Our story starts with Santa. The old guy knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, sure. He also knows when a deal’s a deal! That’s how Santa found, and placed in our collective stocking, this week’s trip to New York City.
He found a highly rated hotel at half price and show tickets to Legally Blonde The Musical, also half price.
No wonder he’s jolly.
What Santa didn’t care about, being a fulltime resident of the North Pole, was New York City is on sale this time of year because the temperature is also likely to be half off.
We left Connecticut late Thursday morning, driving the 90 or so miles with minimal interruption. Our destination was the Affinia Manhattan Hotel on 7th Avenue, across from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station.
I pulled up to the curb behind another car, barely clearing the intersection. There was no sign of help! We waited.
A few minutes later, Helaine got out, entered the hotel and found the doorman. Within a minute or two, we had traded our SUV for a perforated piece of paper and walked inside.
The Affinia Manhattan is older, though in very good shape. It seems from all outward appearances to be a hotel that caters to tourists, as opposed to businessmen.
As we checked in, we met our first Affinia employee. We would come to find, they are all “Vegas friendly.”
That’s a compliment. Las Vegas is built on a hospitality economy. Everyone who works there knows it, and buys into it. Friendly staff brings return guests (who tip well).
Like the hotel, our room had been in its current state of decoration for a while. It was the largest single hotel room I’ve ever had, with two full size beds, a kitchenette and postage stamp sized bathroom.
Our main view from the 11th floor was 7th Avenue – a blessing and a curse. 7th Avenue is cooking ’round the clock and noisy!
We (meaning Helaine) unpacked the clothes. I set up our ‘comms station’. Passing on the hotel’s $9.95/day Internet, I hooked up via my cellphone. The G3 connection was about T1 speed, meaning 1/6th what I get here at home, though probably faster than what the hotel provides.
Stef had come prepared with a list of places (meaning stores) she wanted to visit. We headed to the subway and Greenwich Village. It was a 10 minutes ride on the “A” train.
At Belvedere Castle in Central Park, the official Weather Service observation site, the high was in the low 30s with a light wind. In the canyons of the city, with Bernoulli’s principle ramping up the wind like water through a garden hose’s nozzle, it felt closer to zero.
We were looking for Marc Jacobs on Bleeker Street. In this lower part of Manhattan, where streets no longer run parallel and perpendicular, it was tough to find. Luckily, along the way I spied the Magnolia Bakery.
This was a place I knew nothing about until Saturday Night Live featured it in “Lazy Sunday” a digital short. Even then, it took Stef’s sense of ‘what’s hot’ to move it onto my radar.
I saw the sign and could only think one thing – cupcakes!
Good God, they’re amazing. I can’t imagine there’s anything healthy about them but you’ll die happy.
As Helaine and Stef looked in stores, I stayed outside, freezing and photographing.
The Village is a very nice, very citified residential neighborhood. People move here to live an affluent lifestyle without looking ostentatious. Sorry, your cover has been blown.
We moved farther south to Century 21, a major discount clothing store across the street from Ground Zero. If you’re wondering whether Lower Manhattan has changed since 9/11, the answer is yes, there’s a huge construction site where WTC towers once stood. Other than that, people move about their business as they always have.
This part of the city is busy because it’s particularly convenient (something lost on me as a kid growing up in Queens). You’re only a few minutes from Midtown, Brooklyn (via the subway) and New Jersey (via the PATH trains) and 25 minutes from Staten Island via the ferry.
Back at the hotel we all changed to more sensible shoes and headed uptown on foot toward the Theater District and Times Square.
Helaine, our organizational beacon, made reservations for dinner at Joe Allen, a well known theater hangout on Restaurant Row (aka 46th Street between 8th> and 9th Avenues). I’d actually been once before, doing an interview there while shooting on location as host of PM Magazine/Buffalo.
Stef and I shared a guacamole dip appetizer. It was smooth in texture with a spicy tang. For the main course, she ordered a warm chicken salad while Helaine and I had meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I was comforted.
When we arrived, the restaurant was empty. When we left, it was full. This is a place that does huge business, mostly timed to make an 8:00 PM curtain. We had other ideas before the show began.
