Wining and dining in NYC

By Brooks Robards - July 12, 2007

Several lifetimes ago, a Jewish kid from Philadelphia moved to New York and gave his name to what eventually became the city's top hangout, Toots Shor's. The documentary film, "Toots," playing Sunday, July 15, at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, pays tribute to this larger-than-life saloonkeeper and his era. It is part of the Hebrew Center's Summer Institute Boston Jewish Film Festival series.

Made by his granddaughter Kristi Jacobson, "Toots" premiered in 2006 at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. It won Best Film at the first annual film festival held at the Baseball Hall of Fame, probably because of the adroitness with which Ms. Jacobson profiles an era when Toots Shor's was a mecca for legendary sports figures like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

Coming of age during Prohibition, Bernard Shor got his start as a bouncer in a speakeasy. Before long, he was mingling freely with gangsters, athletes, politicians, and actors. Rumor had it that one of the biggest mobsters of them all, Frank Costello, bankrolled his first restaurant.

It was an era dominated by male camaraderie, and Shor's expansive personality provided a magnet for boozers, pranksters, and a fun-loving celebrities. Comedian Jackie Gleason once passed out in the door of the saloon after a drinking contest with Shor. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack were regulars, and Toots protected celebs from the civilians.

Shor's wife of 40 years, "Baby" (Marion), was a doe-eyed, platinum blonde Ziegfield girl who retired to raise the three Shor kids. Shor might spend most of his time with his pals at his restaurant, but he always showed up for dinner with the family at six o'clock.

Ms. Jacobson gains access to many top sports figures and social commentators, including Nick Pileggi, Gay Talese, Frank Gifford, and Joe Garagiola. At a time when New Yorkers had 11 newspapers to choose from, sportwriters were themselves celebrities who socialized with their athlete interview subjects. Astronomical salaries for athletes had not yet become the norm, so sportswriters and athletes had roughly the same salaries. So well known in the sports world was Shor's restaurant that Sports Illustrated once featured it on the cover.

With celebrity watching emerging in the 1950s as a major part of the American profile, Shor knew how to handle the big names who frequented his restaurant. He put them in their place with witty jibes and also cultivated his own celebrity image.

Clips from Shor's appearance on the '50s TV show, "This Is Your Life," provide the director with her cinematic framework. She also includes material from her grandfather's appearances on Edward R. Murrow's interview show, "Person to Person," and on "What's My Line."

Vineyarders will enjoy seeing commentary from Island regulars Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace, both of whom knew Shor. A young Wallace is shown honing his hallmark interview style by needling Shor about mob friendships. The viewer also sees Wallace talking about Shor later in life.

Once the '60s arrived, Shor's star faded. He sold his first restaurant in 1959 for $1.5 million and, not particularly interested in money, spent most of it before the next restaurant opened in 1961.

As the age of the two-martini lunch and the loveable rogue passed into oblivion, fewer and fewer people patronized the new restaurant. In 1971, tax liens closed the doors on Toots Shor's, and its once legendary proprietor died broke in 1977.

As a film, "Toots" has its occasional thin spots, where stock footage takes over and talking heads repeat the same points. But this documentary still manages to provide a fascinating slice of social history about one of our nation's greatest cities and the man who knew how to wine and dine its luminati.

"Toots," Sunday, July 15, 7:30 pm, Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center 130 Center Street, Vineyard Haven. Summer Institute Boston Jewish Film Festival series, Tickets $10.