Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sardi's: Past, Present, and a Drift toward Homeopathic Caricature

Hey kids, been a while since I posted. But this is a long one, so strap in and get some hot cocoa.
Sardi's sits at 234 West 44th Street, NY NY

Back in June of this year, I got to tromp around NYC and, while I was there, I dropped in at the world-famous Sardi's, an old hangout for Al Hirschfeld, the birthplace of the Tony Awards, and hallowed ground for any caricature artist or lover of Broadway shows (I am both). And, owing to my plan-ahead-and-do-things-thoroughly-or-not-at-all philosophy, I emailed ahead and greased some wheels in order to speak to some Sardi's staff, have dinner there, and also visit the archived Sardi's drawings at the New York Public Library. I dug into some research, bought the book on Sardi's (Off the Wall at Sardi's, by Vincent Sardi, Jr., and Thomas West, Amarna, 1991 & 2012), and recorded a long interview with Ivan Lesica, the Maitre D' there, in an effort to really understand the evolution of Sardi's. I'd bitten off a lot and had plenty to chew on, yet I was torn about how to share all this. It would have made a fun podcast or article for Exaggerated Features, but nothing came together. Finally, I decided to bang this out on the day before the ISCA convention, simply because I felt others might enjoy knowing some of the stuff I found out. And because sleep and I are mortal enemies.
 

Sardi's Heyday and the NYC Public Library Collection


Really, it's okay if I touch this? Well then . . .
     Anyone my age and older knows the feel of a good, solid library; we remember life and research BG (before Google), when card catalog drawers were picked over and the Dewey Decimal System was your friend--your bizarre, dyslexic friend who made no sense but was still your friend because he knew where stuff was kept. So I was delighted to head over to the Billy Rose Theater Division of the New York Public Library and make arrangements with special collections to pore over the caricatures held there. Yeah, turns out ANY OLD NUTTER CAN JUST WALK IN AND GET A LIBRARY CARD AND GET THEIR FILTHY PAWS ON BOXES UPON BOXES OF THESE PRICELESS CLASSIC WORKS OF ART! FOR FREE!! Who knew?

My face when handling stuff only adults should touch.
     A couple of very helpful librarians walked me through procedures: You enter kind of an academic "quarantine zone" where you are not allowed to bring in books or bags or such of your own. Yellow paper and golf pencils are made available to take notes, and cameras are allowed (as are cell phones). I and a few rows of other researchers waited for our materials to be brought up, then we sat and pieced through our treasures under the watchful eye of the curator, behind her desk at the front of the room. Some collections require the viewer to wear white gloves for the protection of the artifact--I urged the librarian to give me the gloves, so my finger oils would not tarnish the artwork, but she just looked over the record and told me to handle them by the edges please. I took care and handled each piece carefully, reading the inscriptions scrawled on decades ago by Broadway luminaries who expressed their feelings about being flattered, gutted, or simply fed at the establishment of Vincent Sardi, Sr. After six hours, I left with fifty or sixty photos and a list for the curator of pieces that were missing from the boxes--hopefully they will be found, but Sardi's does have a reputation for artwork walking away mysteriously.

Four of Alex Gard's victims.
     The personality of these characters really does seem to shine through, and with my (albeit limited) knowledge and experience in the craft, I swear I could pick out little moments of the artwork being made. Sardi's first artist, Alex Gard, was a Russian refugee who agreed to draw patrons there in exchange for two meals a day. [Note: Wikipedia's entry on Gard states the contract was for one meal a day, but the book and the Maitre D' both told me it was two]. And he was clearly drawing his subjects from life, not from publicity photos. It looks like he sat with them, at a booth or table, and sketched these out while chatting, observing their demeanor, posture, and their dignity (or lack thereof). Many of these early caricatures are profiles, some contain quite a bit of the body, enough to show body language, while some are simplistic . . . but nearly all of them have more bite than polish. The patrons bit back, here and there--when they autographed their picture (as was the rule: no caricature went on the wall unless the artist and subject had both signed it), quite a few celebrities wrote a line or two praising, teasing, or making a pun of their artist's name. Gard have mercy! En Gard! Praise be to Gard! Only Gard can make a Tree! (that last one was scrawled lovingly by Lady Viola Tree). It was clear these folks had formed a rapport with Alex Gard, who obviously would have been a staple in the restaurant if he was eating his requisite two meals a day there.

