Faces on the wall

caricaturessardis

People love seeing celebrities in a restaurant. Trouble is, celebrities can’t sit around in restaurants all the time. Solution: put a photograph or a cartoon of them on the wall, suggesting that they are regulars, liable to walk in at any moment.

In the United States the custom developed first in urban theater districts, in places visited frequently by publicity-seeking performers after the show.

Sardi’s in New York City [shown above] is still famous for its walls of caricatures of stars of the moment and of the past. Sardi’s tradition began in 1927, reportedly inspired by the custom in Parisian cafes. But Vincent Sardi could have found precedents in the United States too.

An early instance was Chicago’s Chapin & Gore’s of the 1870s. Located in the vicinity of McVicker’s Theatre, it was a place where “exceedingly well dressed, fast-looking men” hung out with women suspected of questionable character (a suspicion that applied to any woman without a male escort). Not only did actors make it onto Chapin & Gore’s wall but also the city’s mayor, newspaper publishers, and leading industrialists. Another room displayed what temperance advocates described as “indecent and obscene” caricatures of European notables, which a court ordered removed in 1878.

Another 19th-century precedent, dating back to at least the early 1890s, was Otto Moser’s café in Cleveland, still in business today but not at its original location. Once within walking distance of seven theaters, its walls were lined with playbills and autographed photos of performers.

caricaturesblueribbonIn New York City, as early as 1910 Joel’s Bohemian Refreshery adorned its walls with cartoons and photographs of entertainers, some drawn by Carlo de Fornaro. The café was not only popular with Broadway performers but also with Mexican rebels and others opposed to the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, aided by de Fornaro’s pen and brush. The Blue Ribbon, opened near Times Square in 1914 and closed in 1975, was also decorated with caricatures and photographs.

caricaturesbrownderbynvineChallenging Sardi’s for nationally-known wall fame was Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant, which opened in 1929 and closed in 1985. Lore has it that caricatures of movie star patrons from the nearby studios began to go on the walls after a Polish artist agreed to exchange his artwork for meals. He achieved fame as “Vitch,” later mailing his sketches from London where he had a career as a pantomimist. Like Sardi’s, the Brown Derby employed many a sketch artist over the decades, however few restaurant artists stayed on the job as long as the Detroit London Chop House’s Hy Vogel [“Prince” Mike Romanoff shown below].caricaturesromanoff2

Today, a repro Brown Derby lives on, so to speak, on the grounds of Disney Studios, complete with caricatures (of course). Which reminds me of the inquiring reporter exploring a number of Dallas restaurants adorned with celebrity photos. He asked the manager of a national chain restaurant in 1982 whether it was really true that Cary Grant had eaten there, in Dallas. Not exactly, admitted the restaurant’s publicity director, but the actor had been to one of the chain’s other units. Somewhere.

It’s rather surprising that Cary Grant’s picture was even on a restaurant wall in 1982 since he made his last movie in 1966. Given that fame doesn’t last long, those who manage picture walls tend to rearrange them from time to time. What to do with outdated celebrities, stars no one has heard of? In the 1970s Sardi’s moved old-timers to “memory lane” on the second floor, while the owner of Miller’s Coffee Shop in Little Rock AR admitted at the restaurant’s closing in 1970 that a few years earlier many of its caricatures had been given away or simply papered over.

caricaturespalm4

An equally sad fate has befallen regular patrons of Palm steak houses. The tradition of drawing and painting caricatures of famous and faithful customers directly on the walls began at the original Palm on 45th street in New York City [shown above] during the Depression. Later, it continued at locations around the country, but in recent years many of the images have been destroyed due to remodeling and closures.

When you think about it, restaurants’ fortunes are as shaky as those of celebrities.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

16 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, patrons, restaurant decor

16 responses to “Faces on the wall

  1. Very interesting! A contemporary article about Chapin & Gore seems to describe a more traditional gallery of art, not just pictures and caricatures of local celebrities. — https://www.google.com/books/edition/Manufacturing_and_Mercantile_Resources_o/AWdGAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=%22chapin+%26+gore%22+celebrity+caricatures&pg=PA419&printsec=frontcover Was the caricature gallery something else again?

    • It’s likely that the objectionable political caricatures were only in one of their Chicago locations. Since there were multiple locations, it’s probable that they all had different kinds of things on the walls. Modern chains all have a cookie cutter look but that wasn’t the case in the 19th century.

      • Thanks for the quick and thoughtful reply!

        I wrote much of the history section of Wikipedia’s article on Fettuccine Alfredo, and wanted to know more about the history of galleries of celebrities like those found at Alfredo alla Scrofa. There was no existing article on Wikipedia, so I started one (the usual way I learn about new things). When starting my research, I quickly found this article, which has been extremely helpful! …

        I would appreciate your comments and criticisms of the resulting article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celebrity_wall (and along the way I started an article on Carlo De Fornaro). Any additional sources you can share would be great!

      • It looks good to me. I don’t have anything to add at this point. I’m glad you are researching Carlo DeFornaro. Joel’s Bohemian Refreshery was quite an interesting place from what I could learn.

      • Thanks! You mention that Sardi’s claimed (where?) that they were following a Parisian custom — so far, the only early European example I’ve found is Alfredo’s in Rome, which had many American actors as customers (and I don’t know when they started doing it). Do you know of other early European examples?

      • No, but I suspect that the prints displayed by Chapin & Gore were European.

  2. What an enjoyable post! As always, your history components are fabulous.

  3. Pingback: Faces on the wall | Restaurant-ing through history | Rogues & Vagabonds

  4. Great blog like always. Thanks.🌺

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. bob

    Hi all, I remember this article from Los Angeles Magazine stating and showing The Palms Restaurant in West Hollywood-Beverly Hills area, that when the owners decided to move to another location in Beverly Hills, they allowed or gave cut out of Stars living or to their Families if they had passed on (I thought was nice) before everything was moved over to the new restaurant . Click on for a good read. http://www.lamag.com/digestblog/wall-fame-end-palms-celebrity-portraits/

  6. Very good Jan, as always. Keens in New York has a flavour of what you describe in its Lincoln Room, and in Toronto the bar at the top of the Park Hyatt is known for its many portraits of Canadian literary celebs: http://www.ontario-travel-secrets.com/park-hyatt-hotel-toronto.html

    It’s certainly true that the fate of most restaurants is ephemerality, yet some beat the odds…

    Gary

  7. Barbara Shaffer

    Travelers Restaurant in Union, CT, focuses on literary celebrities. The lower level of the restaurant is a used bookstore. Every paying guest is entitled to take three books home from the dining room. The walls display signed photos of famous authors. It’s a fun place to visit and the food’s not bad to boot.

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