Theatre yesterday and today



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On June 22, 2006, demolition began on the northwest corner of 46th Street and Broadway. This was a sad day for me, as well as for many others, who knew which structure was coming down. The empty pits in our stomachs wasn't for the building itself, (it was no architectural gem) nor was it for the end of the food that would be served from the restaurant that would be no longer. No, we mourned that only memories would be left of the many afternoon and evenings spent in one of the booths of this Howard Johnson.

Back in its hey-day, Broadway sported all sorts of of these type of eateries: Nedick's and Nathan's, not to mention ones geared especially (if not exclusively) for Jewish clienteles: the Gaiety Deli and the Cafe Edison. This Howard Johnson's was once a Child's, another chain that I had first-hand knowledge of when I began coming into the city in 1969, as there was one I frequented often on the northeast corner of 45th Street and 8th Avenue, just west of the John Golden Theatre.

This photo was taken during the time I attended the Broadway theatre on a weekly basis. A teenager at the time, (thirteen-years-old, judging by the marquees for No, No, Nanette and The Rothschilds in the background) this is the Broadway forever inside of me no matter how often I walk around the heart of it today. The enormous buildings now scraping the sky and the lights so bright that sunglasses are necessary at night, in no way diminish the vision of what will always be in my mind's eye.

For some reason, my outstanding memory from this Howard Johnson was of a scorching Saturday afternoon when I had come in for a play at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. On my way uptown, I had stopped about twenty blocks below to pick up tickets for my next visit, which was to be the musical Promises, Promises, then seven months into its run and still with its original cast. The show in store for me this day was German playwright Heinar Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, once described as "a courtroom drama without a court." Its plot had to do with a board convened in 1954, appointed to make a ruling on whether Oppenheimer, the man in charge of the Manhattan Project and thus one of the fathers of the atom bomb, should continue his top-level security clearance. For not only had Oppenheimer committed the crime of once having had friends in the Communist party in his early years, but it light of the aftermath of the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he had begun to express mixed feelings about the building of the new hydrogen bomb. Of course this all had to to with the looming Red Menace that gripped the United States during the Cold War—a witch hunt if there ever was one. And it all took place in the shadow of Arthur Miller's blacklist parable The Crucible, which was playing on Broadway, the very year of Oppenheimer's tribunal.

But I digress. The lunch at Howard Johnson that stands out in my memory had nothing to do with J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was due to my theatre companion for the day, my neighbor Harry Gross, who offered on that blazing late June afternoon, the perfect solution to beat the oppressive heat outside. He told me to order hot soup, which at the time, was the stupidest thing I had ever heard in my life. But Harry explained to me in great detail how the heat from the soup would make me sweat (that much I believed) and that it would actually do more to lower my body temperature than something cold because the more sweat the body produces is that much more likely to cool the body down. That part seemed to make sense, but it sure seemed an unpleasant way to go about doing it. Anyway, we both ordered split pea soup and when we went back out into the blazing sun it actually worked!

As it turned out, this is no wives’ tale. This thing called the internet allowed me to look it up just now and it's true. So you can take it to the bank. But good luck trying to find a bowl of this particular split pea soup anymore. Where once there were hundreds across the country, there is now only one genuine Howard Johnson's with an orange roof left in all of the United States. Stop in the next time you're visiting or passing through Lake George, New York.