Gard's drawing of theater critic Ward Morehouse.
     According to the book, and to Sardi's legend, Gard and Sardi had a formal agreement: Sardi was not allowed to complain about the caricatures, and Gard was not allowed to complain about the food. Talk about a recipe for some great, loose, fun artwork: no rules, no prescriptions or proscriptions of how the drawing should look, and that all-important relationship with the subject. With the right rapport, a stroke of the pen that might offend instead becomes a stroke of truth that all can find humor in. But a personal "relationship" can swing both ways: once when the head of the New York Stock Exchange came in and asked to be put on the wall, Gard told the man to his face "You I wouldn't draw for ten thousand dollars" (Sardi & West, p. 23). I found it interesting that the true insult in that day and age, rather than being drawn too harshly, was not being drawn.

Mackey's Bob Hope has his eye on you.
     I'll not spend too much time running down the history of each artist, but suffice it to say that Gard was the Sardi's artist from 1926 until his death in 1948, and he created more than 700 caricatures for the restaurant. Sardi asked Al Hirschfeld to take over (the two were good friends, and I spotted a drawing of Al done by Don Bevan on the second floor), but "Al worked on a scale that looked right for the Times, and his style was really suited to black-and-white" (Sardi and West, p. 70) Vincent Sardi wanted all the work in his restaurant to be colorful. John Mackey took over for a while, but before too long he and Sardi parted ways--according to Sardi, Mackey drank a bit too much. Before his departure, he managed to draw major figures like Henry Fonda, Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, and Alec Guinness among others. The Mackey drawings up at Sardi's Off the Wall show skill but are definitely not quite consistent. The Bob Hope is beguiling in its impish side-stare, but a few others (like Arthur Miller and Alec Guiness) look like an entirely different artist did them. Perhaps Mackey's style depended on his blood alcohol level?


Gorgeous shapes and color in Bevan's work.
     Don Bevan, Sardi's next official artist, is credited in Off the Wall as having drawn caricatures of his fellow detainees after being shot down over Nazi Germany while serving as a gunner in 1943. He later sent some of the drawings to the families of his fellow prisoners, which alarmed some of the mothers, who thought that Don's exaggerated drawings reflected their sons' actual condition! (Sardi and West, p. 77). After his time in World War II, Bevan came to the job after a stint cartooning with the Baltimore Sun and a few forays into theater work himself. His caricatures have a softer feel to them, most relying on colored lines instead of a harsher black line drawing--but his shapes are solid, and his punches are not pulled, not even for the ladies. His graphic style reminds me of a less abstract David Cowles, with elegant shapes and blocks of color, very little crosshatching.

     Bevan drew for Sardi's until he retired in 1974, at which time a contest was held and a young student named Richard Baratz won the honor with his rendition of the inimitable Bette Midler. And, according to both Mr. Lesica and Off the Wall, the Divine Miss M was not pleased with it and refused to sign the thing. Sardi sums up his reaction to this beautifully, in a quote I think all caricaturists should have tattooed upon their person: "Not that I was after another Gard, but it takes a really good caricaturist to offend his subject. After all, for an actor, having your caricature done is like a bad review from a critic; asking an actor what he thinks about critics is like asking a fire hydrant what it thinks about dogs" (Sardi and West, p. 108, emphasis mine). It made me a little sad to know that Midler was soon redrawn so that her caricature was more to her liking.     

     Richard Baratz holds his post until this day, though sources are split on exactly how long he's been Sardi's caricature artist (Sardi's website bio states 29 years, but 1974 to present would be 42 years) or even if he is the "sole caricature artist" as the website also claims. There are quite a few pieces on the walls by Marilyn Church, done in the early 1990s, though she is not mentioned in the Off the Wall book, nor is she found on any online sources that list the official artists of Sardi's, and Ivan could not remember exactly how she came to lend her talents to the restaurant. The evidence is hanging plainly on the wall, however, and I salute you, silent lady among the caricature gents of the ages!
Baratz's engraving influence can be seen in the elegant crosshatching he has applied to Tom Wopat's neck and the faces of Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Yul Brenner.

     Baratz's evolving style is something you can track on the wall . . . he has done over 900 caricatures for the place and counting. There are some real gems among his earlier caricatures, while his later work shows the intricate and painstaking workmanship one would expect from someone in Baratz's "day job" of engraver at the U.S. Treasury. Looking closely reveals delicate crosshatching, evenly spaced and arranged to create tone and mass. His drawings seem to have become less loose over the years, but there is a consistency that reigns throughout. Sure, he missed on likeness here and there, but there are some very solid hits. And the misses weren't due to swinging hard and pounding the ball foul--the misses were due to pulling the bat in and trying to bunt, safely, until the ball just didn't go very far. I found myself wondering as I stared at a few of the drawings, "How much of the pull back on that was Baratz, and how much was the effect of outside forces?" I doubt I'll ever know. But remember, this was the kid who had impressed Vincent Sardi because he could offend his subject.

