WHY THE HARNICKS LIVE ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE (SPECIAL THANKSGIVING EDITION!)

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Matthew, Margie and Sheldon Harnick.

By Eileen Katz

Welcome to the first ever family edition of “Why The West Side?” Meet the Harnick’s: Sheldon is a lyricist best known for his work on hit musicals like “Fiddler On The Roof” and “She Loves Me”. Margie is an actress and photographer and Matthew, their son, is also a photographer. They’ve called this neighborhood home for over 50 years. Of all the things they love about living here, they share a Thanksgiving Day tradition that has been captured in a new book featuring Matthew’s photographs, “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: A New York City Holiday Tradition”. You can see some of those photos below. It’s a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the parade.

WSR

How did you first come to live in this neighborhood?

Sheldon

Well, when we first got married, we were looking for an apartment and a friend of ours who was a decorator recommended this building. We walked in, saw the apartment and fell in love with it!

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WSR

And when was that?

Margie

Well let’s see, it must’ve been 1965.

Sheldon

When we moved in our neighbors were Beverly Sills and Issac Stern.

Margie

And Adolph Green and Phyliss Newman too.

Sheldon

It was quite the line up.

WSR

So you’ve seen a lot of change since you moved in, I’m sure.

Margie

One change for sure, was that when we first moved here, Columbus Avenue was a very dangerous street. So you had to be really careful if you wanted to avoid getting mugged!

Sheldon

And the side streets weren’t any better!

WSR

And even knowing that, you still decided to live up here?

Margie

Well Sheldon and I both had our work in the theater. So the subway is right outside our door here so we could just zip down to the theater district and that “plus” made it worth battling the crime elements!

Sheldon

But we were sure to never go out without our pistols, just in case. We were armed.

Margie

Oh Sheldon, stop. But you did never go out without your whistle. We all wore them around our necks. And if anyone was ever frightened or if anyone was ever accosted, they would blow the whistle.

WSR

Seriously?!

Margie

Seriously. And if you heard a whistle being blown, then you were supposed to blow your whistle and everyone then was to blow their whistles and go run and help.

Sheldon

Except the men. When we heard the whistle we ran the other way. Fast.

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Margie

We haven’t talked about this in years, but that really was a reality. There was a guard in the park and there police on almost every corner and in the playground where kids would play.

Sheldon

I don’t know how many years it took but little by little it changed and got better.

Margie

For sure. I’d say about 20 years ago it really turned the corner up here.

WSR

So having survived all of that, tell me what some of your favorite parts of the neighborhood are.

Margie

Well Zabar’s of course is one!

Matt

That’s a staple for us.

WSR

Ok, so this begs the question then: If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one thing, as a family, from Zabar’s what would it be?

Sheldon

For me, it would have to be the chopped herring.

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Matt

I think I would have to say for myself, tongue, but since we have to decide as a family, I’ll go with Dad’s.

Margie

Nope. It’s gotta be the smoked salmon. Nothing like a good piece of nova.

WSR

All right, I’m not going to make you fight it out. You can have the herring AND salmon. Do you consider yourselves a typical Upper West Side family?

Sheldon

I think of us as being very lucky. We have gifts, and the gifts have been appreciated and we’ve been able to use them and enjoy them and feel fortunate to do all that and live in this great neighborhood as well.

Margie

And we care about each other too. That’s so important to us too.

WSR

What other things do you like about the neighborhood?

Sheldon

It’s a wonderful neighborhood. We love the restaurants. We love the shopping. Oh, and we love the street fairs they have on Columbus Avenue sometimes now. You walk out and you see all these little tents with treats or goods for sale in them. Such fun. The Museum of Natural History, of course. Margie used to take Matt there all the time when he was little. And The Met is right across the park.

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WSR

Now that’s the East side though…

Margie

I can see it right from my window so I’ve got to consider it in my neighborhood!

WSR

Now what about Central Park? Do you consider that the west side too then?

Margie

A big chunk of it, for sure!

Matt

I’m also a Birder so the park has just become a birding mecca over the years, which is just another reason to love it. I don’t think I’d want to live anywhere else.

WSR

Since you’ve lived up here, have you experienced anything that, when it happened, you said to yourself: “This could only happen up here!”

Sheldon

The image that comes to mind is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The crowds that flock from all over the city, all over the world to come see the preparations.

WSR

Now in all these years, have you ever given serious thought to living anywhere else?

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Sheldon

Well, there was a time where we thought about LA but that never happened.

Margie

Sheldon’s work has always been here.

WSR

I have to ask, Sheldon, you have such a treasure trove of work. Has any of it ever been inspired by your life on the West side or anything you’ve seen or experienced up here?

Sheldon

Probably.

WSR

Maybe something Tevya sang?

Sheldon

It’s hard to say what inspires what because everything goes into my head, and it’s there and comes out without my being able to trace each thing.

Matt

But Dad, you always walk around the neighborhood…it’s kind of part of your creative process that when you’re troubled by a lyric or something you walk around.

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Sheldon

Yeah, that kind of movement really does help me. As a matter of fact, there’s this story I’ve told many times. While I was working on the lyrics for “She Loves Me”, I was lost in thought and started to cross the street without looking and I heard this horn and I looked up and there’s this truck that’s practically on top of me and the driver just leans out of the window and starts to curse at me and yells “watch where you’re going” and I said: “It’s ok! I’ve got the lyric.”

WSR

That is perfect! And Margie, you are an actress and a photographer, and I’m guessing that’s what inspired Matt?

