During the Eisenhower years, Manhattan was an island of social, economic and cultural equanimity. The legal drinking age was 18, the bars stayed open until four in the morning, and the Biltmore Hotel advertised special student rates for Seven Sisters and Ivy Leaguers.
Here are some memories from those days of my misspent youth.
The hub was Under the Clock at the Biltmore, where everybody poured through the tunnel from Grand Central. The Palm Court was next to the hotel lobby and served convenient cocktails along with Emory Deutch and his violin, who serenaded a conspicuous and well groomed college crowd. On holiday weekends it took on the appearance of a freshman mixer in Northampton.
A couple of blocks away, social climbers patronized the Stork Club. Sherman Billingsley, a former prohibition bootlegger, was saloon keeper and arbiter of Cafe Society. He famously gifted samples of Sortilege, his signature perfume, and winked if your companion stashed a Stork Club ashtray into her handbag. For the price of a drink at the bar you gained entree to the plush Cub Room for a rhumba played by Payson Re’s orchestra. This was the upscale part of the evening. The nitty-gritty was at Jimmy Ryan’s.
Before Elvis or the twist, the popular sound of New York was Dixieland. The uptown headquarters was Jimmy Ryan’s, where Wilbur de Paris and his band turned 52nd Street into Rampart Street.
Ryan’s was a prep United Nations. The room was not restricted to the Ivy League, but was a democracy that also welcomed outliers from far-flung places like Rutgers, Lehigh, RPI or CCNY. The insiders knew when you bought intermission pianist Don Frye a drink; he never forgot and rewarded you at the door or even a trip to the men’s room with a six-step pianistic flourish.
Dixieland in the 1950s was a revival of the earlier Jazz Age chronicled by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Great Gatsby”:
All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of The Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.
Dixieland clubs were all over town. Central Plaza Casino and Stuyvescent Casino were seedy second-floor union halls on Second Avenue with sawdust on the floor and spilled pitchers of beer. Bobby Hackett, Conrad Janis, Zutty Singleton and the regulars climaxed the evening strutting around the room while playing “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
Farther downtown, Nick’s specialty was Pee Wee Irwin in jam sessions. Eddie Condon’s provided the wayward horn of Wild Bill Davison, and the sotto voce tableside vocals of legendary trumpeter and proprietor Eddie Condon.
The marriage between Dixieland and Ivy was finally consummated at two sold-out concerts in Carnegie Hall during the 1955 Thanksgiving vacation. Princeton’s Tiger Town Five, led by clarinetist Stan Rubin (pictured above on a 1959 album), had appeared on Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” and previously gigged at Jimmy Ryan’s. Their Friday-night concert also featured Eli’s Chosen Six, from Yale.
The Saturday-night concert began with Williams College Spring Street Stompers. The Indian Chiefs followed after intermission before a boisterous Dartmouth-loaded audience that prompted security to stop the show with a warning to the students to curb their enthusiasm.
The Broadway Musical was in its heyday during this decade. Orchestra seats on Broadway were reasonable, and we all went to the theatre and belted out the songs from “Damn Yankees,” “The Boy Friend” and “The Pajama Game” at parties. The Waverly Lounge at the Hotel Earle on Christopher Street was a great hangout for fans of the genre. Laurie Brewis, a fey bistro version of Noel Coward, was the featured pianist and lounge singer. He was accurately billed “The London Edition of Showtune Encyclopedia,” and made a specialty getting to know his college devotees on a first-name basis.
There was more on the fast New York track than the sound of music. Cerebral standup comedy was provided at the Blue Angel by Mort Sahl, who preceded Woody Allen in the hearts and minds of Ivy League Adlai Stevenson-type intellectuals.
At the other end of the spectrum, a $7 cover charge with a two-drink minimum was the price at the Copacabana for a bridge-and-tunnel spectacle of buxom chorus girls and comedian Joe E. Lewis in his drunken Damon Runyon act about bookies, barkeeps and broads. I can still remember the punchlines.
Last call and last dance, the morning sun peeking over the Queensboro Bridge, the goings on about town always closed with bagels, lox and eggs at Reuben’s. — RICHARD PRESS
Richard Press is the grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi Press. A graduate of Dartmouth, he worked at the family business from 1959-1991, ultimately serving as president. He also spent four years as president and CEO of FR Tripler. He lives in Connecticut.