  

Current Views on Sardi's and Homeopathic Caricature


     Now, we all live in our own bubbles these days, right? So be aware that what follows is what I've experienced in my bubble. I share my bubble with a few hundred caricature artists who work all over the world, and some knowledgeable fans and historians of caricature, so it's at least a sampling of opinion among folks in the industry.
"Where'd my crags go?" asks Brian Cranston (perhaps).

     Perhaps because of Sardi's long, storied history, many artists today hold the place to a high standard when it comes to what goes on the walls (or around social media). Release parties for new caricature unveilings are now spread around online, and some artists have certainly made their opinions known about the lack of "bite" many of the newer pieces seem to have. What seems to be happening, in my observation is a slow dilution of the art form--which, I hasten to point out, is very likely not the fault of Richard Baratz. It's nostalgic and naive to think that any artist working today might have the same freedom as Alex Gard, who was working in what was then a very low-stakes environment with a no-complaints clause in his supposed verbal contract. Now, however, we live in a day and age of artsy filters instantly applied to digital photos, washed-out lighting that makes 50-year-olds look as smooth as they were when they were at 25, and of course, the customer-is-always-right approach to almost everything, including things a customer is often wrong about (like their own appearance).  
I'd like to see the source photo--it had to be an odd angle.

     You need only work one birthday party as a professional caricature artist to see that people can be touchy about their face . . . and if you have an art director (or owner of a restaurant) in charge of making sure no celebrities get rubbed the wrong way, well, it's a foregone conclusion that the direction things will drift naturally is toward a more dilute, "nice" approach to the caricatures. (Are they still caricatures past a certain point? More on that later. )

Elisabeth Moss has delightful features to caricature . . . someday.
I have come to think of it as homeopathic caricature. Homeopathy is the misunderstood snake oil--um, I mean alternative medicine--that is sold widely in pharmacies and drug stores as a curative but actually contains nothing of substance. Developed in the late 18th century by Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is based on the (totally wrong) principle that the more dilute a substance, the stronger effect it will have. If garlic or duck liver or Himalayan salt will act as a curative for some condition, then watering that ingredient down will make it even better. It's a philosophy one would never want from one's bartender, but for some reason people fall for it when it comes to their health. Homeopaths take this dilution prerogative to absurd lengths, emptying out a vessel and refilling it with pure water dozens or hundreds of times so that it's statistically improbable that even one molecule of the garlic, or duck liver, or salt remains in the finished product. And customers pay for water (well, water put into sugar tablets)--and they do so happily and eagerly, thinking that since it has no harsh elements it will not harm them and they can enjoy a placebo effect at least. Are you still with me through that long metaphor? Watering down might make things seem more palatable, but it kills the effectiveness--both of medicine and of caricature.




 
 
     While the smoothed-out, very lightly treated faces of Cranston, Krakowski, and Moss certainly contain more than a molecule of likeness, they ring as watered-down rather than concentrated. And concentration of what makes a face unique has always been the raison d'etre of caricature. The old guard (no pun intended) of Gard, Hirschfeld, and Covarrubias were pumping out strong, intense caricatures that were boiled down to capture a person sometimes using just a few lines.
Look at how bland! Oh wait, it's the Osmonds. Nevermind.

     Trawling around the net, I found that professional caricature artists weren't the only ones bristling about the homeopathic dilution of caricature in the hallowed halls of Sardi's these days. On a thread at BroadwayWorld.com, I found a string of comments from regular non-artist Broadway fans who also seemed to miss the spicier variety of caricature. (Apologies to Mr. Baratz if you are reading this, but every Broadway actor has had to deal with bad reviews, so I'm going to go ahead and quote a few, warts and all--and I'm only sampling a small bit of what's there, these Broadway fans even mention that it's a topic that has come up a lot):

"The recent ones have all been so dreadful! I'm genuinely shocked that nobody has complained to them, and that they themselves haven't noticed the dreadful quality of the work. I feel genuinely bad for all the actors who have to stand in front of photographers pretend like their portrait is good."

"After viewing some of the most recent Sardi's Caricatures, especially Neil Patrick Harris, is it me, or are they not very good? Whenever I see an artist doing caricatures on the street, I tend to notice what they have drawn vs their model. Most, if not all have a very good likeness. I had one done several years ago, at Universal Studios Hollywood, which is extremely good. I just don't see the same likeness with the 'professional.'"