Margie

Matt got a camera at a very early age, just as my father gave me a camera at a very early age. Back then it was a baby brownie! Matt’s been taking pictures pretty much since he could walk. So we all are camera addicts. Matthew is just wonderfully talented. He’s worked on our first book about New York City. I was painting and started taking pictures of the city to help the painting process and just got carried away with the photos. Matt did all the technical work for that project.

WSR

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here, based on what you mentioned earlier, Sheldon, when I say the Thanksgiving Day Parade is one of this family’s favorite things about living on the Upper West Side.

Matt

As a kid, what I remember most about Thanksgiving Day up here was being woken up at 5 am because the bands would all start to rehearse. And you’d hear “Wonk”, “Woo”, “Bang” and I never minded that. I would always run to the window and watch all the tour buses pulling up and those bands going to the starting line.

WSR

And couldn’t you see the balloons too getting blown up and ready?

Matt

Actually no! Back then, they didn’t do the balloons here by the museum (Museum of Natural History). They did them up on 86th Street because there were fewer balloons and they were able to prep them all between Central Park West and I think Columbus. By the ‘80’s though, the balloon staging had definitely moved down to The Museum of Natural History and had gone from being a kind of low key happening to almost an event in and of itself! In 2009 I got a new camera and was out testing it on inflation day and they came out pretty well so I went back the next day and then, and for the next few years, I focused on photos of that scene on 81st Street. And that was how the book started to come together. Sort of an accident! See, I’ve always loved the balloons and I realized, for me, this was a great way to record them. And plenty people have done this, but I really wanted to show off the artistic side of the balloons and that’s where the book really began. There were two years that Macy’s gave me an all-access pass and that’s really where most of the photos are from.

WSR

That’s quite the perk! Could you say how that access affected your photos?

Matt

I was still really focused on the balloons at the time, but I found I could get beautiful shots of the parade in the way that I wanted to, which was as a spectator. That’s what my hope is for people who see the book. That it makes them feel like they are really there in the front row. And the photos I was able to take from my favorite spot on 71st Street allowed me to get these great shots of the kids who live in or were visiting people in The Dakota who had their faces pressed up against the windows just smiling and beaming as the parade went by.

WSR

What would you say are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the parade since you started photographing it?

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Matt

I would have to say the over all quality. They’ve improved the artwork, the design of the balloons, the design of the floats. One of my most vivid memories of the parade that shows this is from the year the movie “The Wiz” came out. I love the musical “The Wiz” and I always say it’s my favorite musical that my father didn’t write.

Sheldon

I appreciate that distinction, Matt. Thank you!

Matt

I didn’t love the movie, but they had a float that year and I just remember how kind of rickety it looked. It happened to be put together right in front of our building here and I could see them working on it. They made the flying monkeys into bikers for the film and they looked fantastic for the float, but the float itself, it looked kind of amateurish. Like it was built by college students. Even with Diana Ross on the float!  And that just wouldn’t happen today. They now have a first class team executing every aspect of it. And you kind of can see that progression in the book. Also, the ability that computer technology has given the balloon creators for constructing balloons that really look like the characters. The Paddington balloon is a great example of that. You can see it in his photo in the book how his fur looks almost 3D.

Margie

And don’t forget to mention about Grandpa’s photo in your book!

Matt

Oh, yeah! There’s a vintage photo that he took one year when he came up here to watch the parade which really makes it feel like a family tradition. And another thing that connects our family to the parade happened last year when the “Fiddler” cast performed “To Life” for the parade and I was invited to photograph it during the rehearsal which was incredible.

WSR

I’m sure! How did that make you feel, Sheldon?

Sheldon

Made me feel wonderful! And I think they’re doing it again this year.

WSR

After all this, Matt, I have to ask: Do you have a favorite?

Matt

Of the Macy’s characters, I’d have to say the Wiggle Worm. No contest! I really like Frieda the Dachshund too.

WSR

Now what are your plans for the holiday this year?

Matt

Well, I’ve been cooking the entire meal since I was 16 and plan on doing the same this year.

WSR

At 16? That’s impressive!

Margie

He’s a really good cook! All I get to do now is set the table!

WSR

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

To read all of our “Why the West Side” columns, click here.

COLUMNS | 9 comments | permalink
    1. Bernie (not that one) says:

      Are you sure the guy on the right in the photo is Sheldon Harnick and not Bernie Sanders?

    2. Nancy Wight says:

      How I love the Harnicks! They are an inspiration.

      Nancy Wight

    3. Carol Mennie says:

      Great NY story – how lucky we all are to have Mr. Harnick as our WS neighbor; how ironic it was his show that made me Equity so many years ago – (“She Loves Me”)
      Thank you!

    4. AML says:

      Happy Thanksgiving, but it is still true that plural nouns do not take an apostrophe (Harnick’s indeed!)

    5. Josie ettabin says:

      I love this holiday special! And what an interesting family. Isn’t it so great how the parade that only begins in our neighborhood brings so many people together? I am thankful to the Harnicks for sharing their UWS story and to the west side rag for this column!

    6. Tranny_boy says:

      Why I see Santa at Thanksgiving Day parade? Should be I think turkey.

    7. Old Judge says:

      Fun Fact: Since the East and West Sides are divided at Fifth Avenue, the Met (and all of Central Park) are part of the West Side.

    8. Paul says:

      No mention of Harnick’s sister-in-law Barbara Barrie?

      She’s an Upper West Sider too