Saturday, February 26, 2011

My First trip to NYC October 1976

My sixteenth birthday gift was a fall trip to NYC, a place I had fantasized about all my conscious life. This was true of millions of suburban kids of my generation across the US, but my interest in this urban mecca was heightened by my obsession with musical theater, devoted attendance at all the Kenley Players productions I could get to see at Memorial Hall in downtown Dayton. I had the usual vast collection of original cast LPs, was alway on the lookout for any show albums or studio remakes, longed to know the shows that came and went whose recordings were far out of my reach in suburban Ohio. NYC was the home of broadway musical theater and all its denizens and the focus of many of my adolescent fantasies of fame, fortune and a glamorous life in the theater. I don't know how this interest of mine was born; i don't recall any point where I was tuned in or turned on, particularly, except my first exposure to music of any kind that stimulated me began with the R&H soundtracks every early 1960s house had: Oklahoma, King and I, South Pacific. I listened to these over and over and memorized every word and each note. When I was five years old, I was taken to a huge cinema downtown Dayton to the premiere of The Sound of Music. I will never forget this; I have a very good recall of that day while my memory for most other far past events in my life is hopelessly muddled and out of focus. That day, we had perfect sunny blue skies; I can still remember walking across a busy intersection to cross to the cinema entrance and a giant 70mm cinnescope screen curving from end to end of the vast auditorium. When the Alps appeared and a camera zoomed in on a tiny figure who slowly grew into close-up of Jule Andrews who I'd seen the year before in Mary Poppins, the music swelled and I was hooked.
Well that was a long time ago. I'm still hooked but with a few more reservations about NYC and the theater than I had then. I don't recall planning the 1976 birthday visit but it was to take place long after my birthday in October that year, probably because my mother had to schedule vacation to join my grandmother and I who travelled out first together.
We stayed at the now demolished Abbey-Victoria Hotel between Times Square and Rockefeller Center.
Our room looked just like the one in the postcard in terms of decor and plaster walls and square windows, but we had a corner room with twin beds on one end, an ell-shape with another bed (for my grandmother) and a large old fashioned bathroom with its own large window.  From the main bedroom window I could see the huge marquee of the Winter Garden Theater announcing Pacific Overtures in large block letters. The downer was that the show had closed already which I learned after running downstairs and across the street to buy tickets, finding a shuttered and locked theater with a bare closing notice taped to the doors.
7th Ave Marquee of Winter Garden Theater today.  A shuttered house in
1976 with Pacific Overtures in tall block letters across the marquee.

The Abbey-Victoria stood on the right corner at 51st St. From my corner view on a high floor
I saw the 7th avenue marquee of the Winter Garden with Pacific Overtures still on the bill nearly
three months after its July 27 closing. In Nov. 1976, Natalie Cole moved in for some concert dates.

My first taste of show business reality. There are a lot sadder things in life than a show closing but to me it was a slap in the face, a reality check that a real trip to NYC might include disappointment and letdowns I'd experienced in my life back home. It wasn't all a bed of roses, but I loved the grit and dirt and smells of mid-seventies Manhattan.
The hotel was completely old-fashioned. It hadn't been updated since the early forties and I loved everything about it. It's newstand whose polished brass fittings had seen better days. The giant, upholstered round pouf in the center of the lobby was hopelessly out-of-date then, comparing it to the spanking new modernity of the Americana lobby on Times Square that looked like a Disney resort.
The dusty pendants of the grand chandeliers suspended overhead. You can see all of this in the postcard photo. No one today could admire this decor but at 16 this was my idea of a great NY hotel lobby. The ticket desk, the coffee shop, gift shop, and Stockholm restaurant were all in full gear when my grandmother and I arrived from the airport at around noon that October day. The weather was chilly but sunny. It got much colder the next few days but stayed dry during our entire visit.
The Abbey-Victoria Hotel
I love this matchbook cover MAP of the Hotel and environs. First it depicts NYC as its own planet. The north pole is Central Park and the meridian lines stretch from Columbus Circle to Madison Square Garden. The most evocative aspect on this map is the curving line of Broadway that cuts across the straight as an arrow line of 7th Avenue (where the hotel was located). The artist dotted the script like marquee lightbulbs and instead of naming the curving black line as 'Broadway', he spells out "The Lights of Broadway."  There is no better illustration for my own dazzled viewpoint at 16 then this matchbook cover of my temporary home base in 1970s Manhattan.

