I’m taping a TV interview with Tab Hunter at Sardi’s, and I’m in love. With Tab, with all the great show biz stories, with Sardi’s.
When I was a young actress back in Boston, my idea of heaven was to catch the shuttle to New York, see a Broadway show, and eat at Sardi’s. This was an extravagance that depleted my budget but enriched my soul. It made me feel like a real part of the Theater.
If someone claims not to know Sardi’s, I say yeah, you do. It’s the restaurant with all the caricatures of famous show people, the backdrop for countless movies, TV shows, and legendary opening nights. I’ve been told many times that having your caricature hang in Sardi’s means you’ve really Made It in this business. Twenty celebrities are added every year, and it’s a great honor.
The restaurant that became known as Sardi’s was started in 1921 by Vincent Sardi, Sr. The fourth floor Eugenia room, site of many rollicking luncheons and meetings, was named for his wife. By 1927, it was officially called “Sardi’s” and relocated to 234 West 44th Street, right in the heart of the theater district.
I’ve been interviewing people on TV since I was a teenager, always glad for a slot no one else wanted on my local PBS station. So years later, when my husband, John Warner, desperately needed to escape from L.A., he promised he’d produce a cable interview show for me at home near New York City, to keep me working and happy. Over the last twenty plus years, I’ve been able to reach a loyal audience in the tri-state area with reviews and commentary on everything cultural, concentrating on my first love, theater.
What I enjoy most is sharing with my viewers my conversations with some of the finest artists working today. So many unforgettable moments: Marian Seldes, now finally being recognized as a stellar actress, earning my eternal gratitude for introducing me to Garson Kanin; Kitty Carlisle Hart, recounting her strategy for winning Moss; Shubert chairman, Gerald Schoenfeld, expounding on the future of the theater, long before he became one; Ossie Davis, giving an eyewitness account of the March on Washington; Cathy Rigby, challenging me to strap on a harness and go flying Peter Pan style; Phylicia Rashad, advising us on proper lighting for African-Americans; Kathy Bates, pre Misery, lamenting she’d never have a movie career; Jason Alexander, confiding that the little pilot he’d just shot was way too New York for a nationwide audience, and had a weird title, “The Seinfeld Chronicles.”
Some of the memories are bitter sweet. One November day, I had a miserable case of flu, but couldn’t give up the chance to interview Pulitzer and Tony award winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. She told me not to worry, she felt awful too, and being a real trouper, agreed that “the show must go on.” So we sat there, both bleary-eyed and feverish, chatting not only about her brilliant career, but also girlfriend stuff, like her sadness that the marriage of her good friend Jennifer Aniston had just broken up. “I suspect Angelina Jolie,” she confided. I told her after the shoot that I was sure her major consolation in going though with the interview was the fact that I looked much worse than she did. She laughed, and agreed that it had been a truly terrific show- for radio. In December, she was hospitalized with Lymphoma. She died January 30, 2006, way too young at 55. I wasn’t the only one who never suspected how really ill she was; the Broadway lights dimmed in her honor, and many were shocked and heartbroken at her passing.
There is no sadness the day I interview Tab Hunter. He’s the perfect guest. He arrives on time, sober (don’t ask), prepared, with just one press representative and his congenial partner, Allan Glaser. When I want to tape another short segment to be aired later, it’s Allan who suggests I ask Tab about his disastrous Broadway show, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” leading to great stories about his experience with super-diva Tallulah Bankhead. It’s a joy to talk with this gentle, intelligent man who is so open to my questions about his work, and so generous with his time. The fact that he’s still movie star gorgeous doesn’t hurt, either.
That said, my audience enjoys crusty guests just as much as enthusiastic ones, especially if I’m obviously laboring to get a good interview. I sweated to win over Uta Hagen, Eileen Heckart, and Dana Ivey. It was hard work to convince directors Stanley Donen and John Tillinger that I knew my stuff. And I was concentrating so much to bring out the best in the notorious difficult interviewee Tom Wopat, at first I didn’t realize he was kidding when he solemnly confessed he’d killed Richard Rodgers because of his singing. Fine Arts critic and octogenarian Brenda Gill threw me by asking on the air how many non-horizontal ways I knew to make love.
Over the years, our camera, lights, and sound equipment have gotten so light and portable, John and I can manage our shoots alone. This is really useful, especially when you consider the time when Michael York walked onto our set, and one of our interns fainted dead away. We also had a cameraman who developed a bad cough, and decided to get a drink at the bar in the middle of the taping. Worse, we really couldn’t tell the difference when we viewed the tape.
We can also go on location, since we’re very non-intrusive. Because of this, I’ve been able to interview both Ellen Burstyn and George C. Scott at regional theaters; Alan Dershowitz at Harvard Law School; TV historian Simon Schama over tea in his home; and author Robert B. Parker in his Cambridge kitchen.
But it was in 1991, after taping an interview with “my” Mr. Sardi, Vincent, Jr., that he and John arranged for my dream to come true: taping my TV show at this legendary eatery. Nowadays, we’re greeted by the Colin Farrell handsome Sean Ricketts (left), great-grandson of Vincent Sardi, Sr., who is skillfully improving Sardi’s while keeping all the tradition and charm we’ve come to expect from the Heart of Broadway. And even though I know I’m just a tea sandwich in the glamorous banquet that is Sardi’s, I’m endlessly grateful to tape there.
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished cultural journalist and actress. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the Tri-State area, and features reviews, commentary, and celebrity interviews taped at Sardi’s. Website: www.michalljeffers.com.
Photos: Michall interviewing Tony Roberts, top, Michall interviewing John Lahr. Photos courtesy of NCCTV.
Note: A portion of this article was previously featured in “Critics Review.”