By Marianne Hettinger
In these challenging times of the pandemic, I reflect back on what life was like for me on the Upper West Side, my favorite place in the world, as a budding actor/dancer/director in the late 1980’s. Born in Germany with a mother of Jewish background, I always felt I had been born into the wrong country. The first movie I got to see was Gene Kelly in “On The Town” at age 5 and I knew: I had to go to this magical place called New York where you can sing and dance. As a teenager I made my dream come true. Not knowing anyone with only $500 in my pocket I came to New York to pursue acting and dancing just like Gene Kelly had done.
I moved into my first UWS apartment in 1988 at the Milburn Hotel, 242 W. 76th Street, 11th floor. My roommates were a black Cuban Shakespearean actor named Ascanio Sharpe and the now-famous actor Jeffrey Wright who taught me slang and would crack up at my European accent. Having come from a very liberal background in Europe, I was sad to see that even in New York there was still some racism present. Even though celebrated on Broadway, my roommate Ascanio wouldn’t get picked up by cabs when he hailed them.
He introduced me to many of his friends in the biz like the late Raul Julia at Wilson’s restaurant at the Lucerne, Gregory Hines at the China Club in the basement of the Beacon Hotel where we danced the night away and where I turned down a modeling contract by John Casablancas, owner of the Elite Model Mgmt, because I wanted to be an artist rather than a model.
Afterwards we would go to Big Nick’s on 76th Street, open 23 hours where we would have greasy omelettes prepared by the owner Big Nick himself.
I studied dance on a scholarship at the famed Steps Dance Studio on Broadway and 74th, 8 hours a day and acting at night. At Steps I would see Bill Murray take a beginner Jazz class, an aging Rudolf Nureyev showing off in ballet class dressed in bright red outfits, robocop actor Peter Weller, Brooke Shields and many others.
Once in a while I remembered to eat and since money was tight, I’d get a bran muffin or bagel at Fairway below which would last me all day. There was a lovely cashier who made it to “Cashier of the month” with the fastest grocery bagging. I was impressed. She is still there today by the way, her name is Winsome.
Every day was a new adventure, if I managed to do a triple pirouette on point in front of Barishnikov who used to come to Willie Burmann’s advanced/professional class which I took religiously 3 hours a day for 4 years or climbed a tree in Riverside Park with a famous football player who didn’t know how to get back down.
I would watch sunsets at Riverside Park and read self help books. At the end of the wooden burnt pier was a tent pitched by a homeless guy named Barry, who would push around a stroller with a large Shakespearean book in it, blowing into a straw making shrill noises.
One day I was reading a book with the title “How to find the perfect mate.” I had folded the cover over so no one could see this “embarrassing” title. Barry, came by and asked me straight out: “how to find the perfect mate? You have to read a book to find a boyfriend?” There is no way he could have known the title which I had hidden. I’m convinced to this day that this man had psychic abilities.
A few years later I moved to 71st Street into an old brownstone budding with a crooked staircase in which a friend had built a wooden platform where I could tap dance – I would time it so I wouldn’t bother my downstairs neighbor Ned Eisenberg, a fine Broadway actor, and jumped only during his matinee – and evening performances.
Favorite hangouts were Cafe La Fortuna lined with pictures of opera singers and opera music playing non-stop as you could enjoy a small European slice of cake, Cafe Mozart, on West 70th Street. If someone had a birthday, the wait staff would sing and serve a birthday cake with sparklers on it. One of them would wear a Mozart wig — and the birthday guest could wear the Mozart wig as well. The wait staff then would take a Polaroid picture. Cafe Edgar on 84th Street, named after Edgar Allen Poe, because he lived in that building where he wrote “The Raven.” And the waiters at The Saloon on roller skates!
In 2000 I used to venture uptown to 110th St. and Broadway. There was an Italian restaurant, “Caffe Taci,” with opera singers performing arias as we dined; you had people from the Met, New York State Opera, Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, and a little old Russian lady accompanied them on the piano, her feet never touching the ground. We would all stay till six in the mornings and everybody would be singing under the table at that time.
And David Brenner’s pool hall on Amsterdam with a lounge and fireplace!!
And finally, the Bear Bar on 76th & Broadway with a slightly damaged wooden bear head sticking out from the wall. They had a “bar fly jump.” You would run in a Velcro suit, jump off a trampoline and flip, getting stuck on the wall upside down. I once won and got a bottle of champagne.
Oh, and Allan and Suzi – that vintage store on 80th and Amsterdam where I purchased a crazy designer skirt with mirrors and horse hair. Alan looked a little like Howard Stern who worked out at the same gym as I.
The Lincoln Plaza Cinemas would provide us with interesting indie films, seats that were ridiculously uncomfortable yet so great, and the lox on a piece of sour dough bread for sale at the counter; you had to ask for extra mustard so it wouldn’t taste so dry.
Over the years I’ve made two feature films on the UWS inspired by the stories of people I met here. The best thing are the people, my neighbors, from all walks of life, a tolerant colorful mix of ethnicities, orientations, families, artists, intellectuals, business people, kooks and homeless. Joe, who was Mr. Olympia number 18 in the 1950’s, exercises every night in Riverside park, with two shopping bags at 96, his mind sharp as a tack. Steffie, an immigrant from Germany, whose husband died of cancer, plays Frisbee with Emile, a French tourist guide who in the 70’s lived with a tribe of cannibals in Papua, New Guinea, and ran from Tavern on the Green to California and back. Steve, a world famous comedic opera singer would serenade us at the boat basin and Carol Tannenhauser, writer of so many wonderful articles at the Rag, climbed all the stairs to my apartment on a wintry day to hand me a coffee mug for an anecdote I had written.
I now see how lucky I am to have lived here for the past 30 years. I never took one day for granted. To another 30 years at least! Thank you, neighbors!