Sometimes you can live your life in the theatre without actually being in the theatre. Consider Craig Dawson.
Dawson spent almost all of the last 30 years on West 45th Street near Eighth Avenue, down the block from Shubert Alley and close to a half-dozen major Broadway playhouses. But his stage was not the Booth, or the Golden, or the Music Box. It was, for much of that time, Barrymore’s restaurant, one of the true theatre hangouts in Times Square. Dawson, often called “the mayor of 45th Street,” was co-owner, maître d’ and undisputed star.
But sadly, all that has come to an end. Barrymore’s closed at the end of January. It and surrounding buildings are to be demolished for a new hotel, and a walk down 45th Street reveals a dark space where New York theatre people long gathered amid red leather, red brick, dark wood and multiple images of John Barrymore that projected from the walls.
“I come to 45th Street and have the feeling that this isn’t my block anymore,” Dawson says. “When I go to the theatre, I think, where do I go now for a drink before the show? And I don’t see all those theatre people every day.” Through all those years, Dawson says, he reveled in hearing theatre people tell him he made the restaurant feel like home. It was, he says, “a place for the chorus kids, the working people, the gypsies—not so much the stars.” They could “relax, be comfortable. I like that clubhouse atmosphere.”
It was the kind of place, he says, where people who had been on the road for two years, or who hadn’t been in a show, would come in after a long absence. He would say hello, and call them by name, and say he hadn’t seen them in ages—and they would “give me that look, as if to say, ‘You remember us?’ Well, yes, I remembered them.” That, after all, was his job.
Dawson didn’t plan to be in the restaurant business. Like many others who come to New York seeking stardom, his goal was the stage. He grew up in West Hartford, CT, and became involved in theatre in high school. He got a degree in theatre at Central Connecticut State University, and after working for a year onstage in New Britain, CT, decided it was time to move to New York. It was 1976.
On visits to New York during college, he had eaten on West 45th at a restaurant named Charlies’—”that’s i-e-s-apostrophe; there were two Charlies—and I would think, ‘Boy, when I come to New York I want to work here.’ Charlies’ was in its heyday. Everyone was there—gypsies, the celebrities, the press people, the general managers, every layer of the theatre community.” He got hired as a lunch waiter. “Charlies’ became my show business link.”
Waiter eventually became maître d’, and Charlies’ changed to Sam’s. Twelve years ago, Dawson and six waiters moved next door—to Barrymore’s. The next year, he became a partner.
Barrymore’s was started by Sean Nolan, a former chorus dancer, who died in the 1970’s. Dawson’s partners were Nolan’s wife, Naomi, and her son, Christopher. Now their beloved Barrymore’s is no more. But despite the sadness, Dawson says he is confident he will find a way to stay in the theatre district. “I’m not ready to retire yet,” he says, “or to get off 45th Street. I’m not sure what I’ll do. But I’m sure I won’t go far.”