By Robert Simonson
13 Mar 2007
|Photo by Aubrey Reuben|
On the stage was a small table, draped with a familiar Sardi's red-and-white-checkered tablecloth. In one of the two bentwood chairs sat — who else? — Schoenfeld himself. The Shubert executive was Sardi's landlord for the past several decades.
As the memorial honored not an actor or a playwright or some other child of the theatre, but rather a well-loved cousin, the event was somewhat unusual as these things go. Schoenfeld, known to the world as a theatre owner and producer, adopted the role of actor, pretending to be an impatient diner at Sardi's eatery. His tap-dancing waiter was none other than actor and choreographer Donald Saddler. The two took part in an on-again, off-again comedy bit in which waiter tried to impress producer with his stage talent, eventually leading to an introduction to Harold Prince.
"As you can see, the service is terrible here," quipped Schoenfeld, who, for a lawyer, acquitted himself fairly well. (He might make for a suitably kinder, gentler Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner.)
Mr. Sardi was a Marine and, fittingly, the memorial began with a procession of four Marines in dress uniform. The two on the outside bore firearms, while the center two held the flags of the United States and the Marine Corps. The audience was asked to stand during the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner."
David Sardi, one of Mr. Sardi's four adopted children, spoke of the final time he saw his father alive. "I asked him, 'Around the time you were my age, you were having a hell of a good time, weren't you?' He paused, and then said, "Ohhhh, yes." He described his father as a kind, modest, generous, a "singularly uncomplicated man" who believed "life's meaning is in its living." He told of how his father had once received a letter from a woman from Japan, whose daughter had received a music scholarship in New York, but could only take advantage of it if she had a guardian. The woman had read of Mr. Sardi's generosity in a magazine, and asked if he might act as the girl's sponsor. Though the mother and child were complete strangers to the restaurateur, Mr. Sardi agreed and supported the girl.
The "fifth" Sardi child, Etsko Tazaki, then appeared and played a classical selection on the Steinway grand.
More music was provided by Bebe Neuwirth, who sang "A Quiet Thing" and "The World Goes Round."
Hal Prince came out bearing a half-century-old caricature of himself from Sardi's. He held it up and said, "I have been hanging behind the kitchen for 53 years. Just to let you know I'm part of the tradition." He recalled how his parents had taken him to Sardi's when Vincent Sardi, Sr., was still running the place and how it was "the most glamorous place."
"I have received two free meals at Sardi's over these years," he said. The first was when he returned from a two-year stint in the army in 1953. And second was last weekend, after it had been announced that he would speak at the memorial. "I'm not here because I got a free meal at Sardi's," he joked. "I'm here because I believe in tradition in the theatre, a tradition that I think of as embodied by Sardi's."