for a lifetime love of theatre. Leaving my grandfather to his meetings, my grandmother and I snuck off to a matinee of “No No Nanette” the old chestnut from half a century earlier. The original show premiered in 1926 and was considered the cause of the Boston Red Sox “curse.” Apparently, in his effort to finance the show, producer and former Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees!
The revival owed its success to the nostalgia craze that was sweeping the country in the early 70s. The show featured some of the biggest stars from that long-ago era. Ruby Keeler was still going strong and could deliver kicks as high as when she made “42nd Street.” She hadn’t appeared with co-star Patsy Kelly since the 1935 film “Go Into Your Dance” starring Keeler’s then-husband Al Jolson. Penny Singleton (the original “Blondie” and the voice of Jane Jetson) was also in the cast along with Helen Gallagher and Bobby Van. The story was pure fluff but the old 1920s songs were great and were delivered with gusto by the seasoned professionals. My favorite number was that anthem of codependency:
I want to be happy
But I won't be happy
Till I make you happy too.
Life's really worth living
When you are mirth giving
Why can't I give some to you?
When skies are gray
And you say you are blue
I'll send the sun smiling through…
Leah and her mom are meeting a contingent of Sophie’s relatives from France for their New York adventure so I’m sure they'll be dining in wonderful restaurants. The night I saw my first Broadway show, we were treated by some friends of my grandparents to a lavish dinner at one of the finest French restaurants in New York, La Côte Basque. Needless to say, I had never been in such a fancy place. I couldn’t believe that no matter how fast I wolfed down the warm crusty rolls another one would magically appear on my bread plate. I even remember what I ordered—the “butterfly steak.” Along with the women, I was given a menu with no prices. (Does any restaurant still do that? “Don’t worry your pretty little head, honey, order whatever you want.”) It was only later that I copped a look at the tab and noticed that my entrée was THE most expensive one on the menu. Oops. But what really burned this evening into my head was L’Affaire du Vase.
Each of the beautifully appointed tables in this gorgeous restaurant had fresh cut flowers sitting in a small but elegant vase. In between our main course and chocolate soufflé, my grandmother whispered to me that I should take the vase home as a souvenir for my mother. “What?!” I replied in shock. “No way, that’s a really expensive vase! I can't take that!” “Don’t be silly,” she said, “they expect you to. Here, let me just dump these flowers out...put it on your lap with your napkin over it.” I was worried that if I continued protesting I'd only draw more attention to myself so I just sat there paralyzed. A few minutes later, an obsequious waiter appeared at my side and said, “Excusez-moi, monsieur, but may I wrap that item for you?” The waiter then grabbed the vase from my lap and returned a few minutes later with a beautifully giftwrapped “La Côte Basque” box and placed it in front of me. All of the adults laughed at my predicament and our host was charged an additional $75 for the “souvenir.” What really got me is that my grandmother repeated this story for years to come but in her version it was always MY idea to take the vase! I did give the vase to my mother who stored pennies in it and after she died I reclaimed it as the souvenir my grandmother swore it was!
I don't want to give you the wrong impression of my beloved grandmother. Let me assure you that in spite of accosting Liza Minnelli at the Plaza Hotel and indulging in a minor episode of kleptomania at one of New York’s finest restaurants, Anita Karoll was one of the classiest women I’ve ever known!
Leah just called me from New York as I was writing this even though it’s after midnight there. She’s having a blast and ate dinner at the Carnegie Deli tonight, site of Woody Allen’s superb “Broadway Danny Rose.” Damn, I’m so jealous!
I want to wake up
In the city that never sleeps
To find I'm king of the hill
Top of the heap!