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Toots: The Rise and Fall of the World's Greatest Saloonkeeper

A Film by Kristi Jacobson

The Studio@620 is proud to present the regional debut screening of Toots, a film by Kristi Jacobson on Monday, May 18th at 7:30 pm.  Director Kristi Jacobson will be on hand for a question and answer session after the film.

“One of the most compelling, yet forgotten stories of the 20th century.”

-- Walter Cronkite

Brief Synopsis

“Toots Shor is many things to many people,” said Edward R. Murrow of he legendary Manhattan saloonkeeper in 1955.  A friend to the famous, a crook to the feds, father, brother, gambler, bum, but most of all Toots Shor was the owner of America’s greatest saloon. Directed by his granddaughter, TOOTS is a provocative, loving and unmistakably authentic portrait of the self-made, unapologetic and quintessentially American man who became the unlikely den-mother to the heroes of America’s golden age. Politicians and gangsters, sports heroes and movie stars -- Sinatra, Gleason, Dimaggio, Ruth, Costello, Eisenhower, Nixon, Warren -- for 30 years, they all found their way to Toots’ eponymous saloon on New York’s West 51st Street for food and drink, served up with a heaping side of insults and put downs.  From its post-WW II heyday to its devastating decline in the 1970s, this film reveals as much about the city Toots loved as it does about the man and his enduring legacy.  Featuring: Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Frank Gifford, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Nick Pileggi, David Brown, Peter Duchin, Maury Allen, Dave Anderson, Bill Gallo, Joe Garagiola, Sidney Zion, Gay Talese, and Gianni Russo. 

To view a short trailer for the film, click here.

Director's Statement

Growing up, I had only vague memories of my grandfather, Toots Shor.  He passed away when I was just six years old so I barely knew him, and certainly did not know him as the legendary, “bigger than life” saloonkeeper and loyal friend he was to so many.

My curiosity about Toots was sparked while making a film about the Teamsters Union in 1999.  Through some old-time truckers, I learned of my grandfather’s friendship with Jimmy Hoffa and the $7 million loan the Teamster’s Pension Fund granted my grandfather to build his second restaurant in 1960.  Not only was the amount of this “loan” intriguing, but so was the fondness with which these tough-talking truck drivers spoke of Toots.  I was in Los Angeles at the time, and paid a visit to Eleanor Mark, whose late husband, Bill, was the restaurant’s unofficial photographer for over 30 years. We sat in her living room, pouring over hundreds of photos as she shared stories about Toots.  For the first time, my grandfather and his saloon came to life.  These experiences, it turned out, were only the beginning of my 7-year odyssey to uncover the story of Toots Shor.

Since then I have discovered amazing proof of Toots’ legacy, including vintage radio and television shows like “Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow,” “This Is Your Life,”  and “The Mike Wallace Interview.”  But the most exciting find was three thirty-year-old audiotapes  -- 8 hours of my grandfather being interviewed by noted oral historian and author Edward Robb Ellis (“The Epic of New York”) for Columbia  University’s Oral History Collection.  Finally, I had access to my grandfather in a way I never thought possible, and during his most painful, declining years.  It was the turning point of both my commitment to the film and my relationship with him, a new connection which grew deeper and stronger as I continued to work on the film.

Since shooting my first interview with Walter Cronkite in 1999 and my last with Pete Hamill in early 2006, I have learned a lot about Toots (and filmmaking). More importantly I have come away with life lessons gained from discoveries about the way my grandfather embraced his life.  The true meaning of friendship, the importance of loyalty and the joys of living life in the moment are three values I will take from this experience and hold fast to.

Toots’ story and unique character provide a window not only into my own past, but into our collective past.  For his story is the quintessential American story -- born poor in South Philly, the only Jew in an Irish-Italian neighborhood, he held fast to his dreams and soon became a hero to the heroes of America’s golden age.  Toots achieved the wealth and status many only dream of, and yet, in the end, he had to sell his name to a chain restaurant for $1500.   As Michael Hainey, editor of GQ, once told me, his life was a rollercoaster ride, from “rags to rags, with indefinable riches in between.”

Toots believed a saloonkeeper was the most important person in a community, and his saloon was a community unlike any that exists today.  I've often wondered what Toots, an uneducated “bum,” had in common with men as accomplished and disparate as Eisenhower, Hemingway, Sinatra, and Hoffa. Toots had a rough-hewn charm, a straight-talking no-nonsense honesty and a sincere love of fun.  Out of the madcap stories a central theme emerges: the extreme value and profound satisfaction Toots found in his friendships.  The devotion and continued love of his friends – Sinatra and Dean Martin offered to perform at his restaurant three times a night for three weeks to raise money when he was threatened with bankruptcy, others wrote him blank checks – meant the world to him, but he just couldn't accept their help.  Although his generosity and his lack of business savvy left him broke at the end of his life, his unique breed of camaraderie and pride forged bridges across the barriers of  wealth, class, and race to leave an enduring legacy. 

TOOTS SHOR is an icon of New York’s golden era; and this film is my attempt to revisit that time, through his story, and also to show why TOOTS SHOR’S could never exist today. In today's world of reality TV, chat rooms and billionaire superstars, it's hard to imagine a time when people didn't retreat home to the television, but gathered instead at Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, on their front stoops and most of all in joints like TOOTS SHOR's to share their lives, celebrate their victories or drown their sorrows – together.   -- Kristi Jacobson



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