Before heading to the theater, we headed into Times Square and the oversized Toys ‘R Us. It’s tough to explain how large this store is, except to point out it has a full sized, full motion, Jurassic Park dinosaur and a Ferris Wheel!
Some things in life don’t get questioned. Stef wanted to ride and she and Helaine had already decided the ride would be with me (the less height fearful of the parents).
As Ferris Wheels go, with wasn’t particularly high nor particularly scary. After all, it wasn’t put up in a parking lot by safety ambivalent Carny’s! It was, however, indoors. That was the attraction.
Ride finished, we found the door, turned right and walked another block or so to the Palace Theater, where we had tickets to see “Legally Blonde The Musical.”
As with most Broadway houses, it’s been here for a while. The Palace opened in 1913, and much of that old school feel is still in it, though the theater has obviously been refurbished.
It is an immense house with orchestra, mezzanine and balcony¹.
Ours seats were upstairs in the first row of the mezzanine – an astounding view of both the stage and the orchestra pit. On this Thursday night in mid-January, only the first few rows of the mezzanine were full. I assume the balcony was mostly abandoned as well.
About 20 minutes into the show I said to myself, “This is going much too fast.”
There was too much story with too few details in too little time. It was the theatrical equivalent of fast food. And then, with the story established, Legally Blonde hit its stride.
This is not Shakespeare. It’s a very light, tightly choreographed musical, based on the Reese Witherspoon movie. It’s light and fluffy and… well, it’s blonde! It was a lot of fun.
Years ago, Broadway suffered because the players voices faded over the long distance to the upper deck seats. Not so anymore. Actors wear mics (which you sometimes see protruding from their foreheads).
I’m mention microphones because for this performance, I think there was too much amplification. Less would have been more. Voices could have carried without being overpowering.
Laura Bell Bundy, who we saw in Hairspray, is physically perfect for the lead role, sorority girl Elle Woods. She sings and dances well, but Helaine felt her voice ran out before the show ended, sometime in the second act. Toward the end, it became grating.
The real standouts in the cast were Orfeh, the déclassé hairdresser who explains life to Elle and Christian Borle, the ‘pulled up by his own bootstraps’ law student/love interest.
Orfeh’s voice is strong, brassy and vibrant. Her presence is strong on stage. And, as they read this, my family will find out, she’s working with her husband!
Orfeh is Paulette, the unlucky-in-love Bostonian hairdresser who becomes best friends to Elle Woods, and Karl is Kyle, the UPS man of her dreams. Needless to say, Orfeh is thrilled to get to bend-and-snap for her husband eight times a week on Broadway.
Christian Borle reminds me of Eric Bogosian. That is if Eric Bogosian could sing… and maybe he can – who knows? In one of those weird stage intangibles, he’s really likable, though I can’t give you bullet points why. That’s good, because this part demands likability. When he was on the stage, it was tough to look away.
Oh – there are two other cast members I wanted to mention – Chico and Chloe as Bruiser and Rufus respectively. Both pound dogs, they are incredibly well trained (though you do see food move from actor’s hand to dog’s mouth after each bit of acting) and integral parts of the show.
Stef asked me to go backstage and bring them home. A father hates to disappoint his child, but the show must go on. I resisted.
After a slow start, Legally Blonde finished strong for me. We left in a good mood and hoofed it back downtown to the hotel.
Manhattan was reasonably quiet until we got to the Garden, where the Rangers game was letting out. The crowd was in a good mood. The Rangers had won.
Checkout time at the Affinia is very late – noon. We were out earlier, leaving our bags with the bellman. Breakfast/lunch was at The Bread Factory Cafe on 7th Avenue.
As is so often the case, Helaine and Stef had walked by the day before, stared in the window and decided this particular would be worth our while. I don’t quite know how they do it. Good decision.
I stood at the pasta station as my linguine with rock shrimp and garlic pesto sauce was prepared. It was tasty, and enough carbs to get me going.
Stef and Helaine decided a neighborhood store (Macy*s in Herald Square) was the place to go. I begged off. Stores just don’t do it for me like they do for them.
