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Another Broadway institution bites the dust as the Edison Cafe closes

Jackie Mason was a regular at Cafe Edison. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Nothing, they always say, lasts forever (apart from herpes).

But just as I still mourn the loss over here of Dress Circle, which provided a social hub for musical theatre fans as well as a shop in which to hear and buy the latest releases, I was particularly saddened last week to hear of the imminent closure of a New York theatrical offstage institution, the Edison Cafe inside the Edison Hotel on West 47th Street, right opposite the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and just along the street from the TKTS booth in Times Square.

It was known to those in the know as the Polish Tea Room – partly in reference to the origins of its original proprietors Harry and Frances Edelstein, whose families had been wiped out in the Holocaust but who met and married in Warsaw and moved to the US after the war, and partly to the food they served which included some of the best soups on Broadway, including chilled gazpacho (a personal favourite of mine) and chicken matzoh ball.

But legend also has it that it was thus dubbed because more theatrical deals were struck there than at the more upscale Russian Tea Rooms next to Carnegie Hall. (When Harry Edelstein died in 2009, the New York Times paid him the tribute of an extended obituary).

The late August Wilson famously wrote some of his plays there, while Neil Simon once even wrote a play that was set inside an exact recreation of it that was entitled 45 Seconds from Broadway, and played – all too briefly – just across the street from the real-life place’s rear entrance on West 46th Street at the Richard Rodgers in 2001. The Edelsteins were duly at the first night. The producer of that play, and of more than 20 others by Neil Simon, was Emanuel Azenberg, who is reported in the New York Times as saying he did a “ton of deals there”.

I never did any deals myself, but I had a ton of lunches and rushed dinners there, en route to matinees or evening performances, and you were almost always guaranteed a celebrity sighting amongst the tourists. I was once unofficially invited to join Harvey Fierstein for lunch there, and sat beside Tony winner Judy Kaye on another occasion when she was appearing just around the corner in Nice Work If You Can Get It. I also passed the time with Broadway superproducer Scott Rudin here. But you would also meet ushers, stagehands and musicians – it was Broadway’s most democratic eaterie.

I never made it into private, red-roped booth to the right of the entrance off 47th Street (you could also enter via the hotel lobby itself), known as the Shubert booth because it was where executives of the Shubert Organisation and other power brokers would dine privately. Shubert Chairman Philip J Smith told the New York Times last week:

It’s a great loss to the theatre community and all of us who went there. We went there on the first or second day, and Harry and Frances gave us our own booth. Always, I had the sliced turkey, and made it into great sandwiches.

Whenever comedian Jackie Mason was appearing on Broadway, I’d always spot him eating here. Last week, he told the New York Daily News: “Another New York institution bites the dust. I will miss the blintzes. They were the best. Very sad.”

A superb New York blog called Vanishing New York, which dubs itself “a bitterly nostalgic look at a city in the process of going extinct” reported this news by saying:

Drop a bomb on Times Square. It’s over. The Cafe Edison is being evicted. The last real coffee shop left in the neighborhood, it’s an absolute oasis in an otherwise miserable part of town.

Actually, all is not entirely lost quite yet – head over one more block to 9th Avenue and there are two great coffee shops that I regularly frequent, the Galaxy at 46th Street and the Westway (recently refurbished) between 43rd and 44th Streets. On my last trip to New York last month, I saw Ian Rickson breakfasting with his family at the first, and ran into choreographer Anthony van Laast (in town to work on Sideshow) at the other.

But it’s unquestionably true that New York’s Disneyfication is sweeping away some of the theatre districts most fabled hangouts. Also recently lost: 8th Avenue’s Smith’s Bar and Restaurant and Gallagher’s Steak House on West 52nd Street. It’s a few years since we also lost Sam’s on West 45th Street and McHale’s on West 46th Street.

And it’s not just eateries: one of my saddest theatrical days, albeit of a different sort to the usual theatres I go to on Broadway, was when the Gaiety Theatre shut its doors in 2005. Located right next door to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, it wasn’t a conventional theatre at all, but an all-male strip club! I previously noted in a blog that “there was nowhere quite like it anywhere else in New York; when Madonna photographed her infamous Sex book, several pages were shot there, using some of the local ‘talent’.”

Then there’s Stella’s, a bar on West 47th Street next door to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, which is now a generic Irish pub.

I miss them all.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

The Stage Awards 2015

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