Saloonkeeper to the Stars

Saloonkeeper to the Stars

New Toot Shor’s documentary chronicles legendary proprietor’s rise and fall

Kristi Jacobson has a surefire method of telling if somebody knows who her grandfather was.

“If they say Toots like a tugboat toot-tooting, they don’t know. If they say Toots like Tootsie, they know.”

Her grandfather was Toots Shor, restaurateur, New York City landmark and bear-hugging pal of everybody from shoeshine boy to newsstand guy to Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Jack Dempsey, Dwight Eisenhower, Frank Gifford, Walter Cronkite, Yogi Berra, Mike Wallace, Edward R. Murrow, Earl Warren, John F. Kennedy, Frank Costello, Jimmy Hoffa, you name it, between the years 1939, when, at 51 West 51st Street, the saloon keeper with a face like an Irish potato—okay, Jewish potato—opened the first of his two watering holes, and 1971, when the IRS grabbed and closed joint number 2, the one on West 52nd Street.

All those pals are male, you might notice. Palship, as John Bainbridge observed in a well-remembered 1950 profile of Toots in The New Yorker, was what Shor’s was all about.

Kristi was six when her grandfather died. A strapping, outgoing young Greenwich Villager in her 30s, moviemaker Jacobson—whose work, some of it under the wing of Barbara Kopple, has focused on labor unions, justice, capital punishment, violence against women, HIV and AIDS, sex, drugs and so forth—is now in the process of completing a documentary film about that grandfather.

She knew she had something worthwhile when she ran home one afternoon and popped into the player the just-arrived CD of an eight-hour oral history that Toots, two years before his death in 1977, had put to tape for a Columbia University researcher named Edward Robb Ellis.

She’d first heard of the very existence of the tape from one of her own researchers. “He said to me: ‘I’m sure you know about the Toots Shor oral history up at the Columbia library.’ I said, ‘What?’ It was by far the most exciting moment maybe in my whole life.”

First she hunted down a transcript, then a one-inch tape.

“They weren’t sure if perhaps something had been recorded on top of it, so they sent it out to be transferred to a CD. Now here was the CD, and my grandfather in my apartment. A most surreal instant. He was really good, you know. Eight hours of talk, done in the Drake Hotel where he was then living, broke, with other people helping him.”

Toots Shor, a bulky Jewish street kid from Philadelphia, who made and gambled away several fortunes in the big town, was in a sense the original insult comic—crass, coarse, jesting jibes being the prime ingredient of palship among all those heavy hitters.

What interests me, this interviewer said to Kristi Jacobson—what interests me in your regard—is that the world of Toots Shor was not in any sense a feminist world.

“And that’s what interests me,” said Ms. Jacobson. “In that time I wouldn’t be making this film. I’d be making dinner. But what’s also true is that I love sports, and have always been able to hold my own in a roomful of men talking about sports. Once in the ’80s at a Super Bowl, some guy said to me: ‘Oh, you’re just a girl.’ Then he and the others started throwing jersey numbers at me, and I knew every one.

“I’m a diehard New York Giants fan. We inherited my grandfather’s season tickets, and my father and I still go to the games when we can, 11th row, section 33, on the 30-yard line, visitor’s side. My mother gets a little emotional when the national anthem is played. Now I know why. She used to be sitting there with her father.”

Kristi Jacobson’s father is New York Stock Exchange specialist James Jacobson; her mother is Kerry Shor Jacobson, one of the three daughters, along with one son, of Bernard “Toots” Shor. “My parents were married in the 52nd Street restaurant in 1967. I was born April 23, 197—ironically, the same year the restaurant closed. End of an era.”

Does Kristi really remember anything about the grandfather who died when she was six?

“I have this vague memory that he called me Crusty instead of Kristi. It might have been some derivative of ‘crumbum.’”

Which takes us back to that distant world of, if you like—or don’t like—a big noisy bunch of macho, uncouth slobs.

“Yes, in all honesty,” said the filmmaking granddaughter, “it was a crude male society, kind of raw in its camaraderie. But more than that, I feel, there’s something kind of wonderful in this code of loyalty and friendship above all else.”

It was also, said her interviewer, interracial.

“Yeah, and that was pretty rare in this country at that time, and it came from him and where he came from.”

Kristi Jacobson, who lives near the Washington Arch “kind of with my boy friend, an actor/writer,” hopes to have the film finished by the end of the year. A distributor would be most welcome. She’s raised most of the needed $700,000. Her footage to date includes interviews with Frank Gifford, Walter Cronkite, Nicholas Pileggi, David Brown, Peter Duchin, LeRoy Neiman, Whitey Ford, Gay Talese, Mike Wallace, Yogi Berra, Bill Gallo and Sidney Zion.

“George Plimpton died, Joe DiMaggio died before I could get underway. That’s when I said I can’t wait another minute. What I want now are ‘regular people.’ One writer leads to another writer, one athlete leads to another athlete, but the hardest to find are regular people who can talk about Toots.”

Who once, in his establishment, or so the fable goes, was chatting with Sir Alexander Fleming, Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of penicillin, when New York Giants outfielder Mel Ott entered the restaurant. “Excuse me, Sir Fleming,” Toots Shor said, “but I gotta leave you. Somebody important just came in.”

Quick, Kristi, what was Mel Ott’s uniform number?