I cut across 34th Street to 5th and into the Empire State Building. It was me, Clicky, three lenses and three batteries (each of which would fizzle prematurely).
As a native New Yorker, I can’t remember ever going to the Empire State as a kid. It’s a tourist thing, like the Statue of Liberty and the U.N. – something the locals don’t do.
My first trip up was on a Saturday night in the summer of 1967. A fellow student from Brooklyn Tech had gotten his FCC First Class Radiotelephone license and latched on as summer relief transmitter engineer for WABC-TV. It seems like a hell of a responsibility for a 17 year old, but he was working odd hours and making big money in a unionized position.
The observation deck is on the 86th floor. He worked somewhere in the 90s… with windows that opened and a ledge some of the more senior engineers claimed they walked out on. I remember a fresh breeze blowing in toward the rack of transmitters and the glow of the city below.
I wish I remembered his name. I’m not sure if I really liked him as much as I liked the idea of going to this very special techie place.
I went back to Empire (as the transmitter guys called it) a few years ago with Stef. This was in my pre-Clicky days. Did it count without Clicky?
Back then, we waited in line for a few hours before taking the two elevators up². Today, there was no crowd and I breezed right through an abandoned rope line and up to the top.
Holy crap it was cold!
The Sun was shining and the sky blue as I stepped onto the deck. Groups of people clustered around the diamond shaped fencing, peering out, trying to figure where they were looking. The city below was familiar. I looked east, trying to find our old apartment complex in far off Queens.
This time of year, the Sun is never very high in the sky. Looking south was very different than looking north. To the north all the detail was distinct. Looking south was looking at buildings in silhouette.
I watched as people took snapshots with the city as the background. It’s tough to make that kind of shot work when all you’re doing is pointing and shooting. Cameras are designed to compensate and correct exactly what you want to show uncorrected!
One of the most fascinating parts of the observatory are the pigeons. “How did they get up here,” I heard someone ask?
Hello – they’re birds. They fly. There are numerous ledges. They don’t have to do it all at once.
I kept my mouth shut. I wanted to say it, but resisted.
These city pigeons, used to people and cognizant of the protective fence, stayed mere inches away. They were scoping us out as we returned the favor.
I came prepared, bringing all my gear. I didn’t bring enough battery power. I knew this might be a problem. New batteries were already on order (and arrived at home today) for these fading ones.
Don’t feel sorry for me. I still got plenty of shots. I just had to stop before I wanted to.
Oh – one more thing. By virtue of its incredible height, the Empire State Building is an awful place for cell service! I tried making a few calls. Mostly they failed before they could be completed. When I did get a connection, it didn’t last long.
When you’re on top of the Empire State, it’s very easy to appreciate the wisdom of having this once building tower over all the others. A city of ‘equi-heighted’ skyscrapers would look wrong and the effect of this observatory would be diminished.
I met the girls for our last stop before leaving. It was a snack at Pinkberry on 32nd> Street, a street of mainly Korean businesses and Asian faces.
This was a Stef call. Pinkberry is trendy. Stef likes trendy. The American Express ads touting Pinkberry’s “swirly goodness” only add to that aura.
It’s not ice cream. It’s not yogurt. And, I’m told, it’s not terribly caloric.
Pinkberry was the coldest dessert I’ve ever had… and on a day that was already cold! There’s no doubt, it was tasty and really pretty.
I’m hoping Pinkberry doesn’t come after me, as the store has a lovely ‘no photography’ decal on the glass.
So, here we are, home again. This adventure is over. It’s amazing what we were able to accomplish in about 24 hours.
This explains why I came home and crashed!
¹ – Writing in the NY Times before the Palace opening of Beauty and the Beast, Alex Witchel wrote, “Even if the cost is $11.9 million, that’s still a lot of money by Broadway standards, if not Disney’s. Can jealous fellow producers at least hope it will take years to recoup the investment, especially given the Palace’s hard-to-sell second balcony?”
² – The first elevator goes from the ground floor to the 80th. You change there for 86.