As protests go, it was small beer, but on Saturday a minor picket-packing horde had arranged itself peaceably outside the Cafe Edison, better known as the Polish Tea Room, on West 47th Street. The people had come to voice their displeasure over the imminent shuttering of one of Broadway’s most cherished hangouts. “Don’t Bust My Matzoh Balls,” one sign implored.
Today black crepe enshrouds the Theater District. A movement has begun, calling for a dimming of the lights of theater marquees for one minute before curtain time, a sacred honor reserved to mark the passing of only the most eminent figures in the world of drama, from Bill Shakespeare to Joan Rivers. OK, it may not have been as dark a day as Tisha B’Av, the grimmest on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. But it was pretty dark nonetheless.
The Polish Tea Room, closing? Where playwrights as foreign to one another as Neil Simon and August Wilson mingled with chorines and stage managers, producers and set designers and the agents hawking all their wares?
And so another piece of Times Square prepares to join the landfill of history, along with the Morosco Theatre, Howard Johnson’s, Orange Julius, Sam’s and the Hotel Piccadilly. It will be replaced after the first of the year by a white-tablecloth joint. That’s awfully funny, even ironic maybe, since the Polish Tea Room is in the Edison Hotel, an auberge not universally celebrated as a starched-linen establishment. It’s more of a Formica-and-puckered-linoleum sort of place. This coffee shop is so-named because, like the heyday of its snooty cousin the Russian Tea Room ten blocks north, it has been a place where million-dollar deals were sealed with a handshake over chicken Kiev (at the RTR) or sliced-turkey-extra-pickles-hold-the-mayo at the PTR).
Polish survivors of the Holocaust Harry and Frances Edelstein took over what had been a Beefsteak Charlie’s franchise in 1980; they were themselves refugees from the Picadilly, which would soon be replaced by the Marriott Marquis, the ugliest hotel on Manhattan island if not planet Earth. With their son-in-law Conrad Stohl, the Edelsteins welcomed one and all to the coffee shop-cum-deli, where the daily specials are hand-written in multicolor Magic Marker and Scotch-taped to the mirrors behind the counters. Whether you were known to the Edelsteins or not, if you were hungry you would be fed and the bill could wait. Even today, if you snag the along the eastern wall to nurse a Sanka for a couple of hours, no one is going to bother you.
Everyone is treated equal at the Polish Tea Room, though of course some are treated more equal than others. West of the north entrance to the place is a cordoned-off section generally reserved for pashas, sultans, exchequers and supplicants of the Shubert Organization, Broadway’s biggest landlord and the most powerful business in the district. It was in this exposed inner sanctum that I first broke bagel with Bernard B. Jacobs, the late Shubert president, when I became the Broadway reporter for the New York Times. (Bernard’s partner, the late Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, preferred the “21” Club, and I had lunch with him there as well. They were kids who had grown up on the rough West Side of Manhattan, done very well, thank you, and had different ways of showing it.)
For a Broadway reporter, there never was a greater font of stories than the Tea Room, as it was inevitable that whatever time of day you arrived, someone in a booth had a grave injustice to bitch about, a career-making gig to tout, some juicy bit of gossip to share in absolute confidence (confidence, that is, that unless you published it right away, someone else assuredly would). In 2004 Frances and Harry received a special Tony Award for “providing the theater community with hearty sustenance and a cheerful home-away-from-home at the Cafe Edison.” (Vincent Sardi also got a Tony that year.) And when Harry died in the summer of 2009, Broadway dimmed the lights without anyone needing to petition for the honor.
Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times restaurant critic who may be counted upon to say any outrageous thing, was quoted by that paper on Friday to the effect that with the passing of the Polish Tea Room, “now the theater district is just fake. I thought it was better when they had the prostitutes there.” Where does one even begin in responding to such nonsense? Broadway isn’t fake; it is — and for more than a century has been — brutally, brutally real. Ask just about any producer who’s ever had a show close at a loss, which is of course just about any producer.
Still, some closing nights hurt more than others. The day the Polish Tea Room goes dark will be one of them.