NY Magazine review of Abbey-Victoria from the early 1970s

Button-tufted settee, chandeliers, gold-flecked mirrors, paneled walls,
well-stocked newsstand, reception desk behind square pillars, french provincial chairs
and upholstered seating. Nothing like a hotel lobby today and much the better for that.
I'm nearly certain our room had the same red carpet and furnishings. Only open up the right wall,
add an ell-shaped addition with another twin bed and a large bath beyond.

The main impetus behind my getting this tremendous birthday gift was tied up with my piano lessons, my undertaking a piano vocal score of Gershwin's Porgy & Bess and a splashy NYC revival of this show by the Houston Grand Opera at the Uris Theater.  I somehow convinced my mother this was the perfect sixteenth birthday gift and a reward for all my hard work as a budding musician.  She also liked the idea as she wanted a good shopping spree herself. It was decided my grandmother and I would go a day ahead of her and she would join us on Friday and stay the weekend with us. My grandmother was 72 years old and usually up for any sort of travel. She had taken my brothers on several trips to New York in previous years when I was considered too young to go along with them. I resented this of course and this made my birthday request even more reasonable in view of the fact I had been passed over many times before.
It was October. When we arrived there was a distinct wintry chill in the air. Having lived fifteen years in metro NYC i know now that you can have a beautiful Indian summer in October or an early winter blast.  Our weather was reasonably mild on arrival, probably in the 50s but it quickly started dropping down into the low forties and below with some tremendous wind gusts. I was relentless and dragged my grandmother all over town that first day. We took a sightseeing bus tour, ended up in Chinatown for a walk through a temple, got out at the UN for a hike through the lobby and gift shop, and hit all the high spots from the Empire State Building to Battery Park. I was uncontrollably happy and she was having a good time as well. After the tour we traipsed all over Times Square. My grandmother loved dimestores and in those days there were still vast emporiums like Woolworths' and McCrory's and we hit many of them around the hotel neighborhood, stopping for dinner at a vast coffee shop with a big diner menu. My grandmother had started to feel the chill by then. She wanted a warmup on her coffee and the waitress was busy so I got up to grab a coffee pot from the warmer plate to serve my grandmother. As I was pouring out the coffee, a typical New York accented waitress who probably had terribly sore feet, shouted across the room at me "Hey, you! What do you think this is, a cafeteria?"  Still my grandmother had her coffee and I had a red face, flushed with embarrassment as the entire room had turned to stare at me.  I felt I had my first (and last, I hoped) big-city faux pas and was unduly ashamed of my conduct. That's how naive I was at sixteen. By the time I got home it made a funny story and I got over the embarrassment.
My mother arrived either late that first night or the next morning. By then my grandmother had a bad cold and I was sorry I had pushed her too hard the previous day. I remember feeling badly and apologetic but I felt pressured for time to squeeze as much sightseeing in as possible. We had tickets for Porgy & Bess the next night and had to leave my grandmother behind at the hotel to recuperate quietly.
This production was the first to perform the complete opera in a Broadway House since the premiere in 1937. The Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin where Wicked has been playing for years and will probably run for twenty more) was vast and modern with perfect sight-lines. At that time the auditorium was terraced with several deep mezzanines ranged in tiers like a nightclub instead of the usual  multi-story balconies that cut off so much of the views. We had terrific seats and enjoyed the entire opera with several intermissions. I was so excited to hear the complete score with orchestra and full-size cast. There was no complete recording of the opera until after this production when the same cast members of Houston Grand Opera recorded the entire show. I got a box set of this immediately after it came out, now lost forever.
Last-minute theater booking to a Broadway Play:
Sandy Dennis & Ted Bissell in
Same Time, Next Year

The Ground Floor Restaurant in the CBS Bldg. My grandmother and I
stopped here for lunch and saw Truman Capote a few tables away.

A color photo of the Ground Floor, ca. 1964.

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