"WOW that's a lousy likeness."

"The current artist is seems to think that everybody's noses are smaller than they are. Maybe it's a stylistic choice? If so, it's a bad one."

"All of the recent caricatures have been disgracefully bad."
Wait, Norm Lewis is black?

"I've never been to Sardi's, do the portraits have a little description saying who it's supposed to be?  Or is it some sad game of 'Guess Who?' that no one ever wins?"


"Elizabeth Moss holding a caricature of Nicole Kidman."

"Amen! They aren't caricatures OR portraits. If the artist isn't going to do the exaggerated caricature style, at least draw something that actually looks like the person."

"I guess no one told them that Norm Lewis is black!" 


    Even these non-artist commenters (I assume they were non-artists, with names like "NJBroadwayGirl" and "TheaterGuy") were pointing out what seasoned caricaturists on other forums had complained of: features that might possibly be interpreted as "offensive" (noses, darker skin tones, wrinkles of any kind) were whitewashed out or understated to the point of losing a likeness. I wanted to ask Sardi's about this trend, and whether scaling back exaggeration was something ordered by the celebrities, by publicists, by the owner of the restaurant himself, or whether the drift just started happening naturally as Baratz drew for them year after year while also working as an engraver. 


Sardi's Visit


     The front canopy with its art deco aesthetic beckons you in like you're a resident of the City, it's upscale but downbeat, chic but shabby, very mid-town. I'll dispense with the food review since no one ever goes there for the food. A few caricatures are visible in the front windows (these get rotated around frequently, they tell me), and upon entering you see many more in the little bar to the left and a coatroom area to the right.

The secret key to finding faces!
     In that coatroom I was greeted by a surprise--one that took me a while to process. Overwhelmed by the sheer array of caricatures everywhere, I blankly looked at the coat-check girl (who looked familiar, but in my line of work EVERYONE starts looking a little familiar, so you kind of block it out after a while) and asked about my appointment with the public relations person there. While I waited, the young lady answered some questions and showed me the big green folder they use to track where each caricature is in the building (with multiple floors and little alcoves, it takes some organizational effort to make sure patrons wishing to find their favorite celebrity can be pointed there quickly). 

     Then after we'd spent a few more minutes together, the young lady helping me says "I know where I know you from now! YOU WENT TO AUSTRALIA!"

     Holy cripes, it all hit me . . . she was a little older now, but four years ago she was a new high school graduate who went on a group tour in Australia with her grandmother, and I was one of the thirty-odd people who was on that trip. Madeline! We had ridden camels together and she'd been prone to breaking out into showtunes--so how fitting that she had ended up working on Broadway so soon. Good for her! We were delighted at this bit of evidence that the world can be a small place sometimes.

PHOTOGRAPHIC PROOF, y'all! On the left, back in 2012 on some godforsaken camel farm in the Outback, and then almost exactly four years later, on West 44th Street.

       After our little reunion, I was passed off to Ivan Lesica, who was a very charming and patient man with the grace of a seasoned host. He answered all my questions and even got a kick out of some of the new things he learned as I shared with him a few things gathered from my trip to the library. Ivan has been working at Sardi's for 23 years now, and he certainly had seen many a star come through the place. He kindly let me record our talk, and I took up nearly an hour of his time.

     Our full interview might be available soon, maybe I'll find a place to host it or offer it as podcast fodder for Ali or Cory's caricature podcast endeavors. But for now I'll go over some of the main things that struck me as we chatted.

    One of the first questions I had was I asked Ivan what his definition of a caricature was. His immediate response was that it was similar to a star on the walk of fame, "definitely a tribute." I nudged him and said it was interesting that he didn't think of likeness or exaggeration first. He said "Not anymore . . . Oh, back in the day [there] used to be caricatures that exaggerated the features and everything . . . but now it's more like a cartoon portrait, and basically the honor of being on the wall and joining all these famous, incredible artists."

Marilyn Church's Charlton Heston.
      As to the mysterious Marilyn Church, Ivan recalled that she did some caricatures in the 90s, but wasn't clear on why or how long she worked with the establishment. Her Charlton Heston and Nathan Lane (among a few others) stand out as a more loose, painterly style.

     Ivan told me of something of the release parties for new caricatures and how the performer is invited, along with family and crew members, to a special private celebration on the top floor. He had no memory of anyone being really upset with their likeness in recent times, though he said one or two actors had been very very nervous wondering what to expect but ended up pleasantly surprised that in the drawing the feature they were worried about had been toned down--nose reduced, etc. "Like plastic surgery?" I asked. "Yes!" he said, they were so happy to see that. I was wincing a little as he recounted the story . . . for some that's a happy narrative, but to a caricature artist it's a slow exsanguination of what I love about this craft.

