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.
In 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.
Challenging 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].
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.
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