What do George Washington and Jerry Stiller have in common? Not much. Except for Richard Baratz. Baratz engraves for the United States Treasury. He also draws for Sardi's.
Broadway's legendary joint is decorated with close to 1,000 caricatures of the most celebrated names in New York theatre. Baratz has done a third of them — and counting.
Ever since opening in 1927, Sardi's has had a resident artist. First on the scene was a quirky Russian émigré named Alex Gard, who sat around sketching the regulars. With an unswerving eye to business, restaurateur Vincent Sardi Sr. decided to dress his walls with stars. He made Gard an offer he was too hungry to refuse: a meal for every caricature.
Over the next 21 years, Gard turned out 720 witty, wicked works rich in amplified noses and flapping ears. Since he refused to make changes, his subjects — those actors, producers, columnists, and critics whose vanity he'd skewered to a fare-thee-well — had no recourse whatsoever if they wanted to hang at their favorite hangout. Gard expired in 1948, and John Mackey took over, briefly. Sardi's kept looking. Then came Don Bevan, not only an artist but a playwright, too! In addition to his broad-stroked takes on Paul Newman, Anne Bancroft, and even Al Hirschfeld (the most illustrious theatrical caricaturist of them all, who was offered the job several times and declined), Bevan co-wrote Stalag 17, the 1951 drama scheduled for a Broadway revival this season.
In 1974, when Bevan threw in the brush, Sardi's announced a competition for his successor and Brooklyn-born Baratz — who by day was serving an apprenticeship as a bank-note engraver and by night was taking courses at the School of Visual Arts — took a shot.
Vincent Sardi Jr. asked him to bring his portfolio to the restaurant. "I was so nervous I walked around the block several times before going in," recalls Baratz, who bumped into Ingrid Bergman as he did. His audition piece: Bette Midler. "I had no idea what they were looking for," he says, "so I did it the way I saw her — wide mouth, sweating on the stage; it was like a political satire. They hung it on the wall. Two weeks went by and I got a call to come back. The people who ate at Sardi's loved it. But she hated it." Sardi gave him another chance: Anthony Hopkins. A hit!
Baratz's technique is uniquely informed by his skill as a hand-engraver for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where he works on postage stamps (his portrait of candyman Milton Hershey is among the latest) as well as currency. The portraits of the presidents are engraved in Washington, DC, and Baratz repairs the plates when the portraits are injured. Franklin's left eye is missing? He matches and re-creates it. Grant's beard gets scratched? Ditto. The same precision works with his Broadway caricatures.
Compare the delicacy of Jerry Stiller's hair or the crosshatching on George C. Scott with the figures of Lincoln on the $5 bill or GW on the $1 and you'll understand what Baratz means when he says that he paints with a pen.
His style, while exuberant, is flattering, something between portraiture and caricature. "They say, 'You're not going to make me look funny, are you?'" the artist says. "I have to really please them to get it signed."
If it doesn't get signed, it doesn't go up — and if it doesn't go up, he doesn't get paid. So if Marvin Hamlisch's carved cheekbones appear more alluring than ever he'd dreamed and Joan Rivers wants her dog included ... well, as Max Klimavicius, Sardi's president, puts it, "We make everybody happy." (Almost everybody. For all the satisfied posers, there's always a Roy Scheider or Rita Moreno who balk and won't sign. A Gene Barry who demands four versions until he's convinced. A Tennessee Williams, Mary Martin, or Stephen Sondheim who won't be done at all.)
When he got the gig, Baratz lived in New York and could sketch his subjects on the spot. Katharine Hepburn invited him to her Turtle Bay townhouse; Scorsese filmed him doing DeNiro's caricature in "The King of Comedy"; Victor Borge said, "Step into my dressing room" and took him into the men's room, and Dom DeLuise took him home to meet mother. But most were too restless to sit for long, so he started photographing them backstage. Not the best solution either, since "a bunch of 8 x 10s don't lend themselves to caricature," according to Baratz. "It's better to talk with them, get them in a good mood, kibitz for a while. There's a certain essence, a certain spirit."
But now photos have to do, for now the artist lives in Fort Worth. Klimavicius and his partner, Sean Ricketts (Vincent Jr.'s grandson), choose the subject and e-mail the head shots. Baratz makes a rough pencil sketch and Fed Exes it back. Once it's approved, he works it up into an 11 x 14 painting on illustration board. A hard-quill pen gives him the greatest control, and he dilutes his paint to an ink-like consistency. With parallel lines he creates his subtle, even tones. For larger areas, he uses red sable brushes.
The burgundy walls of the main dining room cannot display all the caricatures done over the past 80 years. (Or, actually, the copies thereof, since too many originals were stolen — from Cagney and Streisand to Maureen Stapleton, who snatched her own and burned it.)
As seasons change and glories fade, some get transplanted to the floors above. Much of Gard's vintage crop has been donated to the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. "The audience has evolved," says the diplomatic Klimavicius, "but we've managed to keep up with it."
(This piece originally appeared in The Insider's Guide, Playbill's new monthly listings and features publication distributed in and around New York City.)