Tag Archives: Sardi’s

Check your hat

The topic of hat checking in restaurants, nightclubs, and hotels, a popular subject in early 20th-century journalism, is so full of lore that it’s hard to know what to believe. Here’s what seems to be the story as best I can determine.

Hat checking in restaurants started as an independent money-making enterprise around 1900, beginning in New York City and gradually spreading westward. Before that, men took their hats into dining rooms, placing them under their chairs. (In cheap restaurants they kept them on while eating.)

It was considered perfectly fine for women to wear their hats at the table.

But hat checking for men wasn’t really new. It was common at fancy-dress balls in the 1800s. Many regarded it as a scam. An organization or group would throw a ball in a large venue such as Madison Square Garden. Tickets were advertised at the high price of $5. However, hardly anyone bought a ticket, getting them free instead from saloon keepers. When guests arrived at the ball they were required to check their hats, for which they were charged $2, the true price of admission. Those in the know referred to these balls as “hat check affairs.”

Around 1900 restaurants began granting concessions to entrepreneurs who offered to pay them substantial sums to run a hat checking service. At first many were staffed with immigrant boys who were rudely persistent in demanding that male guests surrender their hats before entering the dining area. Gradually, the boys were replaced with attractive young women who used honey rather than vinegar to induce men to give up their hats. Upon exiting the restaurant patrons were expected to leave a tip of at least 10 cents, up to 25 cents by the 1930s.

Concession owners paid thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of running a hat check service and, often, of supplying washroom attendants as well. In nightclubs they provided women to sell cigarettes and flowers. In the early years the amounts paid for these concessions allegedly figured as important contributors to nightclub profits.

All the tips collected by hat checkers went to concession owners, while the attendants received a low hourly wage. Newspaper stories revealing this set-up were perennials from 1910 into the 1950s, suggesting that there were always plenty of people for whom it was news that hat check “girls” didn’t keep the tips.

The menial job of hat checker was infused with glamour by gossip columnists and a number of Hollywood movies [top photo: Hat Check Girl, 1932]. This no doubt helped attract fresh recruits – including aspiring actresses who hoped to be “discovered” — in what was a high turnover, dead-end occupation. Want ads sought “attractive girls with pleasing personalities.” Meeting daily tip quotas through appearance and demeanor was a key to survival in what today is recognized as a “pink collar” job, i.e., one supposedly requiring no special abilities but demanding strenuous emotional labor. Acting talent came in handy. Occupants of the job became quite adept in shading the meaning of “Sir!” and “Thank you.”

Among the stresses of the job was the necessity to be gracious with patrons who flirted, pinched, left poor tips, and sometimes grew angry and slung insults. Hearing over and over how men had paid more in tips than their hats were worth became tiresome. So did laughing at jokes. Cartoonist W. E. Hill perfectly captured the facial expression of a woman preparing to respond hilariously to a bad joke.

Some hat checkers went to court to claim tips as theirs, but did they ever win? I doubt it. Many hotels and restaurants avoided the stigma associated with hat checking by running their own services while making it clear that tips were unnecessary. The Exchange Buffet chain advertised in 1914, “No hat-boy to hold you up.” Schraffts’ deposited tips in an employee sick benefit fund. Legislation was offered in some cities and states requiring that hat check stations either post a notice stating that tips went to a concession owner or turn them over to the attendants.

Overall, hat checking thrived best in big-city nightclubs visited mainly by tourists.

One of the rare hat checkers who beat the system was Renee Carroll, who ran her own concession at Sardi’s. The daughter of a New York City rabbi, she changed her name from Rebecca Shapiro and became part of the entertainment world, a Broadway personality known for witty quips. She appeared in movies, published a book about her experiences with celebrity customers, authored a gossip column, and backed theatrical productions.

By the mid-1920s, with many people going to restaurants and nightclubs by car, hat checking declined as hats were left in the car. By the mid-1930s fewer men wore hats, especially the young. Hat checking in restaurants can still be found but no one is forced to use it and the glamourous hat check girl is no longer a figure of popular culture.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under night clubs, patrons, restaurant controversies, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette, women

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

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Filed under atmosphere, patrons, restaurant decor