In the Diaspora: Shiva for a Broadway legend

Harry Edelstein received a Tony award and inspired a comedy by Neil Simon.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
At curtain time on Wednesday night July 15, the lights of every marquee on Broadway dimmed in honor of an elderly retiree unknown to virtually anyone outside the passionate, clannish and disproportionately Jewish enclave that is the commercial theater. This gesture, the thespian form of shiva, honored the memory of Harry Edelstein, a man who never acted, directed, designed or produced a play in his 91 years of life. He was so essential to Broadway, however, that he received a Tony award and inspired a comedy by Neil Simon. Both of those tributes were paid him for the same reason that the lights went briefly dark a few weeks ago. For a quarter-century, Harry Edelstein presided over the Cafe Edison, a coffee shop that nobody in the know called by its name. To any insider, or anyone pretending to be an insider, the Cafe Edison was the Polish Tea Room. The name was itself the kind of seriocomic double-entendre that the sort of playwrights who frequented the place - Simon, August Wilson, Wendy Wasserstein - surely would have appreciated. HARRY EDELSTEIN was, in fact, a Polish Jew. He was born and raised in the village of Komorow; there he met a girl named Frances Trost, who would later become his wife and partner in the Cafe Edison. With the sole exception of one of Frances's brothers, the two of them were the only members of their families to live through the Holocaust. It would be inaccurate to refer to Harry and Frances as survivors, because they were never in the camps. Rather, they outlived the Nazis by scrambling from hiding place to hiding place for five years. As an obituary in The New York Times recounted, Harry and Frances married in Warsaw in 1948, came to America as refugees in 1948 and variously worked on a chicken farm in New Jersey and a candy store and several coffee shops in New York before winding up at the Edison Hotel's unprepossessing eatery in 1980. Had their story ended there, it would have counted as success and defiance. Harry would still have been a Jew who never surrendered or let himself be caught, a Jew who built a new life and a new family in a new land after the devastation. Any Israeli would esteem such a personal narrative, even if for too many American Jews it doesn't fit with our taste for Jewish weakness and victimology. Harry's story, though, didn't end doing short-order cooking at a class-B hotel. And that is partly because of the particular type of class-B hotel the Edison was and still is. It never had risen in Broadway's mid-century heyday and so it never fell with Times Square's subsequent descent into hookers, dope, porn and other crimes. No, the Edison remained the kind of affordable, safe and unassuming place where busloads of high school kids stayed for the spring-break trip to Broadway. Sitting a few doors down from the headquarters of the League of American Theaters and Producers, as well as countless other theater offices, union halls and craft shops, the Edison was a natural spot for schmoozing and dealing over lunch. MANNY AZENBERG, one of the most successful producers on Broadway and certainly its leading Zionist, renamed the cafe the Polish Tea Room. It was both his nod to Harry and Frances and his finger in the eye of the film industry and in particular an agent named Sam Cohn. A powerhouse who at times represented Woody Allen, Meryl Streep and other stars - and who drove theater people to distraction by rarely letting his A-list clients appear in plays unless he could control the cast and director of the whole production - Cohn famously held forth at a front table of the Russian Tea Room. (Yes, the real one, the one next-door to Carnegie Hall.) So Manny's message was essentially, 'all you movie types are so fancy-shmancy. On Broadway, we're a bunch of Yids who still have a foot in Brooklyn and the Bronx. We'll do our business at the Polish.' Ruddy and graying, on his feet for hours, agreeably rumpled in dark trousers and a white shirt, Harry obliged. He obliged with blintzes and flanken, latkes and matzo brei, and the best soup in the history of soup. The Polish tea room served borsht, cabbage, split pea, lentil, gazpacho and all variations on chicken, and it served a cup the size of a bowl and a bowl the size of a bucket. For Manny and other select favorites, Harry set aside an alcove near the front door, marked off by a velvet rope and with unintentional wit called the "VIP section," as if anything so modest could be truly exclusive. At a long table in the back a dozen or so magicians had lunch once a week, testing out their latest tricks. (For many years, a playing card involved in one routine was stuck to the ceiling above them.) Lunch at the Polish Tea Room cost little enough that the unfamous of Broadway - the actors surviving as waiters, the playwrights with drafts being workshopped to death, the chorus boys and girls known simply as gypsies - could afford to fill up. Checks for special guests had a way of working out to multiples of chai. So it seemed more than appropriate, practically predestined, when Neil Simon wrote a play about the Polish Tea Room and its regulars, called 45 Seconds From Broadway. It is filled, as you might imagine, with jokes and laughs, many of them delivered by a sardonic Jewish comic modeled on Jackie Mason. Had the play not had the awful timing to open a month or so after the September 11 attacks, a lot more people might have enjoyed it. THERE WAS also a deeply tender side to Simon's portraits of the matinee ladies, of the waitress trying to get a part, of the African busboy writing plays on the side, that last role a dramatist comrade's allusion to August Wilson, who often wrote in a booth at the Edison. No matter how famous he became, he never stayed at any other hotel in New York. For some of us, the real star of the show was the stage set, a meticulously reconstructed model of the Polish Tea Room, right down to the handwritten list of daily soups. For the purposes of the show, Simon called the owner Bernie. These days, Harry's son-in-law Conrad runs the place. Harry retired from the restaurant about three years before his death on July 13. He was still hailed, though, when he got a Tony in 2004 for "providing the theater community with hearty sustenance and a cheerful home-away-from-home." That's just a more formal way of saying haimishe.