I have been fortunate enough to interview some really interesting people about the two most important things in life: Theater and Classiness. They’ve shared stories about Carol Channing, Arthur Teacher, and the importance of roller-skates.
Albert Fisher is an Emmy award-winning TV executive who early in his career worked as the director of publicity for The Merv Griffin show which broadcast from The Helen Hayes Theater on 44th street in New York City, right next door to Sardi’s, the iconic restaurant located in the heart of all things fabulous. He entertained many guests like Carol Channing and Judy Garland at Sardi’s and became good friends with Vincent Sardi, the owner. It was a great pleasure to talk to Albert and I hope to again.
Broadway Lil: Okay, so you were working in New York on the Merv Griffin show when you first started going to Sardi’s, right? Or had you been before?
Albert Fisher: I had been before. In 1964 when I was with the New York World’s Fair I had become friends with a television game-show host named Bud Collyer who did To Tell The Truth and Beat the Clock, and a bunch of game shows, and he took me to Sardi’s for the first time, and that’s when I first [went], and he introduced me to Vincent Sardi-
BL: I see, so how old were you then?
AF: Then I was 23.
BL: Okay, wow.
AF: So he introduced me to Vincent Sardi Jr. whose mother and father actually founded Sardi’s restaurant back in the 1920’s – and it was a little bit further down the street [from where it is now] but still in the theater district. Just a little family-run Italian restaurant. And because of the location where it was in the Theater District, people started going from the various plays to Sardi’s, just to get some Italian food. And Vincent Sardi Sr. and his wife became friends with a lot of the people involved in Broadway plays, to the point that on holidays when performers would still have to perform on stage on Thanksgiving or on Christmas or New Year’s and they had no place to go for a holiday meal, Sardi’s would open their door to them and say, “Come into the restaurant and be our guest for our Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving dinner.”
BL: Oh, wow, so do you think that’s why it became so popular and sort of almost an icon of theater?
AF: Oh yeah, the location was the key to it. You know, one of the things they say about having a really great restaurant, the three most important things are Location, Location, and Location.
BL: Yes, totally. Okay, so you went to Sardi’s when you were with the New York World’s Fair, right?
BL: And you went back when you were working on the Merv Griffin show-
AF: Yes. A year later, in 1965, I got a call from Merv Griffin. I had met Merv in 1962 at the Seattle World’s Fair, and we had become friends and he always kind of joked around, “If I ever have my own TV show I want you to be a part of it.” And in early 1965 I get a call from Merv and he said, “I’m about to sign a contract to have my own television series and I want you to be a part of it.” And so I jumped at it, so yes. And I didn’t even know where it was going to be located. I didn’t know it was going to be in New York. It was for a company called Westinghouse Broadcast Company. At that time it was the broadcast arm of Westinghouse Electric Corporation and they were looking around for a place to do their television talk show, and there was this theater – there still is this theater – next door to Sardi’s on 44th Street –
BL: Which theater was it?
AF: It was called The Little Theater off Times Square [now the Helen Hayes] and it had become famous from radio days. There was a radio show that came out of there and they would always say, “From the Little Theater off Times Square.” It was also a small Broadway house. It only seated about 300, so it was a small theater. Then in the mid 1950’s it became a television house, and Johnny Carson got his start with that theater doing a show called Who Do You Trust. Then he got The Tonight Show. [On] an interesting little side bar, when I met Merv he was the temporary host of The Tonight Show in the summer of 1962, because a guy named Jack Par had been the host of The Tonight Show and he resigned. Then they hired this young kid Johnny Carson who had been doing this little show at The Little Theater – Who Do You Trust – but there was a summer period where there was no host so they brought Merv Griffin in who had been doing a game show on NBC called Player Hunch and Merv did the tonight show that summer of ’62. He came out to the Seattle World’s Fair to do originations from the fair for that television show and that’s how I first met him. So now, here’s Merv, moving into the theater where Johnny got his start-Johnny Carson- and starting his own show and it happened to be the theater next door to Sardi’s restaurant. So even before we ever opened the show, and we were loading into the theater and setting up our offices and everything, Sardi’s, being next door, became our little sub-office where we would go every day to have lunch or drinks at the end of the day, or have dinner. So we were known at Sardi’s even before the show began. Once it started we used Sardi’s as kind of our next-door home-base.
BL: When you were there, did you ever see Broadway people?
AF: You mean at Sardi’s?
BL: Yes, at Sardi’s.
