A stick-to-the-ribs, meat-and-potatoes tribute to larger-than-life restaurateur Bernard “Toots” Shor and his eponymous Manhattan eatery that defined the city’s halcyon years in the 1940s and 1950s, “Toots” is a nostalgic, meticulously researched full course meal from granddaughter Kristi Jacobson that will whet appetites of fest, specialty and tube diners.
Subject’s story is constructed around an eight-hour oral history recorded over drinks at the Drake Hotel suite of the self-described “saloon-keeper” and with Columbia U. researcher Edward Robb Ellis in 1975, two years prior to Shor’s death from cancer.
Rags-to-riches tale charts the genial giant’s arrival in the big city from South Philly in the early 1930s. A “kid on the hustle,” Shor describes how he was noticed by mobsters and soon ascended from speakeasy bouncer to restaurateur thusly: “One night I flattened a Revenue guy.”
The legendary saloon bearing Shor’s name opened at 51 W. 51st St. in April 1940, and was an immediate hit with sportswriters, athletes, politicians and mobsters — often there at the same time, eyeing each other across the room.
Frank Gifford remembers Shor’s disarming greeting of “I’m Tootsie, the pretty Jew,” while Joe Garagiola recalls Shor never called him anything but “Crumbum” or “Dago.”
Unlike many of today’s watering holes, anyone with cash for a drink could belly up to the legendary round bar next to the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Robinson and Jackie Gleason. There were no velvet ropes; there was an unwritten rule against autograph seeking; and, as Jacobson wrote in a 2004 New York Times article during the pic’s production, there wasn’t a single TV in the joint.
(As bandleader Peter Duchin wistfully points out, explaining the gulf today between player and fan, “How can you possibly sit and have a drink with a guy who’s making $8 million to hit a baseball?”)
Pic is brimming with memorable quips and stories from a cavalcade of quintessential New Yorkers, evoking a time, and attitudes, long gone. Author Nick Pileggi describes post-war New York City as “a Damon Runyon land, a world of lovable rogues,” while Gay Talese points out that “restaurants are not about food, they’re about endorsing character.”
Shor daughter Kerry, raised a Catholic by Shor’s wife of 40 years, Baby, remembers her dad showing up at the last minute for her early morning confirmation, after a night of carousing, arm-in-arm with John Wayne. “Somebody called it a cathedral, Toots’s cathedral,” says one former employee. “But I don’t think there was much prayin’ goin’ on.”
Two tall tales involving pal Gleason’s legendarily prodigious thirst are anecdotal high points.
Jacobson doesn’t pull punches on granddad’s involvement with such shady underworld figures as Frank Costello. “He knew them all, the mob guys,” says Gifford. “He liked them … And why not? They gave him the opportunity to become Toots Shor.”
Tech credits are swell, with fresh-feeling archival footage punctuated by shrewd use of clips from Shor’s appearances on “This Is Your Life,” Edward R. Murrow’s “Person to Person” and Mike Wallace’s early interview program. “Your granddad liked his glass more than most,” Wallace tells off-camera helmer with a sly grin.