In the past 20 years, with the commercialization of Times Square and influx of chain restaurants, drug stores and retail shops, the number of authentic hangouts has dwindled to just a handful. There is Sardi’s, for old-school and tradition-minded veterans; Joe Allen’s on Theatre Row, which still retains a contemporary relevance among working professionals; Orso, for those members of the stage world who are doing particularly well; and the Café Edison, the echt diner nestled inside the Hotel Edison, the homey, budget-friendly option of the four.
Last week, it was revealed that the Hotel Edison didn’t necessarily cherish the Café Edison as much as show folk do. The humble eatery — long favored by well-heeled producers, theatre owners, playwrights like August Wilson and Neil Simon, as well as workaday actors — has been asked to vacate after 34 years of successful business. The “Polish Tea Room” is to be replaced by a “white-tablecloth” restaurant with a “name chef,” thus ridding the neighborhood of one of its few remaining affordable eating options, as well as what is arguably the most authentic New-York restaurant in what was once Gotham’s most authentic New York-area.
To get some perspective on what the Café Edison means to the theatre community, Playbill called longtime producer Emanuel Azenberg. More than any living person (save the café’s owners), he has more first-hand knowledge of the diner, having made it his regular haunt since 1980. Here, he got to know the owners, Harry and Frances Edelstein (Harry passed away in 2009), forged deals with theatre owners over cabbage soup and dined often with his frequent collaborator, Neil Simon, who in 2001 wrote 45 Seconds From Broadway, a play based on life inside the Café Edison.
Azenberg and I sat over coffee and toasted English muffins in a booth big enough for eight inside the VIP section — really, just a grouping of three tables not very unlike the other tables in the joint, except they are roped off by a velvet cordon. Above us was a framed picture of Bernard Jacobs, the late Shubert Organization chieftain who dearly loved the place.
When I heard the Café Edison was closing, I naturally thought of you.
Emanuel Azenberg: Last week I got a called from Jeremy Gerard [of Deadline], Sam Freedman [of Tablet], you [and] Michael Riedel [of the New York Post]. I knew the moment I heard that everyone would be calling you.
EA: It goes back 35 years.
Did you go to the Edelsteins’ diner when they were at the Piccadilly Hotel on 45th Street?
EA: Yes, but in sheer ignorance. We didn’t know them at all. We knew them when they were here.
Why did you start coming here?
EA: For whatever the reasons, Harry and Frances survived the Holocaust. They come from Poland. My mother’s family — my grandfather and my mother’s three sisters and about 60 members of the family all died in the Holocaust. So, when Harry found out that we had somewhat similar backgrounds, he would introduce me not only as the Broadway producer, he’d say in Yiddish to the people over at that table, “He knows. He understands.” That was really the trigger... And he was an extraordinarily generous man.
Yes. He fed people when they didn’t have money to pay for food.
EA: He took care of a Muslim who sold watches on the street. The man would come in and sit at the counter and only order soup. He did that a few times. Harry, a busybody, came over and said, “So, why don’t you eat something?” The man couldn’t afford it. And the soups were hearty. When he heard the man couldn’t afford it, that was that. He gave instructions that when this man comes in, he was to be fed. But the man had grace. He never walked in. He always stood there [near the door] and he’d wait to be asked in. Extraordinary. Here’s a man who survived the Holocaust, taking care of a Muslim from Uganda selling knock-off watches on the street. It’s an American story.
So you started coming here soon after they opened.
EA: They were charming, Harry and Frances. Old-school charming. And the soup was good. The cabbage soup is a Polish-Russian dish they only serve on Wednesday and Saturday. I like cabbage soup. So I would come on matinee days and have cabbage soup.
I assumed the place became people with theatre people because the Shuberts started coming here.
EA: Everyone came here. Neil Simon came here. Mike Nichols came here. The actors would be over there [near the window]. The magicians would in the back on Wednesdays. There was a whole bunch of magicians who would come in on Wednesday and show each other their new tricks. Given your history as a producer of Neil Simon, you probably came here quite often with him.
