Watering holes dry up

B'way crowd mourns HoJo's, McHale's closings

NEW YORK — Where have all the Broadway hangouts gone?

That’s what many members of the New York theater community’s rank-and-file have been asking in recent weeks, following the shuttering and closing announcements of some of their time-honored watering holes. The half-century-old Howard Johnson’s on Broadway and the homey West 46th Street eatery JR’s went dark over the summer. And recently, McHale’s — a fixture for more than 50 years on 46th and Eighth Avenue, so iconic that a replica of it was built on the movie set of “The Producers” — shocked its clientele with the news that it had been told to vacate by Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, persistent though as yet unconfirmed rumors foretell numbered days for the string of post-show haunts lining the north side of 45th Street between the Imperial Theater and Eighth Avenue — including the beloved Barrymore’s. (A projected new Marriott hotel is the most frequently cited culprit.)

This shrinking circle of unofficial social clubs has left Broadway’s unsung — hungry for an affordable burger and a friendly face within Times Square’s ever-rising walls of glass and neon — wondering where the welcome mat will be pulled out from under them next.

A handful of more upscale eateries like Angus McIndoe, Orso and Joe Allen attract large numbers of theater producers, directors and top-tier talent. But as regular after-work hangouts, these are priced a little out of the range of the average stagehand or chorus kid.

“People are unhappy,” says William J. Walters, vice president of the Local One stagehands union who goes by “Willie” and can regularly be found rooted at the far end of McHale’s long wooden bar (which hails from the 1939 World’s Fair). “I’m getting it from the dancers, from wardrobe people, from musicians. These are our restaurants. These aren’t like TGI Friday’s. These are mom-and-pop operations, the places that we’re comfortable in. This is what we want in our neighborhood.”

Walters’ grievances were echoed on a recent night at McHale’s, when a throng of stagehands, musicians, wardrobe workers, house managers and actors lined up two deep at the bar. Greg Smith, a bassist on “Movin’ Out,” recalled how he discovered the tavern. “Going up and down Restaurant Row, every place was pretty expensive. Walking past, I thought, ‘That looks like a really cool old New York place.’ They treated me great off the bat, and the prices were certainly friendly.”

Harry Haun, a journalist who has covered the theater scene for 30 years and used to open his morning mail at McHale’s, sees where this line of toppling dining dominoes is leading. “It says greed is good,” he says. “Everybody’s just gobbling things up, making it more like a mall, like 42nd Street.”

While the passings of HoJo’s, which will make way for a retail outlet, and JR’s were greeted with wistful sighs of resignation, the proposed replacement of McHale’s with a 42-story high-rise has inspired something more like anger and, it appears, resistance. Walters, who lives just around the corner from the saloon and sits on Community Board 4, which covers the Clinton neighborhood west of Eighth Avenue, does not plan to stand idly by.

“We’re prepared to start a campaign involving all the entertainment unions and see if we can save it, to get it back in the same space and the same corner. I understand (owner Jimmy McHale’s) been offered other spaces. That’s not what we want. We want him there.”

A sweet-natured hockey fan who was virtually raised in the bar, McHale approves of the fight, even if he’s disinclined to lead the charge. “It’s a battle that I’m not comfortable taking on, because I’m more into running the business,” he says. “But I’m with the people who want to do it, if it can be done.

“It’s just the way things are going in the city,” adds McHale. “I’m not saying it’s the right way. It’s just offers are being made to landlords that they can’t refuse.”

For Broadway real estate barons and millionaire producers, who may be a bit nonplussed by all the fuss being made over a few old pubs, the key to understanding may lie in the concept of family. Places like McHale’s have a dense human history, and past generations are regularly cited in their defense. McHale took over the bar from his parents. JR’s was run by Jimmy Ray, who inherited the place from his father. Walters’ dad held up McHale’s bar before he did.

Friendship and loyalty also play a role. Tina, a waitress at McHale’s, went to the christening of Smith’s daughter. The same Tina — a budding actress, like most of Jimmy’s wait staff — warily vetted this reporter before introducing him to Walters, a protected patron.

“You can go in, in cut-offs and flip-flops, between shows, and not be annoyed by regular people,” explained actor Gary Beach, who starred in “The Producers” and last season’s “La Cage aux Folles” revival. “And you’ll meet people who know your dad, your family. That’s what the stagehand union is about. I don’t mean to sound quaint about it, but it is a big family.”

“In this city, with its fast pace, you need something stable in your life, that your father went to, your grandfather went to,” says McHale. “You always knew McHale’s was there, whether you came in once every 10 years, once a week or every day.”

(Robert Simonson is the editor of Playbill.com)

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