     He continued on, saying that the days of Broadway stars throwing epic tantrums in Sardi's over their caricatures are definitely over . . . which I kind of felt was a pity, as I'd read so many exciting accounts of that very thing in the Off the Wall book. It was almost like Vincent Sardi, Sr., had been a pioneer in the same sort of shock value and celebrity gawking we see in reality TV today: he very deftly poked at the egos of the day an there were regular instances of hissy fits, dramatic accounts of ripping art off the walls, and the odd prima donna refusing to come back to the place until she was placated in some way. But that's all in the past. Nowadays, Sardi's wanted to make sure there were no sore feelings. "We're happy, they're happy, everybody's happy."
Ivan with his favorite caricature, Sir Anthony.

     The most popular caricatures that people seek out these days, according to Ivan, are Kermit the Frog, Lucille Ball, and Liza Minelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and (more recently) Lin Manuel Miranda. When asked which one was his favorite, Ivan spoke highly of Baratz's first official caricature for the place: a young Anthony Hopkins when he won the Tony Award for his performance in Equus. He kindly took it off the wall and posed for a photo with it. Something about the eyes, he kept telling me--it mesmerized him on his first day at work, and he still stops and stares at it every time he passes it. I was happy to see Ivan moved by the work. It really did capture something ineffable about the young Hopkins. "It's exaggerated but at the same time it's so beautiful," he said wistfully, as if those two things are expected to be exclusive--when in caricature, they go hand in hand.

All the drawings on display are actually laser copies. The real ones are kept in a vault, as it's become a regular thing for the art to walk off the walls. Ivan says he's never been aware of the stolen prints ending up on Ebay or some such, and they have caught a few people in the act. Someone had just attempted to steal Bob Hope prior to my visit there.

As to what kind of influence various people have on the choices the artist makes, Ivan stated that, to his knowledge the public relations reps, the agents, and the stars themselves do not have a say in the artwork beyond providing the source photo. (Which is, granted, having a pretty big say . . . if the caricature is made using just one photo, then that's a very limiting way to approach getting a full likeness.) The subject does not see the caricature before the unveiling, but Sardi's owner, Max Klimavicius, does look at a preliminary sketch and suggest changes if he feels they are needed.  

A Letter from Max


     The business owner is always the first and last word when it comes to how that business is run--even if the business is a hallowed institution for a large group of people who feel a sense of ownership themselves. So Max makes the rules. This March 2016 GrubStreet article quotes him: “There are basically three rules for the wall,” the owner explains. “First of all, you have to be a friend of the house. Just because you are famous it doesn’t mean you get a picture. Second, you have to be in the arts. And third? Third is for the exceptions to the other rules.”

     I did email Max Klimavicius and asked him some follow up questions (politely, as I am not in the business of gotcha journalism), inquiring about the stylistic drift and exactly how much concern for actors' ego went into the drawings these days. While Mr. Klimavicius was very polite in his response, his note also contained a disavowal of the art form--which, again, is his right as a business owner. He and he alone determines what goes on the wall. 

     Responding to my query on exaggeration in the recent caricatures, he took issue with the word itself: "Though we refer colloquially to our collection as caricatures, in point of fact, for over 40 years we have been presenting stylized portraits of Broadway’s stars who are friends of the restaurant." Caricature? Stylized portrait? I know, I know, it's potato poh-tah-toe for a lot of folks. He ended his letter with a request: "But since this collection does not technically conform to the caricature category, I ask you to permit us to withdraw and disengage.  Thank you very much and best of luck in all of your endeavors."


Zach Trenholm's work needs no label.
     Okay, well then, consider my above blog to be about stylized portraits instead of caricatures. Sardi's has been a beacon for caricature artists--I mean stylized portrait drawers--for most of the past century, and I will continue to pop in there whenever I am in New York City. In the heart of the theater district, the establishment has survived plenty of years and will continue to thrive, I think, regardless of ups and downs in the quality of food on the plates and art on the walls. If Richard Baratz steps down one day, I look forward to seeing what new blood might season the visual smorgasbord there . . . If I were the one who made the rules, my pick would be Zach Trenholm, whose strikingly accurate yet graphic and shape-reliant style invokes a real spirit of Broadway and theater caricature at its best. Likenesses are readable from across a crowded restaurant, and will help cause a restaurant to be crowded in the first place. Look him up, Sardi's, I'm rooting for you!





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