AF: Oh, all the time, for sure. Well, see, Sardi’s became famous as a Broadway hangout and it became famous for having all these caricatures on the walls. Originally, in the 1920’s when it first started, there was an artist who’s name was Gard and he started doing little drawings of people that were in Broadway shows and would give them to them. The elder Mr. Sardi said, “Well, let’s put them in frames and put them on the wall” and all of a sudden the walls started filling up with the caricatures of primarily Broadway stars but also a lot of famous Broadway notables, producers and directors and people like that. And so that became a tradition. You were known to have made it on Broadway if you got your caricature on the wall at Sardi’s restaurant. So that continued on, and to this day it’s a great tradition of Sardi’s. Then the meals for Sardi’s regulars who were in the theater, on the holidays, doing that for them was a part of the [whole thing]. And then there was one play that opened, I forget what the play was, but one play opened in, like, the 1940’s and the producers of the play said, “We want to have an opening night party. Let’s do it at Sardi’s.” And so they had an opening night party. There are three floors to Sardi’s. The ground floor was the main restaurant and then the second and third floors were private dinning rooms. On one side of Sardi’s was The Little Theater, where we did the Merv Griffin show, on the other side of Sardi’s was the New York Timeswhere they printed. Literally the printing presses and all the offices for the reporters were there. So this party that was given for an opening night for the play was next door. And Vincent Sardi Jr., the one that I knew, was now running the restaurant, his parents had since passed away. While the party was going on he sent one of the waiters from the restaurant next door. He said, “Why don’t you go next door to the Times, see if you can get an early edition of the paper and bring the review so the people can see the review?” and that started a tradition that holds to this day.
BL: That’s kind of a legend, that they would read the paper at Sardi’s.
AF: Yeah, and actually the New York Times started printing what was called a Tear Sheet of the review even before the rest of the paper was put to bed.
BL: Just for Sardi’s?
AF: Just for Sardi’s.
AF: And they would run it over knowing it was going to be seen by the producers and the cast of plays – good or bad.
BL: That’s really interesting. I had heard about that. Okay, so when you were at Sardi’s, did anything really strange ever happen? Or, like, surprising?
AF: Oh, geez, a lot of things would happen there. Sometimes there would be famous couples that were actors who had a very high profile divorce, yet they always went to Sardi’s; and sometimes, unbeknownst to the other person from the divorced couple, they would would wind up making reservations for the same time on the same night at Sardi’s. So it was up to Vincent Sardi to figure it out, because they would have the same favorite table. “Table 7 in the corner. I want that table!” and they would both ask for that table. So Vincent Sardi would have to, very diplomatically, figure out how to get one person there and another at the other end of the restaurant, of maybe up on the second floor or something like that.
BL: (laughing): Yes.
AF: And then there was a little tradition that started in the 1930’s, in the late ’30’s, where all of the newspaper columnists, gossip columnists, like Heda Hopper and Louella Parsons, would make the rounds at Sardi’s at lunch, stop table to table to table, to stop celebrities and to get, “what are you doing,” get the latest scoop. So it became popular to put all the celebrities in this one area when you’d first walk in the door on the left-hand side. This one area that’s kind of like a big box holds maybe thirty tables or so. So the columnists would come in and just start making the rounds of these tables and get material for the columns. And so it was really like a kind of circle, and that became known, and to this day it’s a very famous phrase. You ever hear about being part of the “Inner Circle”?
AF: Well, that’s how it started. You had made it if you got seated in the inner circle where all the columnists would come. So that phrase came out of Sardi’s.
BL: Wow, that’s really interesting.
AF: And then there were feuds that would go on. Particularly notable of my era in the ’60’s there was a very famous Broadway producer named David Merrick who did shows likeHello, Dolly and lots of really big, big Broadway shows. He had a short temper and he did not like people giving any of his shows a bad review, so they always had to keep him out of the way from any of the known columnists and theater critics. Particularly the New York Times, Daily News, The Post, at that time, The Herald Tribune. They’d want to keep him away from those people because he’d get angry with them. Well, when we were doing the Merv Griffin Show, we would have a lot of these newspaper columnists on the show to talk about what’s going on, not only in theater but in movies and show business in general. And Merrick just hated the idea that we were giving publicity to that. And he refused to come on our show because of that. He tried to keep his stars from coming on the show. But the first, the very first show we did from The Little Theater in April of 1965, our opening show, we brought Carol Channing from next door from doing Hello, Dolly. She put on a pair of roller skates and roller-skated from her theater next door to our theater, still in costume, because it was at intermission. She roller-skated in, sat down, did a quick interview, welcomed Merv to the hood, to the neighborhood, and then just roller-skated back to Hello, Dolly.
