The Borough of Showbiz

New York City is a boîte boneyard, a nite-spot necropolis, a potter’s field of cabarets, oyster palaces and hotel lounges.

 Some names of past hotspots live on in popular lore — your Stork Club, your El Morocco. But there were so many others, maybe smaller in size and fame, that were at one time just as legendary with a certain clientele. Today they are nearly unknown. The heyday of these storied joints can never be recreated.  Well, if we can’t step inside, let’s loiter outside and toast, in salute to good times past. We may be a little late, but we have time for a quick one.

In this installment of a Quick One we go a-visiting with the inspiration for a popular cartoon personality and ponder the link between Broadway and Queens.

Queens has been called “the borough of jazz” for the many musicians who settled along the IRT Flushing line, now the No. 7, which provides a direct connection to Times Square and Broadway. It might be more accurate to say the borough of showbiz, because actors, musicians, and vaudevillians of all varieties, not just jazzbos, made that commute to their theater jobs. Beginning in the late ‘Twenties new neighborhoods sprang up in the “cornfields of Queens” thanks to the recent elevated line: Jackson Heights, Woodside, Corona all attracted their share of show folk who mixed in with other straighter refugees of the crowded clamor of Manhattan. It was a step up from the apartment hotels of the city.

One celestial couple of the Great White Way who made their home in Jackson Heights was hoofer Dan Healy and Helen Kane, the bubbly singer who was the model, both vocally and physically, for Betty Boop. We thought we’d like to lift a glass to them.

Helen (née Schroeder) came up in singing contests and chorus lines and went on to a full career as a Broadway star. Singing "That's My Weakness Now" in a show at the Paramount Theatre, the song's "boop-boop-a-doop" catchphrase quickly catapulted her to household name fame. She wasn’t the only one to interpolate baby talk in popular song, it was a gimmick many pop and blues singers used. An early example was in 1921's all-black Broadway smash Shuffle Along when Gertrude Saunders stopped that show cold with her number “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home,” which ends with an entire scat chorus in baby talk. Helen wasn't the first, but she became one of the most successful, recording for Victor and headlining the Palace Theatre in 1928. Her fun-loving flapper persona became so popular that there were Helen Kane impersonation contests for aspiring Broadway babies looking to bust into show business. One winner of a contest held in Atlantic City was Mae Questel, soon to become the voice of Betty Boop.

Helen was a Bronx gal, fully evident in her movie roles like Pointed Heels (with William Powell and Fay Wray), Sweetie (with Nancy Carroll and Jack Oakie) and as the title character in Dangerous Nan McGrew. “Broadway’s Boy” Dan Healy was an established performer, showman and wheeler-dealer. You can see him in action as the oily Miller in the alternately fascinating and dull as a doorknob Glorifying the American Girl, (shot in Astoria, with heart-stopping location work at Grand Central Station and along 42nd Street). He was a master of ceremonies in night spots including the Cotton Club. Helen and Dan were portrayed in the 1950 movie Three Little Words. Debbie Reynolds played Helen, but it was Helen’s voice singing on the soundtrack.

Helen and Dan had skyscraper highs and serious lows; both finished their days together here at The Berkeley, a characteristically splendid Jackson Heights apartment building.

The Berkeley (fka Berkeley Hall), a neo-Georgian building with nine foot ceilings in its 84 units at 77-12 35th Avenue, was erected in 1937. It had a roof garden, children’s playground and gymnasium. It is now a co-op.

Our cocktail hour with Mr. and Mrs. Healy features the Charleston, from The Savoy Cocktail Book.  It’s an aromatic and potent sipper made with equal parts gin, maraschino, kirsch, Curaçao, Italian and French vermouths, and garnished with a lemon peel. A half ounce of each will build you a 3 ounce drink, and upon giving it serious thought, we have two suggestions: first, choose a bracing gin, and to top it all off, add a cocktail cherry after you’ve expressed your lemon peel.

To The Heights!


A Bar Is a Bar Is a Bar

Because we at Grade “A” Fancy never duck a controversy, let’s put a new topic on the table and see if we can’t start a small war.

We’re the #1 fans of food with drinking. It’s the civilized thing to do, it keeps you from ruining your stomach, and it’s a great strategy for remaining upright on your seat. BUT.

The fad of eating a full meal at the bar has begun suck the soul out of some of our favorite haunts.

We're always on the look-out for places with snacks on the bar—Sardi’s renowned cheese spread with Ritz crackers, for example, and the posher hotel bars are often generous with nuts and crunchy bits. There are even a few humbler neighborhood joints that still spring for free hot dogs or popcorn. That’s all as it should be. And we aren’t complaining about tapas, either. The danger begins when a bar is colonized by soup-to-nuts diners.

Predictably, the hot scene-y places even feed this fad by selling stools at the bar as regular reservations. Two offenders in this vein are also among the worst gentrifying war criminals in the restaurant biz: the ruinovated Minetta Tavern and the annihilated Fedora. Both of these atrocities treat a barstool exactly like a seat at a table. If that’s their game, fine. You won’t catch me dead in either of these clip joints. The precedent they set inevitably bleeds into regular places that once maintained a customary separation between bar and restaurant.

Picture this: a weekday evening at one of our most beloved Greenwich Village restaurants, an old-fashioned stalwart with a good sized bar and separate dining room. Two thirsty fans step out of the cold, happily note our favorite bartender is presiding—but oh, damn, all the stools are filled. That is a drag but then we notice that most of the folks are eating a whole goddam dinner, big plates, forks, side dishes, the whole friggin’ works. Plenty of tables sit empty in the dining room, so this is the choice of customers, not the necessary result of overcrowding.

If you are on your own and feel like a bite at the bar rather than a table, have at it. If you are the cherished regular who eats there every night, solo, more power to you. You are already part of that bar’s culture. You interact with the other patrons, regular and irregular, and you only take up one stool. There is a gentleman who eats every dinner at the bar we are discussing, and good for him. But when the entire length of the mahogany is taken up with parties of two plus, packing it in like they were at the counter at Chock Full o’ Nuts? Well, if they could bring themselves to eat at a table then a few other people (us) might have a crack at enjoying a restorative in civilized surroundings before sitting down to dinner.

When a fad like this one, born and bred in the trendy places, and probably, ironically, fed by the fashionableness of cocktail bars, starts to infect creaky old-timers, something must be done. A simple way to lessen the disruption of a feed at the bar, and one that used to be common, is to have a separate bar menu. The Heidelberg serves sandwiches, fishy appetizers, and wurst plates. Similarly, the McSorley’s menu is sandwiches or a sleeve of saltines and a stack of cheese. Keep it simple, finger food or nibbles (tapas americanas), and we will have no objections.

But we want that seat at the bar. There’s drinking to be done.