As you begin to make the rounds of holiday parties, take notice of the host. Sometimes we forget how important that role can be to the success of an evening. We comment on the food, the music, the décor. And we certainly notice when something fumbles. But do we appreciate the host who creates the perfect ambiance, bringing together the right people at the right place, without any apparent effort? If we don’t, we should.
Kristi Jacobson’s documentary, Toots, pays tribute to one such New Yorker, Toots Shor.
In 1930, when Shor arrived in New York from South Philadelphia, America was in a dry spell due to prohibition. But that certainly didn’t stop people from drinking. Shor, a giant of a man at just over six feet tall and who knows how many pounds, got a job as a bouncer, which at that time meant more than merely breaking up fights. He was responsible for keeping out anyone who might threaten the security of the illegal speakeasy and for making sure the right people got in. From the beginning, he showed a proclivity for meeting the right people and keeping their attention. He was a social maestro, and he knew where to put that talent.
After a few tough financial years, Shor, with the help of some benefactors, opened a saloon at 51 West 51st Street, smack-dab in Midtown Manhattan. For a few decades afterward, both Toots Shor the saloon and the man who gave it life were staples of the New York social scene. He presided over the restaurant with effusive energy, attracting everyone from sports stars to journalists to mob men. Every night, without fail, Shor was at his famous circular bar, drinking with his patrons, making sure everyone was treated like a guest in his home.
It’s a testament to Shor’s generous personality that Jacobson was able to rally such an impressive cast of friends to speak on her grandfather’s behalf (Shor passed away in 1977). Through the stories of these famous patrons, ranging from writer Gay Talese and artist LeRoy Neiman to journalist Mike Wallace and former Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford, we get an inside glimpse into Shor's affable personality. Their stories come to life thanks to Mark Suozzo's original score, which is almost as irresistible as Shor himself. Suozzo captures the brassy energy of the 1930s and ’40s and bounce of the 1950s without sounding stale or imitative. It has the verve of the Shor era with a distinct twist.
Jacobson also recovers a trove of photography that provides a wonderful sense of the saloon’s vibe. We see Shor, who loved sporting events almost as much as he loved betting on them, flanked by Joe DiMaggio and Gifford. In other shots, we see Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway (among many others). But in the background, at tables only an arm’s reach away, there are regular New Yorkers. It was a party, and as long as you stayed in Shor’s good graces, you were invited (celebrity hounds were never welcome). Throughout, Jacobson shows how Shor maintained a genial and welcoming atmosphere: it was a neighborhood hangout, and Jackie Gleason just happened to be there too.
Jacobson uses a 1975 audio recording Shor made with author Edward Robb Ellis for the Columbia University Oral History Collection. By this point, Shor's restaurant had closed, in part because he refused to adapt to New York’s changing energy. Gone were the days when athletes sat next to the journalists who covered their games. Indeed, the wealth disparity that we’ve since grown accustomed to was stifling to a place like Toots Shor’s, and in the recording, you can hear the sadness in Shor's voice edged with years of too much alcohol. Although he lived life vigorously, it made his fall even greater. But Jacobson does her best to end on a high note, reminding viewers of Shor’s peak in the last frames. He certainly seems like a helluva guy.