Carol Channing on the very first Merv Griffin show, showing how she had to wear suspenders
during “Hello Dolly” because of the fast costume changes
BL: That is just so fabulous!
AF: And Merrick was furious that we would have his people on the show even though it was all good publicity for the show, and so he stopped giving out tickets for opening night to his shows to the theater critics. So they would have to buy their own tickets.
BL: That’s kind of surprising.
AF: Yeah. And so we hired our own theater critic and it was a woman who had been know from The Jack Par Show earlier, named Mrs. Miller. And this was a sweet old lady who was in her eighties, who was famous from TV for just being who she was, a sweet little old lady. She loved anything she ever saw. And so we hired her as our theater critic and we would buy tickets and send her to the opening nights and then have her come on the show and review them. David Merrick grew so furious over it that he threw a punch at Merv one night.
BL: (gasps) Really?
AF: At Sardi’s, yeah. And of course that made all the papers.
BL: In Sardi’s, oh, my gosh. And so were you all eating in Sardi’s and then he came over to your table?
AF: No, when we started the Griffin show we would always come over to Sardi’s before the show started and then after the show we’d have dinner and we’d stay at the bar, and hang out and bring guests from the show over and so it really became a second office for us. So Vincent Sardi built a bar on the second floor, just for us. And that’s still there. The second floor bar, which is a public bar, started as – originally it didn’t exist. So, we were hanging out up there after the show. Also, on the second floor is where the bathrooms are, the men’s and lady’s rooms, and so Merrick went up one night to use the restroom and when he came out he saw Merv and all of us from the show. He went over and started an argument with Merv which resulted in him throwing a fist.
BL: (laughing in disbelief) Wow! I think it’s really cool that you were just, like, going under his nose with getting your critic and everything. I think that’s really cool.
BL: Okay, so when you would go to Sardi’s, who would usually go with you?
AF: Well, a lot of us from the staff and the producers and the talent coordinators and then a lot of the band would go with us. And the guests that were on the show that night, we would alway invite them over. We had an open tab at the bar so they wouldn’t have to pay for drinks or anything.
BL: I see, and was there anything that you would get specifically at Sardi’s? Something you would order?
AF: You mean in food or drinks?
BL: In food or drinks, yeah.
AF: Well, I had my own drink.
AF: Yeah, I had my own glass there, a big mug and there was a gin – well, there still is the same gin called Tanqueray gin – and I would have a gigantic martini after the show made with Tanqueray gin in this big mug, so they called it “Albert’s Super Tanker” for Tanqueray gin.
BL: That is awesome, that’s really awesome.
AF: And then of course I ate my way through the menu, many times over. But probably my fondest regular thing was in the afternoons I would come over with Arthur Treacher, who was our announcer on the show, and he and I would sit down, maybe three or four times a week. Around 3:00 or 3:30 in the afternoon we’d sit down and have a dozen raw oysters and a glass of Guinness Stout from England. And that became kind of a tradition for the two of us.
BL: That’s so great. And I have just one more question and it’s why do you think Sardi’s has become such of an icon of, like, theater in general?
AF: Well, certainly some of those things I mentioned about caricatures on the walls, the meals that would be given on holidays. Then, when I said about bringing the newspapers over, that eventually segued into opening night at Sardi’s [which] still is to this day, an event. When a big Broadway show opens, the producers and all of [the cast,] they take rooms upstairs for a private party. [AF now referring to his experience] The [leads] that starred in the play, the leads would be brought around through the back, into the kitchen. Then Vincent Sardi would walk them through the restaurant from the back all the way up to the front, to the Inner Circle, to their table, and everybody would stand up and give them applause. That was their way of congratulating them on the play and hopefully with good reviews. So that became a tradition. And then one thing that a lot of people don’t know is that throughout all of the theater district there are policemen on mounted horses to control traffic and everything. Vincent Sardi would fund the upkeep of the horses. And to this day, if you’re in the theater district and you see a police officer on a horse, if you go over to them and ask them the name of the horse, the horses are always named after the one of the plays. So there’ll be a horse named Hello, Dolly or they’ll be a horse named, you know, Cats.
BL: That is so awesome!
AF: Yeah, and that’s a tradition that continues to this day. Now Vincent Sardi passed away maybe about twenty years ago. And his grandson is learning the ropes there. Before Vincent left, before he retired and passed away, he sold the restaurant to a man that had started out in the restaurant and worked his way up who is now the owner of the restaurant.
BL: Well, thank you so much for this interview. It was really, really interesting. I just, I don’t know, it’s just seems like it would’ve been SO fun, all the things you did.