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Sitting Shiva for the Polish Tea Room

Broadway’s iconic, unassuming Jewish café to close at the end of the year

Samuel G. Freedman
November 10, 2014
Polish Tea Room counter pictured in November 2012. (Flickr)
Polish Tea Room counter pictured in November 2012. (Flickr)

One morning in early 1984, I called a man named Emanuel Azenberg to ask for an appointment. Azenberg was one of Broadway’s most successful and respected producers, with plays by Neil Simon and Tom Stoppard to his credit and an armful of Tony Awards. He was also known to be nearly allergic to personal publicity. As for me, I was feeling my way through a new assignment, covering the theater news beat for the New York Times.

To my relief, Azenberg agreed to meet with me and stipulated that we would do so over lunch at the Polish Tea Room. I was too abashed to ask what that was. In my brief time covering theater, I had been struggling to pick up the bewildering lingua franca of its insiders. The Polish Tea Room did not exist in any telephone directory or tourist guide or restaurant listing. So I had to absorb my embarrassment and call back Azenberg to ask if maybe I’d misheard. Did he mean the Russian Tea Room, that swanky bit of Czarist nostalgia next door to Carnegie Hall? No, Azenberg explained, the Polish Tea Room was the coffee shop of the Edison Hotel.

I knew of the Edison as one of the handful of legitimate hotels in Times Square. Most of the buildings that claimed the title “hotel” were either dumps for homeless cases and welfare families or fronts for hookers and drug dealers. On warm mornings, Times Square’s sidewalks reeked of urine. One time, I went into a small deli across the street from the Times’ offices on West 43d Street to see two crackheads firing up their pipes in front of a cowering cashier.

The Edison, though, was a little island of ordinary decency, the kind of B-caliber place favored by high school groups on vacation bus tours. And the coffee shop, on my first visit, looked similarly unexceptional, a pastiche of linoleum tile, chrome stools, formica tables, and imitation chandeliers. The menus came in plastic lamination, and a hodgepodge of daily specials was hand-written on sheets of butcher paper posted above the grill.

When I asked for Azenberg at the counter, a short woman with curly black hair and a thick Eastern European accent said she would take me to “Manny.” A few strides later, she unclipped a velvet rope that marked off an alcove improbably designated as the “VIP Section.” The only VIP there was Manny Azenberg, an athletically trim man with graying hair and mustache, wearing his typical working attire of jeans, sweatshirt, and sneakers.

Over the next hour, waiters brought Manny and me cabbage soup in bowls the size of tureens, containing what seemed like an entire brisket in each. That course was followed by turkey sandwiches four inches thick and platters of latkes. Periodically, the woman with the curly black hair, or a ruddy, balding man with a similar accent, evidently her husband, would stop by the table to check on Manny’s well-being and exchange some words in Yiddish. The bill came to some absurdly low figure like $12, which Manny paid by leaving $50.

The assignment that had brought me to Manny actually had a lot to do with the significance of the Polish Tea Room. One of Manny’s theater comrades, the press agent Harvey Sabinson, had given the café its name as a sly poke in the eye to Sam Cohn, one of the most powerful agents in town. Cohn controlled a list of clients that included Meryl Streep, Bob Fosse, Robin Williams, Liza Minelli and Woody Allen, among many others. He worked primarily with Hollywood and he drove theater producers like Manny to exasperation by demanding exorbitant terms for his movie-star clients to slum on Broadway. In one more proof of his clout, Cohn conducted all his business from his reserved front table at the Russian Tea Room.

So the Polish Tea Room was a way for people like Manny to say they weren’t fancy-shmancy like Sam Cohn. The Polish Tea Room was his Galicianer shtiebel to Cohn’s yekke Temple Emanuel. And the Polish Tea Room was really Polish, with all the tragedy and resilience that heritage connotes. The couple I had noticed on my first visit, Harry and Frances Edelstein, were two Polish Jews who had met as children in Komorow and separately survived the Nazis by fleeing from hiding place to hiding place for five years as all their other relatives perished. Soon after the war, they came to America, and eventually they ran a few small lunch counters in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The last of these joints was in the Piccadilly Hotel on West 45th Street. In the early 1980s, however, the Piccadilly was demolished—along, very controversially, with five Broadway theaters—to clear a site for the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Constructing the Marriott represented an early and especially brutal effort to remake Times Square from tawdry demimonde into a family destination. That effort, paradoxically, gave birth to the Polish Tea Room and would lead decades later to its demise.

With the Piccadilly headed for the wrecking ball, the hotel’s owner, yet another Polish Jewish survivor, bought the Edison. And in 1980, he installed Harry and Frances as the operators of its café. By both location and aesthetic, the café fit ideally in the shtetl that then was Broadway.

