I’ve never been much of a protestor. For someone who has very strong opinions and feelings you wouldn’t think this would necessarily be the case. I’m always thought that words have much more power and impact than screaming yourself hoarse.
A few months ago I found myself at The Theatre On Film And Tape archives at Lincoln Center. This beautiful resource has recorded and preserved almost every major theatrical production in New York in the past thirty years in addition to many other theatre-centric events. The best part of this collection? Anyone can request to view almost anything in the collection if they have a legitimate reason for doing so. What does this have to do with protesting, you ask? Great question!
While doing research for our ACT II Tour and our upcoming ACT III Tour I had heard about a protest in Times Square called the “Save The Theaters” Rally. In the mid 1980’s Times Square was the antithesis of its current state. Crime. Prostitution. Drugs. And amid all of this decay stood these beacons of hope that housed some of the world’s best entertainment each night at 8pm: our Broadway Theaters. When the clean-up process began, the city’s leaders were looking for anything that would take hold and rub away the grime to restore this iconic Square to its former glory. Enter The Portman Hotel. This was to be the next in line of luxury buildings that was going to reinvigorate the area. There was just one problem: the site for the hotel was then home to two historic Broadway Theaters, The Morosco and the original Helen Hayes. That didn’t seem to be an issue with the powers that be. Simply knock ‘em down and build anew was their motto.
Which brings us back to the “Save The Theaters” Rally. Joe Papp, Christopher Reeve and a slew of other important theater luminaries joined forces to camp out in the cold, driving rain to protest the demolition of these beautiful buildings. They had a stage assembled and began to read passages from plays that had first been spoken aloud just steps behind them inside those theater walls many years prior. For days and days they passed out pamphlets, performed and created enough buzz to get a stay from the Mayor’s office. The protest had won...kind of. For one week the wrecking balls and bulldozers sat inactive. But unfortunately government wasn’t siding with the theatre history gods the week following and the stay was removed. Bulldozers roared to life. The wrecking ball began its pendulum-like swing getting ever closer to the exterior walls of these two beautiful buildings with each arc. And then the demolition began. Within ten minutes there was a gaping hole in the east side of the Morosco. Just two days later both theaters were a pile of rubble that had been aged with applause, laughter, performance and tears from so many shows over so many years.
Being only 29 years old I wasn’t even born when this all took place. How do I have such a detailed idea of the wreckage? That TOFT archive provided all the footage I needed to see it all happen first-hand. I watched news stories, interviews, performance footage and ultimately the actual first impact of the wrecking ball as it hit the side of the Morosco. It was the closest I was ever going to get to stepping foot in the theater where the original Death of A Salesman roared to life.
Which brings me to last week: News broke that the Café Edison, one of the old actor hangouts for decades, was going to be shut down and renovated into a white-tablecloth dining space. The theatre community jumped to action. A protest was almost instantly planned for the following Saturday. Signs were made. Hashtags were created(#SaveCafeEdison). And while I did have a quick Matzoh Ball soup there prior to seeing Hugh Jackman over at the Circle In The Square in The River last Saturday, I didn’t feel like I should be out on the sidewalk with a sign in hand shouting witty catchphrases. At BUC we always deal in oral histories and stories and so it only feels appropriate to share my first Café Edison experience as my own personal protest.
It was 2005. I had just returned to the city from my first professional performing opportunity: A singer aboard the Norwegian Sea Cruise Ship in Mexico for six months. I decided to get an internship at an agency to see how it all worked and perhaps snag my own agent. The staff grew to like me and affectionately called me the “Tim-tern”. They dealt with many clients on a day-to-day basis but there was one older actor who they freelanced with who we only interacted with about every few months. The agents had told me many stories about his career and how in his older age he was getting harder to deal with as he wasn’t adapting with technology. When they told me his name I couldn’t believe it: Peter Johl. Or as I knew him better: Poole, Jekyll’s butler in the original Broadway production of Jekyll And Hyde.
I was OBSESSED with Jekyll And Hyde in high school. Every day I’d get home and alternate between the original cast recording of Rent and J&H. I had every word memorized, I knew every cast member and what shows they had done and I could act out each scene playing all the characters at once. To flash forward to 2005 and learn that I might get to meet one of these actors I had listened to thousands of times was a wonderful moment. And then two weeks later there he was walking through the door of the agency. I mentioned before that the other agents didn’t enjoy dealing with him. I was appointed his “agent” and he was my only client. Any dealings or auditions for Peter I was to deliver and handle. Trust me when I say it was a job that I relished! On our first encounter he regaled me with stories of his few scenes in Jekyll And Hyde and his other Broadway outings. I was in theatre anecdote heaven! I told him that I was pursuing acting as well as this “agent thing” which he seemed to enjoy. He thanked me for all my wonderful efforts as his new, very young agent and left the office.
One month goes by. I get a call from a casting office that they would like to see Peter for a new production. I reach out to Peter via the contact information we had on file and I’m forwarded to his answering service. I must admit that most of the things I’ve learned in this world came from musicals and this was no exception. I knew the premise of Bells Are Ringing. Long before cell phones and voicemail every actor had an answering service that was a series of operators who would take the message down for you by hand and personally call and deliver it. Not knowing the full protocol of how to leave a message I asked the operator for Peter Johl’s message box.
Operator: Peter Johl? J-O-H-L?
Me: That’s the one!
Operator: Hold please...(I wait...one minute goes by...) I have a message for you actually: I regret to inform you that Peter Johl died two weeks ago.
I couldn’t believe it. Not only did it seem like such an abrupt way to learn of someone’s passing but I had also just lost my only client! I hung up and relayed the news to the other agents who felt awful. It was a very sad day in the office that afternoon.
Two weeks go by and a young woman walks into the office. Her name we learn is Melanie Johl and she is looking for the agent named Tim. I smile, extend my hand and introduce myself. She explains that she is Peter’s daughter and that in the months before his passing he mentioned that he had a new, very young agent named Tim who was also pursing acting. She said that Peter used to take any new actors and actresses that he would meet to an old actor hangout: The Café Edison. He felt it was important to know where you came from and this was his way of exposing a new generation to the older generations who pounded the exact same pavement. She said that when she was going through Peter’s things she found his calendar and on the next week was written: “Invite Tim – Café Edison”.
“In memory of my father I would like to invite you to Café Edison,” she said.
So, there I was, one week later entering the famed Café Edison for the first time. Almost immediately two older actors came over to talk with Melanie and share some memories of Peter. They welcomed me to the eatery and invited me to make myself at home, as if they owned the place! It was a beautiful lunch and I think of it every time I walk past the Café Edison.
I’m sorry to say but I think no amount of protest is going to save that beautiful, tiny establishment. I hope that we can all share enough of our own personal stories to keep the memory of the Café Edison alive in our hearts even if the “Polish Tearoom” no longer physically exists. And for those that live nearby: you have another month or so to visit and create your own Café Edison memories. I hope you are able to visit and share your story with someone else. After all, even if these buildings slowly fade away we will always have those stories.
See you on the sidewalk!