EA: And he wrote a play about it. 45 Seconds From Broadway is about them. It’s one of the great Americana stories. Two people who survive the Holocaust come here, open a coffee shop, the coffee shop becomes this place and show business embraces him. [Harry] got a Tony Award.
Did you ever see August Wilson sitting around?
EA: Oh, all the time. August Wilson actually said, “I should have written the play.” And he probably was right.
I guess it might have been something like Two Trains Running.
EA: Two Latkes Running. And he wasn’t joking.
Did he say what he liked about it?
EA: It was the genuine good feeling. The Yiddish expression would be “hamish.”
This place has a reputation that theatre deals get made here between producers and theatre owners.
EA: Bernie Jacobs and Phil Smith [of the Shubert Organization], yeah. We had a lot of meetings.
And you actually made deals at these tables, reached agreements?
EA: Of course. That was normal. We’d have lunch here.
You mentioned Jacobs and Smith. What about Gerald Schoenfeld, the late Shubert chaiman? I saw him here once, though not in the VIP section.
EA: Gerry came here on occasion. Gerry was much more at the Russian Tea Room. Bernie didn’t go to the Russian Tea Room. Bernie didn’t like [famous talent agent] Sam Cohn. And Sam ate at the Russian Tea Room. There was a big article written about it. And at the end of the article it talked about the deal they were discussing, which was ultimately concluded by me — and my mother, who was still alive at the time, and living in The Bronx, she said she was very proud to see that her son made peace between “two big Mongols.”
Now they’ll both be gone: the Russian Tea Room and the Polish Tea Room.
EA: And Sam’s gone and Bernie’s gone. Broadway had hangouts. There was always Sardi’s. There was Downey’s, Joe Allen’s. There were any number of bars. There was Forno’s on 52nd Street, a Spanish restaurant where all the managers ate. Zero Mostel ate there. There was an Italian restaurant called Capri. In Broadway’s heyday, there were places like this. When I first came to New York, I always associated this place and McHale’s with working-class theatre people who didn’t have a lot of scratch.
EA: Jimmy’s! That was another place. Best hamburger in town was at McHale’s. You could go to McHale’s and have a hamburger and a beer and it was like two meals. Jimmy McHale is still around. He plays in the softball league. We played on the same team for a long time. He still has the bar. The actual bar. It’s in storage. It was a friendly place. But that was the sense of community back then. You’d go into McHale’s and there were 22 people you knew. If you were alone in the ‘60s or ‘70s there were five or six places you could go and find people you knew you could have dinner with. Not true anymore.
So were you surprised when you found out the Hotel Edison didn’t want Café Edison anymore?
EA: No. It were ever thus.
I don’t know why they think a white tablecloth place is needed. There are plenty of places like that around here.
EA: In this area? We’re loaded with them.
Do you think there’s any chance the campaign to save the café will be successful?
EA: I think it has to do more with: Does he have a client for this place?
So, if this place closes, where will you eat?
EA: There are hundreds of places [to] hang out.
Yes, but what is your runner-up?
EA: Bob, I’m going to be 81 years old in January.
Still need a place to hang out.
EA: I’ve been in this show business thing since I came out of the Army. Which is about 40,000 years ago. It’s enough. Where does [producer] Jeffrey Seller have lunch? Where does [producer] Scott Rudin have lunch?
Those guys can have lunch anywhere they want. They can go to the Grill Room at the Four Seasons
EA: They don’t, though.
The question is, where does the standby, the ensemble actor, where do they have lunch?
EA: The best time was on Wednesday matiness when the chorus kids would run in, in winter. They’d go right up, get some soup, and run to the theatre. I remember once I brought a kid in, he was sick. I said, “We’ve got to stop in, get some chicken soup.” I said, “Harry, I need some chicken soup. He’s got a cold.” Harry, said, “You don’t pay. You’re sick, you don’t pay for chicken soup.” A Talmudic decision. It’s written somewhere.