Broadway circa 1983, when I started on the beat, had an intense camaraderie that was partly the result of feeling so beleaguered. Movies were siphoning away the audience. Tourists were afraid of Times Square. If a show wasn’t a hit, it struggled to run more than a few months. If it was a hit, then ticket scalpers rather than producers, performers, and creative artists, reaped the windfall. Only seven musicals opened during the 1984-85 Broadway season, leading the Tony Awards to drop three categories from its awards ceremony.

Amid such a forbidding climate, theater folk clung to each other, alternately celebrating and squabbling like family. And it was an unmistakably Jewish family, largely populated by people like Manny—the children of Eastern European immigrants, raised in the outer boroughs, yearning for their taste of Manhattan. Even when they got there, they remained an unpretentious lot, working out of small offices on side streets, dressing any rumpled way they pleased, haggling and hocking in their New Yawk accents. The most self-consciously grandiose of the major producers, Alexander H. Cohen, was an object of ridicule more than renown. He was the basis for the unscrupulous Max Bialystok in Mel Brooks’ The Producers—which, back then, was only an original, edgy film, not the hit mainstream musical.

These people felt at home in the Polish Tea Room, and Harry and Frances felt at home doling out the comfort food: borscht, flanken, chicken soup, kreplach, matzoh balls, pierogis, pickles. The regulars at the Tea Room included the two most important theater owners on Broadway, Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld (a.k.a. Bernie and Jerry), who ran the Shubert Organization, as well as their heir apparent, Phil Smith. There were the playwrights Neil Simon and August Wilson, the director Mike Nichols, actors such as Tony Roberts and Linda Lavin. A dozen magicians met for lunch there once a week to try out their new material; one trick involved a playing card pinned to the café’s ceiling. And just about any chorine on the way to a matinee and short on cash could be certain that Harry and Frances would give them some soup.

Harry was indiscriminate in his compassion. At one point during the late 1980s, Manny Azenberg was having lunch at the Edison with his young daughters when he noticed a man standing timidly by the entry door, holding a leather satchel. He tentatively approached Manny and offered an array of knock-off watches, and Manny bought two Mickey Mouse models for his kids. The peddler, Harry found out out, was a Muslim immigrant from Uganda, probably of the undocumented variety, and he regularly included the Polish Tea Room on his rounds, selling what he could and then buying a bowl of soup at the counter. Eventually, Harry asked the man why he only got soup, and the man said it was all he could afford. Harry left instructions with his wait-staff that the peddler was to be fed whenever he came in. During the holy month of Ramadan, food was held for him until after sundown, when the daily fast ended.

By the 1990s, the Polish Tea Room had become genuinely famous. Guide books extolled it. Food critics hailed it. In 2001, Neil Simon wrote a love letter to the Polish Tea Room in the form of his comedy 45 Seconds From Broadway. The set replicated the actual café almost exactly, and the characters included fictional homages to the Edison regulars Jackie Mason and August Wilson. Three years later, Harry received an honorary Tony Award for “providing the theater community with hearty sustenance and a cheerful home-away-from-home.” When Harry died in July 2009, every Broadway theater dimmed its lights for one night in his memory.

Over the years, the management of the Polish Tea Room passed from Harry and Frances to their son-in-law Conrad Strohl and then their grandson Jordan Strohl. The overhaul of Broadway, begun so brutally with the Marriott Marquis, pushed out much of the criminal element and installed a gaudy array of chain hotels, stores, and restaurants. Disney emerged as a dominant Broadway producer, extending its film brand into spin-off musicals like The Lion King. I welcomed the safer streets, and yet I could not help but recoil from the theme-park aesthetic.

As if I could sense the clock ticking on the Polish Tea Room, I kept making pilgrimages there—with my children, with my Columbia Journalism School classes, with out-of-town guests. Just two weeks ago, I brought a young New York Times reporter, Kia Gregory, there for her first time. The soup and sandwiches were as savory and capacious as ever, and even so, maybe it’s just 20-20 hindsight, but something felt a bit listless and desultory that day. During a boom season on Broadway, the café was quiet and slow. Where was that buzz, that clatter, that spritz?

Then, late last week, the Times reported that the Polish Tea Room would be closing at year’s end. The Edison’s new owner is giving the hotel a luxury facelift and replacing the café with a star chef’s restaurant. It is possible, of course, that Conrad and Jordan Strohl will find a new location. But with the real-estate bonanza in midtown Manhattan, it’s hard to imagine any place affordable.

After I first read the bad news, I called Manny Azenberg. We shared some stories of the place. Manny’s favorite was about a time when several survivors came in for lunch. Harry brought them over to Manny, who’d grown up in a fervent Labor Zionist home and led theater friends on annual trips to Israel. In Yiddish, Harry said to the survivors, “He knows.”

Before I hung up, I told Manny we needed to meet for another lunch or two at the Polish Tea Room. It would be like sitting shiva before the death itself.

Samuel G. Freedman, a frequent contributor to Tablet, is the author of seven books, including Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.

Samuel G. Freedman is a journalism professor at Columbia University and a regular contributor to Tablet. He also writes the “On Religion” column for The New York Times.

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