The following is excerpted from Inside Variety, pages 83-86. For other extracts from Peter Besas unofficial history of paper, click the button Inside Variety on the left of the screen.
by PETER BESAS
Just three years after its founding, on March 1, 1909, Sime Silverman pushed the Variety office seven blocks uptown to Times Square. The paper’s motto had become “All the News All the Time – That Green Paper. Variety, You Know It By The Color.”
Not only were the new facilities more spacious, but, more pointedly, in keeping with Sime’s flair for showmanship, they were marvellously visible to anyone wandering across the Square. From the second floor of 1536 Broadway, on the northeast corner of 45th Street, smack in the center of the “crossroads of the world”, a prominently-displayed Variety logo blazed its green, illuminated message over the Great White Way.
On the street level, the building housed a cluster of shops: Levey’s Cleanser, the Bullock & Spencer Café, a “theatrical” café with the word CIGARS prominently painted on its two showcases, and Rothschild’s clothing store. A draper and a chiropodist shared the second floor with the Variety offices.
Although the new office could not boast of fronting the door of an impresario of the stature of Charles Dillingham, as had been the case in the Knickerbocker Building, it could lay claim to another, perhaps more colorful, distinction: in the upper floors of the building unfolded the dramas and shenanigans of those dwelling in New York’s best-known theatrical boarding house, the Bartholdi Inn.
The Bartholdi catered to a picturesque mélange of show biz types – thespians, hoofers, acrobats, monologists, animal trainers and other assorted specimens of the vaude fauna, who, for a consideration, were provided rooms and a square meal at Mother Theresa Bartholdi’s establishment. The Inn originally started in 1899 with two upper floors at 1536 Broadway. Five years later, Madame Bartholdi took over the corner of 45th Street and two adjoining buildings, and in 1906 two more houses were added on 45th Street, giving the Inn 110 rooms.
“It was half-soled and heeled – and you had to know your way to find your room. Rooms were rented by the week . . . Madame Bartholdi acted as banker and advisor, advanced fares and money to actors, let them run up bills into the thousands, and told me she never lost a penny! . . . The Inn had a real bohemian atmosphere, the tables had lighted candles and beer was served in small glass pitchers,” wrote Joe Laurie, Jr. in his book on vaudeville.
Another writer recalled the Inn in 1912: “The Bartholdi was a rendezvous for actors and chorus girls out of work, and another kind of lady who was never out of work. At the top of a wide staircase leading up from the street sat Mama Bartholdi, slightly mustachioed, squat and overweight, with a heart to match her size . . . Practically no one who came to the Bartholdi Inn ever carried a suitcase.”
Among those who had made the Inn their home were Pearl White, Fanny Brice, John Gilbert, Wallace Beery, William S. Hart, Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Eva Tanguay. And it was ostensibly at the Bartholdi that the Four Cohans stayed during their sojourns in Gotham, at least before they made the big time. Such, as least, is suggested in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy. When Mother Bartholdi died she left over a million in cash and real estate.
At the Bartholdi in 1907 Vincent Sardi, the famous restaurateur, whose eatery was to become synonymous with elegant after-theatre supping, met his future wife. In his book of reminiscences, Sardi dedicated a whole chapter to the Bartholdi Inn. He recalled that Sime Silverman once urged Mother Bartholdi to take the special steak sandwich that sold for a quarter off the menu. People who aren’t in show business might find out about it, he said.
In summertime, beneath the windows of the Bartholdi Inn, the Variety office tempered the searing rays of the New York sun by pulling out a large striped awning over the window facing Broadway, and a smaller one over the window overlooking 45th Street. But the cooling effect of the awnings was sometimes undermined by idle actors who flicked lit cigarettes and cigars out of the windows overhead which landed on the awnings, sometimes just burning one more hole into them but occasionally setting the awning ablaze.
Hence Sime and Johnny O’Connor always kept a bucket of water handy for such contretemps. The bucket was complemented by another useful prop, a baseball bat. This was kept handy next to Charlie Freeman to enforce respect for Variety’s blunt assessment of vaude talent in the event irate actors, acrobats and hoofers erupted in the office seeking retribution.
As you entered the office, you came to the mail desk and a low gate beyond which ranged desks and filing cabinets for the small staff consisting of three or four reporters, a bookkeeper, and a few advertising solicitors.
Sime even managed to get BRyant 1536 for his phone number, the same number as his street address.
At the Broadway end of the room stood Sime’s rolltop desk with upright phone and typewriter, and an upholstered leather swivel chair from where he could peer through the big three-part window and survey much of the Broadway scene he knew so well.
The view on the west side of the Square included Garrity & Hiff’s popular grogshop at 46th Street, flanked by the new Hotel Astor and the Putnam Building beyond, which had become the vaudeville nerve center of Broadway since Keith’s United Booking Office had moved there. No more than a strong breath further south was Dowling’s bar, at 43rd beside which rose the pile of Hammerstein’s much-lauded vaudeville theatre.
“Inside Variety”, (c) by Peter Besas