When he died Jan. 4 at the age of 91, even non-theatre people knew the man's moniker and what business line he had been in. Mr. Sardi oversaw his family's 44th Street eatery for nearly half a century, ensuring that at least a couple generations of show folk were familiar with the man known as "Cino" by his father. Prior to the tribute to Mr. Sardi scheduled for noon March 13 at the Schoenfeld Theatre, Playbill.com asked a few Sardi's veterans to share their memories of the man.
Max Klimivicius, owner of Sardi's: "He was gracious, fun-loving, humorous. He had this gift of conversation, and this quick wit — he put anybody at ease. He was very unassuming, he never wanted the spotlight on him. He used to bicycle to work, weather permitting. This was in the '70s. How I found out about it was he came in to the restaurant late morning, and he was drenched. He didn't talk about it. Then the reporters started calling: This person had been drowning in Central Park and Vincent just jumped in and saved this person. Another time, he had this friend who stayed at the Royalton Hotel. He was a bachelor friend who would be here when we closed some nights, and Vincent felt he should walk him home. One night, these two guys tried to hold them up. Vincent took the knife away from one of the guys and the other one ran away. You see, few people know that Vincent was a wrestler at Columbia University."
Bill Herz, Ticket Broker: "I knew him all my life. I've been going to Sardi's for 70 years. He was a very nice man. He went into the Marines when I went into the Air Force. He was very, very interested about horses and cars. He provided the horses for the mounted police. There was a fund-raiser for the mounted police that he was involved in. And once a month he had the Chowder Club at Sardi's; that was a club for people who were interested in cars."
George Irving, Actor: "When I'd be working on Broadway and I'd be looking for a meal, I'd come in, and there'd be a long line. And like a good child I'd get in line. Then [Vincent] would spot me and say 'Oh, they're waiting for you!' And he'd rush me in!"
Shirley Herz, Press Agent: "When I first came to New York, when I was 18 or 19 years old, I didn't have a job in the theatre, but my parents thought I would get one. There was a wonderful maitre'd named Felix. He wore wing collars, very dressy. When I walked in with my mother and father, he'd made a great fuss. He knew I was trying to impress my folks. Another time I remember is when Vincent sold the place for the first time [in 1985]. It was near cutoff time at the bar. I was sitting there with a friend. Vincent was going around the wall, taking the caricatures down. It was his last night. It was such a sad sight. He was taking his life off the wall." Max Wilk, Playwright: "My father [Jacob Wilk], producer Brock Pemberton and producer John Golden used to meet for lunch at Sardi's. They had a special table. One day they had discussed creating a program in honor of Antoinette Perry, who was a friend of Brock's. They were all very good friends. They made a plan to create a kind of a gift for theatre people in her name. They brought it to the Wing, who said what a lovely idea.
"My father worked at Warner Brothers, which was down the street. He used to walk down there every day. That was his home base. The old man [Vincent Sardi, Sr.] was running the restaurant. He and his wife always had a table at front and my mother and father would join them. It was like family. He was a perfectly lovely guy. That place was not a restaurant, it was a club. When you went in there, and they knew you, it was like home. 'You want to talk business, we'll put you in the back,' they would say. The old man and Vincent used to carry the actors who couldn't pay them. It was 'haimish' [the Yiddish word for homey]. That's what it was."
Michael Mayer, Director: "I met Vincent only once, the opening night of Dame Edna. To me, Sardi's was just the epitome of theatre class. When I first moved to New York, having a drink, having coffee, going into Sardi's and being surrounded by all those ghosts — it was one of the first places I felt I could walk in and I was part of the theatre community. After Thoroughly Modern Millie opened to decidedly mixed reviews — some ecstatic, some not so — that is where Dick Scanlan, Jeanine Tesori and I went that next day. We had a big lunch at Sardi's. That seemed like the only thing we could do that day. We had such mixed emotions. We had crab cakes, Cobb salads and martinis."
Biff Liff, Talent Agent: "Vincent was the quintessential host. You couldn't have asked for anybody better. He knew everybody. I worked for David Merrick then, so we went there for lunch probably every day. Normally, we sat in that front section. When you come into Sardi's, it's on the left there among the banquettes. We entertained people there. It was like a clubhouse; it was one of those places. He called Merrick 'Sir David.' All of our openings were at Sardi's. He knew where to put people. He had a sixth sense about that, and it was difficult, because people cared where they sat. Leonard Lyons had his table. John Golden had his table every day. He was very discreet, he was very warm. I never saw him ever get mad."
Merle Dubuskey, Press Agent: "I have known Vincent for about a half century and am proud of his ceaseless cordiality to me. To appreciate his kindness at our early interweaving, one must remember how significant was Sardi's in the late '40s and early '50s when I first came on the scene. It was the mecca of the theatre community and home for the personages of the theatre. There they would meet to greet, be seen, conduct the imprecise business of the theatre and was the Temple of Opening Nights. Holy Ground on those nights and getting a place at a table was more difficult than being seated in St. Peter's on an Easter morning mass. That being so, one can appreciate the generous nature of Vincent when I and other insignificant unknowns would enter a half hour or so before the final curtain rang down on the show opening on that night and in as grandiose a fashion as was possible, fractured our finances by ordering a pot of coffee. And there we would sit as the regal first nighters. Columnists and the creators and cast of the show would make their entrances to the enthusiastic or polite applause of the diners. Despite our occupying space and providing an absence of income, loss leaders at best, Vincent would invariably welcome us, seat us and have us attended to as politely as the moneyed notables. His sensitivity allowed us to feel legitimate inmates of the glorious scene. He was sensitive to the vagaries of working endemic to theatre persons, and would carry tabs to extremes for those he knew to be 'between' jobs, well aware that the difficulty of obtaining employment would impel some to leave town carrying their arrears with them. In every way, through his and our thick and thin, he was invariably knowledgeable about how each of us was faring and his cordiality never wavered. He and his endeavor was one of the revered building blocks that made the theatre such a glorious edifice in which to exist for decades of the Golden Age of the Theatre."